Samsung Series 7 Slate PC: First Look

In October, Samsung will be releasing their latest offering in the tablet/slate space, unaffected by legal wrangling. Samsung provided an evaluation unit of the upcoming Series 7 Slate PC for a few fun hours, and I walked away quite impressed with what they have been able to do with a Windows-based tablet.

Not just another tablet... The Series 7 Slate PC

With Ultrabooks being all the rage, Apple continuing to dominate the tablet market and Android-based tablets showing real innovation, this product definitely needs to have some stand-out features to cut through the noise from all the other computing offerings.

I think this slate device from Samsung not only competes nicely against the incumbents, but keeping in mind what Windows 8 has in store next year, sets the benchmark for a solid out-of-the-box Windows solution.

Series 7 Slate on dock.

The specifications actually sound very Ultrabook-ish. A low voltage Intel i5 processor, the same as the one used in some Ultrabooks, with 64GB or 128GB SSD capacity, 4GB of RAM and a choice between Premium and Professional operating systems. The local Australian versions haven’t been confirmed yet. Just like the Ultrabooks, there is no dedicated graphics, relying on the Intel HD Graphics to handle all the video processing requirements.

The screen is a bright (400 nit) 11.6” LCD with a 1366 x768 widescreen resolution. Wireless is naturally built-in, as is Bluetooth for connection to keyboards and other devices. There’s a front and back camera with 2MP and 3MP sizes respectively.

All in the box... Dock, keyboard and stylus come with the Series 7 Slate.

However, the specs are only one part of the story. This is easily the best looking, easy to carry Windows tablet I’ve played with so far. The metal finish across the entire body is striking and would stand out from existing tablets. Those who purchase with design and style in their criteria would be turning their heads in this slate’s direction. The capacitive screen is very responsive, presumably carrying on from Samsung’s experience in previous tablets and smartphones.

Light and thin come to mind as well, with the unit weighing only 860 grams and a tad under 13mm thick.

 

There’s enough connectivity to satisfy most users on the actual tablet, with Micro-SD card, micro-HDMI, full-size USB and headphone input all present along with the dock connector. Other buttons include power, volume and orientation-lock.

Series 7 profile showing USB flap, headphone input, volume, HDMI and power.

Windows 7 has never been a serious contender in the touch-based environment. Smartly, there is an active electromagnetic pen included, which makes much more sense for standard windows operation. The pen can be floated slightly above the screen and still be detected by the display.

 

If you want a more touch-friendly interface, Samsung does include a Touch Launcher program, which is essentially a skin for selected programs to be grouped within a one-touch, slide based environment. It’s a small but cool program that gives a degree of familiarity to those already using tablets.

Touch-based program launcher on t he Series 7 Slate.

On that topic, Samsung have deliberately called this a “slate”, with no mention of tablets, and it seems that its target market is not the app-based content consuming market – this is definitely a product you would create documents on first, and use as a casual touch screen device second.

Full PC performance when you need it.

The dock and Bluetooth keyboard are included in the box as well. The dock provides charging, Ethernet, USB 2.0, headphone and HDMI outputs, while the slim, metallic keyboard provides a very real notebook feel while the tablet is docked.

 

And this is the attraction – while docked, the Series 7 Slate offers a high performance PC, perhaps hooked up to a larger HD monitor. Out of the dock and on the road, it’s still capable of running all of the Windows applications you need but in a truly portable form factor. This is no netbook-level Windows tablet. The slate has a claimed 7 hours battery life but I didn’t have it long enough to confirm that.

Rear of the Series 7 Slate showing 3MP camera and dock connectivity.

From the short experience I had, it’s easily one of the best Windows 7 executions of a tablet form factor yet. The stylus may be anachronistic to some but makes total sense in a Windows environment, until Windows 8 arrives sometime next year.

An example of Series 7 Touch Launch programs - the Recipe app.

The Series 7 Slate will be priced at similar levels to some of its Ultrabook cousins, but if local sales of the Asus EP121 Windows Slate are any indication, there is a market for those who need to hold on to their Windows-based applications and this complete package may be just the ticket.

Would you consider the Slate as your next PC purchase? How would you be using it?

Acer Iconia A100 Honeycomb Tablet – First Look

In a couple of weeks, Acer will be releasing their latest Honeycomb tablet, the Iconia A100. This model was shown off at their tablet launch earlier in the year, but at that stage only had Froyo (Android 2.2) on board.

Honeycomb now available in bite-sized packages!

I’ve had a chance to look at a sample this week, and although the software is a beta build (as Acer has warned me up front), it was still good to have a play with the latest in major manufacturer Honeycomb releases.

Acer were one of the very first to release a Honeycomb tablet, and they’ve succeeded in setting another milestone with the A100 being the first 7 inch Honeycomb tablet.

The A100 compared to the Samsung Galaxy S II. Note the physical home button on the bottom panel.

Spec wise, it follows other Honeycomb tablets by using the now-familiar Tegra 2 processor by Nvidia. The sample shown here has 8GB storage with 1GB RAM and it appears they will have a 3G variant as well as higher capacity models available. The capacitive screen has a 1024 x 600 resolution, lower than its 10” brethren.

Even though it’s a much smaller model, it still retains many of the inputs and outputs that made the original Iconia a very user-friendly model, with Micro HDMI, Micro SD, Micro USB (see a pattern here?) as well as standard 3.5mm jack for headphones, a pretty comprehensive connectivity suite considering its size.

HDMI, USB, docking port, power and speakers

The A100 is also the first to come with Android 3.2 pre-loaded, which means a few improvements for both end users and app developers. Firstly, this update actually allows apps to be compatible and optimised to different sized tablets, so it’s a welcome update for this 7 inch model. Also, SD card support has been improved, with apps being able to access content directly from the SD card. Sounds sensible, but it has been an issue for some tablets up to this point. Then there’s the app zooming feature, which handles non-honeycomb apps in a much better way to fill the screen without looking stretched or highly pixelated.

Back to the tablet itself, from a design point of view it’s definitely small and light enough to carry in one hand for long periods of time. This size tablet does lend itself more to being carried in a small handbag or even a jacket pocket. Unfortunately the cameras weren’t operational on this model but they are 2MP on front and 5MP on back. I’m sure we’ll be revisiting this at a later stage.

Camera and wave pattern on back panel.

Flash content on websites worked well; I visited the video section of the smh.com.au website and was able to play videos directly on the page, one of the big drawcards for Android.

Flash video playback was quite smooth.

Google Body, one of the first Honeycomb apps to appear on the Android Marketplace, presented and responded well to zooming and rotating. The AccuWeather app seemed to have some issues with resizing to fit the smaller screen, but as Acer did explain that this was very much a preproduction unit, I’ll take another look when a retail unit becomes available.

Do 7 inch tablets have a place among all the other mobile entertainment and communication alternatives we have? At the right price in comparison to 10 inch models, I think they do. They are more mobile as opposed to portable, and offer a good screen size for reading, are very easy to carry and hold for extended periods, and are a better gaming/movie watching experience than a smaller smartphone. As with anything else in this category, content is king, and I’m sure we’ll see manufacturers and developers come up with some enticing reasons to use a 7 inch tablet in addition to a smartphone, which many would argue is really a smaller version of a tablet in function.

Full back panel of the A100.

While I haven’t had the opportunity to take the A100 solidly through its paces yet, it is another indication of the diversity that Android can bring to the table when it comes to hardware design and size.

Are you interested in a 7 inch tablet? Would you buy one for yourself, or as a gift for someone else? Feel free to comment below.

Sliding Into the Tablet Market

I’m a big fan of Wired Magazine, and recently enjoyed their article on the annual coffee bean competition in Columbia to decide the winner of the awesomely named Cup of Excellence. Each of the judges approaches their task with a mixture of clinical, calculated scoring and a needle-sharp reliance on their finely-tuned nostrils and tastebuds to choose the year’s champion coffee bean grower.

Coffee Beans

What makes a good coffee bean? I'm not sure, but I do take a closer look at the ASUS EeePad Slider, click on the link at the bottom to see a review I did for CarryPad.

When my new friends at Carrypad asked me to compose a detailed review on the yet-to-be-released Asus Eee Pad Slider, I thought about the judges in Columbia and their fastidiousness… would I be required to display the same resolve and cast a cold, critical eye over design elements, functionality and performance?

As it turned out, the best way to review the Slider was to look at it from a user’s perspective – the tactile feel of the case and keyboard, the responsiveness of the touch screen, the sound piping out of the speaker slots, and the quality of the images on the Gorilla Glass screen.

Once I began my journey looking at details that might normally be glossed over, I gained a real appreciation for the engineers and designers who had to work together to come up with a product that stood out in both form and function. Being one of the few tablets with actual moving parts, I spent an inordinate amount of time opening, sliding and closing the keyboard component, almost to the point of obsessive compulsion.

The end result was a 2,500 word exploration of the Asus Slider that was worth every moment spent on it. It’s exciting to see innovation right before your eyes, and having the platform to share my thoughts and photos (captured on my trusty DSLR) is a real privilege.

So if you are interested in what makes the Asus Slider a worthy entrant to the competitive tablet market, here’s the article along with images and performance benchmarking. Feel free to leave your thoughts on the Slider below.

For the full article displayed on one page, please click here.

Thanks again to Ben from Carrypad for the opportunity to contribute.

Asus Eee Pad Slider Honeycomb Tablet – First Look

(Update: The release date of the Slider appears to have slipped to early October, according to Asus)

The success of the Eee Pad Transformer from Asus has really driven home the concept of innovation driving sales in an increasingly competitive market. The idea of a tablet that functions as a netbook with detachable keyboard may at first seem counter-intuitive, but Asus has been struggling to keep up with global demand. That extra functionality has resonated with customers looking to enter the tablet generation but want to retain some degree of familiarity with traditional mobile devices.

In a short while, Asus will be releasing their new tablet concept called the “Slider”. Asus Australia were kind enough to leave one with me to have a play, and after only a little while with the unit, I’m pretty excited about the impending launch.

From a specification perspective, it meets all the criteria fit for a Honeycomb tablet – the NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual core processor, 1GB RAM, 10.1″ screen with a 1280 x 800 pixel resolution, and a choice of either 16GB or 32GB capacities. It also comes out the door with Android 3.1 preloaded, so it’s current right out of the box. Asus have also mentioned that it will be upgradeable to Android 3.2 when that update is released.

The retail packaging is as we’ve come to expect from Asus, and the first surprise is a premium-looking satchel case sitting on top of the actual Slider. I’m not sure if this part of the package or whether it’s an accessory, but it looks quite classy and is a snug fit for the tablet.

Underneath is the slider itself, with the obligatory power supply and USB cable. There was no other documentation with this sample but I’m sure there will be some with the final retail pack.

Onto the Slider itself: this is another tablet that is most natural when held in landscape position, which seems to be one of the most common differentiators for Android tablets vs the iPad. The front 1.2 megapixel webcam is at the top centre, with a small arrow pointing upwards, hinting at the enhanced functionality the Slider offers. The two tone back panel works well in terms of styling, and the 5 megapixel camera sits upper centre.

Moving around the Asus Eee Pad, we see some welcome input and output ports. A full-sized USB and headphone jack are situated on the right hand side, and on the opposite side a Micro SD card slot, volume controls and power buttons are laid out. On the top are a mini-HDMI output and an eMMC slot, which can handle an additional 16GB or 32GB card.

USB port, headphone jack and Speaker Grill

Next to the iPad2 the Slider is both longer and thicker. However, most tablets don’t seem to be competing with Apple on design aesthetics – the amount of accessibility available without the need for adapters is another compelling reason to consider many of the Android tablets on offer. And of course, the additional thickness on the Slider in particular belies the final but ultimate differentiating feature – the slide-out keyboard.

As mentioned before, Asus have made the idea of a keyboard-attached tablet attractive, not only because of the obvious increased usage for document creation, but also some of the Android-specific shortcuts created on the keyboard. The Slider turns the original Transformer on its head: instead of a netbook form factor that becomes a standalone tablet, this is a tablet that reveals a keyboard/stand. And it’s a crucial difference because of the way I can imagine this tablet used.

The sliding motion to bring the keyboard out is a very smooth action, much better than the original prototype I had been privy to a few months ago. Using one index finger to lift the top panel where the arrow is above the front webcam, you then use your other hand’s thumb to push the bottom of the panel upwards, and once you pass the threshold, the spring loaded mechanism assists to take the panel all the way back until the entire keyboard is exposed.

Once slid out, the screen is fixed in one position; there are no angles to select unlike the Transformer. This is similar to many cases that include a tongue to raise the case into a display position, and I don’t think it’s a big issue.

Comparing the keyboard-open look between the Transformer and the Slider, the biggest difference is the missing touchpad and palm rest area on the Slider. However, after using the Slider I can see how this is actually a positive. On the Transformer, while the keyboard dock is attached you still feel a slight habit to use the touchpad and buttons. On an Android OS this can be quite unnatural, as you have to switch to a one-click mindset for selecting files, opening apps etc., and change that mindset back again when back on a standard notebook.

With the Slider however, two things become clear after some use. Firstly, after a while I did get used to using the combination of screen gestures and the keyboard in tandem, and soon was typing on the keyboard, as well as selecting files and commands on screen, quite intuitively. Secondly, the proximity of the screen in comparison to the edge of the keyboard actually lends itself to retaining the touch interaction. This will be a major attraction to the Slider in my view – the casual reveal and hiding of the keyboard means there’s more scenarios where the tablet will be sitting in Slider mode but without the keyboard even used. It’s almost like a mini-all-in-one.

The sound quality is also enhanced in Slider mode. The grill on the front makes it appear that the sound is funnelled through the front, but in fact there are small slots either side of the centre bracket that pump the music out – a little muffled in Tablet mode, the sound is clear and crisp when given space to breathe.

The IPS screen is the same as the Transformer’s – a bright, detailed and wide-angled display that presents information and movies on screen with clarity and decent response. As I’ve mentioned before in regards to other Android Honeycomb tablets, the widescreen panel really does lend itself to better quality movie watching, as the screen ratio is much closer to the filmmaker’s intended presentation.

Just as Apple has an “i” in front of each of its major products and services, Asus have adopted the “My” moniker when it comes to its extra offerings. Mynet is a DLNA-standard interface that connects to other shared devices to push and pull content – music, movies, photos. MyCloud is the Asus version of online data storage, and registering when you purchase your Slider will get you one year’s worth of unlimited storage at no charge.

MyLibrary is an ebook manager, and MyZine is a widget that rotates through your selected folder of photos and shows weather at a glance, unopened emails, calendar appointments, books, last music played, and the last website you visited. None of these services are deal breakers on their own, but they do add up to some compelling features over and above the standard Honeycomb.

That brings me to the closing thoughts of this review. The Android platform for mobile phones has proven to be a worthy competitor against the incumbents, and there is word that Android updates in the near future will bring the smartphone and tablet products even closer. The Android tablet platform is still evolving from a very early stage, but even now it is showing encouraging signs of being able to offer meaningful differences and experiences that can capture the consumer’s imagination and decision-making mindset.

Developers are adding to the list of available Honeycomb-optimised applications on a daily basis, and manufacturers are thinking outside of the square to enhance their tablet beyond a screen with webcam and speakers. Not only are tablet manufacturers competing against the entrenched market leader who has what some might call a captive audience, but they are also competing against each other for the remaining slice of the valuable tablet market. This is a great example of intense competition driving innovation and integrating new features in a short period of time.

The Asus Eee Pad Slider is part of that innovative push. With the slide-out keyboard, comprehensive ports and additional software, this could be a compelling alternative for customers who are looking for connectivity and tactile keyboard input on demand.

What are your thoughts? Do the Slider’s features impress you? Will you be in line to buy one later this month?

Acer “Iconia” Android Honeycomb Tablet – First Look

We had our first chance to get up close and personal with Acer’s slim and shiny new tablet-based products amongst the bulky, low-tech relics of our country’s seafaring history within the Maritime Musuem at Darling Harbour, Sydney. Acer are serious about this category and had many variations on show – a 5 inch smart phone, a 7 inch and 10 inch Honeycomb tablet, a 10 inch Windows 7 netbook with detachable touch screen, and a dual 14″ touch screen notebook that deserves a blog piece on its own.

Mr Touchbook, we'll be coming back to have a closer look at you soon.

The product that we’re focussing on in this blog is the one that Acer will be launching as their first foray into the highly prized tablet market. This one is the A500, a 10″ tablet with the Android 3.0 operating system. This is exciting for us, as it’s the first iteration of the tablet-specific OS from Google that we’re playing with.

Looks kinda nice even when it's turned off.

First, the product itself. It weighs 700 grams and feels quite sturdy and solid in the hands. Acer have definitely not tried to emulate the iPad design, with a more notebook inspired form – it actually appears like a monitor off a classy netbook, which isn’t a bad thing. It has a nice streamlined design that keeps the overall aesthetic simple and easy to handle. In landscape, the top and bottom edges are framed by a brushed metal finish that continues all the way around the back, where the logo sits in centre.

Speakers, Camera and all-important Logo.

To the right of the logo is the 5MP camera that is also capable of taking 720p video. At the top of the unit are the volume controls and orientation lock. Next to them are the micro SD card and 3G slot, the latter of which is available if the model is a 3G variant.

Instant storage expansion - just add a dash of SD.

There are plenty of I/O ports – on the right there is a full sized and mini-USB port, on the bottom a docking connector for an upcoming accessory that charges and connects to other devices. On the left hand side there is a headphone jack and a mini-HDMI. The front frame also encases a front facing 2MP camera. The capacitive screen is bright and smoothly responsive.

To make it easy for users to start using the Iconia without delay, Acer have designed a group of 4 areas where there are preloaded apps and more can be added. These are labelled eReading, Game Zone, Multimedia, and Social Network, these being the most obvious groupings for common activities on the tablet. The plus sign on each page allows you to add more apps into each area as you see fit.

Acer's own customised grouping system - simple and attractive.

Now, the big question, how does Android 3.0 perform on the 10″ Iconia? Honeycomb, as Android 3.0 is commonly known, is an exciting alternative to the benchmark tablet system. As an environment to manage apps, which is really what you want in a tablet offering, Honeycomb is highly customisable. Widgets are a defining feature for this version of Android, with enough landscape for many of your favourite widgets, which are similar to those on a desktop, offering dynamic, updated information in small, bite-sized panels.

What Honeycomb is all about - making it your own.

At the time of publication, there were still only a small but growing number of tablet-specific apps on the Android marketplace. Developers have most likely been waiting for Android and manufacturers to release new products so they can see some return in creating these new apps. So far, I’ve tried a few – Flixster, CNN News, Google Body and DrawFree. They all make good use of the screen real estate and are intuitive in layout and touch-use.

Great - another reason to ignore eating and showering. Who needs to watch movies when you can read about them all day?

Of course, tablet apps are huge business for Apple, and the massive installed consumer base they have means developers are falling over themselves to deliver apps of every kind. As the likes of Acer, Asus, Toshiba and others begin to roll out their Android tablet products, we should see a snowball effect in tablet-optimised apps to deliver even more value to users.

Android 3.0 opens up a huge world of possibilities for different form factors, OS skins and customisation that will provide users with choice and innovation. Each manufacturer has an opportunity to make a big technology statement here, not just for development’s sake, but for the customer’s touch screen experience. Acer are first out of the gates and it’s an impressive start to a year of Honeycomb launches.

We’ll be doing a full unboxing demo video of the Acer A500 Iconia in the near future, so thanks for reading and we’ll be back soon.

Viewsonic Viewpad 7 First Impressions

And old colleague of mine is running a company called Viewsonic in Australia. It’s a brand more known for its LCD monitors than anything else, but they’ve been looking to expand into new and emerging technology categories. So when he visited me at the Bing Lee head office for a catch up, he brought along a new toy to play with – their offering in the tablet space. I was lucky enough to have it for a couple of days, and here are my thoughts on the product they call the Viewpad 7.

 

If you are a reader of my blog, you will know that I am a fan of the iPad, not only as a product but as a vehicle for consuming rich content. So for better or worse, this Viewsonic product was going to be compared to it.

What I realised is that they are two very different creatures, and you’re not really comparing apples with apples (irresistible bad pun). So what are the differences? Well, the easier thing to do is state the similarities first, which are they are both capacitive touch screen, 3G capable and both have access to their own version of an App store. From there, the differences are significant.

The screen size is the most obvious. The ViewPad 7, as its name implies, has a 7″ screen, which when compared to the iPad, is nearly half the viewable area. So viewing video is an easy comparison. The ViewPad will play a widescreen clip full screen, while the iPad will have lots of real estate left in either portrait or landscape, but even in portrait the iPad’s image size is almost as large. And of course the resolutions are completely different, 1024 x 768 for iPad vs 800 x 480 for the ViewPad.

 

So what separates the ViewPad from the iPad that some may take as a positive? Well, the ViewPad has two cameras – one at the rear for photo and video snaps, and a lower-res front cam for webchatting and self portraits. It also has a Micro SD card slot for easy file transfers and a USB port which can be used for charging.

The Micro SD card slot is a very practical addition. I can imagine myself taking pics on my digital still camera, then slipping the card into the ViewPad for instant sharing, rather than using the small LCD screen on the camera. It takes a few more steps to achieve that on an iPad if you don’t have the right accessories.

The Android software is very easy to navigate, and in my view, just as intuitive as the Apple iOS. Many apps are being ported to multiple platforms, so it’s getting easier to find apps appearing on both the Android Marketplace and the Apple App Store.

 

As this was an engineering sample, I’m not going to go into too much detail until I have the final product in my hands. But after spending a bit of time with it, I can say that the 7 inch form factor is actually quite comfortable in my hands, or should I say hand. It’s easy to hold for reading or viewing, and having the whole screen filled with a movie or TV episode works well for me. The browser was fast and easy to use, and the screen size does lend itself to casual reading, whether online or a downloaded book.

 

Contrary to some opinions, I think the 7 inch tablet, if it’s executed well, will definitely have a place in the tablet category. I think the iPad is to a large extent a portable device that is used predominantly at home on Wi-Fi. The 7 inch ViewPad is effectively half the physical size of the iPad, and fits easier and more inconspicuously into anything from a handbag to a jacket pocket, so has more chance of being mobile as opposed to portable.

Spending time with this device makes me more excited than ever about the market next year. Many vendors will have their tablet offers in January or February 2011, so I’ll be back with more thoughts on this dynamic part of the PC industry as the weeks progress.

Cheers for now!