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?