Review of the Asus EP121 Slate

by Seth Miller

I had never handled a slate/pad device for more than a few seconds before the Asus EP121 Slate arrived at my home. My excitement was piqued by this product because of its claim of being “The world’s most powerful tablet device”.

Although I tried to be as unbiased as possible and give my honest review, there is no such thing as unbiased. My idea of a slate/pad device is shaped by the iPAD. I have never used the iPAD for more than a few minutes and most of what I know of it is from reviews and opinions of peers.

When I arrived at my home last week, I thought that the fairly large box sitting on my kitchen floor was far too big and heavy to be the pad device I was expecting. Sure enough the 15.5”x10”x3.25” box inside had the clear labeling of an Asus product.

The product is packaged well with the device right on top as you open the box and all of the accessories underneath it. I was a little surprised at how heavy the box and the device itself was until I found out what was contained in this relatively small package.

The slate itself is a little under 12.5 inches wide (in horizontal orientation) and 8.25 inches tall. It is less than three quarters of an inch deep. I looked up the specs to relate what I was holding to the computing power it was capable of.

The EP121 has a Intel Dual-Core i5 470um at 1.33GHz with integrated graphics. The premium model that I was testing had 4GB of DDR3 RAM and a 64GB solid state drive. The screen is 12.1 inches (hence the model EP121) and is capable of 1280×800 display resolution. These hardware specs are about the same as my desktop at my work. Once I made the comparison and realized the amount of power I was holding, the unit didn’t seem quite so bulky.

The rest of the items in the box include a basic user manual, support DVD, power cord, cleaning cloth, stylus and refill nibs, tool to replace stylus nibs, a leather cover/folio and a bluetooth keyboard with a set of batteries.

When looking at the screen of the device before it’s powered on, the glossiness is almost overwhelming and if anyone has used the device before you, the screen looks like a smart phone display after having a half hour phone conversation on a humid day. If you want this thing to look nice and perform well when using your fingers, it will need to be cleaned often.

There are numerous ports and connections on the sides of the unit. On the left side from bottom to top in a horizontal orientation is a speaker, an SD card reader, USB 2.0 port, internal microphone, another USB 2.0 port, a combination mic in/headphone out audio jack, mini HDMI port, a volume up/down rocker, charging port and charging LED. The USB ports are covered by somewhat difficult to open covers; probably assuming they would not often be used.

The top side from left to right has a power button/slider and LED, a keyboard button, orientation lock switch and a slot for the Wacom Digitizer pen, also known as the stylus. By default the keyboard button is simply a shortcut to show the on-screen keyboard at any time, although there are also several ways to bring it up from the screen. The right side simply contains another speaker towards the bottom and the bottom of the device does not have any ports or connections.

The included bluetooth keyboard is quick and easy to set up and link to the device. Switch the keyboard on, which should automatically put it into discoverable mode. Double click the bluetooth icon in the lower right hand corner of the screen and click add device. Type the security password that comes up directly into the keyboard and press enter.

The Wacom Digitizer pen (referred to from now on as the “pen”) is not your ordinary pen/stylus. It actively works with the slate in multiple ways. One of the more common cons of most touch pad devices is that there is no “hover” option with the cursor, because the surface of the device will only react when touched and touching, by default, dictates an action. In the case of this pen, the slate senses its location while it is held within approximately a quarter inch of the glass. This makes it easy to hover the mouse just as if using a desktop. When using the pen, the slate is sensitive to the pressure applied. The most obvious evidence of this is when using the ArtRage program and using a pencil or shading feature. The package comes with replacement nibs which are the plastic inserts to the pen. There is also a tool to help replace the nibs.

The unit startup is very quick with the powerful processor and solid state drive, despite being a complete Windows operating system. It boots up a lot quicker even than my smart phone with a proprietary OS. The installed operating system is Windows 7 Home Premium with a couple of extra programs from Asus. The OS is of course configured exactly for this device with tablet extensions enabled and wizards galore. I knew this unit had Windows 7, but I was expecting something a little more locked down in the way of a smart phone or iPAD, but this device is as open as if installed from scratch on a full desktop computer.

Keep in mind that Asus packed a lot of computing power into a relatively very small space. The unit will get warm and the heat expelled will vary in temperature depending on what the user is doing. You will also hear and feel the warm air from the cooling fan which seems to blow heat only out of the top left vent (in horizontal orientation). Way to go Asus. I know quite a few other laptop manufacturers that should take a hint and expel heat in a strategic location.

The first thing I did after power-up was to download the Google Chrome browser to compare a piece of software not necessarily designed or configure for this device. The install was a piece of cake, very automatic and gave no indication this was not a typical Windows desktop. The only usability difference I could find is that the flick and scroll functions of the touch screen did not work in Chrome automatically as they do by default in Internet Explorer. After a quick search, I found a plugin for Chrome that fixed the flick and scroll functions.

The web cam testing was pretty basic. The only thing I really use a web cam for is Skype and on a much more seldom basis, YouTube response videos. I used the native Windows Movie Maker program to record a short video using the web cam and the built in microphone on the left side. The quality was good and sound was surprisingly clear. The functionality is what I would expect for a monitor mounted web cam.

ArtRage Studio is an included program that gives an art easel interface with over a dozen tools for creating digital art. This program is obviously included because it is a perfect compliment to a tablet device with a touch screen interface. I didn’t spend a lot of time in this program, but it appears to have a massive following according to the number of posts on the ArtRage Forums. This is a great tool to show off the obvious advantages to a touch screen device and appears in almost every review YouTube video post I have seen. If you are an artist (I am definitely not), this type of program will have an obvious incentive.

One of the more useful tools I found was the device settings for the “ASUStek Touch-NB” device contained within the control panel. It is more easily found as the picturesque icon in the task panel. The links contained are the most useful for finding programs and settings specifically pertaining to this device. Also contained is a digital version of the user manual, which although not extensively detailed is worth taking a look at for basic operations. There is also a link for the Amazon eReader, games, applications, multimedia programs and utilities. This screen is a good place to start.

The EP121 has an accelerometer and is able to rotate the screen depending on the orientation the user has the unit in. It is not as quick as a smart phone. The screen is changing resolution and takes a couple of seconds between changes. This ability can be suppressed by switching on the orientation lock next to the power switch. I was surprised at how well this works. It seems only advantageous to switch to portrait mode when browsing the internet or using a word processor and taking notes. The resizing is accurate and operationally clean (no obvious bugs).

This device is obviously much more than a media consumption tool, but I wanted to make sure that capability was covered anyway. YouTube videos play great, even in full screen all the way up to 1080p HD if you can find them. However, going from 720p to 1080p shows a noticeable difference in smoothness of playback. 1080p seems to be just a little too much for the integrated graphics to handle. Netflix which runs in Microsoft Silverlight ran perfectly in full screen.

The on screen keyboard has two modes; keyboard mode and free-hand recognition mode. When a text field is clicked in the browser, a small icon appears below or above it to pop up the keyboard in the last mode it was used. There is also a pop-out icon from the side that can be docked anywhere on the left side of the screen. A small version of the keyboard can float anywhere on the screen or a full version can be docked at the bottom or top of the screen. The keyboard can also be shown in its last docked position by pushing the keyboard button on the side/top of the unit as mentioned earlier.

There is nothing much special about the keyboard in either mode and could be vastly improved by Microsoft just by adopting some of the mobile keyboard technology such as T9 or Swype. The keyboard is old school hunt-n-peck with the addition of some internet domain shortcuts. The handwriting has a lot more options and learns your handwriting nuances as you go. You can also teach it certain aspects of how you write to provide better recognition. It is worth spending a little time on this if you will not be always using the physical keyboard. It will save you time and frustration in the long run.

This version of the OS comes with some Microsoft games designed specifically for a touch screen as well as the usual suspects of solitaire and minesweeper. They are simple games but they do a good job of displaying the graphics, sound and touch screen capabilities of the device. By the way, these games are designed for finger touch, not the pen.

Most of my computer time consists of remote access of some kind to another network through VPN. I installed Cisco VPN and tried to do a little of everything I would as if I were working from home for a week. This included Remote Desktop to a Windows server, SSH or Telnet to a Linux server, VNC to either Windows or Linux, file transfer, java programs and a half a dozen other activities. Everything worked without a problem. Most of these things were more difficult if I wasn’t using the keyboard but the pen worked just fine for getting around the desktop in the absence of a mouse.

Up until this experience with the EP121, I was convinced there were five tiers for consumer compute devices. The smart phone being the smallest of the five is a pure consumption device as well as a phone and is good to always have on my person. The pad device is a larger media consumption tool and should be used when a wifi signal is not present or long battery life is a must. The netbook and notebook are the next two tiers and can be qualified by portability, battery life and capability. Then, finally is the desktop for full non-portable work and play.

The Asus EP121 puts a sixth tier into my scale. I would fit it in between the netbook and the notebook. It has the capabilities of both but also contains much of the media consumption capability of the pad and matches the power of the notebook. Where the slate suffers is with battery life. Although it will outlast my laptop by a good hour or two, the netbook will match or beat it even when working on cpu intensive applications. Of course, the netbook doesn’t have near the screen size or resolution of the slate.

Being that I use my computers much more for business than anything, I can see the ultimate use for this device as a C-level executive’s or manager’s pad. They would still have a laptop, but this would be the perfect device for providing the power, screen size, capability and versatility for someone using it in a mostly or purely business centric way. The consumer can use it as a general purpose slate if they are needing more than a simple media consumption device but not a powerhouse for playing high-end games. If the price tag doesn’t bother you, go for it. You won’t be disappointed.