Tuesday, December 20, 2011

New Samsung 7 Slate PC (Review)

All quiet on the Windows 7 tablet front? Well, no, but we haven't exactly seen many shots fired lately. Sure, HP recently refreshed the Slate 500 with the Slate 2, but for the most part, products like this have been eclipsed by excitement around Windows 8. Of course, Redmond's tablet-friendly OS won't ship for another year, so for now tablet makers are releasing Windows slates with little fanfare. 

Not Samsung, though. While its mobile team has dug its heels into the consumer tablet market with devices like the Galaxy Tabs 10.1, 8.9 and 7.0 Plus, its PC division is taking a different tack. The Series 7 Slate PC was built by the same team behind the striking Series 9 laptop, making it one of the slickest business tablets we've ever beheld. It rocks an 11.6-inch display that handily dwarfs pretty much everything else out there. It runs a Core i5, not Atom, processor, and is offered with a custom dock and Bluetooth keyboard. The Series 7 Slate isn't just a rare Windows 7 tablet; it's also one of the most memorable. But are all of those things worth the $1,099 starting price? Could be, but we can think of a few caveats. Allow us to explain.


If you were to take our last few reviews of Samsung tablets and scoop out the paragraphs where we talk about design, they'd be more or less interchangeable. The Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus looks kind of like the Galaxy Tab 8.9, which reminds us of the 10.1. Heck, we've even fallen into a pattern describing Samsung's phones: they're plasticky, we say. Not premium-feeling, exactly, but lightweight and solidly built.

It feels like a cousin to most other tablets, not a member of the same species.

But the Series 7 is no Galaxy product. In fact, it comes from an entirely different division within Samsung: not the mobile group, but the team responsible for the Series 9 and other laptops we've been ogling lately. Unsurprisingly, then, it feels more like a keyboard-less PC than the kind of consumer tablet we tend to review. Which is to say, it's a serious-looking thing, with full-sized ports, a charcoal, brushed aluminum lid and three vents hinting at the powerful Core i5 CPU that lies beneath. It has style, to be sure, but also the kind of gravitas that makes even the Transformer Prime look like a toy in comparison.

Here's the thing about gravitas, though: it connotes weight. Dignity, yes, and in this case, a stunning 2.06 pounds (934.4g). It's not just that the Series 7 is heavy, or thick, at 0.51 inches (13mm): with an 11.6-inch, display, it's simply outsized. Particularly because of that 16:9 screen orientation, it feels like a cousin to most other tablets, not a member of the same species. That said, though, it's not as unwieldy as you'd think. It's surprisingly easy to cradle in landscape mode -- much more so, certainly, than the Grid10, another of the few 16:9 tablets we've seen. Samsung was also smart to put the vents toward the top of the back side, near the three megapixel rear camera; even though the vent is quick to spew out warm air, it sits high enough that you're unlikely to graze it with your fingers. Still, we tended to avoid using the tablet in portrait, as the weight distribution at the other end made it uncomfortable to hold up (viewing angles became an issue then, as well).

We'd add that the 16:9 aspect ratio makes it easy to slip under your arm and carry hands-free. It also helps that the metal surface is blessedly scratch- and fingerprint-resistant (those wide bezels are another story). And as hefty as it is, we regularly slipped it into a shoulder bag and toted it to and from the office without any real burden. Still, pile on the keyboard, dock, charger and a Bluetooth mouse and that journey turns into a schlep.

As you might expect from a Windows tablet, the Series 7 is well-stocked with ports and once again, Samsung arranged them in pretty intuitive way. Imagine for a minute that you're holding it in landscape mode. On the bottom, all you'll find is the docking connector that allows it to work with the accompanying dock (more on that in a bit). On the right edge, toward the top, there's a power / lock button, which you can press lightly to turn off the screen, and hold to force a shut-down. Next to that, there's a button for locking the screen orientation. 
As with the rear camera, we appreciate that Samsung put these in a place where you're unlikely to hit them by accident in either landscape or portrait mode. Moving on to the left side, you'll find a USB 2.0 port up top, along with twin volume buttons that sit within reach of where your fingers would be. Also on this side is a micro-HDMI socket and a 3.5mm headphone jack. Finally, on the top edge you'll find a microSD slot, hidden behind a sliding door.

The one thing we wish it had is a full-sized SD slot, like the kind you'll find on the ThinkPad Tablet. Even if Samsung couldn't fit it on the tablet itself, perhaps it could have squeezed it into the dock, as ASUS did with both generations of its Transformer keyboard.

And, not to be confused with an iPad or Android slate, the Series 7 has a button on the lower bezel that would appear to be a Start button -- after all, it bears the same logo as the one on your PC. Ironically, though, the button acts as a shortcut for Samsung's Touch Launcher -- a proprietary skin that makes the tablet feel a little less like a Windows tablet. There's a good reason for having this finger-friendly UI, of course (Windows 7 is best used with a pen or keyboard-mouse combo), but before we get ahead of ourselves, let's continue talking about the hardware.

Depending on the configuration you choose, your Series 7 may or may not come with Samsung's accessories, which include a Bluetooth keyboard ($100) and dock ($80). As it turns out, our top-shelf configuration did, but everything else comes with just the pen.

In case you were wondering why the tablet has only one USB port and no full-sized HDMI socket, fear not: all of that and more sits on the back edge of the dock. In total, you'll find an Ethernet jack, an extra headphone port, along with USB 2.0 and HDMI. The dock itself has a flap on top that opens to reveal the docking connector, and against which you can rest the tablet to prop it up. Close the flap, though, and the dock becomes a pocketable slab, decked out in the same brushed metal as the tablet. We especially appreciate that it has a soft, rubbery finish on the bottom, making it difficult to accidentally slide it out of place on your desk.

As for the keyboard, what you'll get is much more generously sized than what you'll find on the Transformer Prime dock, which is to say all of the major keys (Enter, etc.) are plenty large. The keys themselves are easy to press, albeit a bit gummy. We do like that the module on the back holding the two AAA batteries gives the keyboard a nice lift, which makes for some comfortable typing. All told, it's no match for your laptop keyboard, but it's certainly an improvement over what you'd get if you went with the Prime. And, of course, you're not limited to Samsung's Bluetooth keyboard: if you don't like it, you can sub in your own.

One thing Samsung isn't selling alongside the Series 7 is a mouse, so be prepared to bring your own if you plan on making good use of the keyboard. For our part, we used Microsoft's Touch Mouse, and had no problem connecting it using the small USB dongle that came with it.

The tablet's expansive, 11.6-inch, PLS display has a 1366 x 768 pixel count, which we see all the time on small- to mid-sized laptops, but rarely on tablets. Indeed, it's crisp enough for comfortable web surfing and working with a few windows open. But mostly, the display shines on account on its vibrant, punchy colors. This is a 400-nit panel, making use of Samsung's SuperBright Plus technology -- just like the screen in the Series 9 laptop, except with a glossy, not matte, finish. As sunny as it is, though, we were hesitant to crank the brightness when using it outdoors, just because the battery life is so skimpy (spoiler!).

In general, we were quite pleased with the way the display responded to finger input. Whether we were working in Windows 7 or Samsung's more finger-friendly overlay, the tablet reacted precisely and nimbly to our various taps and swipes. In particular, it offers solid palm rejection; you should have no problem carrying it around one-handed with your fingers grazing the screen. The one time this failed us was when we happened to have a note-taking app open; in this particular scenario, your finger-presses may well show up as virtual scribbles.
No surprise here, but the sound coming from the speaker has a metallic, hollow feel to it, and the volume is fairly tame, even when pushed to the maximum setting. We can't say we've ever been bowled over by the audio on tablets, but it's worth pointing out given that this thing starts at $1,100. For that kind of money, laptops offer sound quality that's, well, not quite as tinny as this.
Pen input
And what would a Windows 7 tablet be without a little pen action? The Wacom-compatible pen comes included (unlike with some tablets), but oddly, there's no place on that thick hunker of a tablet to actually store it.

What good is a tablet this bulky if it can't justify its heft with generous runtime?

But what a pleasure it is to use. From the start, writing on the screen felt buttery smooth, even if we pressed lightly on the pen. In what might be our favorite design touch, it has what looks like a classic, rubber eraser on top (except made of black plastic), and you can rub it against the screen to remove any markings. Also intuitive: if you press and hold the button and then tap the screen you'll bring up all the options you would have if you right-clicked. Similarly, if you're in Windows Journal, the included notepad app, you can hold the button and then circle text for options such as changing the text color.

The problem is, not every app supports pen input. Windows Journal does, of course, and you can use the pen to tap menus and shortcuts throughout Windows 7. But even the included "Notes" app (also part of Samsung's finger-friendly UI) doesn't accept pen input; just typed words. You also can't use the pen to mark up webpages or email attachments. There's no native way to grab screenshots, aside from the Printscreen function on your keyboard. Out of the box, at least, the pen is clearly meant for scribbling notes and navigating the OS, though you can bet any business buying this already has some pen-optimized, industry-specific apps in mind.
Battery life
Battery Life
Samsung Series 7 Slate PC 3:33
Apple iPad 2 10:26
ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime 10:17
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 9:55
Apple iPad 9:33
Motorola Xoom 2 8:57
HP TouchPad 8:33
Lenovo IdeaPad K1 8:20
Motorola Xoom 8:20
T-Mobile G-Slate 8:18
Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus 8:09
Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 8:00
Archos 101 7:20
Archos 80 G9 7:06
RIM BlackBerry PlayBook 7:01
Acer Iconia Tab A500 6:55
T-Mobile Springboard (Huawei MediaPad) 6:34
Toshiba Thrive 6:25
Samsung Galaxy Tab 6:09
Motorola Xyboard 8.2 5:25
Velocity Micro Cruz T408 5:10
Acer Iconia Tab A100 4:54

And this, friends, is why a tablet running Windows 7 on a Core i5 processor might not be such a fantastic idea. Though the tablet promises up to seven hours of battery life, in our rundown test (movie looping, WiFi on) it managed just three hours and 33 minutes. As always, we'll add the caveat that that's a more taxing routine than just surfing the web, but it's still not much of an excuse -- after all, the Transformer Prime lasted 10 hours and 17 minutes on the same test, and that was without the battery-extending dock.

We know, we know: this isn't an apples-to-apples comparison; we're not aware of any Windows 7 tablet capable of 10-plus-hour battery life. But really, what good is a tablet this bulky if it can't justify its heft with generous runtime? At the very least, this kind of pitifully short battery life should make you think twice about how much you need Windows 7 in tablet form. If all you want is to stream video, check email and surf the web, you can do that on any tablet, even adding a Bluetooth keyboard if you so choose. And depending on how much you're willing to settle for a lighter feature set, you'll also find various office suites, photo editors and the like for iOS and Android. If you require certain Windows apps, fair enough, but even then, you have other options such as the new HP Slate 2 to consider. We just don't buy the idea that if you're dead-set on Windows you have to settle for that little endurance.

Update: Though we didn't mention it originally, we actually ran our battery test twice: the first time, we used the same settings we do when we test tablets; the second, we went with the settings we use in the laptop test. The results from both scenarios were minutes apart, and what you see printed is the better score.
Our test unit (the highest-end configuration sold in the US) came loaded with a 1.6GHz Core i5-2467M processor, 4GB of RAM, a 128GB Samsung-made solid-state drive, integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics and Windows 7 Professional. Compared to an Ultrabook with similar components, its score of 4,195 on the benchmark PCMark Vantage isn't impressive, though it's real-world performance is generally on par with what we've seen from ultraportable laptops. Similar to an Ultrabook with a Core i5 CPU and SSD, it boots in an insane 19 seconds, while its read / write speeds peak at 250 MB/s and 200 MB/s, respectively. In fact, we probably spent more time using the Series 7 as a laptop replacement than we did as a standalone tablet. Between the large-enough screen, laptop-grade components, included keyboard and matching dock, there's little reason not to use this as you would a computer. And if it weren't for the fleeting battery life (and the hassle of transporting a dock, keyboard and mouse), it would feel even more versatile.

Though the Series 7 was running an early version of Windows 8 in one of our first two outings with it, it's currently shipping with Windows 7 Home Premium and Professional. As we've seen with other business-focused machines, the bloatware load is light, though hardly spartan. These programs include: CyberLink's YouCam software, a trial of Microsoft Office 2010, Norton Internet Security and Norton Online Backup, Skype 4.2 and Windows Live Essentials 2011. Mostly benign stuff, except for Norton, which pops up to say hello as soon as you boot up the tablet for the first time.

Until Windows 8 gets the final seal of approval, likely sometime in 2012, companies like Samsung have to make do with Windows 7, which as we all know, isn't nearly as easy to navigate with fingertips as it is a mouse-and-keyboard or pen. So, Samsung leaned on its TouchWiz know-how and whipped up a more finger-friendly UI, dubbed the Touch Launcher.

As we said, to launch the Launcher (sorry, guys), you just press the Start button on the front side of the tablet. Now, if this isn't related to TouchWiz, we don't know what is: the interface consists of two home screens with grids of large, candy-colored shortcuts, similar to what you'll find on any of Sammy's Galaxy phones or tablets. To move from one home screen to the other, just swipe. If you're so inclined, you can organize apps into groups, as well as add a shortcut to a desktop program.

With us so far? Okay, then. At all times -- whether you're looking at the homescreen or one of the 24 touch apps -- you'll see the Windows Taskbar at the bottom of the screen, so you'll never be too far removed from any programs you've pinned down there. That also makes it easy to dive back into a full-fledged Windows app you may have had open. Throughout, the Touch Launcher shows a big "X" in the upper right corner for closing apps or returning to the classic desktop, though you can just as easily do that by clicking the "show desktop" button at the end of the Taskbar.

On the left side of the home screen, there's a pane that slides out to reveal a little glanceable information: the weather, battery status and any items you have outstanding in the native ToDo app.

It's altogether a different experience than if you were to install Windows 8 Developer Preview on here, where you'd move back and forth between the classic desktop and Windows Phone-inspired tiles -- a jarring experience, if you're not used to it. Here, you can make use of both Windows and this more touch-friendly UI, but you can also quarantine the dumbed-down Touch Launcher and open it only when you need it.

In addition to ToDo, the nearly two dozen pre-installed apps include: Photos, Videos, Music, Bing Map, Notes, Yahoo Finance, Social Dashboard, Recipe, Clock, Weather, Internet Explorer, Windows Journal, Twitter, RSS Reader, Calendar, Camera and Amazon's Kindle reader. There's also an icon for YouTube, but that's just a browser shortcut.

It's altogether a different experience than if you were to install Windows 8 Developer Preview on here.

We won't exhaust you with a run-down of every single app, but suffice to say, there's promising stuff here, but also room for improvement. Some highlights: the calendar app syncs with your various Gmail calendars within seconds, even preserving the colors you had originally assigned them. Social Feed lets you cherry pick people whose updates you really want to read, and then cobbles those together into a patchwork of tiles.

Still, we wonder why Samsung didn't include a touch-friendly email app, especially since the software can already go so far as to pull in data from Google Calendar. And though you can swipe between home screens, you can't do that inside apps. For instance, if you've got five pages worth of recipes calling for turkey sausage, you'll need to tap an onscreen arrow to move through them. Ditto if you want to jump to another week on your calendar. If this special interface is designed specifically for finger input, why not let us really touch it?

We also noticed the occasional hiccup in these touch apps, particularly with Social Feed, which frequently froze as we searched for friends to add to our update list.

The truth is that even if the primary camera on this guy had higher resolution, we might still have had a problem with it; after all, tablet cameras haven't exactly been carving out a reputation for their sterling optics. But it might have helped. Our 3 megapixel stills taken with the rear lens are blurry in some areas, with a good deal of detail stripped out. Predictably, too, it suffers in low light -- not to mention twilight, harsh backlight and even dull light. In retrospect, we shouldn't have been surprised, though when we tested the camera around town we found it was relatively quick to focus and the images at least looked crisp on that smaller, 1366 x 768 display. Maybe they're best left there -- everything goes down hill when you offload them to the cloud and download them on some device with more viewing space. Ditto for the video: we had a hard time fully making out faces a few feet away from us, they were so blurry.

Configuration options

The Series 7 Slate is memorable, compelling and, ultimately, a niche product.

The Series 7 tablet is sold worldwide, with different configurations offered in each region. In the US, at least, there are four pre-built models ranging in price from $1,099 to $1,349.

Across the board, it comes with that same Core i5-2467M processor and 4GB of RAM, and are rated for up to seven hours of battery life. Other details, such as the 802.11 b/g/n radio, Intel HD 3000 graphics card and 1366 x 768 resolution are also non-negotiable.

Starting with the base model, $1,099 gets you a 64GB SSD and Windows 7 Home Premium. For an extra hundred bucks you can get the same model, but with Windows 7 Professional (from here on out, they all run this version of the OS). The other two models graduate to a 128GB solid-state drive, though one runs Home Premium and comes with the Bluetooth keyboard and dock, while the other has Windows 7 Professional installed and doesn't come with any accessories. To be clear, our unit came with the accessories and ran Windows 7 Professional, which means it's not a configuration you'll find in US stores.
There's nothing quite like the Series 7 Slate. Windows 7 tablets, yes, but they're mostly still chugging along on weaker Atom processors. Serious Android ones that accept pen input? Point, Lenovo. Tablets that easily morph into a dumbed-down laptop replacement thanks to a custom dock or case? There's the ThinkPad Tablet (again), along with the Transformer Prime. But it's rare to see a Windows tablet with enough power to match a laptop, and the kind of screen real estate and ergonomic accessories needed to transform it into a desktop-dwelling machine. For all these reasons, the Series 7 Slate is memorable, compelling and, ultimately, a niche product.
More than anything, it's the battery that dampened our enthusiasm. As much as this guy triumphs as a laptop replacement, even a travel one, it fails where standalone tablets are supposed to succeed: it doesn't even last four hours on a charge. Between that and the unusually high price, any business considering this has to need Windows, specifically -- not Android or iOS, but Windows. In particular, they need to be running apps that require a pen, Core i5 muscle and, possibly, a keyboard. Because if even one of those caveats doesn't apply, you can surely find something less expensive and longer-lasting, whether it be another Windows 7 slate or even an Android tablet with a pen and keyboard dock.

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