Windows 8 needs touch to really shine. It’s designed to give you the power of a PC with the convenience of a tablet, so you need to be able to drag apps side by side and swipe through web pages with your finger – and then you need to have a keyboard and trackpad for desktop applications.
Making that work needs the right hardware, but Microsoft isn’t the one to have the only credible Windows 8 tablet on the market.
Samsung certainly has experience in the tablet market, and not just with the Galaxy Tab 10.1. The Samsung Series 7 Slate PC was the best Windows 7 tablet we tried, and Microsoft handed custom versions out to developers to encourage them to build apps for Windows 8. The main drawbacks were the lack of anywhere to put the pen and having to carry around both a dock and a Bluetooth keyboard, making it impossible to use like a notebook on your lap, on a plane or anywhere except at a desk.
The Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro deals with both problems and abandons the square-edged slab design for a more curved style that’s also more comfortable to hold. Like the Microsoft Surface Pro, the Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro is a true convertible; an Intel Core i5 tablet you snap a keyboard onto to turn it into something close to an Ultrabook.
This is a very different and in many ways more conventional approach to the Windows 8 tablet-laptop hybrid, with an isolated keyboard that acts like a hinge. Is it a better solution than Microsoft’s bolder design?
As always, that depends on what you need to do. It doesn’t have the striking yet subtle design of the Surface Pro. As a tablet it’s slightly thicker and heavier, and the back of the screen is peppered with the vents and labels that normally hide inside and underneath a notebook.
But the hinged keyboard means you can adjust the screen angle and comfortably use it on your lap (the kickstand on the Surface Pro works best for those with longer legs). And while the pen is small and not as well designed as the Surface Pro pen, it does work well for writing and drawing on the screen – and it snaps securely into a slot behind the screen so you won’t worry about losing it.
The Core i5 processor in the Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro means this is a Windows 8 PC that could be your main PC. The dockable, hinged keyboard is a much more useful approach to giving you the portability of a tablet and the convenience of a notebook than the Acer Iconia W700 and its clunky dock.
In fact, until Lenovo finally manages to ship the Helix (latest estimates say April), the Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro is the only real competition for the Surface Pro. And its priced at £1,199 / US$1,199.99 / AU$1,399.
The 11.6-inch screen puts the Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro firmly in the Ultrabook space; this isn’t a pocketable mini tablet, but the curved corners and edges and good balance make it comfortable to hold, especially if you’re using the pen to write in OneNote or to draw in Fresh Paint or Samsung’s own S Note software.
The screen quality is excellent, with crisp details and rich, vivid colours. Put it side by side with the Microsoft Surface Pro and you’ll see that the details aren’t as crisp and the blacks aren’t as deep and saturated, but that’s a high bar to meet.
The 1920 by 1080 resolution – the same as Surface Pro but a significant step up from the 1366 by 768 resolution we’ve seen on many older Windows systems of this size – is great for watching videos and browsing photos. As with the Surface Pro, the resolution is almost too high for some web pages, so Windows 8 automatically increases the DPI settings so that they’re easier to read.
Touch control is smooth and accurate; we were able to select even small controls in the notification area of the taskbar on the Windows desktop.
Despite the small size – at only 4 inches long – the pen is comfortable to use, with rounded edges to the square barrel. The right mouse button on the side has a crisp, positive action and you know when you’ve clicked it. There’s no eraser so you can’t turn the pen over to rub out your ‘ink’, but the pen snaps very firmly into its slot so you won’t lose it.
The combination of pen and touch works very well in OneNote, where you can write with the pen and scroll down the page with your finger, or in painting apps such as Fresh Paint where you get pressure sensitivity.
What makes the Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro stand out from the competition is how well it works as both a tablet and as a notebook, and how easy it is to switch between the two.
The keyboard is substantial, with isolated chiclet-style keys that feel like most other Samsung keyboards and include the full complement of keys, including a right-mouse key and function lock, a Caps Lock light and a power indicator that’s easier to see than the one next to the power button.
The keyboard is much thicker and heavier than the Type and Touch Covers for the Surface tablets, but it also feels like typing on a real notebook keyboard. Instead of a magnet, the keyboard has a full-length hinge with locking lugs that hold the tablet in place and let you tilt the screen back at your preferred angle.
Unlike keyboards from Acer and Lenovo that only hold the screen, the Samsung keyboard enables you to close the Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro up like a real notebook – albeit one that’s slightly thicker than most Ultrabooks. The keyboard doesn’t have its own battery, though, which would make it heavier. We found we tended to leave the keyboard on when we put the Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro in a bag and take it off when we wanted to use it as a tablet, so the extra weight from a battery would probably be unwelcome.
You can also pick the system up by the screen without worrying about the keyboard dropping off or flipping back. Press the obvious button in the centre and the tablet pulls out easily.
The keyboard needs all its weight to balance the screen; with the guts of the PC inside, it’s heavier and thicker than most Ultrabook screens and it does have a slight tendency to tip back. Even so, it’s far less fiddly than balancing a Surface Pro on your lap when you’re sitting up in a chair.
It also has a large trackpad that supports the Windows 8 gestures, so you can swipe to open the Charms bar or switch between Windows Store apps.
This ought to be a great feature, giving you the precision of a mouse for the times when you don’t want to reach up and touch the screen. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the most irritating feature of the entire system.
The Elanpad hardware is absurdly sensitive, and trying to drag a selection frequently triggered the Windows gestures or just produced random clicks. Even when we reduced the sensitivity, we still had problems clicking; there are no separate keys and nine times out of 10 we found ourselves right-clicking when we didn’t mean to.
For a tablet, the selection of ports is either standard – if you’re used to Windows tablets – or generous if you’re used to Android tablets and iPads. Compared to an Ultrabook it’s on the minimal side.
What you get is a USB 3.0 port on the top of the screen, when you’re holding it in landscape orientation. It’s hidden behind a neat cover that won’t fall off and get lost or snap off in your hands, with a microSD port further along, a SIM slot that wasn’t in use on our test system, and a micro HDMI connector on the side, all behind the same neat covers. That leaves plenty of uninterrupted smooth edges to hold comfortably.
The tiny power port is on the bottom, with the dock connector, and the power button is on the top, next to a button that locks the (very sensitive) autorotation. There’s also a 3.5mm audio jack and two microphones (slightly too close together to do real beam forming). On the side are the rocker volume buttons.
Snap the keyboard on and you get another two USB ports and another power port. The keyboard also covers most of the physical Windows button, so you can press it with a fingernail or just use the Windows button on the keyboard – or swipe on the screen to get the Charms bar.
You always have multiple options with the Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro – including a desktop dock with USB and Ethernet ports.
But like Surface Pro, the Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro is an Intel Core i5 PC with 4GB of memory; an Ultrabook in tablet format, capable of running demanding programs such as Photoshop, Paint.NET, loading large raw files in Adobe Lightroom and HD video editing or running 3D modelling tools without showing the strain.
We’re not sure whether it’s the slightly different Core processor or the super-speedy 128GB SSD in the Surface Pro that gives it the edge, but the Samsung tablet is very slightly slower on our benchmark tests.
Cinebench: 11.5 OpenGL: 11.12fps CPU: 2.14pts
3D Mark 11: P583 graphics: 512 physics: 2760 combined: 513
Battery Eater: 2 hours 48 mins
You won’t notice that in use though, and both boot (10 seconds) and shutdown (5 seconds) are so fast you’ll forget you ever waited for a PC to start up. You won’t be playing the very latest games at the very highest resolution, but gaming performance is similar to (though not quite as good as) Surface Pro.
The disadvantage of a Core i5 system is that it can’t compete with ARM and Atom on battery life. Our battery rundown test (which cranks up screen brightness and runs the CPU and GPU at full speed with Wi-Fi on) showed a typical mid-range Ultrabook result, with the battery lasting only 2 hours 48 minutes.
Again, that’s only a few minutes less than what we saw with Surface Pro. What about real life usage? As with Surface Pro, we tested that with the screen at a comfortable brightness for working next to a large window, running multiple desktop programs and Windows Store apps at the same time, with Wi-Fi on and the USB port in use, browsing the web and receiving and sending email, watching the occasional video.
Unlike the eight hours we regularly saw with Surface Pro, the battery life for the Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro is just under five hours. Especially with the extra size and weight of the keyboard that’s disappointing, although it’s not dissimilar to most of the Ultrabooks we looked at last year.
The traditional vents on the back and side don’t work as well as the innovative side vent on the Surface Pro to get the heat out of the way unnoticeably – but if you use the Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro in notebook mode you’ll never notice the heat, because it’s nowhere near your hands or knees.
The Surface Pro is a better pure tablet, and it has far more clever features, but for some people it’s a little too clever. The Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro is bigger and not nearly as clever, but it’s a far better compromise between the two because the keyboard turns it into something much more familiar.
You get a fully functional Windows 8 tablet, with pen and touch, with reasonable but not outstanding battery life. You can write on the screen or hold the screen in both hands and use the thumb keyboard, you can sit back and swipe through web pages or play games and watch videos.
And when you need a notebook you can snap on the keyboard and type away as if you were balancing an Ultrabook on your knee. As promised, it’s Windows 8 and the best of both worlds.
The trackpad is hands down the most annoying thing about the Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro. It’s jumpy, over-sensitive and downright intrusive. We found ourselves turning features off just to get it to select text reliably.
Battery life is disappointing for the size and weight of the complete system, especially compared to the Surface Pro. And Samsung has chosen yet another tiny power connector that isn’t the same as any other Samsung device’s, so you don’t have much choice when it comes to buying a spare power supply or trying to get a tip for a third-party external battery.
As an Ultrabook, the Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro is a little thick and heavy, and it skimps on ports and battery life. As a tablet, it’s a great Windows 8 tab with an excellent screen that’s powerful, well balanced in your hands and very responsive to touch.
But what will really sell the Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro is that you can go from one to the other in seconds, without being disappointed in either.
You won’t draw the same kind of attention as you do when you’re carrying a Surface Pro, but if the kickstand isn’t for you and you can stand the trackpad, Samsung has a compromise that doesn’t make too many concessions.