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Asus Slate more of a laptop masquerading as a tablet Add to ...

At a glance, the Eee Slate EP121 is a big iPad that runs Windows 7. That's about where the similarities end, though.

I'm going to expand on that, but this little summary does a good job of succinctly telling the story of Asus' new tablet. It's all most people need to know in order to understand that this portable PC probably isn't for them. For the minority interested in a giant tablet with all power and functionality of a standard PC, read on.

Any discussion concerning the EP121, which starts at $999.99, needs to begin with its design and the manner in which it's meant to be used. With a 12.1-inch LED backlit capacitive and electromagnetic touch screen and a fighting weight of more than a kilogram (it gets noticeably heavier if you stuff it into the sturdy leather sleeve that comes in the box), it's not the sort of thing you'd want to hold in your hands for any significant length of time. That's a problem, because the designers seem to have intended people use it just that way. It has no physical keyboard and no built-in stand, so the only way to interact with it while using the virtual keyboard is to either support it with your hands or set it on a flat surface -- your lap or a desk -- and hunch over.

To be fair, it comes with a Bluetooth keyboard to help mimic a more traditional computing experience, but if you're going to lug around a keyboard with your tablet you might as well just go with a laptop. And if you do choose to use the keyboard you'll need to figure out some way to prop up the screen. The leather sleeve doubles as a stand, but it lifts the back of the display only a few inches, placing it at an uncomfortably low viewing angle. (How often do you use your laptop with the screen tilted back as far as possible?)

These issues aside, there's no denying that it's a decent performer. An Intel Dual-Core i5 470um processor and up to 4 gigs of DDR3 RAM make it more than speedy enough for standard productivity and entertainment tasks. And with a modest but handy array of ports -- two USB jacks, one HDMI, a memory card reader, and a headphone input -- you ought to be able to connect any peripherals you like, if not all of them at once. Battery performance isn't great -- I wasn't able to get much more than about two-and-a-half hours of use out of a charge -- but that's its only significant performance demerit. But for a tablet, it's a big demerit.

What's more, its nearly full-sized virtual keyboard is comfortable, responsive, and reliable. You can call it up whenever you like by sliding out a tab on the edge of the screen or pressing a button on the top bezel. I wouldn't want to punch out long documents with it, but it was fine for writing e-mails, typing URLs, and filling out web forms.

The Slate also comes with a Wacom digital pen that tucks away in an embedded sheath on the top right corner. Most people will simply use their fingers to interact with the screen, but this stylus should come in handy for those who demand enhanced precision in graphics editing applications. I used it with Art Rage, which comes pre-installed, and found I was able to draw and paint with far more accuracy than I've experienced in any of the iPad art apps I've tried. It will also prove useful to people who like to take handwritten notes and have them translated to editable text -- a task at which Windows 7 happens to be astonishingly adept (though I find it much quicker to type).

However, I'm still not comfortable using a touch screen to interact with Microsoft's operating system. Windows' menus, file trees, and tiny buttons were designed for precise mouse pointers, not stubby fingers. This is one of the main reasons why Windows tablet/laptop hybrids -- which have been available for a decade or so now -- have never really caught on.

This leads to a question fundamental to the EP121's existence: What's the purpose of a Windows tablet?

It all comes down to what you want to do with it. One of the reasons the iPad has proven so desirable is that users can choose from literally hundreds of thousands of affordable applications specifically designed to make the most of its touch interface. Android-based tablets offer a similar proposition. Even all-in-one Windows desktops with touch screens -- like HP's TouchSmart series -- typically come with useful everyday software optimized for touch interactions and the option of downloading more programs.

Asus' tablet, on the other hand, is simply a Windows PC that facilitates typical Windows PC activities via a touch screen. It may appeal to graphics designers looking for a portable work machine with built-in support for a stylus, but outside of this niche group I just don't see the point.

The Eee Slate EP121 looks lovely, is very well built, and, aside from a weak battery, has no technical failings. However, without a viable mainstream use it's unlikely to catch on. There are more compelling tablets and more practical Windows 7 laptops. You're better off with one of each.

 

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