Review: Samsung ATIV Smart PC hits the clover trail

Credit: ROBERT CARDIN
At a Glance
  • Samsung XE500T1C-A01

    PCWorld Rating

Whether Samsung is trying to confuse buyers into thinking they’re buying a laptop, or can’t make up its mind what it is, the Samsung ATIV Smart PC is (mostly) a tablet. Sure, it’s got a nearly full-size keyboard, but the keyboard is included as a detachable accessory. The slender tablet, just 9.9mm thin, is only three ounces heavier than an iPad. Even the CPU, the Atom Z2760 (“Clover Trail”) is Intel’s attempt to take on ARM-based CPUs. Users expecting a laptop may end up disappointed.

The ATIV Smart PC is really a harbinger of things to come. The Smart PC’s performance as a laptop leaves a lot to be desired, but it keeps up pretty well with the current crop of ARM-based tablets, both Android and iOS. But you can still dock it to its keyboard, carry it around and use it as a standard clamshell laptop. It also runs the full version of Windows 8, not the semi-crippled Windows RT that runs on Microsoft’s Surface RT. But it’s Clover Trail processor is 32-bit only, and while it’s fine for web browsing, email and light duty office chores, you’d never mistake it for a full-featured laptop.

The tablet under the hood

When you dig down into the specs, the hardware mix more closely resembles a tablet than a laptop. The system ships with 2GB of DDR2 memory and 64GB flash storage. The 11.6-inch screen is 1366 by 768 pixels. The screen is large for a tablet, but the resolution is more akin to the Surface RT than the iPad’s Retina display. However, 11.6 inches is small enough that you don’t see individual pixels, so it’s not a major issue.

All major controls are on the tablet part itself. The power button, volume controls, a power jack, one USB 2.0 port and a microSD card slot are built into the tablet. This makes the SmartPC pretty self-contained. The keyboard dock lacks any buttons or controls, but does include two additional USB 2.0 ports and a power connector. The power connector is needed, since the tablet’s power connector disappears into the dock latch.

Tablet performance

The processor is Intel’s Atom Z2760, which is targeted for very low power applications, like tablets. The 30Whr battery offers a claimed battery life of up to 13 hours. PCWorld Labs testing yielded a battery life of 9 hours, 14 minutes. The 10:46 of the Apple’s 3rd generation iPad is better, but the Samsung outpaces the Surface RT (9:05) and the Asus VivoTab RT (8:20).

The ATIV generally outpaces most tablets in PCWorld’s tablet performance tests, outpacing two of the ARM based Windows RT tablets in most tests (although the Surface RT edged out the Samsung in WebVizBench.) The Samsung also traded performance wins with the iPad 3, doing better in SunSpider and WebVizBench, but lagging a bit in Peacekeeper.

The open question is whether anyone will really notice. Subjectively, the Samsung XE500 proved pretty responsive in most normal web browsing. When attached to the keyboard dock, typing and editing documents, email and similar tasks worked with no major issues. HD video playback via a WMV HD video stored on a local area network looked good on the display.

The real flaws with the XE500 didn’t really reveal themselves until I started using it as I might use any tablet: consuming content.

Usability: bigger isn’t always better

The Smart PC ships with the 32-bit version of Windows 8 installed. As a tablet OS, Windows 8 works well on the Samsung. The capacitive touchscreen is responsive and quick, and multi-touch gestures work smoothly. When docked to the keyboard, the small trackpad supports edge detection, so you can swipe on from the edge using the trackpad if you prefer. The pad seems to lack sensitivity, however, so you my find yourself swiping several times to get the desired result. The touchscreen works much better.

The keys on the keyboard are a little slippery, but they’re nearly full size, Chiclet-style, and offer reasonably good tactile feedback. It’s heavier and bulkier than the Microsoft TypeCover keyboard, but it’s much easier to type on the keyboard, and I found myself generating fewer typing errors.

Windows 8 ships with several different ways to consume video and music content. There’s the Xbox music store, the Xbox video store and the Microsoft store for buying apps.

Music playback sounded pretty good through the built-in speakers, though utterly lacking in any bass content. Headphones work much better for audio. Video playback using the desktop Windows Media Player playing back videos via video files stored on a NAS drive also worked just fine, and looked pretty good.

The Xbox Video Store, however, proved problematic. In my first pass, every time I’d try to play back a video using the store, I’d get a Microsoft error telling me the video couldn’t be played. This included content which has already been downloaded to the built-in SSD. Rebooting seemed to fix the problem, so I’m still not sure why Xbox store videos initially wouldn’t work.

Subjective performance in games was a mixed bag. Any desktop games with significant 3D content were hopeless, even with the detail settings minimized. However, 3D games downloaded from the Microsoft Store fared much better. Store games tend to be better optimized for systems with less robust graphics cores, as you’ll find with tablets.

From a usability perspective as a tablet, however, the form factor is problematic. The aspect ratio is 16:9 on an 11.6-inch display. When held in landscape mode (sideways, as you might view a laptop screen), reaching parts of the screen is difficult when holding the tablet with two hands. But in one-handed mode, the tablet seems unbalanced and tiring to hold. When used in portrait mode, the screen seems to tall and not wide enough.

When you connect to the keyboard dock, the Smart PC behaves well as a very light duty laptop. The performance, as a laptop, is similar to netbooks, although the display resolution and keyboard makes for a much better experience than most netbooks. However, performance in any demanding application (photo editing, for example), is abysmal.

Bottom line: a mashup that’s a little mushy

Using the Samsung ATIV Smart PC leaves me with mixed feelings. The touch experience is excellent, but the overall size seems to be just a bit too large for comfortable use as a tablet. The ATIV performs well as a tablet, however, and the touchscreen is responsive and gorgeous. But the overall awkwardness because of the size makes it less than optimal.

As a laptop, it’s well-suited for light duty use: checking email, browsing the web, doing a little word processing. However, you’d never mistake it for a full performance laptop. The 2GB of memory is limiting, and the system can get sluggish if you fire up several large desktop applications.

In the end, the Samsung ATIV Smart PC suffers from an inability to make up its mind what it should be. The size makes it awkward as a tablet and the performance means it’s too sluggish to be a full performance laptop. That lack of a strong identity may limit its appeal to users in either the tablet or lightweight laptop camp.

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    Pros

    • Gorgeous display with responsive touchscreen
    • Good performance as a tablet
    • 2GB memory limits desktop application use

    Cons

    • Extremely mediocre performance as a laptop
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