Over the last two years computer makers have flooded the market with tablets. The best of these devices tend to be thinner and lighter than laptops, offer better battery life, and always-on features including the ability to receive incoming email or instant messages even when the display is off. Another hallmark of tablets running Android, iOS, or other mobile operating systems are user interfaces that are easy to use with a touchscreen – no keyboard or mouse needed.
But if you’ve ever tried tapping out a long email message, a lengthy IM chat, or say, a detailed review of an Android tablet using an on-screen keyboard, it becomes clear that touchscreen-only input works best in small doses. If you want to get any real work done, you might want to invest in a device with a keyboard.
That doesn’t necessarily mean opting for a traditional laptop instead of an Android tablet though. Plenty of companies offer Bluetooth keyboards for tablets. And Asus has gone a few steps further by offering several Android devices which combine some of the best features of laptops and tablets. The Asus Eee Pad Transformer is a 10 inch tablet with an optional keyboard docking station, while the Eee Pad Slider is a 10 inch tablet with a built-in keyboard that hides behind the screen when you don’t need it and slides out when you want to start typing.
In some ways this really does make the Slider feel like an Android-powered laptop. You can even plug in a USB mouse. But the Slider is bigger and heavier than most Android tablets, and the keyboard isn’t really much easier to use than an on-screen keyboard.
That’s a shame, because I can’t help but feel like the Slider would be a truly amazing device if the keyboard were larger, the keys didn’t get stuck so easily, and typing was just a little easier.
If you hate software-based keyboards enough to want a tablet with a physical keyboard for small activites such as entering web addresses or searching the Android Market for apps, the Slider might be good enough. But if you’re looking for a truly great typing experience, you’re probably better off getting an Eee Pad Transformer, a tablet with a Bluetooth keyboard, or a laptop.
Asus loaned me an Eee Pad Slider for the purposes of this review. It has a 10.1 inch, 1280 x 800 pixel capacitive touchscreen display, a 1GHz NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual core processor, 1GB of RAM, and 16GB of storage (about 12.6GB of which is available to users). The tablet has a 1.2MP front-facing camera and 5MP rear camera, 802.11n WiFi, and Bluetooth 2.1.
The Slider runs Google Android 3.2 Honecyomb.
At first glance the Eee Pad Slider looks like a slightly chunky 10 inch Android tablet. It has a wider black border around the display than most tablets, and at 0.7 inches thick, it’s a bit thicker than most too. But when you realize that about half of that thickness is taken up by the pull-out keyboard portion of the Slider, it’s actually pretty impressive just how thin this device is.
Unfortunately it’s also a little heavier than a typical tablet, weighing in at about 2.1 pounds. While that won’t be a problem if you’re using the Slider on your lap or on a desk, it’s a bit heavy for a device that’s meant to be held in your hands at least some of the time.
While most tablets are pretty much rectangle-shaped, the Slider has slightly curved edges on the left and right. I’m not sure if this makes the tablet any easier to hold, but it does give it a slightly distinctive look — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing at a time when it’s hard to tell one Android tablet from the next.
All of the expansion ports are built into the bottom portion of the tablet, which makes it easy to plug in a power adapter, USB mouse or other item whether you’re using the device as a tablet or a laptop.
One the left side you’ll find the power and volume buttons and a microSD card slot.
The right side houses a full-sized USB port and a headphone jack.
On the back edge you’ll find a full-sized HDMI port and a proprietary port for a USB adapter which you can use to connect the Slider to a computer.
The back is also where you’ll find a slight tab where the top portion of the tablet extends out a little further than the button portion. You can grab this tab and pull upward until the screen is at a 45 degree angle. This exposes the keyboard that hides below the screen when it’s not in use.
A sturdy metal hinge is responsible for the sliding action, and it doesn’t feel like it’s going to break off anytime soon. Unfortunately the Slider is designed so that you can only open the lid to a 45 degree angle. It’s not adjustable like a normal laptop screen would be.
The good news is that the Slider has an IPS display with wide viewing angles so that even if you’re not looking at the screen head-on, images and text look sharp and the colors don’t look faded. This means you can place the tablet on your lap and look down at it or on a desk and look forward at it and you probably won’t see much difference in the screen quality.
The glossy screen does reflect glare though, so you’re probably not going to want to spend a lot of time outdoors in direct sunlight with the Slider.
Like most tablets with capacitive touchscreen glass displays, the Eee Pad Slider is a fingerprint magnet. This isn’t a big problem when the backlight is on. But when you cut the light you’re greeted by a menagerie of smudges.
There’s a 5.2MP camera on the back of the tablet, and not much else. The battery is not easily user replaceable, so you won’t find any access panels.
In a baffling design decision, Asus placed the speakers between the keyboard based and the display portion of the tablet. When you open the screen, this exposes the speakers and provides reasonably loud and clear audio (with very little base, as you’d expect from tiny, tinny speakers). But when you push the screen down to use the device in tablet mode, the top of the tablet covers the speakers and muffles the audio.
It’s like listening to music or video while holding your hand over your radio or TV speaker. Clearly, audio quality wasn’t a high priority on the designers’ minds.
Asus has been making netbooks with small screens and small keyboards for longer than any other company. So you’d think Asus would know how to make a great space-saving keyboard for a tablet with a 10 inch display. And maybe they do — but they didn’t put it on the Eee Pad Slider.
Instead the Slider keyboard has small, cramped keys, a cheap plastic feel, and a tendency for keys to get stuck.
I started to write this review on the Eee Pad Slider, but gave up after a few paragraphs, because not only did I find myself making frequent typos, but an odd quirk meant that every time I hit the backspace key in the WordPress app for Android, the previous two characters would disappear instead of one.
The keys aren’t much more narrow than those found on a full-sized laptop keyboard, but they’re not as tall. Asus did fit in a dedicated row for number and symbol keys — but I’d be happy to press Fn+something to enter a number or symbol if it meant taller keys.
The good news is that there are a few dedicated keys for special Android functions such as Home, Back, Menu, and Search. The strange news is that they’re scattered across the keyboard, as if Asus was just throwing darts at the keyboard to figure out where the menu and search functions should go.
There are also keys that you’d normally find on a Windows laptop such as Ctrl, Tab, and Caps Lock, even though few Android apps actually take advantage of these functions.
The Eee Pad Transformer looks a lot like a laptop when the keyboard is exposed. Plug in a USB mouse and it really looks like a laptop. But it doesn’t really work like a laptop.
That’s not just because of the awful keyboard. It’s also because the Slider runs Google Android instead of Windows, OS X, Ubuntu, or any other desktop operating system.
So it’s best not to really compare the Slider with a laptop. While it could theoretically replace a laptop for some users, it’s an Android tablet first and foremost — and it turns out that while it’s thicker and heavier than most 10 inch Android tablets, it performs very much like others in its class.
I ran a series of benchmarks, and for the most part the Slider’s scores were indistinguishable from other Android tablets with dual core processors. That includes the Toshiba Thrive, Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, and even the Amazon Kindle Fire.
The tablet felt pretty zippy and I didn’t find any apps that it couldn’t run. Currently the Slider ships with Google Android 3.2 Honeycomb, although it’s certainly capable of running Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich if and when Asus releases a software update.
But the tablet’s large display and relatively heavy 2 pound weight make it a less-than-perfect fit for some activities. It’s reasonably comfortable to hold with two hands in landscape mode, but you’re in for some serious wrist-strain if you want to hold the Slider with one hand in portrait mode. That makes for an awkward eBook reading experience.
Despite the awkward keyboard, the fact that the Slider basically includes its own kick-stand and any keyboard, does make it a little more versatile than most Android tablets for performing laptop/desktop-style tasks.
When the keyboard is exposed, the tablet automatically switches input methods so the on-screen keyboard will never pop up when you tap on a text box. I wish I could say the same for some Windows 7 tablets.
While recent versions of Android have added support for mouse input, most apps, menus, and other features are clearly designed for touch input. You’d be amazed how often I found myself writing in a text box and hitting the Tab button to advance to the next box… and then waiting while nothing happened.
With a mouse plugged in, I was able to navigate websites that aren’t really optimized for capacitive touchscreen input. For instance, some web pages require you to scroll your mouse over a link or graphic to perform certain functions. You can’t do that with finger input, but you can with a mouse.
Unfortunately, I found the mouse hover experience to react much more slowly on the Slider than on a Windows notebook. But at least it’s an option. For instance, when I had trouble with the WordPress Android app, I was able to fire up the WordPress web app to get a little work done.
The Eee Pad Slider gets pretty good battery life. I streamed music over WiFi for about 8 and a half hours with the display on and brightness set to about 50 percent. You could probably get much more run time if you turned off the display while listening to music or turned off WiFi while reading or playing light games.
The Asus Eee Pad Slider gets better battery life than a laptop and offers instant-on, and always-connected capabilities. It’s also thinner than most notebooks. But unlike a typical Android tablet, it has a keyboard and full-sized USB and HDMI port.
But for $472 and up, I’m not sure why you’d buy one instead of a cheap netbook or an inexpensive Android tablet.
Because the Eee Pad Slider kind of offers the worst of both worlds instead of the best. It’s thicker and heavier than a typical tablet and the keyboard is bad enough that you may find yourself never wanting to use it.
The Asus Eee Pad Transformer or Transformer Prime plus an optional keyboard dock will set you back a little more money, but you’ll get a full-sized keyboard and extra battery life.
Or if you’re being cheap, you could literally pick up an Asus Eee PC X101 netbook and an Amazon Kindle Fire tablet for less than the cost of a Slider.
If Asus can improve the keyboard on future models, the Slider could be a great device. For now, the keyboard simply makes the Android tablet bulkier and more expensive than it would otherwise be, while adding very little extra value.
The Slider is certainly an eye-catching device. At a time when most tablets look alike, the guy sitting at the coffee shop table next to me took note of the Slider when I pulled it out of the bag while writing this review to ask me what it was and if he thought it would be good for his grandmother. I told him no.