Samsung has released at least half a dozen Android tablets in the last year or so, but the Series 7 Slate is something different. It’s full-fledged Windows computer with a high resolution 11.6 inch display, a powerful Intel Core i5 processor, and support for finger or digital pen input.
It’s likely that more tablet computers have hit the streets in the past two years than in the previous decade. But tablets have been around for years — they just didn’t always look like the iPad.
Apple’s table and devices running Android, webOS, BlackBerry Tablet OS, and similar operating systems have all been designed from the ground up for finger input. They tend to have capacitive touch displays which react to your fingertips, and pinch-to-zoom technology which lets you resize pictures, web sites, and other content with two fingers. All of the buttons, menus, and other graphics are designed for fingers and thumbs, not a mouse, keyboard, or stylus.
Windows tablets have typically relied on expensive technology including an active digitizer and digital pen that allows you to interact with Windows seamlessly without a physical mouse and a keyboard. When implemented properly these Windows tablets support handwriting recognition, precise, pressure-sensitive drawing, and even “hover” functions that let you move a cursor over elements on your screen without clicking on them.
In other words, you can run full-blown Windows applications and visit websites that are optimized for a desktop web browser when you’re using a good Windows tablet.
Unfortunately we’ve seen a lot of bad Windows tablets recently. In order to keep costs down, companies have released devices with resistive or capacitive touch displays, but left out the active digitizer. Without a digital pen, Windows 7 is a pain in the rear to use on a tablet. Menus are too small, it’s easy to tap the wrong link on a web page, close a window you meant to minimize, or make other “mistakes” because your finger or even a resistive or capacitive stylus just isn’t precise enough for the Windows graphical user interface.
When you add a good digital pen, on the other hand, the experience is very, very different. Suddenly you can use Window almost as easily on a tablet as on a desktop or laptop computer without lugging around a keyboard and mouse or touchpad.
The Samsung Series 7 Slate PC offers the best of both worlds. It has a capacitive touch panel which lets you tap the screen with your fingers, but it also features a Wacom active digitizer and digital pen which offers far more precision than you’ll get from a touchscreen-only interface.
Samsung also includes a handful of touch-friendly applications including a Touch Launcher app which offers an alternative to the Windows start menu and desktop, and the Swype keyboard which makes entering text with your fingers much easier than it would be if you tried to rely on the Microsoft keyboard that comes with Windows 7.
I’m not an old school tablet guy. I’ve spent far more time with Android tablets than Windows tablets, and I don’t use some of the apps that really benefit the most from pen input such as Adobe Lightroom or other graphics. But when Samsung offered to lend me a Series 7 Slate for a few weeks, I jumped at the chance to see how it stacks up against today’s tablets.
The Series 7 is probably the best Windows slate that I’ve tested — which isn’t saying much, since so far my experience has been with low-end tablets such as the CTL 2Go Slate and Netbook Navigator Nav9. It’s the first Windows tablet I’ve spent time with that really could replace a laptop, and maybe even a desktop computer.
But a computer this capable doesn’t come cheap. The Samsung Series 7 Slate PC has a starting price of $1049, for a model with 64GB of storage, and if you want a model with a Bluetooth keyboard, docking station, and 128GB you’ll need to find $1349
in your couch cushions.
Despite that high price, there are some things that a $200 Android tablet does better than the Series 7. I have to wonder whether some folks might not be better off spending their money on a cheap laptop and maybe an Android tablet.
The situation will likely change once Windows 8 is released in 2012. Microsoft’s new operating system takes a new approach toward tablet computing by supporting not only pen input, but also finger input. There’s a radically redesigned user interface which could make Windows 8 just as easy to use on tablets as Android and iOS, while still offering the option of running full-blown desktop applications such as Office or Photoshop.
The Samsung Series 7 Slate PC has an 11.6 inch, 1366 x 768 pixel glossy LED backlit display. Samsung says it’s a matte display, but there is a bit of glare when you use the tablet in direct sunlight.
Samsung offers two different configurations in the US. For a $1049 and up you can pick up a model with a 64GB solid state disk. For $200 more you get a 128GB solid state disk, a docking station, and Bluetooth keyboard. If you don’t need the extra storage space you can probably save a few bucks by just picking up the keyboard separately.
The tablet has 4GB of RAM and a 1.6 GHz Intel Core i5-2467M processor. There are stereo 1.5W speakers and a woofer, a 2MP front-facing camera and a 3MP rear camera a combination headphone/microphone jack.
There’s a full-sized USB 2.0 port, a u-HDMI port, and a microSD card slot.
Like most high-end Android and Apple tablets, the Series 7 Slate has a capacitive touchscreen display with support for up to 10 touch inputs at once. This lets you navigate with your fingers, enter text with an on-screen keyboard, or drag and drop to your heart’s content.
But Windows 7 wasn’t really designed to be used with your fingers. Samsung has a few touch-friendly applications that help address this, but the company also throws in a Wacom digitizer and digital pen. Unfortunately there’s no place to store the pen.
The Series 7 Slate doesn’t have a slot for a stylus, so you’d better not misplace the one that comes with the tablet. The good news is that the digital pen doesn’t require a battery.
The tablet supports 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 3.0, and WiDi wireless display technology. It has a 4 cell, 5520mAh, 40Whr battery which is not user replaceable.
Measuring 11.7″ x 7.2″ x 0.5″ and weighing nearly 2 pounds, the Series 7 Slate is light for a laptop — but you don’t hold most laptops in your hands while you’r using them, and the Series 7 Slate is kind of heavy for a modern tablet. It’s not particularly uncomfortable to hold for brief periods of time, but after a while the extra weight becomes noticeable.
The tablet is also wider than most tablets I’ve tested, which means that while it’s reasonably comfortable to hold and use in landscape mode, the screen feels very long in portrait mode.
If you’re holding the tablet in one hand and using the other to scrawl handwritten notes on the screen, this extra length might be a good thing. But if you’re reading web pages or watching videos you’ll probably want to hold the tablet in landscape orientation.
The front of the tablet is almost nothing but screen. There’s a glass panel that stretches from one edge of the device to the other, with a black bezel surrounding the viewable display. There’s a single button below the screen which you can press to bring up Samsung’s touch-friendly application manager.
Above the screen is a front-facing webcam.
On the back of the Series 7 Slate you’ll find a higher quality camera for snapping photos — but there’s no flash. There are also a series of vents on the back of the device.
While the tablet doesn’t have a hard drive, it does generate a fair amount of heat. It gets warm (but not particularly uncomfortable) to the touch even with these fans.
I suspect the Series 7 Slate would overheat if it relied on passive cooling alone. Unfortunately this means that the tablet can get a bit noisy at times.
On the left side of the tablet you’ll find a full-sized USB port, a headset jack, volume buttons, a u-HDMI port, and the power jack. The USB port is protected by a small piece of plastic. It seems Samsung doesn’t expect you to remove it very often, because I was unable to open the USB slot with my fingers. I had to grab a paperclip to pry the plastic protector out before I could insert a USB flash drive.
There are just two buttons on the right side of the tablet. One is the power switch (which also puts the tablet to sleep), and the second is a screen orientation lock button which prevents the screen from rotating when you don’t want it to.
The top edge of the tablet houses stereo microphones and a spring-loaded microSD card slot. It’s much easier to pop a microSD card in and out than a USB flash drive, since all you have to is push down on the fake card that comes with the tablet to unlock it and then you can pull it out.
At the bottom of the tablet you’ll find the stereo speakers which are actually located far enough apart to provide something resembling a real stereo effect. There’s also a docking port which lets you plug in the optional docking station.
The Series 7 comes with a Wacom digital pen. I don’t have a lot of experience with this form of input, so I’m not going to compare it to other digital pens — but using the stylus with Windows 7 sure beats the heck out of trying to interact with a capacitive or resistive touch display. Almost everything that’s hard to do on a touchscreen-only slate is made easier by the inclusion of this accessory.
It’s about the size and weight of a real pen, although it actually reminds me more of a mechanical pencil. In some applications you can even use the little plastic nub at the top of the pen as an “eraser.”
The pen feels comfortable in the hand, and has a clip so you can go full nerd and stick it in your pocket protector if you really want to. There’s a thin point at the tip which you can use to tap the display, and there’s a button close to the front that you can press while you tap to emulate a right-click action.
I found that it’s a little tough to get used to locating this button with your fingers and right-clicking, but most of the time you can also simulate a right-click just by tapping and holding the pen against the screen for a few seconds.
Overall the only complaint I have about the pen is that there’s no slot in the tablet to store it when it’s not in use. Pens have a way of disappearing, and the Wacom digital pen for the Series 7 Slate is going to be a bit tougher to replace than your average Bic.
The demo unit Samsung sent me for review came with the optional Bluetooth keyboard. It’s a full-sized keyboard with an island-style layout. That means the keys are flat instead of concave and there are gaps between each key.
This design allows the keybaord to be very thin and light, although it’s thicker near the rear where there’s a battery compartment for two AAA batteries.
The power button is on the side of the battery compartment, although the only time you really need to press this is when you’re first pairing the keyboard with the computer. After that you can start typing just by tapping on any key to wake up the keyboard and then proceeding to type.
I found the keyboard comfortable and easy to type on. It works great if you prop up the tablet in its docking station and set the keyboard on a desk or table.
Unfortunately this two piece setup (or three, if you count the dock) doesn’t work as well if you want to use the tablet on your lap while on the couch or on a bus. Under those circumstances you’re probably going to have to rely on the touchscreen or digital pen for entering text. If you’re a fan of writing things out by hand, that might not be a big sacrifice, but I type much more quickly than I write — and my handwriting is pretty bad, so I love a good keyboard.
Speaking of the optional docking station, it’s a pretty nifty little device. It’s a little smaller (but thicker) than a CD case and has a soft rubberized bottom which helps prevent it from slipping when placed on a table.
At the back of the dock you’ll find full-sized USB, Ethernet, and HDMI ports as well as a headphone jack and power port. This makes plugging in an external keyboard, mouse, or display a snap.
When docked you actually have two full-sized USB ports, since the tablet already has once of its own.
To place the tablet in the docking station you just lift a flap on the top to expose the docking connector. The flap clicks into place and becomes a stand for the tablet. It’s not adjustable, but it does position the tablet at a comfortable angle.
When Microsoft introduced Windows 7 a few years ago, the company spent a lot of time talking about how touch-friendly the OS was. That was before the iPad and Android tablets hit the streets and showed what operating systems designed from the ground up for touch really looked like. But there’s no doubt that Windows 7 is a bit easier to use with your fingers (or a digital pen) than Windows Vista or XP.
For instance, the taskbar features nice big app icons that are easy to aim your fingertip at. The start menu is likewise choc full of big icons.
But things get even more touch friendly if you enable support for flicks and other gestures, which allow you to do things like skip forward and back in web pages by swiping your finger quickly from left to right or right to left.
Windows Aero snapping is also a pretty awesome experience when used with touch. You can tap and drag any window to the top of the screen to maximize the window, or drag it to the left or right to automatically fill half the screen.
This makes it incredibly easy to do things like open two Windows Explorer windows and copy files from one to the other.
The Internet Explorer 9 web browser that comes with the Series 7 Slate also features support for touch-based navigation, allowing you to scroll through web sites by moving your finger up and down the screen (rather than by relying on the tiny scrollbars on the side and bottom of the window). When I installed Firefox it worked the same way, but the latest version of Google Chrome doesn’t feature touch-based navigation unless you install a third-party extension.
Windows 7 still isn’t quite as easy to navigate with your fingers as iOS. It can be hard to tap a precise point on the screen using a fat finger, and sometime you end up closing a window instead of minimizing it. Other times you might have to tap half a dozen times before you hit the item you’re aiming for.
The digital pen alleviates most of these problems. When you wave it over the top of the screen you can see a cursor on the display. This lets you drag the cursor exactly where you want it to be before tapping — just like you would with a mouse.
You can also “hover” the cursor over on-screen elements in a way that’s impossible to do with a fingertip or resistive stylus. You don’t realize just how many elements of the Windows operating system or how many web apps rely on hover actions until you try using Windows without a device that supports hovering.
For instance, when you wave the stylus over an icon on your desktop it will be highlighted. Move over the battery icon and you can see how much time you have left remaining. And I would have had a difficult time writing much of this review using the WordPress web app if I couldn’t access menus that are only available when you hover over a certain area of the screen.
The pen also makes it easy to “right-click” by either tapping and holding or by pressing a button on the pen while you tap. Selecting text is easier, and drawing pictures, cropping images, or performing other precise actions are easy as pie.
Overall I found that there wasn’t much I could do with a mouse that I couldn’t do with the digital pen — and some things work better with the pen.
For instance, I wouldn’t even attempt to use handwriting recognition with a mouse, but it works quite well with the pen. My handwriting is pretty awful, but you can train Windows to adapt to your handwriting so that it does a better job of recognizing what you write.
You can also switch to an on-screen keyboard to tap out letters, numbers and symbols one by one. I’ve used the on-screen keyboard on a handful of other tablets — but like many Windows features it’s clearly not designed for use with your fingers.
While Android and iOS virtual keyboards are designed for your thumbs and fingers, the Windows 7 keyboard is designed for use with a pen or stylus and touch-typing is nearly impossible.
Fortunately, Samsung does include a finger-friendly keyboard option. It’s an app called Swype which was initially developed for Android phones and tablets.
Swype has nice big keys that are easy to tap with your fingers. But it also lets you enter text quickly by sliding your finger from one letter to the next without lifting your hand from the display. When it works, Swype is the fastest way to enter text on the Series 7 Slate without using a physical keyboard.
Unfortunately Swype doesn’t always work perfectly. Once you pull it up, it’s sometimes tough to switch back to the default Windows input panel to use the original keyboard or handwriting input. Swype is also a bit more aggressive in asserting itself than the Windows keyboard. Pretty much every time you tap something resembling a text input panel Swype pops up.
For serious text entry the optional Bluetooth keyboard has proven indispensable during my testing — but since the tablet has Bluetooth and a full-sized USB port you’re not stuck with Samsung’s keyboard. You could connect virtually any keyboard to the tablet.
Swype is just one of the finger-friendly apps Samsung loads on the tablet. There’s also a Touch Supported icon in the toolbar that you can tap to bring up shortcuts for frequently used Windows shortcuts such as Ctrl+C for copy, Ctrl+V for paste, F5 for refresh, or Ctrl+Alt+Tab to switch between running applications.
You can pull up an Easy Settings app for quick access to power, internet, audio and display settings. While custom settings apps are nothing new, the Easy Settings app is relatively easy to navigate with a fingertip thanks to big icons and text and large sliders and buttons.
There’s also a Touch Launcher app which brings up a full-screen application launcher with shortcuts for apps designed to run in full-screen. For instance there’s a weather application that displays current conditions and a brief forecast with attractive graphics.
Samsung also includes a few other full-screen apps, including software for taking notes, listening to music, watching videos, or keeping up with Facebook and Twitter. Some of these apps are more useful than others, and a few of the icons in the Touch Launcher menu are just shortcuts to websites. The YouTube icon, for example, simply opens YouTube in your default web browser.
We’ll start to see more of these touch-friendly apps once Windows 8 is released in 2012. Windows 8 includes a new Metro user interface for full-screen applications and the operating system will also include an app store for free and paid Metro apps.
But the Touch Launcher makes it a little easier than it would otherwise be to use the Series 7 Slate without a mouse, keyboard, or digital pen. The experience isn’t very consistent, since you still need to use the Windows 7 Start Menu to launch many apps that aren’t accessible from Touch launcher, and the tablet comes with a mix of apps that run in full screen mode and apps that don’t.
Samsung is apparently pushing the Touch Launcher experience though, because the Series 7 Slate has a hardware button dedicated to bringing up the app launcher. Just press the little square button below the display to bring it up from any window.
The last two Windows tablets I tested were 10 inch models with 1024 x 600 pixel displays and Intel Atom processors. They didn’t have active digitizers and while the Atom chips were fast enough for basic laptop-style computing, the Netbook Navigator Nav9, CTl 2GoPad SL10, and ExoPC Slate all felt sluggish when used as tablets.
Samsung’s Series 7 Slate doesn’t suffer from those problems. In fact, it’s one of the fastest computers I’ve tested over the past few years. Take that statement with a grain of salt, since I tend to focus on low-cost, low-power mobile devices. You can certainly find computers with more power than the Series 7 Slate, but it’s faster than most low-end Windows tablets or notebooks.
That extra power comes from the speedy Core i5 processor, 4GB of memory, and solid state disk. Those features don’t come cheap, which is why the Series 7 Slate costs about twice as much as the Netbook Navigator or CTL tablets.
But while the processor can handle number-crunching duties with ease, the tablet’s not exactly a beast in the graphics department.
The computer has Intel HD 3000 integrated graphics. It can handle 720p or 1080p HD video playback with ease, but computers with slower processors and higher-performance NVIDIA ION or AMD Radeon graphics out-performed the Series 7 Slate in gaming benchmarks.
A few years ago I started running a few tests on laptop, netbook, and tablet computers to measure performance at everyday tasks such as creating a ZIP archive with a few thousand files and transcoding audio and video files.
The test is kind of dated, since it relies on tools that may not take advantage of all the features of modern, multi-core chips. But it does provide a bit of a basis for comparison, and when I ran the tests on the Series 7 Slate it came out on top in all three scenarios.
In fact, it was three times faster than the Intel Atom-powered Netbook Navigator at transcoding audio and more than 2.5 times faster when converting an uncompressed video file to Xvid.
Other devices featured in this test include the Asus Eee PC 1215B notebook with an AMD E-350 dual core processor and Radeon HD 6310 graphics and an Asus Eee PC 1015PN netbook with a 1.5 GHz Intel Atom N550 dual core CPU and NVIDIA ION graphics.
For graphics performance I ran the 3DMark06 and Street Figher IV benchmarks. The tablet scored lower on the Street Fighter test than machines with AMD or NVIDIA graphics.
While the Series 7 Slate had the highest 3DMark CPU score of any of the devices I’ve tested recently, its overall score wasn’t as high as some computers with better graphics features.
In other words, the Slate’s graphics capabilities are decent, but not spectacular. It’s other features such as the processor, active digitizer, 4GB of RAM, and SSD which help set the tablet apart from cheaper devices.
I was also surprised to see that screen rotation on the tablet takes a second or two. I don’t know if this has something to do with the processor, graphics, or Windows operating system, but ARM-based tablets with Android or iOS operating systems seem to handle automatic screen rotation much more smoothly than most of the Windows tablets I’ve tested.
Ultimately the point might be moot though — because I can’t think of many reasons why I would rotate the screen. The Slate has an 11.6 inch, 1366 x 768 pixel display that looks great in landscape mode. But it’s almost ridiculously long when you hold the tablet in portrait mode.
Web pages don’t really scale that well to a screen that’s just 768 pixels wide, and 1366 pixels of vertical resolution is more than you really need to read web sites, documents, or digital books.
The best reason to hold the device in portrait orientation is to rest it on one arm while using your other hand to scribble notes on the screen, but this is much easier to do with a smaller tablet with a screen that has a 4:3 aspect ratio.
Weighing just under 2 pounds, the Series 7 Slate is a little heavier than an iPad or most Android tablets. It’s not particularly uncomfortable to hold for a little while with two hands, but it’s most comfortable to use when you can prop it up on a table or on your lap. Actually, it’s most comfortable to use when it’s standing up in the optional docking station.
Here’s the thing about the weight though: the Series 7 is still lighter than almost any laptop computer you’re going to find. I slipped it in my bag this morning to go work from a coffee shop, and as I stepped out the door I had to double check to make sure I hadn’t forgotten it. My backpack felt too light.
If you plan to sue the Series 7 Slate like a laptop, that’s great. But it does feel kind of heavy when you hold it in your hands for an extended period… and that’s how most people actually expect to use tablets.
The 40Whr battery provides about 4.5 hours of run time with WiFi turned on and the screen backlight set at around 40 percent. That’s less than half of what you’d get from an Apple iPad or some Android tablets, but it’s not bad for a computer with an 11.6 inch display, a Core i5 processor, and no room for an enormous battery.
The display is reasonably bright and has wide viewing angles. But it has a glossy finish which tends to reflect glare when used in direct sunlight.
There’s also an automatic brightness option that can adjust the display settings based on the light levels in the environment where you’re using the tablet. But I found that the automatic brightness setting was a bit over-aggressive and the display kept brightening and dimming unexpected when I was testing it.
The Series 7 Slate PC is a tablet computer that’s powerful enough to be used as a laptop or desktop. It may be the only computer you need, which is something that sets it apart from most Android and iOS tablets which are best seen as items that you might buy in addition to a computer.
If you add a keyboard and stand or docking station to the Series 7 Slate, you can use it like a portable laptop — assuming you don’t feel the need to actually place it on your lap to type.
The computer can run full-blown Windows apps as well as some full-screen apps that feel a bit more like the software we find on mobile devices such as smartphones or media tablets. We’ll probably see far more of these full-screen apps once Windows 8 is available for the Series 7 Slate in 2012.
But with a starting price of $1049, the Series 7 Slate isn’t for everyone. Laptop prices have fallen considerably over the last few years and you could easily buy a portable laptop computer and an Android tablet such as the Amazon Kindle Fire for a few hundred dollars less than the price of Samsung’s Windows tablet.
It’s not that the Slate isn’t worth the asking price. It’s just hard for most consumers to justify the premium price for features they may want but probably don’t need.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a high quality tablet for writing, drawing, or using pen-friendly apps such as Microsoft OneNote, it’s hard to find a better deal right now than the Series 7 Slate.
I’m hopeful that when Windows 8 arrives we’ll start to see more high quality tablets hit the scene and help drive down prices. But I’m also a little worried that in order to keep prices down companies will stick with the finger-friendly Metro UI and forget about the powerful processors and active digitizers that make tablets like the Series 7 Slate fun to use.
It’s also easy to forget sometimes that the Series 7 isn’t a media tablet like a Samsung Galaxy Tab or Apple iPad. For instance I decided to carry it around the house one day to listen to internet radio — but realized that I couldn’t simply tap the power button to turn off the display while I prepared dinner and listened to the news.
Hitting the power button turns the tablet to sleep. To turn off the screen you need to adjust the power options and wait for the screen to time out.
In other words, there are still some things that a cheaper tablet may be better suited for than a full-blown Windows 7 computer.
If you’re not turned off by the price of the Series 7 Slate, I recommend picking up a keyboard and stand. You can opt for the $1349 model which includes a 128GB solid state disk and the docking station and Bluetooth keyboard. Or you can buy the docking station for $100 or the keyboard for $80.
Samsung also offers a $50 case which functions as a tablet stand if you don’t need all the features of the docking station. I suspect you may also be able to find third party cases and keyboards for better prices.