Don’t get me wrong. The hardware is decent. The large, high resolution display is a nice touch — although viewing angles are a mixed bag. And the touchscreen is quite responsive. There’s a decent array of ports around the sides of the slate, and while it’s a bit heavy to hold with one hand, it’s about as light as you can expect a computer with an 11.6 inch display to be.
But in general I’ve been underwhelmed by the Intel Atom-based tablet I’ve used in the past. While the ExoPC doesn’t exactly pass all tests with flying colors, it’s clear that the company put some thought into making the experience of interacting with Windows 7 using your fingertips a little easier, especially on low-end hardware. Unfortunately, the ExoPC doesn’t exactly have a low-end price. It sells for $699 and up in the US.
I still think that if you want a truly great Windows slate experience you’re going to need to spend more money for a machine with a faster processor, higher quality display, and maybe an active digitizer — at least until Windows 8 is available. But for now, the ExoPC Slate is probably the Atom-based Windows tablet to beta, for what it’s worth.
ExoPC sent me a demo unit to use for a few weeks for the purposes of review. You can find purchasing information for the tablet in the USA, Canada, Europe, and Australia at the ExoPC web site.
The ExoPC Slate is a nice looking machine, if not 100% unique. In fact, a couple of other tablets including the German WeTab are based on the same OEM design. The front of the slate isn’t exactly all screen, which is fine because you need something to hold onto. But there is a single piece of glass which goes almost all the way from one edge to the other, giving the front a nice clean look.
Near the top of the screen (if you’re holding it in landscape mode with the thickest part of the bezel at the bottom) you’ll find a 1.3MP camera and an ambient light sensor.
The back of the tablet has a power button and a few vents, along with the ExoPC logo. Again, the design is nice and clean, giving the machine an attractive appearance. The black plastic coating has a matte finish which doesn’t easily show fingerprints and which feels easy to hold onto. The computer does get a bit warm toward the center of the back, but it’s not that warm, and more importantly this isn’t a spot where you’re likely to rest your hands very often.
The left side of the ExoPC has 2 USB 2.0 ports, a mini-HDMI port, an SDHC card slot, and a combination mic/headphone jack.
The computer has a 1366 x 768 pixel display, a capacitive dual-touch panel, 2GB of DDR2 RAM, 802.11b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 2.1, a 32GB or 64GB solid state disk, and a Broadcom Crystal HD video accelerator. There’s also an accelerometer for automatic screen rotation.
The ExoPC weighs about 2.1 pounds and measures 11.6″ x 7.7″ x 0.55″. It’s remarkably thin for a Windows slate, and in fact doesn’t seem to be that much thicker than my Google Nexus One smartphone. It also feels reasonably light when held with two hands. But when I try to hold it in portrait mode in a single hand to read an eBook, it feels kind of heavy and unwieldy.
There are 2 1.5 watt speakers, which are reasonably loud and will provide decent audio when watching a movie or listening to music in a quiet room. But you’re going to want headphones or external speakers for truly rich sounding audio.
The touchscreen is also reasonably accurate, so I didn’t frequently find myself trying to tap on a minimize button only to accidentally hit the close box instead — something that I’ve struggled with on other Windows tablets with capacitive touch displays.
On the down side, the viewing angles are mixed bag at best. In landscape mode, colors start to wash out as soon as you start to tilt the computer forward or back just a little bit. Forget about placing the ExoPC flat on a table to reading the morning paper (or rather, the morning paper’s web site) in landscape mode.
The viewing angles are much, much better in portrait mode, and you can indeed see the screen quite well when it’s placed on a table. But the glossy display reflects a fair amount of glare if your table happens to be in a brightly lit room, so you’re still best off holding the tablet in your hands.
The ExoPC also comes with a pen-sized capacitive stylus which has a nice weight to its metallic case and feels great in my hand. But it doesn’t really seem to make writing or interacting with the screen any easier (or harder), so I honestly forgot all about the stylus until I spotted it on my desk as I was finishing this review. There’s no place in the tablet’s case to store the stylus, so my guess is most users will do the same.
The ExoPC Slate runs Windows 7 Home Premium, which means it comes with a number of touch-friendly optimizations Microsoft built into the higher-end versions of Windows 7 (which you won’t find in Starter Edition). For instance, you can simulate the act of clicking the right mouse button by tapping and holding on the screen to pull up a context menu.
There’s also support for pinch-to-zoom and kinetic scrolling in the Internet Explorer 8 web browser. And when you tap on most text input boxes, a keyboard icon automatically pops up, which you can click on to bring up a resizable on-screen keyboard.
I’m not a big fan of the Windows 7 virtual keyboard, since it takes several taps to open, and it features too many buttons, so that when it’s spread out on a 10 or 12 inch tablet in portrait mode the keys are too small to comfortably hold the tablet with two hands and thumb type. In landscape mode, on the other hand, the keyboard is just too big, making it difficult to reach across with your thumbs. As such, the only comfortable way I’ve found to type on this keyboard is to hold the slate in one hand and type with one or two fingers on the other hand.
ExoPC plans to release its own keyboard software in the future, but for now you’re stuck with the stock Windows keyboard — although you can also switch to the handwriting recognition software which is pretty accurate even if your handwriting is as bad as mine, but which is kind of tough to use without a stylus.
But that’s just the software that comes with any tablet running Windows 7 Home Premium and up. ExoPC also loads a touch-friendly settings tool called Millennium which lets you toggle screen rotation, adjust the display brightness, and turn the WiFi and Blutooth on and off — and a custom user interface that runs on top of Windows called the ExoPC UI Layer, which replaces the classic Windows desktop, start menu, and taskbar with an overlay that’s designed from the ground up for touch input.
When you launch the ExoPC UI layer, you’re presented with toolbars on the left and right side o the screen and a large, customizable application launcher in the middle. There are 77 circles on the main screen, and you can fill them with 77 icons — including folder icons that let you start all over again by populating sub-menus with up to 77 games, tools, or other items.
To move icons, just tap and hold for a second, and then move them anywhere you like. You can also remove shortcuts altogether by dragging all the way to the left side of the screen, where a recycle icon appears when you’re in edit mode.
The toolbar on the left includes a battery meter and clock, volume buttons, an icon for switching to the full Windows 7 desktop, and an icon for closing the ExoPC UI layer. At the top of the left panel is a plus button which you can tap to bring up the Exo Store where you can find additional touch-friendly apps to install.
The toolbar on the right features a home button which you can use to return to the main screen from any program. Once you start running apps, icons will also appear in the right toolbar. You can close any app by tapping its icon and dragging it to the right.
Some of the apps that came preloaded on my demo unit included a map application, an air hockey game, internet TV and radio apps, and a web browser. The map app worked much as you’d expect, allowing you to view the whole world at a glance or zoom in by double-tapping the screen or using a pinch-to-zoom gesture. Animated zooming effects were a bit slower than I would have expected, but the feeling of manipulating the world with your fingertips is still pretty cool.
The internet radio and TV apps were kind of cool, but as with most apps of this sort, I had a hard time finding any English language content I actually wanted to watch or listen to. The air hockey game makes me wonder why anyone would ever play this sort of game with a keyboard and mouse — although the game seemed a little jerky at times. I’m not sure if that had to do with the low power CPU and graphics or something else.
Probably one of the most important apps that comes with the ExoPC UI Layer is the web browser. Like Internet Explorer 8, the browser recognizes pinch-to-zoom, but it’s much slower to respond to zoom gestures and I frequently found myself zooming in or out too far. Fortunately the slate’s 11.6 inch, 1366 x 768 pixel display is wide enough to view most web content comfortably without zooming at all.
When you first launch the web browser, you’re presented with text boxes for URLs and Keywords. You can probably guess what they do. There’s also a little box next to the Keywords box which lets you select your default search engine. The only options right now are Bing, Google, and Wikipedia, and for some reason even though Google was selected out of the box, when I first tried to use the search box Bing always came up. Selecting Google again fixed that problem though.
At the bottom of the browser screen you’ll find back, forward, home, and reload buttons on the left, and a search button on the right which will let you bring up the search window from any page.
The browsing experience is pretty decent — but there are a few things missing. There’s no support for bookmarks, for multiple tabs or windows, or for any sort of extensions or plugins. That said, Flash appears to be supported out of the box, so you can play games or watch videos. And ExoPC appears to crank out software updates fairly regularly, so we may see an improved browser and/or other software such as the promised software keyboard in the future.
Performance and Battery Life
The Intel Atom N450 processor, 2GB of RAM, and Broadcom Crystal HD video accelerator provide pretty much everything you’d need for a decent netbook computing experience. The computer loads applications and web pages quickly. HD video looks great on the 11.6 inch display, even 1080p Flash videos from YouTube. And overall, the operating system feels snappy and responsive.
Unfortunately the ExoPC isn’t just another netbook. It’s a tablet, and some of the things you expect to do on a tablet require a bit more oomph. For instance, the computer has an accelerometer for automatic screen rotation. Change your grip from landscape to portrait and the display should automatically adjust — and it does… just slowly. Every time I tried to rotate the screen, I might as well have closed my eyes for 2-4 seconds, because that’s how long it took for the screen to go black and then come back in the proper orientation.
But the biggest problem is that the ExoPC just doesn’t get the kind of battery life I’ve come to expect from a portable computer. I got just 3 hours and 20 minutes of run time while doing almost nothing other than streaming music with the screen on. Playing video or games will likely drain your battery even faster. Since the ExoPC doesn’t have a user replaceable battery, once your battery is done, you’d best have a charger handy, because there’s no easy way to swap out the battery or upgrade to a higher capacity version.
The ExoPC may be the best Intel Atom-powered Windows tablet I’ve tested to date, thanks to its large, high resolution display, accurate touch panel, HD video accelerator, and custom software layer. But text entry is still a bit of a chore, the custom web browser is a bit too basic for my tastes, and the 2-4 second delay when rotating the display is just too long.
For $699, I’d kind of hoped for a better experience. Unfortunately, I think it takes a faster processor and possibly an active digitizer to truly get the most out of Windows 7 on a tablet. Both of those things will be available soon from the Asus Eee Slate EP121, but you’ll have to pony up $999 or more for that model. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from testing the ExoPC, Netbook Navigator Nav9, and CTL 2GoPad SL10, it’s that good Windows tablets still don’t come cheap.