It's no secret that Windows 7 is not the best operating system for tablets, mainly because of its mouse-centric heritage. All the Windows-based tablets we've tested suffer from serious usability issues and most have short battery life and high price tags, to boot. The ExoPC Slate is not your typical Win 7 tablet. It covers Microsoft's desktop with an innovative custom interface that includes its own app store. Add in a high-definition 11.6-inch screen, front-facing webcam, and multiple USB ports and you have a tablet that truly stands out from the crowd. But does the ExoPC Slate's uniqueness justify its $599 asking price?
Editor's Note:When we tested the ExoPC Slate, its important UI Layer was still in beta form and many features, such as the app market, were not functional. We'll update this review, and reserve the right to change the rating, when a final version of the ExoPC UI Layer comes out in mid-December.
At 11.6 x 7.6 x 0.6 inches and 2.2 pounds, the ExoPC Slate is the largest slate we've ever reviewed and, by far the bulkiest (only the now-defunct Joo Joo tablet is bigger). That's significantly heavier than the rival iPad (1.5 pounds) and more than twice as heavy as the Samsung Galaxy Tab (13.6 ounces). However, the ExoPC has a much larger display and has to accommodate larger components such as a fan to cool its Atom N450 CPU. When holding the tablet in our hands, we couldn't help but notice the heft after even a couple of minutes of use.
The all-black design aesthetic is simple, but classy. We particularly like the highly grippable soft-touch rubberized back, which has the attractive pink and green ExoPC logo emblazoned on it. Our biggest issue with the design, other than the weight, is that the screen smudges up with fingerprints quickly.
Ports and Webcam
For a slate, the ExoPC has a lot of connection options. On its left side are a micro HDMI port, two USB ports, and a microSD card reader. There's also a SIM card slot for connecting to 3G GSM networks and a docking port, though our unit did not come with any accessories and 3G will not come standard on the initial units. Unfortunately, you can't charge or power the device via USB, but must plug in using a proprietary AC adapter.
The 1.3-megapixel webcam provided images of acceptable quality, though the picture turned dark and shadowy in areas without a great deal of ambient light. When speaking on Skype, our picture was also a bit blurry.
Display and Sound
The 11.6-inch, 1366 x 768 display offers more screen real estate and resolution than any other tablet on the market. However, even at maximum brightness, colors seemed dim, particularly in a room with lighting that bounces off the glossy screen. Viewing angles were solid from 45 degrees to the left and right, but you'll want to tilt the tablet toward your face to get the best view.
Rotating the display activates the accelerometer, which switches from portrait to landscape mode. Unfortunately, the accelerometer alternates between being too sensitive and failing to change even when we shook the tablet to encourage it. When the display does change orientations, the screen goes black and takes as much as five seconds to finish, completely interrupting your workflow.
Even worse, when we rotated the Slate while a QuickTime movie was playing, the screen went black and we were unable to even bring up the keyboard to hit the Esc key. Only putting the computer to sleep and waking it again allowed us to regain control. When we rotated the display from landscape to portrait in the middle of playing a YouTube video, the video only took a small sliver of the screen.
Sound quality was surprisingly good, both when watching videos and listening to music. When streaming the bass-heavy R&B tune "Forget Me Nots" from Napster, the sound was clean and loud enough to fill a room.
The ExoPC slate has a capacitive touchscreen that supports two-fingered gestures. In our tests, we were able to use pinch-to-zoom and draw two separate lines at the same time in Windows Paint. However, we noticed occasional moments of lag where we'd tap a button such as the Start menu and wait several seconds for the system to respond.
ExoPC UI Layer
To supplement the touch-unfriendly Windows 7 interface, ExoPC has developed its own unique and immersive UI layer, based on a slick circular-grid design. Unfortunately, on our test system, the UI layer was still in a beta form, so not everything we tested worked like it should when the Slate goes on sale. However, we were able to get a good feel for how the UI is supposed to work.
Whether you're using the ExoPC Slate in landscape or portrait mode, the screen is divided into three sections. A bar on the left (in landscape) or top (in portrait) contains a button that switches back to the Windows desktop, an Off button that closes the UI entirely, a battery meter, a clock, and a Plus button that brings up the app store. This area is also supposed to contain brightness and volume controls, along with a button to launch a special ExoPC keyboard app. However, none of these elements were present on our test system.
The right bar (in landscape mode) has a home button for returning to the home screen and small disc icons that show what apps are currently running. To switch between apps, you simply tap the little disc you want. To close an app, simply drag its disc off-screen to the right.
The center area of the interface is where the real action happens. When you first launch the UI, the home screen appears, filled with large circles in a grid pattern. The background wallpaper can be seen in the space between the circles and in empty circles.
Circles can be filled with shortcuts that launch apps or transport you to sub-level screens known as "pages" that are filled with more shortcuts. Icons that go to sub-pages are distinguished from application shortcuts by a tiny orange circle that sits in the upper right corner of the icon. In addition to launching apps by tapping a shortcut, you can drag shortcuts around a page, drag them into a sub-page, or delete them by dragging them onto the left (or top) control bar.
In testing, we were impressed with both the ease of use and attractiveness of the UI layer. Unlike the difficult-to-tap start menu of Windows 7, pressing shortcut circles was easy, and it was impossible to hit the wrong one. Switching tasks by tapping the discs in the right control bar was much simpler than trying to use the Windows 7 taskbar, and closing apps by dragging their discs off-screen was a lot less frustrating than trying to tap the tiny X widget to a shut a window. And, because each app takes up the full center section of the screen, there's no dragging windows or around or resizing them.
Sadly, the custom ExoPC virtual keyboard wasn't present on our test build, so every time we had to enter text, the stock Windows 7 virtual keyboard appeared. While this keyboard works fine, its narrow keys make it a less-than-ideal input option. As with other Windows tablets, you can dock the keyboard to the top or bottom of the screen, but then it covers some of your content--maybe even the box you're trying to type into.
Also prominent on the home screen is the ExoPC browser, a very simple UI overlay for Internet Explorer. Rather than a toolbar, the browser has a simple home screen with only two text fields, an address bar, and a search box. At the bottom of the screen are Back, Forward, and Home buttons. There are no bookmarks or tabs, and if you want to enter a new web address, you have to return to the home screen to do so. That's ridiculous. Otherwise, the browser renders pages just like Internet Explorer and even allows multitouch gestures such as pinch-to-zoom.
Apps and App Store
At least in the beta version we tested, there was no way to create custom shortcuts or pages. So, if we wanted to use a regular Windows program such as Windows Paint, we had to close or minimize the UI layer to use it. However, the ExoPC Slate came with a few touch-friendly apps preinstalled and an app store for adding more. Some of the pre-loaded apps are ExoPC utiltiies while others are simple games or proof-of-concept programs.
ExoFiles allows you to browse the storage drive's folders like you would in Windows Explorer. We appreciated the file browser's large, touch-friendly icons and the small flyovers that appear with file size, image thumbnails, and other information when you tap on a file. If you're in a folder filled with images, an arrow appears at the top of the screen that you can use to launch a slideshow that shows all the pictures at full screen, one at a time.
The home screen contains several shortcuts to sub pages. The Games page contains 21 casual, touch-friendly titles such as Air Hockey and Frog Mania. The Kid page has a few simple educational apps, including Dora the Explorer's Space Adventure. The Book page has a sample eBook in French, though it is a proprietary app that is a single title, not an eReader like the Kindle App or Kobo reader. The headphone page has a few cute music apps, including one that looks like a keyboard and plays animal noises as you tap the keys. The Education page has some simple education games for kids, such as one with a robot that helps you learn math. The Demo page has a few sample apps, including one that lets you sort photos. Finally, the tools page contains a few clock apps, a weather shortcut, and a map app, among others.
If you want to add additional apps, hit the plus button in the left/top control zone to open the app store. There you can browse through dozens of different apps, from clocks to games to education titles to eCommerce shortcuts and--strangely--in the Pro app category, a goat gestation calculator. Unfortunately, the beta build didn't give us the ability to download any of these free apps, but that's coming by the time the ExoPC slate ships to consumers. The ability to buy paid apps won't arrive until January.
With its netbook-centric 1.66-GHz Atom N450 CPU, 2GB of RAM, and a 32GB SSD, the ExoPC Slate has reasonable processing power, but surprisingly weak graphics and storage scores. In anecdotal use, the tablet alternated between being responsive and sluggish, depending on the task at hand, and multitouch gestures such as pinch-to-zoom occasionally suffered from delays. On PCMarkVantage, a synthetic benchmark which measures overall performance, the Slate scored 1,530, much higher than the CTL 2goPad (1149) and a bit better than the average netbook (1,338).
The 32GB SSD booted into Windows 7 Home Premium in a mere 40 seconds, 23 seconds faster than the average netbook (63) and about 12 seconds quicker than the Windows-powered CTL 2goPad. However, its write speeds were some of the slowest we'd ever seen, as it took a whopping 9 minutes and 25 seconds to complete the LAPTOP File Transfer test, in which we copy 4.97GB of mixed media files. That's a rate of just 9 MBps, less than half the 20.6 MBps offered by the CTL 2goPad and the 19 MBps provided by the average netbook.
Despite the added assistance of the Broadcom CrystalHD decoder, the HD video playback provided by the Intel GMA 3150 graphics chip was choppy. A 480p Quicktime trailer of Due Date played smoothly at full screen, but a 720p version had noticeable jerkiness, as did a 720p streaming YouTube clip of Skyline. With this kind of weak playback, we can't see anyone outputting video from via the HDMI port.
The tablet's mediocre score of 147 on 3DMark06, a benchmark that measures graphics prowess, matched the 143 provided by the CTL 2goPad, and was similar to those provided by 10-inch netbooks with integrated graphics such as the Samsung NF310 (147).
Sleep and Wake
By default, the ExoPC slate dims its screen and goes to sleep within 5 minutes of inactivity. In order to wake the device, you must press and hold the power button on the back. How long you press the button can make a huge difference in what happens next. Push the button normally and the tablet fails to wake up; hold it for a couple of seconds and the device will slowly wake up. Hold it down too long, though, and the tablet reboots itself. The risk of accidentally rebooting the tablet when you're just trying to wake it is a known bug that ExoPC is working on.
Windows 7 tablets with Atom CPUs have a deservedly poor reputation when it comes to battery life. Seen in this light, the 3 hours and 44 minutes that the ExoPC Slate lasted on the LAPTOP Battery Test should be considered good. After all, both the CTL 2goPad (3:15) and the Netbook Navigator Nav 9 (2:47) have smaller screens. However, if you compare the ExoPC Slate to an iPad, which lasted 9 hours and 28 minutes, or a Samsung Galaxy Tab, which endured nearly 6 hours in 3G mode, its battery life is not impressive.
The ExoPC Slate will be available through the company's website starting at $599 for the 32GB Wi-Fi only version and $699 for the 64GB Wi-Fi configuration. Versions of the tablet with embedded 3G will also be available, but ExoPC has not yet announced pricing.
To be sure, the $599 ExoPC Slate is a beta product: Its software is quirky and the tablet hardware had some performance issues. That said, we generally like the touch-friendly interface and can't wait to see where it goes next. If you just want to consume media and play with apps on your tablet, the more mature Apple iPad will be more your speed. And if you're looking for something more portable, you should consider the Android-powered Galaxy Tab. However, if you're an early adopter who can deal with a few quirks and like the idea of a Windows tablet with a gorgeous and compelling UI, the ExoPC Slate is worth a look. We would just wait until ExoPC works out the kinks.