Allow me to tell you a little story about a man who expected the world from a device the size of a coloring book — and actually got it.
When it comes to the mobile device space, I’ve been an Apple user since the first iPhone. I also own an iPad, and in fact recently purchased a new iPad 4 for family use. (My wife uses it most of the time.) But as a graphic designer and software developer who demands a variety of tools and robust multitasking capabilities, I could never really understand how anybody was supposed to get anything done on a tablet like the iPad. It’s brilliant for reading and responding to email, browsing the web, watching video and playing games. It’s even become fairly good at simple content creation, usually in circumstances where extreme precision is unnecessary.
But what if I want to do some hardcore Word document editing, or work with Access databases or complex Excel spreadsheets? What if I want to play DOS games in an emulator like DOSBox, or build Wolfenstein levels? What if I need to run Photoshop to fix up some icons or UI art? What if I need to test a Windows application from work or stream video from another computer on my Windows homegroup or even do a build in Visual Studio? None of that stuff is happening on an iPad.
Eventually I decided that I would just suck it up and use the iPad as a word processor. But even this idea was stymied by software, specifically my inability to find a decent iOS app that would handle Word documents with styles, tables, embedded images and Bluetooth keyboard support. On the night when I added several paragraphs to a story I was working on, saved the file in Documents To Go and then discovered that the app had not actually saved my file at all — in fact, it was completely gone — I finally gave up.
And then Microsoft released the Surface tablet.
When I heard it was coming, my interest was piqued. A Windows-based tablet? As a Windows guy, someone who not only uses Windows but (mostly) likes it, I found the thought intriguing. When the Surface debuted, I was won over by its included Office suite and the truly genius keyboard covers on offer. My boss got one, and after toying with it a little, I found it divine. It would make a perfect writing machine, especially for someone whose documents are all in Word format.
But the problem with the Surface was that it ran an ARM processor, and thus none of your standard Windows desktop programs would run on it. And with the slim pickin’s in the Windows app store — the only source of apps for the ARM-based Surface — it looked like word processing was about all I’d be doing with a Surface.
It wasn’t enough. Having had a taste of the Windows experience on a tablet, I wanted more. In fact, I wanted all of it. All of my desktop apps — at least, any I cared to run on a tablet — needed to work. I wanted Thunderbird to handle my email, Outlook for work stuff, UltraEdit, Firefox, Winamp, uTorrent, all of it. But the very few tablets that were capable of this cost north of $1,000 and ran i5 processors that gave me the same heat, noise and battery life issues that I already had with my big honkin’ laptop. It was no good.
Then Samsung released the ATIV Smart PC 500T.
My boss (the Surface owner) was the one who first told me about it. When I looked up the specifications on the Samsung ATIV, it was like I had found nirvana. Here it was: a dual-core Clovertrail Atom x86 processor, 2 GB of RAM, 64 GB of storage, a full-size USB port, an available keyboard dock that doubles as a lid and — perhaps best of all — a built-in Wacom digitizer with 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity and an included stylus with its own integrated slot. All in a thin and light tablet form factor completely devoid of fans, heat and noise and which promised up to 9 hours of battery life. And the price? Not north of $1,000, but in fact more like $650 — about the same as I’d paid for our new iPad 4.
I lusted after the thing for weeks. Studied the specs, read the reviews, absorbed an entire 30-page thread on a forum dedicated to tablet users and filled with artists who had bought the ATIV for sketching and found it delightful. Here was not only the solution to my writing needs and my mobile working needs, but also an avenue for me to reapply my rusty and long-disused drawing and sketching abilities without the hassle of paper, pencils, adequate light and desk space.
Actually finding a Samsung ATIV available for purchase was like finding a needle in a haystack — and still is — but a couple weeks ago I located one. I had to drive half an hour to a neighboring city for it, but it was worth it. Before I go any further, I want to specifically thank my wife Mrs. Oddball for giving me the go-ahead to pick up the ATIV as a combination Christmas and birthday present! It is perhaps the best tech gift I could possibly imagine.
Since getting the ATIV home, I’ve thrown a variety of stuff at it, including some software that I wouldn’t normally dream of running on a tablet (like the complex GIS software we build at work). To my surprise, it’s taken all of it in stride despite the unassuming Atom processor under its hood. Let me make it clear that this is not the craptacular Atom CPU that you’re used to from your crappy old Netbook that took six years to boot up. Intel’s new Clovertrail Atom is a huge step forward; the tablet boots the full Windows 8 in about ten seconds and is even capable of multitasking. It’s not as fast as an i5 for sure, but for most usage scenarios its limits never show themselves. The payoff you get in the form of utter silence and massive battery life is well worth it.
The Wacom digitizer is pure gold. Although the included stylus is a little too short and doesn’t have an eraser nib, even it can’t hamper the beautiful inking experience that the ATIV provides — and as I understand it, any standard Wacom stylus can also be used. Although “Modern UI” (nee Metro) apps lag slightly while inking, use any full desktop app like Microsoft OneNote 2010 and you’ll feel like you are sketching on paper. Literally. This also solves the problem I always had with traditional Wacom tablets, which was the disconnect between drawing with my hand and looking somewhere else to see the result on a screen. I could never get past that disorienting sensation. With the ATIV, you draw directly on the screen, so there is no disconnect. It just feels natural. Most apps also support palm rejection so you can actually rest your hand on the screen, and only the input from your stylus will be recognized.
The first night I had the ATIV, I installed OneNote 2010 and sketched an entire page of goofy characters, cars and other doodles in about ten minutes. It was unreal, like I was in some far-future utopia where paper had never existed and people had always drawn on backlit screens. Even my shading by hatching came out as I intended it, thanks to the digitizer’s pressure sensitivity. This by far makes the ATIV worth the choice over a Surface or a competing Windows tablet, of which there are a few (made by Asus and Acer, mostly) — at least for an artist or designer.
Other than that, the ATIV feels just like you’re holding a Windows desktop computer in your hand (without all the weight). I connected to my homegroup and spent a little while streaming video over the network from my Windows 8 desktop across the house, giggling like a nut at how easy it was. I’ve installed DOSBox, and although it doesn’t support touchscreen controls properly, it works brilliantly with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. I’ve connected a portable USB hard drive (yes, an actual spinning-disk hard drive) and copied files off of it. I’ve installed the full desktop version of Skype and Outlook to keep me connected to my work contacts while I test the WPF GIS visualizing software that we’re working on. And I used it all morning in a meeting to take notes in Word during our software debugging session, saved it to my Dropbox and then emailed the result to my colleagues — without ever touching a desktop.
Pundits have been saying that the end of the PC is coming, but I never believed it for an instant until today. Now, with devices like the ATIV, I think we are getting a glimpse of what’s possible. An ATIV isn’t going to entirely replace my desktop PC anytime soon, but with continued advances in technology and the huge push that Intel is making toward power-efficient x86 SoCs, I think we will eventually get there. All it needs to do is support multiple external monitors, and I will be on board.
Lest you think the Samsung ATIV 500T is made of gold and is a 100% flawless device, I will temper this so-far glowing review with some caveats. The build quality is not exactly what you’re used to from Apple, for a start. Although the vast majority of the ATIV is plastic, it feels fine. But there are other quality niggles here and there; for instance my unit has some pretty bad backlight bleed in the lower right, an obvious manufacturing flaw over which I am still considering returning the tablet for an exchange with a new unit. The touchscreen response also isn’t up to Apple standards, with taps often being registered when all I’m doing is swiping or scrolling — a problem that usually crops up if you use the edge of a finger. The screen also isn’t anywhere near Retina levels of pixel density, but that’s OK given my requirements.
The ATIV also has numerous embarrassing audio and graphics corruption problems right out of the box, but the good news is that these are solved with firmware and driver updates that are already available. The only bad thing is you have to spend a good hour installing all of the updates when you first unbox the thing, which itself is also embarrassing and reminiscent of the type of thing Windows (and Microsoft) always gets ribbed over. But at least you’ll only have to do it once.
The only other bad thing is that there’s no integrated kickstand, unlike the Surface, and third-party cases for the ATIV are almost nonexistent. Thus it’s difficult to protect and difficult to stand up when you want to set it down and work with it, but I’m confident that there will be more options in this arena soon.
Overall, I’ve found the Samsung ATIV to be a perfect fit for me: part geek-engineer type with its x86 support and work-friendly environment, and part artist with its professional-grade Wacom digitizer and inking experience. Although this has always been a strange dichotomy, I’ve made it work for me, and when I demanded the same of a tablet, the Samsung ATIV answered the call.
I highly recommend the Samsung ATIV Smart PC 500T for any Windows users who want to be more productive on the go, or who need a good digital inking solution without spending a fortune. It’ll do all that and far more besides — and leave you plenty of battery power to spare.
This entire post was written on the ATIV from the comfort of bed, using a Bluetooth keyboard.