Samsung's Ativ Smart PC tablet is supposed to be a tablet-sized tablet that can run all of your desktop apps. It is all that, sort of. But it's also a mix of things that are impressive, tolerable, and totally unacceptable—sometimes all at once.
Let's get this out of the way first: The Ativ is less about Samsung than it is about Intel. This is the first machine to run on Intel's new Atom chips (formerly Clovertrail). Intel is on a warpath to prove it can make power-efficient, lightweight gadgets that perform as well as their ARM-powered counterparts. The Ativ Smart PC, and the Atom Z2760 inside of it, is the tip of that sword.
Performance-wise, things don't feel optimized, at the very least. There is some noticeable video lag in basic apps like Fruit Ninja, which is strange, but it's rare enough to shrug off. Overall, when you're using and switching apps with the Ativ as a simple Windows RT tablet, it's as fast and responsive as anything we've used. But desktop mode complicates that.
Simple desktop apps, like Pidgin or Chrome, run without incident. On its own, that's awesome. The 1.65-pound Ativ isn't tiny, but it's definitely an average-sized tablet, and desktop apps on a machine this size is a big win.
Other tasks, though, can cause serious problems. The machine is totally unusable while it's downloading something in desktop mode, for instance. All apps, Modern or desktop, slow to a crawl, and the touchscreen barely recognizes input. Dragging something around the screen will stutter for a few pixels at a time, lose track of your finger, and then all of a sudden catch up at once. Then the download finishes, or you quit out of the problem tab in Chrome, and everything is snappy again. You can run into that with any computer, but unless you've been using a netbook for the past few years, you'll notice it far more often on the 500T.
Similar things happen when running heavier programs like Photoshop. But that's missing the larger point—you can run Photoshop on this thing! It doesn't feel as snappy as running it on a Core series, and you won't want to multitask too much while doing it, but running the desktop version relatively well is very impressive. That's about the top end of what you're going to want to run on the Ativ 500T, though. While you can stick Steam on there and run it more or less fine, even relatively lightweight games like Trine 2 are graphical impossibilities for the 500T's guts.
The display is another good example of the Atom-based Ativ being impressive on some levels, and very much not on others. It's a bright, well-calibrated 11.6-inch 1366x768 display, which is the norm on 11-inch ultrabooks. It's brighter than the MacBook Air's screen, and text looks about the same from similar distances. It's totally fine, and a little above average. But compare it to other, similarly-sized tablet displays, like the Nexus 10, or the new iPad, or even other convertibles, like the Dell XPS 12, or the Surface, and it's just not up to par. And at $800, that's tough to swallow.
Design and build-wise, this hardware is some of the least impressive we've seen from Samsung in a while. "Plasticky" is thrown around a little too easily at times, but the plastic back plate on the Ativ 500T is so flimsy that pressing on it with any force will actually distort the LCD display you're looking at. It's like the effect of pressing down on a non-glass LCD display. That's unheard of, even in early generation tablets like the Galaxy Tab or TouchPad.
The battery performance varied. When using it strictly as an RT tablet, the 500T was pretty efficient, making it through a whole day. But when using a bunch of browser tabs and apps in desktop mode, it drained a lot faster. The bevy of ports helps—it's got slots for one USB 3.0, a micro-HDMI cable, and a microSD card. The micro-HDMI port is especially nice, since it handles a second display without slowdown, and works like you'd want from an external display on a smaller computer. The only downside about the ports is the kitschy, sorta-hard-to-remove covers over each of them.
More broadly, there are some quibbles to be had with the integration of a full desktop Windows experience into a regular-sized tablet. Things you don't think of much on a mobile device, like the idle time it takes until the device auto-sleeps, comes into play much more for desktop apps than for mobile apps, since they're often performing functions in the middle of getting shut off, and can't continue in a sleep power state.
Additionally, while in tablet mode, the touch keyboard does not immediately pop up when you interact with a text field. You have to manually tap the keyboard. Should you be using the desktop mode as a tablet very often? No, probably not. But it would be nice if it didn't feel like you were 100 percent unwelcome while using it like that.
Of less concern, but probably worth mentioning, is we saw a lot of bugs on the first unit we used. Pixels were tearing and breaking on all of the live tiles, and a bug was kicking us out of the password entry box at the login screen and was booting us to the secondary display menu. Weird. We haven't seen these issues on a second unit that Intel sent us, though.
So the Ativ 500T is a compromise. A bunch of compromises, crammed into a sorta-dorky looking tablet. For a lot of you, that's going to mean it's in a No Man's Land of mediocrity—despite a genuinely impressive trick of running desktop apps on this slender little tablet, just not worth it. But the new Atom SoC is a promising, mostly acceptable processor, if you know what you're getting into. For some of you, Intel has delivered exactly what you've been waiting for in a PC/tablet convertible.
Samsung Ativ Smart PC 500T Specs
Processor: Atom Z2760
Memory: 2GB RAM
Storage: 64GB SSD
Display: 11.6-inch 1366x768 400 nits
Dimensions: 11.6x7.2x0.38 inches
Weight: 1.65 pounds
Ports: USB 2.0, micro-HDMI, microSD