Samsung’s Ativ Smart PC 500T is a $749 tablet meant to bridge the gap between the notebook industry and the Apple-dominated tablet space. The manufacturer describes the 500T as “a fully functioning PC. The Samsung Ativ Smart PC 500T runs the programs you need on a Windows 8 operating system in a sleek, lightweight form.”
Samsung has built an enormous smartphone business around delivering high-quality products at attractive price points; the Galaxy series is the beautiful result of close collaboration between engineers, designers, and the Holy Beancounters. The Smart PC 500T, in contrast, feels more like the product of a three-way turf war — and the accountants won.
The 500T’s base specs look great. It’s built on Intel’s Clover Trail platform and features a pair of 1.8GHz Atom cores with Hyper-Threading enabled. The tablet includes 2GB of RAM, lists 64GB of storage, and an 11.6-inch display at 1366×768. There’s no 3G or LTE support, but WiFi and BlueTooth 4.0 are both included.
Note: The Samsung Ativ 500T we were sent for review lacked the keyboard that normally ships with the device. When we compare against Surface, we’re omitting comparisons to the Touch Cover. The Ativ 500T’s weak points are unrelated to its dock.
The plastic shell Samsung uses for the 500T feels sturdy, with just the right touch of flexibility. This may or may not be an accurate impression; grip the 500T too hard at the back, and the front LCD will distort in the same places. The Samsung logo at front and back is glued on and there’s a pair of thankfully unobtrusive stickers on the back. The system feels a little too cheap. The stickers aren’t visible in the stock image below, but you can see the included stylus in its slot. This is a welcome addition for navigating in Desktop mode, and Samsung gets kudos for including it.
The bottom of the tablet has the attach points for the dock as well as a magnetic connector reminiscent of those Microsoft uses for the Surface.
Port access and button placement is very hit-and-miss. Here’s the left-hand side of the 500T:
The left-hand side of the device is clean; the volume controls and mini-HDMI output are easily accessible. Mini-HDMI is esoteric enough that we wish the company had included a full-size HDMI to mini-HDMI adapter, but that’s a fairly minor point.
The top of the device is very busy. From the left, there’s the SD card slots, the USB 2 port, the physical auto-rotate on/off button, and the power switch. We’re thrilled to see a physical option for auto-rotate, but the device’s button placement makes it impossible to hold it in portrait mode from the left-hand side. The power button is easy to hit by mistake, a fact that’s particularly annoying given the network problems we experienced. The fold-away tabs make the device look cheap, especially if you’ve got multiple peripherals hooked up at the same time. There’s no way to detach them without breaking them off.
Weight and size
The 11.6-inch screen is clear and bright, but 11.6 inches is, in my opinion, the tipping point for 16:9 tablets. Even before I had the opportunity to test Microsoft’s Surface, I thought the Samsung 500T was too large and clumsy for a handheld device. Windows 8′s split keyboard helps, but doesn’t completely solve the problem.
I compared notes with Sebastian, who has an 11.6-inch Series 7 (Core i5) tablet from Samsung and substantially larger hands than me. He agreed; 11.6-inch tablets aren’t that great for on-screen keyboard work. At 1.65lbs (0.75kg) sans dock, the 500T isn’t heavy, but the 16:9 form factor make it difficult to hold in just one hand in either portrait or landscape mode. Holding the 500T up at an angle while reading/watching content in bed also aggravated the tendinitis in my right arm. That’t not Samsung’s fault, but if you have carpal tunnel, tendinitis, or a similar problem, you may want to look elsewhere.
Finally, there’s Surface. On a purely aesthetic level, Surface makes Samsung’s 500T look like a cheap knockoff from mainland China. In this case, looks are deceiving — the 500T is faster than its rival — but you’d never think so to look at them. The small difference in screen size (10.6 inches instead of 11.6) and weight (1.5 pounds vs. 1.65) matters far more than you’d think; Surface feels solid and comfortable when held in a single hand. The 500T never does.
The Ativ’s display is one of the device’s strong points. 11.6 inches and 1366×768 is a good fit for basic desktop work as well as browsing in Metro applications. It’s bright and clear, with good color saturation and uniformity.
Each bar should be a individual, easily distinguished color. Good TN panels will only blur a bit at the 30-32 marker. Surface is a bit better than the 500T, but the Samsung panel is quite good. Both tablets performed well in single-color viewing angle tests as well.
We compared it against the Surface’s 10.6-inch screen for general video playback and used Lagom’s LCD tests for specific data points. Surface’s display has a slightly higher PPI (147 vs. 135), and slightly more accurate color reproduction. Both displays were adjusted to the third “Brightness” notch. That’s one of the only changes you can make to either tablet; the driver interfaces are bare-bones by even Intel’s standards. Nvidia’s comprehensive control panel, with its 2D and video playback controls, is completely DOA.
White and black saturation are slightly better on Surface; the 500T’s display is marginally easier to use outdoors. Surface is a bit slower in lag tests; viewing angles for both are excellent. Both panels are glossy. Boo.
Video playback: Pick your problems
File compatibility and format support are a big potential reason to go with an x86 tablet instead of something Windows RT-based. Microsoft’s decision not to support MKV playback natively is still a problem; there’s currently no sure-fire solution available in the Windows Store. The 500T, in contrast, has access to tools like VLC and MPC. Samsung’s decision to include PowerDVD doesmake some sense here, even if we prefer open-source solutions.
Unfortunately, other problems keep the Ativ from snagging what ought to be an easy win.
We measured CPU utilization on Surface and the Samsung 500T with multiple test files. These included:
An Xvid encode of a Walking Dead episode (343MB, 640×360, 1.1Mbps)
An Xvid encode of The Incredibles (2.05GB, 720×304, 2.5Mbps)
An Xvid encode of Shutter Island (1.7GB, 1280×544, 1.73Mbps)
We also tested one movie (Star Trek) at multiple quality settings to measure what the two platforms could and couldn’t handle. We encoded Star Trek at three different quality levels and profiles using Handbrake. These were:
1x H.264 (High@L3.0) (811MB, 720×304, 761 Kbps)
1x H.264 (High@L4.0) (6.77GB, 1920×800, 7.6Mbps)
1x H.264 (High@L4.1) (8.75GB, 1920×800, 9.8MBps)
Here’s how performance broke down in our first three videos:
Overall CPU usage is lower for Tegra, which isn’t too surprising — Hyper-Threaded cores are treated like full cores when Windows tracks CPU usage, but they don’t have a full core’s worth of resources. The Incredibles and The Walking Dead episodes played beautifully across both tablets. Shutter Island, on Surface, was something more akin to Stutter Island, for no reason we could see. Its encoding parameters and bit stream size are well within the range of the other two files, but playback was a mess.
The x86 Smart PC had no such problems. Point to Samsung. Watch what happens, though, when we fire up Star Trek.
Atom can play all three versions of our Star Trek encode, but the last two, only just barely. We had to shut down the Task Manager (keeping it open consumes 4-6% of the CPU’s processing power) and close every other open program. Unfortunately, none of our go-to applications fully support Clover Trail’s SoC; we couldn’t get a reliable read on whether or not the video stream was being properly offloaded to the GPU. Based on these figures, we don’t think it is.
GPU offload problems would also explain the lag in Desktop mode. A number of other reviewers have commented that while Metro is smooth and capable on the Ativ, attempting virtually anything in Desktop turns the system into a lagfest. We ran into the same problem; as soon as the tablet tries to juggle even basic tasks, it starts to skip. We suspect the problem here has more to do with video drivers than Atom’s CPU performance. What we’re seeing in Windows 8 is similar to early nettop problems in Windows 7. When Nvidia launched Ion, one of its major talking points was the way Windows 7′s UI didn’t stutter.
Windows 8 relies on GPU acceleration much more than Windows 7 did; it’s entirely possible that the lag and high CPU utilization during video playback are a result of an unoptimized driver stack.
So does Surface win this round? Not hardly. No MKV support meant I had to re-encode the movie into a format the Windows RT tablet could play. The 32GB tablet’s minuscule available storage meant deleting everything else just to watch a single high-quality film. We suspect the Ativ’s playback capabilities could be substantially improved with better video drivers, but as things stand, you can choose between a tablet with excellent video offload and minimal storage, and a lot of re-encoded data files — or a tablet with slightly more storage, full application compatibility, and problematic high-detail playback.
Playback power consumption
Playback power consumption favors Surface, since the two devices have 30Wh batteries.
Smidgen of storage, wonky WiFi
The Ativ Smart PC 500T has a hat trick of problems that effectively nuke its strong points. We’ve discussed the storage problem at some length, but the bottom line is this: Samsung is advertising this as a 64GB tablet and shipping it with roughly 32GB of usable storage.
That’s not just an advertising problem. The entire benefit of buying an Intel tablet is supposed to be x86 compatibility, but a lot of desktop software isn’t exactly sized to fit on a 32GB device. Office 2013 is 2GB. Start adding browsers, Photoshop, photos and video, and some work applications and poof — you’re out of room.
Cloud services like SkyDrive can be helpful here, but they only work as “extra” storage if you tell them not to synchronize with local folders. Otherwise they keep local mirrors on each device and could actually exacerbate the problem.
Still, cloud storage could help solve this problem, if the WiFi didn’t have problems of its own. The 500T’s signal strength and performance once a connection has been established is excellent. We were able to download files via wireless nearly as quickly as via wired connections, and had no problem using the tablet while several rooms (and an entire floor) away from the router.
But actually connecting to the router? That’s a major problem.
At boot or upon resume, the 500T regularly takes between 90 and 120 seconds to connect. It regularly claims to be connected to the internet, even as web pages refuse to load, as shown below.
This is infuriatingly common
Clicking on “Fix Connection Problems” almost never fixes the problem. Usually, it just makes the router vanish for an indefinite period of time. Rebooting the tablet will restore the router as a detected device, but won’t solve the connection issue. Sometimes Metro apps like News will load but Desktop Internet Explorer won’t. Sometimes it’s the other way around.
Intel confirmed to us that this is an issue, but told us the solution is stuck in Samsung’s QA process, with no targeted release date.
This bug single-handedly kills the idea that a tablet is a computing device you can pick up and use the same way you’d use your smartphone. Simply leaving the tablet on and waiting a few minutes doesn’t work; the user has to actively attempt to use the internet, have it fail, than muddy through enabling and disabling the connection.
Samsung’s update application, meanwhile, is prone to errors. The screenshot below was taken after checking both the Windows 8 Store and Windows Update for available Microsoft patches.
It made me download the update twice, for no apparent reason. I’m still not sure it actually changed anything.
Finally, there’s the state of Desktop performance. In Metro, the 500T shines. Application load times and overall performance are measurably faster than Surface. This is particularly true in twitch games, like Jetpack Joyride. Surface has a noticeable stutter; the Samsung keeps things smooth.
In Desktop mode, responsiveness and performance are great until you actually try to do something. Even small tasks, like simultaneously playing a video file while moving the mouse, lag noticeably. We couldn’t, for example, keep the Task Manager open while playing either of our high end Star Trek encodes. Attempting to manage both windows at once, even with one of them minimized, was too much for the 500T.
Desktop gaming is also out. While the 500T may be theoretically compatible with x86 games, the SGX545 can’t handle anything recent. Even Torchlight, in 640×480 netbook mode, with all details at their lowest values, was barely able to manage a mid-teens frame rate.
The nearly constant lag turns x86 software compatibility into more of a bullet point technicality than it really ought to be. It’s the sort of situation that might be fixable via driver updates, or might be a symptom of an underlying hardware bottleneck.
Who’s supposed to want this?
All of the companies that dominate the modern tablet industry have content stockpiles and product ecosystems. Companies like Samsung, that lack such options, have little choice but to double down on hardware capability. Compare the specs on the 500Tagainst Samsung’s own Series 3 NP350V5C, both at $749, and try not to wince. The laptop is 5.5lbs. The 500T is 3.28lbs with its dock attached. If you need something lighter, there are over a dozen Core i3/i5 SKUs in the 2lb – 3.9lb segment, including four that skate under the 3lb mark.
That’s a major problem. As much as Samsung might like to position the system as a tablet with an optional dock, it’s ridiculously underpowered compared to the laptops in its price bracket. The instant-on premise is demolished by network problems, the prospect of doing Real Work is nuked by desktop lag, performance stuttering, and a ludicrously small amount of storage.
If all these issues were resolved, this tablet might be worth $549. That’s a $120 premium over the current crop of high-end 10.1-inch (1024×600) Atom netbooks, which typically use the N2600 (1.6GHz, dual-core) and an SGX545 GPU. Then again, those systems still ship with 2-3 USB ports and 320-500GB of storage.
What would I do? Wait. At the very least, wait and see if Samsung, Intel, and Microsoft can resolve the desktop performance lag and the wireless issues. Wait and see if Samsung does anything about available storage, or even acknowledges the problem. The Ativ gets some things right, but far too much of what’s billed as basic functionality doesn’t work or comes with caveats. Some of these issues very much extend to Surface, which is why I’m not waving it around as the alternative must-have. Some of them, like the network problems, don’t.
If the Ativ is representative of the hardware other PC OEMs are shipping, it’s no wonder thatuptake is markedly worse than Windows 7. It’s not that the Ativ 500T is a bad tablet, but it’s eclipsed on every side by better devices at lower price points.