Samsung ATIV Tab Hands-On: First Look at Windows RT and Its Desktop

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When it's released later this fall, Samsung's ATIV tablet will be among the first tablets to run Windows RT, Microsoft's new operating system for devices with ARM-based processors. At Samsung's IFA booth, we had a chance to experience Windows RT for the first time as we went hands-on with this shiny new slate. Our first impression: we couldn't tell the difference, even in desktop mode, until we looked at the list of installed apps.

The ATIV Hardware

With its shiny dark gray chassis, no one could mistake the ATIV for an Apple product. As we stared intently at the bezel, we even noticed some shiny flecks in the plastic that made it look more like a car body than a tablet chassis. The 10.1-inch , 1366 x 768 screen seemed sharper than its relatively-low resolution would indicate and colors in the live tiles and desktop wallpaper really popped.

Samsung reports the ATIV Tab's weight at just 1.25 pounds and its thickness at .35 inches and, though we didn't have a ruler and scale on hand, the ATIV felt like the lightest 10-incher we've lifted in quite some time, a welcome change from some of the hulking hybrids -- the 3.2-pound Sony VAIO Duo comes to mind -- we handled this week at IFA. The ATIV comes with both micro HDMI and full-size USB ports, which we appreciate, but we wish they weren't hidden under a port cover.

In its press release, Samsung claims that the ATIV Tab "boots up without lagging," but when we hit restart to reboot the computer, it took nearly 2 minutes to get back to the login prompt, including around 40 seconds to shutdown and another 54 seconds to get us from the BIOS post message to the lock screen. However, it's important to remember that this is an ARM device that's made for always-on computing so users probably won't be rebooting every day.

The Windows RT OS

The Start screen and Windows 8 (formerly Metro) apps look and function exactly as they do under Windows 8, which we've been testing for a long time and recently reviewed. But, from the moment we picked up the ATIV Tab, we were dying to answer one simple question: how does the desktop work on a version of Windows that can't run desktop apps?

When we clicked the desktop icon, we saw the same exact sunflower wallpaper, taskbar, system tray, recycle bin and other design elements as desktop mode in Windows 8. In fact, in terms of look and feel and functionality, the Windows RT desktop is the Windows 8 desktop. In our tests, we were able to pin and unpin shortcuts from the taskbar, drag windows around and even copy files using Explorer.

By default, the taskbar contains pinned shortcuts for all the bundled Office 2013 apps including Word, Excel, One Note and PowerPoint. As with Windows 8, shortcuts for the desktop version of IE 10 and for Explorer are pinned to the far left.

Because Office 2013 isn't out in its final form yet, the ATIV Tab will come with the fully-functional, nearly-final preview version of the productivity suite, until 90 days after launch, when the device will receive an OTA update that upgrades it to the final version. In our tests, the Office apps looked and functioned just as they do under Windows 8.

The Office apps were even configured by default with their "touch mode" off, making their buttons and menus the same size as on non-touch enabled PCs. When our colleague Ed Bott of ZDNet demonstrated Windows RT for us on video (see above), he mistakenly believed that he had enabled touch mode but failed to hit the button. However, even with the small default buttons and menus, he had no trouble navigating through the ribbons in Word and PowerPoint.

The other desktop apps don't have a touch mode, so dragging that JPG from one folder to another in Explorer or tapping the favorites button in IE 10 for desktop can be a challenge. However, you can enlarge the fonts and icons by right clicking or long pressing on the desktop, selecting Screen Resolution and then "Make text and other items larger." However, we wish Microsoft would make the fonts and icons larger by default or make it easier to resize them.

In addition to Office, IE and Windows Explorer, Windows RT has the full desktop control panel and all of its sub apps, including those for Bit Locker encryption, computer management, and user administration. Loading up the device manager, we were able to see the driver status of all of the ATIV Tab's components. Interestingly, most of the drivers had a date of June 21, 2006, because that's the date of the original Vista drivers.

Interestingly, the Programs and Features control panel app was present, but as useless as a vertigial tail, because the menu on it is completely empty as there is no way to install or uninstall desktop apps. If you want to install or uninstall a Windows 8 (Metro) app, you must so do via the Modern style UI and the Windows Store.

In addition to the control panel and IE 10, most of the old desktop Windows accessories and utilities are available, but  their shortcuts are buried in the "all apps" menu, though you can also find them through search. In our testing, we were able to pull up Windows Paint and draw on it with five fingers at once to demonstrate the screens five-finger support. We were also able to launch notepad and type on it using the virtual keyboard.

We also saw the calculator, character map, remote desktop and most of the other standard Windows apps. However, we noticed that some apps are missing, including Wordpad, Mobilility Center and Windows Media Player. Since you have actual Microsoft Word, Xbox Movie and Music Players and plenty of shortcuts to control your power and screen, none of these apps is necessary in Windows RT.

Uninitiated users may not immediately realize that they're using Windows RT, because there's no clear  visual indicator in any of the apps, the Start Menu or the desktop. The easiest way to see what version of Windows you're running is to hit Windows key + X and select System, which shows what OS, processor and RAM you have.

Overall, we were pleased with the Windows RT experience and the hardware on the ATIV Tab. However, we'll need to spend some quality time with this tablet before we can really see how it performs.