Ever since the iPad came out, I’ve been resisting getting a tablet. For me, gadgets are tools, not toys, and I couldn’t see how the iPad or any subsequent tablet could be useful to a professional photographer like me. After all, the current batch of tablets seem to be more or less giant smartphones, with great media capabilities, and multi-touch screens, but little in the way of actual imaging tools. I haven’t found any iPad apps, for instance, that handle camera raw files properly, or can output them at high resolution. But, when I first read the specs of the Asus Eee Slate EP121, it seemed to me like Asus had professional photographers in mind. How do those specs translate into the actual product? Read on to find out…
The Eee Slate EP121 hardware
The device itself is beautiful. It’s got a brilliant 12.1″ LED-backlit 1280×800 screen, which is protected by a sheet of Gorilla Glass. This screen is pretty special, because not only is it capacitive multi-touch, but it also includes a built-in pressure-sensitive Wacom digitizer. The screen is surrounded by a narrow aluminum bezel, with very thin speaker grills on either side. There’s a small grill for the built-in microphone. There’s a tiny webcam lens in the black border around the screen. There’s a half moon-shaped button on one end of the device. This button activates the Aero Flip 3D feature in Windows 7. Other buttons include a volume rocker, a sliding power switch, a button to activate the on-screen keyboard, and another slider to lock or enable automatic screen orientation. There are two USB 2.0 ports, a mini-HDMI port, an SD card slot, as well as headphone and microphone jacks. Inside the device is a Core i5 470UM processor at 1.33GHz, Bluetooth 3.0 and wifi networking (b/g/n). I chose the model that comes with 4GB of DDR3 RAM, and 64GB Intel SSD. There’s another model with 32GB of storage and 2GB of RAM, but those limited specs would pretty much cripple the pre-loaded Windows 7 Home Premium.
The EP121 comes with the necessary Wacom pen, along with a nib removal tool and a bundle of several spare nibs. There’s also a small and flat Bluetooth keyboard, powered by two (included) AAA batteries. The keyboard appears to be made by Microsoft, but is branded by Asus. The included power brick is quite small and white, and to my delight includes a USB port for charging devices. The best of the included accessories is the protective sleeve, which is open on the sides to allow the air vents to breathe, but flips closed to protect the screen. It can also be folded backwards so the EP121 can stand up on a table when you’re using the keyboard, and has a loop for storing the pen. There are also some flip-out panels on this sleeve that will allow you to prop it up in either horizontal or vertical orientations at the correct angle for pen use.
Using the Eee Slate EP121
The general impression of this machine is that it’s rock solid. It’s built very solidly with no flex; it feels quite rigid. Although at 2.56 lbs, it would be considered light for a laptop computer, it feels extremely substantial in the hands. I wouldn’t want to hold it with one hand for a prolonged period of time. I found the best way to hold it is to cradle it on my left forearm and use the pen with my right hand.
Speaking of the pen, this is the feature I was most excited to use. I tested it first with the included ArtRage program, which is quite a neat little painting/drawing simulator. The touch sensitivity worked beautifully in ArtRage, allowing nuanced and natural drawing directly on the screen. I was more excited, however, to try it out in Photoshop CS5. It didn’t take long to install CS5 on the EP121. Photoshop loaded pretty quickly. I’m growing to love the quick and silent performance of the SSD (if not its limited storage space). Here’s where I ran into problems. When I tried touched the screen lightly with the brush tool, it immediately made a large circular blotch. Uh oh. Touch sensitivity was clearly not working. This was exactly like using a mouse, and completely negated the usefulness of the pen. I fiddled around with Photoshop’s settings for a while with no success getting it to recognize touch input. As usual, I turned to the Internet for answers. I found help at this site. After many failed attempts with different versions of Wacom’s drivers, I found that an elderly 5.0 release from the Asian Wacom site worked brilliantly. With the correct drivers installed, Photoshop CS5 responds smoothly and quickly to touch sensitive pen input.
[UPDATE: The pen drivers from the Asian Wacom site would stop working after resuming from Hibernation. I uninstalled them and installed the Wacom pen drivers for the Fujitsu T4410 tablet. Touch is working, but the computer hasn’t hibernated yet, so I’ll let you know how it goes…]
A lack of proper drivers is not all that’s wrong with the EP121’s pen input, unfortunately. The pen included with the EP121 seems to be the cheapest possible Wacom pen. It doesn’t even have the little rocker switch on the side, which is essential for natural tablet use. On my old Bamboo tablet, and my new Wireless Intuos4, I use one side of this switch to activate the “hand” to drag the canvas around on the screen, and the other side of the switch to right-click. Without the switch, you need access to the physical keyboard to press the space bar to activate the hand. Apparently, you can buy a Wacom or a third-party pen with this switch to use with the EP121, but come on Asus, omitting the correct drivers and including a handicapped pen seem like nonsensical corners to cut. These problems aren’t impossible to overcome, but since Asus was clearly aiming this product at graphics professionals, they should have given these things some more thought.
As I spent more time with the Eee Slate EP121, I was able to appreciate some of the finer things about it. The screen is indeed quite beautiful. After calibrating it with Spyder3 Pro, the colors are rich and accurate. Although the screen is quite glossy, it doesn’t throw back any distracting reflections. Also, because it uses AFFS+ technology, it’s easy to view even in direct sunlight. In a dark room with plain black filling the screen, there’s some evidence of light leakage on the top left corner, where you can see some uneven illumination showing where it should be pitch black. It doesn’t seem to be a major issue during typical use though. When there’s a picture on the screen, I can’t even see the light leakage.
Performance is very good. I never felt like I was waiting a long time for anything to happen. Dragging 21MP images around on the screen in Photoshop was always smooth and never laggy.
Battery life is not spectacular. I haven’t run it out completely, but it seems that most people are getting less than four hours from a single charge. I expect that in most cases, I’d be using it plugged in.
Most power Photoshop users use the keyboard quite a bit. This, combined with the fact that the pen is missing that ever-important rocker switch, makes me quite glad that Asus included the Bluetooth keyboard. The keyboard is extremely light and plasticky. It feels slightly cheap, but it’s comfortble and quiet to type on, and at least it won’t weigh you down! Because it’s Bluetooth, it has some power-saving features built in. It goes to sleep after a minute or so of idle time, and you have to hit a key to wake it up again. There’s a couple seconds of delay while it reconnects to the Eee Slate, and this can be mildly annoying, but I suppose better than wasting battery power.
The built-in Intel HD video is supposed to be able to handle 1080p video. I found it had some trouble playing high definition Youtube streams. The picture would freeze, but the sound would continue. I’m not sure what that’s about. Playing HD Netflix streams was trouble-free, and 1080P video recorded on my Canon 5D Mk II was buttery smooth. The tiny speakers, evident only by their very thin grills on either side of the screen, provide surprisingly rich sound. You’re not going to fill a room with that sound, but it’s much better than I expected.
I’m glad to see that there’s an SDXC card reader built-in. My 5D Mk II uses CF cards, so I’m stuck using an external card reader dangling off of a USB cable, but I think the future lies in SD cards. Plus, the SD card reader gives the opportunity to expand the limited 64GB internal SSD storage.
The Eee Slate EP121 is not quite perfect, but I have to applaud Asus for being bold enough to create something like this. I think professional photographers will really appreciate the Eee Slate EP121’s unique feature set. If I were to change anything, it would be to include a better quality pen, or at least one with the switch on the side. I’d also get those pen driver issues sorted out, so that users don’t need to pull their hair out trying to figure it out themselves. I don’t know if Asus plans a followup to the EP121, but it would be nice to see a higher resolution screen. 12.1″ at 1280×800 is touch-friendly, but can feel somewhat cramped. I hope future versions will also have bigger SSD storage. 64GB is pretty tiny these days. I understand that currently, SSD storage is quite expensive, but for this machine to be really useful, I need to be augmenting its built-in storage with an SD card. Speaking of added storage, it would be nice to see a USB 3.0 port. They’re becoming increasingly common, and I for one would welcome access to speedy external hard drives.
I also hope that the Windows 7 touch experience will improve in the future. Microsoft seems to be hell-bent on competing in the tablet market with Windows 7, and personally, I’m glad. After all, it’s the only tablet OS that will run a full-fledged Adobe Creative Suite so that I can work on my raw files in the field and then come back to the studio with all of those settings intact. However, Windows 7 was not designed exclusively for touch use. Some OS elements are difficult to adjust with touch input. The on-screen keyboard can be awkward.
Overall, the EP121 is a high-quality and unique piece of gear. And, at CAD $1199, I feel like it was a very reasonable buy. I’m certain that it’ll have a valued place in my travel bag for at least a couple of years.
I did a little photo shoot with my Asus Eee Slate EP121. The images are below.