Introduction & Design
Given Dell’s $500-plus Venue 10 7000, Apple’s just-announced $799 iPad Pro, and Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 $989.99 at Amazon, it’s clear that tablet makers think the market is still clamoring for high-end, high-priced slates—at least when the focus of them is on productivity.
These are big tablets. When it comes to more compact slates designed for media consumption and casual gaming, though, prices drop a bit. When we wrote this in mid-September 2015, the high-end offerings among mid-size tablets (that is, ones with screens around 8 inches diagonal, give or take a half an inch) were selling for around $400. That includes high-profile models such as Apple’s new iPad Mini 4, Dell’s Venue 8 7000 $399.00 at Dell Small Business, and Sony’s Xperia Z3 Compact $356.95 at Amazon.
Asus’ latest “high-end” slate, the ZenPad S 8.0, takes a very different tack: low-end pricing. The ZenPad S 8.0 line, first exhibited at Computex 2015, starts at $199, and that bumps up to $299 with a faster processor, an ample 64GB of storage (plus a MicroSD slot), and 4GB of RAM in the Z580CA model we tested. It seems the company is out to prove you don’t have to pay quite so much to have yourself a premium tablet experience.
And from the outside, it feels like one. With a thin, attractive shell, dual front-facing speakers, and an attractive 2K (2,048×1,536-pixel) screen on both models, along with a capable Intel Atom processor under the hood, the ZenPad S 8.0 certainly delivers the goods when it comes to hardware and specs.
We did have some quibbles once we dug in with this tablet, though. The company’s ZenUI complicates the Android experience, and Asus also clutters up the ZenPad S with unnecessary apps—many of which can’t be easily uninstalled. Also, the battery life doesn’t quite keep up with that of other high-end slates, and we noted some occasional performance stutters when gaming.
As a result, the ZenPad S 8.0 falls short of greatness for the money. You get a lot of tablet for the price, but it’s not one for serious tablet gamers, nor folks who need to run it all day away from a power source.
The ZenPad S 8.0 is nothing if not an attractive tablet. It’s plenty slim, at just 6.6mm thick, and at 10.5 ounces it weighs slightly less than the brand-new, $399 Apple iPad Mini 4, which rolled out in the second week of September. (That model, like earlier iPad Minis, has a 7.9-inch screen. We should have a review of that model in the coming weeks.)
The ZenPad S 8.0 comes in a choice of color schemes–white or black–and the latter version we tested had a brushed-metal back panel, set off with shiny silver edges. The lower portion of the rear (if you’re holding the ZenPad S 8.0 in landscape orientation) is made of a soft-touch plastic that aids in making the tablet more grippable.
The combination of materials makes for a look that’s a little busier than the sleek back of Apple’s all-metal iPads and iPad Minis. But to our eyes, the ZenPad S 8.0 looks just as good. And there’s one item back in the plastic portion that Apple has yet to match: a MicroSD slot, for expanding the onboard storage. (It supports cards up to 128GB in capacity.) The plastic portion was likely incorporated to improve the Wi-Fi connectivity, as well.
Things look even better on the tablet’s front side, with a Gorilla Glass-covered IPS screen sporting an impressive 2,048×1,536-pixel resolution. Interestingly, that matches the iPad’s pixel count, and the screen’s 4-to-3 aspect ratio is also iPad-esque. Most high-resolution tablets at this screen size go for the usual 1,920×1,080, and a few, like the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4, go their own route with a 2,560×1,600 panel.
Now, we have seen better screens in tablets this size, namely the OLED displays on Samsung’s high-end Galaxy Tab S line of tablets, as well on Dell’s Venue 7000 slates. And the screens in the Retina-display iPad Minis are none too shabby. But the ZenPad S 8.0’s screen is still great, especially considering that this device costs significantly less than most of its competition.
In addition, the tablet’s speakers deliver on the quality front. The dual front-facing speakers are a marked improvement over most tinny tablet tweeters. There’s one on either of the short sides of the bezel…
That wide separation of the speakers makes the ZenPad S 8.0 great for watching movies, even if the wider aspect ratio means you’ll see black bars at the bottom and top. It works for Apple, so…
A few more notes about the tablet’s exterior. In a forward-looking move on Asus’ part, the charging port is of the new reversible USB Type C variety, which means you’ll have to keep track of the cable Asus includes in the box, because you can’t use one of the interchangeable micro-USBs here that you probably have lying around from other gadgets. (For more on USB Type C, see our primer on Type C and USB 3.1.) Even so, we expect USB Type C to become far more prevalent in the next year or two, so additional cables should soon be easier to come by (and start accumulating on your desk). Also, Asus also placed the charging port on the bottom right when you are holding the tablet in its natural portrait orientation…
At first, that may seem an odd choice, but we found it made the slate a little easier to hold and use while it was charging.
Our only real complaints about the tablet’s physical design are pretty minor. For one, the power and reset buttons are stiff and thin, and the camera lens protrudes a bit from the back of the device. Asus designed in a metal ring around the lens, however, which should help protect it from scratches or cracks…
Beyond that, this feels and looks like a pricier tablet than it is.
Performance & Conclusion
Before we dig into the benchmarks, it’s important to look at the ZenPad S 8.0’s competition. As we stated up top, most of the premium 8-inch tablets, like Dell’s Venue 8 7000 and Sony’s Xperia Z3 Compact, as well as the new iPad Mini 4, cost about $100 more than the ZenPad model we tested.
In the $300 price range, Asus’ tablet is now competing with the iPad Mini 3 $298.00 at Amazon £499.99 at Amazon, as well as Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S 8.4 £499.99 at Amazon (and the newer Galaxy Tab S2 models; reviews of those are forthcoming). Both of those devices, though, ship with just a quarter of the storage of the similarly priced ZenPad 8.0 (16GB), and the iPad Mini 3, like all iPads, doesn’t have expandable storage.
We recently instituted the BAPCo TabletMark v3 test, which is a wide-ranging measure of overall touch-device performance and responsiveness. It will be a crucial part of our standard benchmark retinue going forward, and we’ll be having it replace several less wide-ranging tests.
Likely helped out by its 4GB of RAM, the ZenPad S 8.0 bested the competing slates, outscoring the Dell and Apple tablets here by more than 10 percent.
PCMark for Android
We assess a tablet’s overall performance with a synthetic testing app frequently used to test Android slates: Futuremark’s PCMark for Android. PCMark for Android stresses most tablet functions, including CPU performance and memory throughput.
The ZenPad 8.0 continued to impress here.
The ZenPad S 8.0 bested last year’s Galaxy Tab S by nearly 50 percent, and it even seriously outpaced the Nvidia Shield Tablet$539.99 at Amazon. The Shield Tablet is another $300 slate that’s powered by Nvidia’s own graphics-centric Tegra K1 chip, but it doesn’t have as nice a screen as other high-end tablets.
Starting with SunSpider, in which lower scores are better, the ZenPad S 8.0 again easily bested Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S 8.4…
…but the Dell and Nvidia tablets did slightly better, while Apple’s iPad Mini 3 was the clear leader.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 again lagged behind the pack in the Peacekeeper test, while the ZenPad S 8.0 did reasonably well, even if it couldn’t keep up with the iPad Mini 3 or the Shield.
We assess a slate’s graphics-processing prowess via two tests. GFX Bench 3.0 measures, among other things, OpenGL performance, while Futuremark’s 3DMark for Android (specifically, its Ice Storm subtest) gauges the GPU’s overall prowess by rendering sequences of game-like 3D graphics.
In GFX Bench, the ZenPad S 8.0 and Dell Venue 8 7000 (both powered by Intel Atom chips) did better than most of the competition, but the gaming-centric Shield Tablet blew everything else away.
We saw similar results in 3DMark. While the ZenPad S 8.0 is plenty capable of gaming, if one of your main reasons for buying a tablet is to play graphically intensive games, the Nvidia Shield Tablet is a better choice, especially given that a growing number of Android titles are designed specifically for Nvidia-powered devices.
Given that most tablets these days get left on most of the time (at least while they’re regularly being used), boot time is becoming less of an issue. Nevertheless, we ran our boot time test, and the ZenPad S 8.0 did not impress.
We’re not sure why the ZenPad S took about twice as long to boot as Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S or Dell’s Venue 8 7000 (which features similar hardware), but it does. We ran the test several times, and Asus’ slate consistently took close to 50 seconds to go from off to the unlock screen. That said, so long as it’s charged and on, the tablet wakes in about a second when you mash the power button.
If there’s one major sacrifice Asus made when designing the ZenPad S 8.0, it’s battery life—at least compared to other high-end tablets around 8 inches. (In this test, we run a locally stored video file on a loop with the brightness at 50 percent until the battery dies.)
At just over nine hours in our rundown test, the ZenPad S 8.0’s battery life isn’t bad, but it certainly doesn’t stand out in this competitive group. Granted, the budget-priced Acer Iconia Tab 8$179.97 at Amazon didn’t last nearly as long here. But Sony’s Xperia Z3 Compact and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S 8.4 lasted several hours longer. If you’re headed on a long trip with the ZenPad S 8.0, you’ll need to make absolutely sure you bring the included USB Type C charging cable.
With attractive design, a pretty screen, very good speakers (for a tablet), and capable hardware, Asus’ ZenPad S 8.0 is a fine piece of high-end hardware at a midrange price—which is what we’d classify its $299 asking price as, for a sub-10-inch tablet in mid-2015.
That said, once you start interacting with the tablet, it feels like less of a premium tablet experience. It’s cluttered up with unnecessary apps, and we would have preferred vanilla Lollipop to the ZenUI interface. The occasional performance speed bumps when gaming don’t help on that front, either.
Still, you get a good bit for your money here. If you’re attracted to the tablet’s high-resolution IPS screen, thin frame, and premium aesthetics, and are looking for a device primarily for media playback, social media, and Web browsing, you may want to consider the ZenPad S 8.0, and maybe even cast a glance at the $199 model versus the $299. While the $299 model is by no means a bad value, we’d be far more willing to live with the ZenPad S 8.0’s shortcomings at the lower price. You’d be hard-pressed to find a tablet at that price with a screen that looks as good as this one, and with a MicroSD slot for loading up your tab with as much as 160GB of local media.