Samsung Ativ Q Hands-On: A Pixel Too Far

By Chris Mills on at

Samsung's just upped its game in the convertible tablet range, bringing out a well-built sliding Windows tablet with one hell of a screen and the ability to run Windows 8 and Android simeltaneously. It's a decent machine, but not quite all it's cracked up to be.

For a 13-inch laptop, it feels pretty damn thin and light. Unlike some Windows hybrid devices, the Q is thin enough to conceivably use as a tablet. To fully utilise its potential though, you have to take a look at the hinge on it. Like the Acer R7, the screen pivots on its sliding hinge. The end result? A simple, but flexible form factor.

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In the hand, it feels nowhere near as hefty as a 13.3" tablet should -- unsurprising, since despite the decently solid build, it weighs in at a positively anorexic 1.29kg.

At 13.8mm thick, it's none too podgy either. Especially considering the guts -- a proper Haswell Core i5, 4GB of RAM and an SSD. Connectivity is OK -- two USB ports, HDMI-out, and a slightly bizarre microSD card that's been somehow shoehorned into the hinge mechanism.

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Battery life, given the Haswell chip inside, should be pretty decent. Sammy is claiming 12 hours of real-world usage, which, if correct, should put it bang on with Apple's new MacBook Air. Some of that might come at the cost of graphical oomph, though -- the Q sports the lowliest integrated graphics Haswell can offer, the Intel HD 4400.

The traditional input options are identical to those on the Sony Duo 11 -- that is, you can forget a traditional trackpad here. Instead, there's an optical trackpad, like those found on last year's Blackberrys. Down the bottom you get some very narrow mouse buttons, that feel rather like an afterthought. To round things out, there's an S-Pen (with 1,024 degrees of sensitivity, no less). Navigating around is certainly do-able, but using touch is much more pleasant. Which is unfortunate, given the screen.

Ah yes, the screen.

On the face of it, the display on this sucker should be pretty good. The smartphone wars have taught us that more PPI is a good thing -- which in the smartphone market, is true, to an extent.

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But in Windows, a screen with too many pixels is an absolute killer. Windows doesn't resize physical objects to reflect the real-life size of the pixels, and the end result is that everything on the screen is really, really tiny. Comically so. In Metro, that's OK, because the tiles are pretty big to begin with, so the result is a lot of screen real estate. But fire up the desktop -- something you're going to have to do if you want to use the Office suite, or browse a website with Flash -- and everything becomes entertainingly small.

Check the photos below, showing a well-known tech blog in Windows mode versus Android (we'll come onto that later). The text on the page is readable in Android Chrome, and way too tiny to even look at without getting a headache in Windows.

Everything in the Windows screen is small, probably too small to read and definitely too small to touch. Ultimately, you're going to have to zoom in on every web page -- an imperfect hell -- and up the magnification in Windows, which results in fuzzy icons and a buggy user interface. It's the same problem as on the Surface Pro, but magnified (or shrunk, as the case may be) -- the Surface Pro has a PPI of 208, whereas the Q is a magnificently over-the-top 275.

The flip side, however, is that the screen looks absolutely superb. Videos and photos play and browse seamlessly, and they look fantastic. Crisp and detailed, the panel itself is a joy, with good viewing angles and blacks as deep as Steve Jobs's soul.

To be fair, it's difficult to lay the blame for the tiny UI at Samsung's door -- it's a failing of Windows, one which is increasingly reinforced every time a tech company like Samsung tries to push the boundaries of innovation with a product.

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The Q's other standout feature, however, is one that Microsoft hasn't got its grubby little paws all over. Impressively, the Q simultaneously runs two operating systems -- Windows 8 and Android 4.2. The Android OS runs as an emulator -- in effect, it's an app running within Windows 8. It's possible to fast-switch between Android and a Metro app, using Windows 8's multitasking abilities; however, if you want to get back to the desktop, you have to hit a switch in the Android OS.

In general, the Android software implementation runs pretty smoothly. Touch is fairly responsive (although there's perhaps the faintest hint of lag), and apps seem to run just fine. Due to the lack of internet, we weren't able to download any of our favourite apps, but the pre-loaded fare -- Angry Birds, to be precise -- ran without a hiccup.

There are a few pecularities that make you know it's not a proper Android OS, though. Wi-Fi can't be sorted from within the Android app -- you have to switch back into Windows for that to happen. Moreover, it's possible to force a crash when fast-switching between devices -- although it should be said that this is probably pre-production software, we managed to crash the Q a bunch of times in the space of about 10 minutes.

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The Windows system also lags a fair bit with Android running, though. Opening Task Manager showed that having Android running, with just one browser tab in Chrome and no other apps open, was enough to suck up 78 per cent of the Q's 4GB of RAM -- quite worrying, given that the multi-tasking abilities of the Q are being pushed pretty hard by Samsung.

Overall, though, it's a pretty decent attempt to do something new in the crowded Windows 8 market. The Android implementation, while not perfect, should certainly be enough to allow you to run vital Android apps, and the vast touch-friendly back catalogue of the Play Store should make the Q a far more viable *tablet* than the horde of other machines out there.

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The screen, on the other hand, is a little disappointing. Sure, it's great for watching photos and videos, but trying to use the Q in desktop mode is gruesomly painful, and destroys what would otherwise be a pleasant and fast experience.

The ATIV Q is coming at an undisclosed date for an undisclosed amount of money, and I have to say I'm pretty psyched. There are a few bugs to iron out, but they're of a software variety. If Samsung can get its house in order before launch, the Q could be the device that makes Microsoft's dream of a one-size-fits-all future a reality.

To get on-the-spot news, app tips and the full lowdown on Samsung’s latest mobile announcements check out Samsung’s Your Mobile Life over here.