VINE VOICEon 28 April 2014
Any illusion you may have that this product is a tablet is quickly dispelled when you see its packaging: the box it comes in is huge, dwarfing those of ordinary tablets. It really isn't a tablet; it's an all-in-one desktop computer that happens to run on Android. HP has muddied the waters by giving it the moniker "Slate" - the same name the company gives to its handheld tablets - but an all-in-one computer it is. As such, it's pretty fabulous (just ignore the many negative reviews by "tech" websites), though it's not perfect.
The build quality is impressive for such a relatively inexpensive computer. It's Apple-esque white, with a sturdy removable kickstand and side-facing port configuration that allows it to be wall-mounted. On the back are two USB 2.0 ports, an Ethernet port and the power port. There's no battery inside, so a permanent mains connection is required, for which a power brick-type adapter is supplied. On the left-hand side is a headphone port, an SD card slot and another USB 2.0 port. Bundled with the unit are a wired mouse and a wired keyboard. The mouse isn't great, but the keyboard is surprisingly nice, with pleasant-feeling keys and special shortcut keys for Android functions.
By far the most impressive thing about the Slate 21 is its 1920 x 1080-pixel LED touchscreen with IPS. It's big and beautiful. The scaled-up Android system makes it seem even bigger, which is a bit disconcerting at first - what do you do with all that space? The touchscreen is much more recessed in its frame than a typical tablet display, which is due to the fact that it uses optical imaging, meaning you can use a stylus or any other implement with it - such as the handle end of a cooking utensil if you want to place the unit in the kitchen. Above the display is a 720p camera, and on the right-hand side are five buttons covering volume, brightness and power. Below the display are stereo speakers capable of pumping out DTS audio.
What's inside the Slate 21 is the source of much of the criticism that has come its way from reviewers. There's only 8GBs of built-in storage space - which ends up leaving the user with just under 5GBs of accessible space - and 1GB of RAM. The processor is a quad-core Nvidia Tegra 4 with up to 72 custom GPU cores, and there's Wi-Fi that works on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands along with Bluetooth 3.0, but no accelerometer or ambient light sensor.
The unit comes with Android 4.2.2, which has been tinkered with only minimally by HP. Everything defaults to landscape, and more icons than usual are placable in the dock and appear in the app drawer. Android hasn't been developed with 21-inch screens in mind, but by and large it doesn't matter - with a few notable exceptions, which I note below under "Operation".
The keyboard should not be connected when the unit is powered on for the first time; the on-screen keyboard should be used instead. The keyboard won't type certain characters until it's been configured properly, making it impossible to set up things like your Google account. It does tell you this in the box, but of course I didn't read it. My unit didn't want to connect on the 5GHz band for some reason, though it may have had something to do with my router. The rest of the set-up process was quick and painless.
Overall, the experience of using the Slate 21 is very good. Since you sleep and wake the device as you would a tablet, there are no lengthy start-ups and shutdowns; just touch the screen and within a second or two it activates. The device is surprisingly snappy, with little sign of its paltry amount of RAM slowing things down as long as you don't senselessly overload the system. It's by no means a speed demon of a machine, but you wouldn't buy it if that's what you were after, and those custom Nvidia cores seem to work well enough. Its built-in storage space is enough for a whole raft of apps, and extra space for media content can be added via an ordinary USB flash drive. As much of what you would use the unit for is streaming-based, its limited storage space isn't that much of a problem. In addition, if you register a new account using the pre-installed Box app (or sign in with your existing account) you automatically get 25GBs' worth of lifetime cloud storage space. The optical touchscreen isn't quite as accurate or responsive as a capacitive screen, but it's more than adequate nonetheless, and the recessed nature of it makes it slightly awkward to swipe down from the top to get the notifications and quick settings menus, but again it's not too big an issue. The device is great for web surfing, emailing, Skyping, playing music, basic gaming, and watching YouTube/catch-up TV. With the keyboard attached it's perfectly usable for light office duties. As well as the excellent full HD touchscreen, the audio is great too, with plenty of clarity and distortion-free volume.
The main problem I've encountered concerns the SD card slot. Of the three SD cards I've tried, only one works, for reasons which baffle me no matter how hard I try to work it out. Occasionally you come across incompatibilities between screen size and operating system. The on-screen keyboard hasn't been amended at all and looks ridiculously large, taking up half of the screen (obviously, with the physical keyboard attached the on-screen keyboard doesn't appear). The mouse's scroll wheel doesn't work with some apps (such as Adobe Reader), though this may be a limitation of Android rather than the device itself. For me, I've found that the perfect Slate 21 hardware configuration is a Bluetooth keyboard and no mouse. The wireless keyboard gives you more freedom and means the oversized on-screen keyboard doesn't obscure anything, while the absence of a mouse means the huge touchscreen doesn't go to waste.
The Slate 21 has to be the cheapest way to get your hands on a touchscreen-enabled all-in-one desktop computer with this kind of screen size. At the moment it's around a fifth of the price of an identical-sized iMac, which has no touchscreen. For a price like this it's pretty amazing. You can place it anywhere and it quickly becomes a popular hub for Internet surfing, emailing, watching videos, and any other quick and simple tasks. Hopefully it's only a matter of time before Google starts coming up with a large-screen - or desktop - version of Android. And if Android-based all-in-one desktops such as this one start taking off as they should do, I can imagine Microsoft becoming very worried. It's 4.5 stars from me, rounded up to 5 stars on Amazon's system.