The quick take
The ZenPad S 8.0 is fast, capable, and has some of the best speakers we've ever heard in a tablet, but the overall experience is marred by awkward software and aggressive thermal throttling.
- Amazing speakers
- Impressive display
- Solid overall performance
- Mediocre battery life
- ZenUI bloatware is awful
- Thermal issues
ASUS ZenPad S 8.0 Review
If there's one thing the 2015 mobile industry has challenged, it's the notion that price equals quality in smartphones and tablets. One of the more interesting companies proving repeatedly that Android doesn't just mean a Qualcomm processor and a $600+ price tag is ASUS. We've seen the impressive splash the company made with their ZenFone 2, and now they're setting up shop in the tablet space. For their latest, dubbed ZenPad S 8.0, ASUS has opted for an Intel processor, 2K display and stunning front facing stereo speaker setup for a price that embarrasses the heavyweights in the category.
Here's our review.
ASUS ZenPad S 8.0 video review
Light and fast
ASUS ZenPad S 8.0 Hardware
In some ways, designing a tablet is more difficult than designing a smartphone. The added size means a balance needs to be struck, and clear intent for use needs to be outlined in that design. It's one of the things that makes the Dell Venue 8 7000 Series just shy of being one of the best tablets out there, because it's so damn awkward to hold.
ASUS, on the other hand, has nailed the design for their latest ZenPad. The metallic back is cool and grippy to the touch, sloping down to a comfortably soft rubber edge along the bottom. These edges curve up to a chrome strip that holds the glass front in place, with nothing but the power and volume keys along the edges for the users to brush their fingers across. This design encourages the user to either grip with two hands or hold the tablet from the bottom with one, and have each position be comfortable.
ASUS added a portrait-oriented badge on the front of the tablet and a landscape-oriented badge on the back of the tablet, but the stereo front-facing speakers and positioning of the rubber strip makes the tablet feel like it was designed for mostly landscape use. Additionally, the off-center placement of the USB-C port makes continuing to use the tablet in landscape while charging easier.
Overall, this tablet feels solid and comfortable in the hand.
The first thing you notice when lifting the ZenPad S 8.0 off the table is how incredibly light the tablet feels. In reality it's only a few grams lighter than the Dell Venue 8 7000 Series, but the balance and soft curves offered by this design make a huge difference in how you hold it, making it feel lighter. Turning the tablet on exposes the 2K IPS display under the glass and the fantastic stereo speakers that spring to life with the boot animation. The combination of audio quality, visual appeal, and lightweight design makes you want to sit somewhere and watch movies on it all day.
Overall, this tablet feels solid and comfortable in the hand. The design is as close to perfect as you can get if you're a fan of 8-inch tablets.
We're dimming your display now
ASUS ZenPad S 8.0 Performance
Tucked under that beautiful 2K display is a 64-bit quad-core Intel Atom Z3580 processor with 4GB of RAM. If that sounds familiar, it's because that's the exact same thing you'll find the ZenFone 2. Just like the phone, performance is fantastic. Everything runs well, and the overall experience while playing all kinds of games is great.
For about 20 minutes, anyhow.
All phones and tablets get warm when you play games, but the ZenPad S 8.0 resorts to automatically controlling the screen brightness to keep the heat from reaching damaging levels. The little toast notification shows up just as the brightness drops on its own in the middle of the game you're playing, and when the system cools down you are once again allowed to control the screen brightness on your own.
Currently this seems to only happen when the screen brightness is at 100%, and ASUS has reached out and confirmed they are looking into the issue. At no point during this heat control did it feel like performance took a hit, and most of the time when the warning showed up the tablet didn't even feel that warm compared to some of the phones we've tested under the same circumstances. Regardless of reason, it's not a great thing to have happen on a regular basis.
Bloat Bloat Bloat Bloat
ASUS ZenPad S 8.0 Software
As cool as it would be to tell you the software on this tablet is just as pretty and well made as the hardware, lying to you seems like a bad idea. ZenUI is very much the same bright, colorful mess it has been on the last couple of phones Asus has released, with more of the same unnecessary apps no one should actually be using. Once you are finished deleting all of the excess nonsense, the rest of ZenUI is fairly easy to get used to.
ASUS throws a lot of unnecessary junk at its users
The Manage Home section is my favorite part of this interface. From the homescreen, you flick up from anywhere and these bubbles arrive. It's a quick way to do a ton of different things, and for the most part it stays out of the way of the primary interface. The ZenUI launcher include flipping panels and other cutesy animations, and the app grid includes and suto-sort option by default that groups all of your apps into folders, but for the most part it works the way you'd expect Android 5.0 to work. Worst-case scenario is you turn a lot of this off, but unlike a lot of other interfaces for Android you actually can turn a lot of this off without resorting to custom launchers.
One thing you can't turn off is the heavily modified quick settings panel. For the most part it works like you'd expect a quick-settings panel to work, but the embedded RAM boost tool and constant reminders that apps are using battery when you use them (you don't say!) are more than a little irritating.
ASUS throws a lot of unnecessary junk at its users, no doubt due to a lot of software partnerships, but overall it's not that bad. It'd probably be different if the interface was slow or stuttery, but never once did ZenUI show signs of slowing down. It may not be the most useful interface out there, but it certainly gets the job done.
It's a tablet camera
ASUS ZenPad S 8.0 Camera
Like all tablet cameras, the 8-megapixel rear camera and 5MP front camera on this tablet aren't much to write home about. They're perfectly capable video cameras, but you shouldn't expect too much when taking photos. In perfect lighting you'll get a decent photo from either camera, but even in perfect lighting the autofocus on the rear camera is hit or miss. Low light renders these cameras essentially unusable for photos, but again aren't too bad for video.
The coolest part of the photo experience with this tablet is the UI for the camera app, which includes some basic settings for your photos and a clever slider for the shutter button. If you drag the shutter button across the slider, you get up to a 5-second delay before the photo is taken. It's not something you see every day, and is perfect for those among us who use tablets for selfies.
Not great, but not terrible either
ASUS ZenPad S 8.0 Battery
Android tablets aren't exactly known for stellar battery life, something we're all hoping is fixed with the help of optimizations coming in Android 6.0 Marshmallow, but the ZenPad S 8.0 is almost up front about what you can expect from the battery in this tablet. The specs sheet claims 8 hours of use based on a 720p video loop at 100 nits of screen brightness. While this tablet no doubt can do exactly that, your usage is going to be quite a bit different. Using brightness at full, that number drops to closer to 6 hours of 1080p video. If you're playing a particularly resource-intense game, you'll get closer to 5.
You can easily get a full day of activity out of this tablet, unless you're absolutely determined to beat Angry Birds 2 in a day or that Back to the Future marathon is calling your name. It's not quite as good as the Dell Venue 8 7000 Series in this respect, but competes easily with the Nexus 9 in battery capabilities.
Flawed, but still thoroughly enjoyable
ASUS ZenPad S 8.0: The Bottom Line
There's a lot to like with this tablet. It's fast, looks nice, sounds amazing, and USB-C is clearly the way of the future. The software mess that is ZenUI is unfortunate, and the weirdly aggressive thermal regulation is a problem. While neither is a deal breaker on their own, combined it's clear this is not a tablet for power users or heavy gamers.
One of the most important features to this particular tablet is the price tag. At $299 for the 64GB model, it's hard to look at the majority of current generation of Android tablets — especially Google's Nexus 9 — and see the value. Are rapid software updates and a clean UI worth the extra $180 for a tablet that has half the storage and no SD card slot? It's hard to say yes.
Should you buy the ASUS ZenPad S 8.0? Probably
While this is clearly not a tablet for gamers, anyone looking for a casual browsing tablet for video and the occasional game could do a whole lot worse than this tablet, and probably spend more in the process. Overall this is a great tablet at a price point that should excite a lot of people, and serves as further evidence that a reckoning is coming for those companies whose price tags aren't competing in this space.