I’ve written previously about the importance of physical keyboards for getting real work done, so it was with great excitement that I unpacked the Mobile Dock accessory for the ASUS VivoTab RT. Essentially a gigantic battery with a Chiclet QWERTY keyboard attached, the Mobile Dock transforms the tablet into a touch-screen laptop with an insane battery life. It isn’t perfect, but the benefits far outweigh the minor drawbacks.
The Mobile Dock’s packaging closely resembles that of the VivoTab RT, but with a focus on the keyboard rather than the tablet itself. Inside, you’ll find just two items: the accessory and a small folder containing the user’s manual. The dock itself is both beautiful and well-made, with a brushed aluminum top matching the tablet’s backside and a bottom made of a nice plastic. With the exception of the keys themselves, the whole package looks very slick. It also includes dedicated power and USB ports; the latter of which is especially handy since the tablet normally requires a special USB dongle.
The process of connecting the tablet to the dock is a snap (literally - just press the screen down into the hinge to secure it in place) but you’ll need to pry back the hinge the first time you use it. This can be a little disconcerting, since bending it back requires a significant amount of force. Once the screen has been attached, it provides the necessary torque to comfortably adjust the hinge to the appropriate viewing angle. Pushing back the screen/tablet also has the added benefit of tilting the keyboard slightly. Although this doesn’t diminish the fact that the dock effectively blocks your access to the Start button, requiring you to use the Start key on the keyboard or the Charms to access the Start screen. To remove the tablet from the dock, simply slide down the locking mechanism and pull upward.
While the keys contain a number of features, I found them to be somewhat cluttered visually. You do, however, get the full range of function keys which do double duty as F1-F12 and common options like brightness and volume, as well as the context menu key and a built-in number pad (use the standard Fn+NumLk shortcut to activate it). ASUS’ decision not to include dedicated keys for the Windows 8 Charms might disappoint some people, but I rarely find myself using them anyway.
But while looks and features are nice, the most important aspect of a keyboard is how it feels. And in everyday use, it actually works quite well. ASUS was limited by the tablet’s 10.1-inch screen size, but the placement of the keys rarely felt cramped. The only issue that regularly cropped up was the relatively short width of the right shift key, making it easy to miss and hit the up arrow instead. They keys themselves have a nice feel to them, and the noise, while audible, wasn’t too clacky.
I’ve always liked ASUS touchpads, and the one on the VivoTab RT Mobile Dock doesn’t disappoint. It carefully balances sensitivity with precision, and your finger just glides across the smooth surface. I never encountered any accidental bumps either, which was the biggest complaint with my old ASUS laptop. While the touchpad supports a number of one- and two-fingered gestures, you won’t find edge gestures for pulling up the Charms or switching apps. Of course, with the touchscreen just a few inches away, there’s no need to use them anyway.
The biggest flaw with this setup is that the tablet doesn’t seem to know when it is attached to the Mobile Dock. Touching a text box brings up the virtual keyboard every… single… time. I’ve gotten into the habit of alternating between the keyboard and the touchscreen, using the touchpad only when I’m in need of finer control. But doing so on this tablet causes the virtual keyboard to constantly pop-up and cover the majority of the screen. Typing on the Mobile Dock will automatically dismiss the virtual keyboard, but it’s still annoying. I would be nice if the device was intelligent enough to disable the virtual keyboard when a physical one is present, much like the Microsoft Surface does. Strangely, the dock doesn’t disable the screen’s auto-rotate feature either. That being said, the tablet is smart enough to turn itself on or off when the lid is open or closed.
Aside from the keyboard, the Mobile Dock’s biggest advantage is its seven-hour battery, bringing the total battery life up to a whopping 16 (!) hours. This comes at the sacrifice of weight and thickness (doubling the former and almost tripling the latter), but it lets you go all day without charging. You could literally watch movies on this thing non-stop from sunrise to far past sunset.
If you have an ASUS VivoTab RT, I highly recommend picking up the Mobile Dock accessory. If you purchased the device before the end of 2012, chances are you received a free dock as part of a special promotion. But even if you didn’t, it’s worth the price tag. The ASUS VivoTab RT Mobile Dock adds some additional heft to the tablet, but the full QWERTY keyboard and 16 hour battery life make this a must-have accessory.