Asus is a company you can depend on. Every year at this time, the Taiwanese electronics maker kicks off Computex — the foremost local showcase of future technology — with a mass of new devices that mix practicality with small flourishes of eccentricity.
In the case of the upcoming ZenPad 8, the practical appeal is embodied by the tablet itself, which is a rather modest 8-inch Android slate with a 1280 x 800 IPS LCD, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, and a 5-megapixel camera. The ZenPad 8 runs on Intel's quad-core SoFIA chip, which is intended for the low-cost smartphone market — and its eventual price is sure to be strikingly low, if Asus' history is anything to go by. But this tablet does have that extra flourish too, coming in the shape of the extra covers it can swap in and out of. Some are just for color and style, there's a big battery-boosting one, and then there's the star of the show: the 5.1 surround sound speaker cover.
Acting as a folio case and a stand as well as an audio booster, this cover even comes with its own built-in battery, which nearly doubles the ZenPad 8's power reserves (adding 3,450mAh to the tablet's integrated 4,000mAh battery). This is the first tablet with 5.1-channel audio and the first to receive DTS-HD certification. I'm not sure how important the latter will be to the typical user, but having tried the audio cover in the wake of Asus' press conference, I can say that it gets loud and clear enough to merit attention.
It's easy to dismiss the idea of jamming a big array of speakers into a case as a terrible gimmick, however Asus has executed it remarkably well. The ZenPad 8 in front of me got loud enough to be heard clearly over the cacophony of frantically moving journalists in the vicinity. The sound distorts at the maximum volume, but even so, it's a distinct upgrade over the integrated loudspeaker on the tablet itself. This cover makes the ZenPad 8 much more viable for watching movies with friends than the average tablet.
There's a groove inside the cover for the tablet to rest in. It puts the ZenPad 8 into the perfect landscape position for watching stuff, though it isn't adjustable should you wish to do anything less conventional. Despite carrying extra equipment, the audio cover doesn't weigh down the ZenPad excessively and I can imagine carrying the two as a set wherever I go. It's certainly a more compact solution than carrying a discrete external speaker, and the results it produces don't seem to be recognizably worse than what you'd get from a decent Bluetooth speaker.
The Asus ZenPad 8 and its full range of covers will roll out globally in August. Take note that specifications may vary with location, as Asus says some regions may only get the ZenPad with 1GB of memory and 8GB of built-in storage, though all will have a MicroSD card slot for added expansion.