Cheap Android tablets aren’t so great anymore. Three years ago, I remember rushing to Adorama here in New York City (along with several other Verge editors) to buy the first Nexus 7 when the store put it on sale early. That tablet, made by Asus, was pretty good. And then Asus came back the next year with an even better cheap Android tablet. The second Nexus 7 was $229 and, aside from an annoying 16:10 aspect ratio, had few obvious faults. It was great. Fast forward to today, and we’re looking at Asus’ latest inexpensive tablet, the ZenPad S 8.0. But this is a much different tablet than the Nexus you may still have on your coffee table or tucked in a drawer somewhere. In some ways that’s good, but it’s mostly a regression. We’re somehow moving backwards.
The Asus ZenPad S 8.0 tries to reproduce what was so appealing about the ZenFone 2. It’s impressive hardware being sold at a very low price ($199 or $299 depending on specs) with few gotchas to be found. But this is no Nexus, and left to its own devices, Asus is a company that struggles with software design. Whether the rest of what’s here can compensate for that will depend entirely on how you use a tablet.
From a design perspective, the ZenPad 8 S earns big points — again, especially for the starting price. It's very thin and noticeably light at 0.66 pounds (Samsung’s 8.4-inch Tab S weighs 1.2 pounds). The back features a combination of etched aluminum and faux leather. That sounds more gaudy than it really is, and the materials make the ZenPad plenty comfortable to hold. This feels just as good as those old Nexus tablets, though the way everything’s laid out tells me Asus wants you to hold the device in landscape. But it’s 4:3, so the choice is all yours, and the bezels are easy enough to ignore when you’re staring at the display.
That screen is a QXGA (2048 x 1536 pixel) IPS LCD. It's sharp, but also shares some unwanted traits with the ZenFone 2: it won't get terribly bright and the colors skew on the cooler side. Neither of those things will ruin your Netflix or gaming experience. Most of the time you probably won’t notice, but the screen is clearly one area where Asus cut costs.
Unfortunately, there are also some pretty bad software gimmicks that tie into the display. A thing that Asus calls "Tru2Life+" is easily the worst offender; Asus claims this video processing feature leads to smoother motion, but all it really does is bring the soap opera effect I hate seeing on TVs to tablets. It comes enabled by default, but thankfully you can turn it off with a quick trip to settings.
Another improvement over the fabled Nexus 7 is sound. The ZenPad S 8.0 features dual front-facing speakers. They're not revelatory, but Netflix and YouTube videos sound a touch better than what you'd get from Amazon's Kindle Fire 8.9. Seriously, every tablet should have front-facing speakers by now. The tablet’s cameras (8-megapixel on back, 5-megapixel up front) are adequate only when your phone is far out of reach, though, which isn’t exactly a huge surprise. Depending on which model you get, the ZenPad includes 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB of built-in storage with support for microSD cards up to 128GB. For charging, Asus opted to go with USB Type-C, a choice that’s more hassle than convenience for the first smartphones that’ve made the same leap. But I’m more forgiving of tablets here; you don’t charge them nearly as often (and rarely away from home), and you’ll be all set when your next smartphone (or the one after it) inevitably uses the same port.
Powering the ZenPad 8.0 S is a quad-core, 64-bit processor from Intel and, in our review unit, 4GB of RAM. (The less expensive, $199 ZenPad has a slower chip and 2GB of memory.) The tablet zips around and hops between apps with no noticeable stutters or lag. It’ll load games quickly, but I’ve seen some concerning issues during extended sessions. The ZenPad seems too cautious about overheating, and as a result it’ll sometimes hijack control of screen brightness to keep things in check. But it never really felt overly warm when these warnings popped up, so I’m hoping Asus will address this with a software update. The ZenPad doesn’t offer quick charge, nor can you top it off wirelessly. But its endurance matched the 8 hours that Asus is promising, and it’ll go way longer with intermittent or casual use. That’s how most people tend to use tablets, after all.
But the company’s overall grade on software remains very mixed. Asus’ ZenUI bares little resemblance to stock Android, and it’s not for the better. There’s some good stuff; swipe up on the home screen and you get access to a ton of cool, nerdy customizations that let you choose new animations, icon packs, and fonts throughout the system. The software’s appearance is colorful and I wouldn’t label it offensive or unusable. It works, but it’s a far cry from Google’s vision for Material Design.
There's an ungodly amount of bloat and useless apps crammed into the ZenPad
And then there’s the bloat. The amount of unnecessary software that Asus crammed onto this thing is a truly shameful accomplishment. There’s a "Mirror" app that does nothing but open the tablet’s selfie camera, for instance. And even tools that are supposed to be helpful prove incredibly annoying and overbearing. It’s well established by now that Android runs just fine without memory management tools or anti-virus apps, and yet the ZenPad comes bundled with Clean Master and an obnoxious battery assistant that constantly wants you to know the game you’re playing is affecting battery life. (Obvious much?) The company even pesters you to review its keyboard in Google Play. Seriously?
Most of this crud can be disabled or uninstalled entirely, and even if you leave the unwanted extras alone, the ZenPad still performs strongly. But this is where Android tablets really splinter with Google’s own products like the Nexus 9, which comes with apps that people actually enjoy using. You’ll never open half the stuff loaded on the ZenPad, and it’s an ugly situation I assume is mandated by Asus’ business partnerships.
But let’s not let Google off too easy. Android tablets — regardless of cost — have progressed at a snail’s pace in recent years. Android Lollipop remains an underwhelming tablet OS now just as it did when the Nexus 9 shipped last year, and nothing new has been brought to the table. Google’s priorities are clearly smartphones and Chromebooks, and tablets (even the good ones) seem to be languishing by the wayside. Sure, the ZenPad will run Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and YouTube just fine. And Google Play Newsstand or Flipboard make for a decent way of scrolling through the day’s news. But so many other apps remain unchanged from what you’d get on a phone. When it comes to multitasking and productivity, companies like Samsung have had to devise their own solutions to stand out. As you might expect, Asus didn’t bother with any of that for a tablet that starts at $199. There’s little that’ll wow you here, but we’ll at least give Asus credit for meeting an impressive bar for performance and speed.
The question is whether that’s good enough. For tech enthusiasts willing to tinker, it might be. Like the ZenFone 2, this new Asus ZenPad S 8 can be a decent-to-good purchase, but getting it there takes legitimate work that regular consumers probably wouldn’t bother with. They shouldn’t have to. Once you rid it of the bloatware and annoying notifications, the hardware you’re left with scores higher than most other devices at this price point. Install another launcher and it’ll even be pleasant to look at. But if you’re willing to spend even $100 to $200 more, you’re better off with something from Samsung or even Dell. And if media consumption is your main interest in owning a tablet, put your money toward Amazon’s Kindle Fire HDX line or an iPad instead. If Apple isn't your flavor and $300 is your absolute ceiling for spending, the ZenPad S 8 is likely the best you can do. But the tablet market is stalling hard for a reason, and if you’re looking for one compelling reason why you need this in your life, well, it probably doesn’t exist. And that's pretty disappointing, seeing as this is the very same company that made those great Nexus tablets.
Correction: Article originally referred to the ZenPad S 8.0's processor as an octa-core Intel chip. It is a quad-core processor.