Indian startup Smartron isn't frequently in the news, and is perhaps best known for its srt.phone (Review), endorsed by Sachin Tendulkar, which launched almost exactly a year ago. Not many might remember that the company's first product was the t.book (Review), a Windows-based 2-in-1 tablet. Smartron also started out promoting itself as an IoT company, but it's only recently that hints of its ambition have become more concrete. While the company is getting all of that ready, it has surprised us with a new version of the original t.book, now called the tbook flex.
While it might look a lot like the original, Smartron has made quite a few upgrades and improvements to this device's design and specifications, which it says are based on user feedback. It's still aiming to undercut the Microsoft Surface Pro (Review) with lower pricing, but can Smartron match Microsoft's level of polish, and can it do everything you need it to? Read our review to find out.
The tbook flex is essentially a tablet with a kickstand and a folding keyboard cover, just like the Surface Pro and many other such devices from other manufacturers. There's no mistaking one for the other though. Smartron's design is flatter and chunkier, but still compact. The dark metal finish looks quite good, and you can choose to buy this device in grey and black, or grey with the company's eye-catching signature orange as a highlight. The body is made of a magnesium and aluminium alloy, according to Smartron, and it did feel fairly solid to us.
The kickstand isn't quite as solid as we would have liked, and definitely isn't on the same level as the more expensive Microsoft Surface Pro. It's easy to move and has an expanded 155 degree range of motion compared to the original tbook but it isn't always completely stable. Especially if you want the tablet to lie almost flat as you use it with a stylus, the stand will flex slightly under the weight of your palm.
The first thing you'll see in the front is that there's a prominent strip above the screen for the speakers and webcam. This is a bit unusual and makes the device feel slightly off-balance, but we can live with it. It's practical because the speakers fire forwards and roughly at ear level when the tablet is inclined.
At the top-right corner, you'll find a power button which is also a fingerprint sensor. There's very little to clue you in on the fact that this actually is a sensor, and you'll have to dig through the Windows Hello authentication settings to set it up yourself. Just around the corner are two volume buttons.
We're very pleased to see two full-sized USB 3.0 ports on either side of the body, plus two more Type-C ports on the left. One of those is a full-fledged Thunderbolt 3.0 port which supports DisplayPort video output, while the other is standard USB 3.1 Gen 1 (10Gbps). Either one of them will let you charge the tablet, thanks to standard USB Type-C Power Delivery. There's also a 3.5mm audio socket and a microSD card slot hidden beneath the kickstand, exactly like on the Surface Pro. Magnetic contact points for the keyboard are on the bottom.
One thing that works very well in the tbook flex's favour is that the keyboard cover is included in the box. This is the difference between buying a tablet and buying a 2-in-1. The outside of the cover has a felt-like finish and will pick up dust very easily. The inside has a faux-leather texture.
It looks good, but it doesn't integrate with the tablet as seamlessly as we'd like. For starters, the Windows soft keyboard doesn't pop up automatically when you tap a text field and the physical keyboard isn't connected, which can be frustrating for people who don't know which menu to find it in. We also took for granted that the keys and trackpad would deactivate when the cover was folded over backwards, but this has to be done manually and individually using Fn keys. We also found that on rare and intermittent occasions either the keys or trackpad would stop responding, and the only remedy was to physically disconnect and reconnect the cover.
Smartron for some reason decided to put a small battery and Bluetooth radio into the keyboard cover, making it heavier than necessary. What this means is that you can detach the two halves of the 2-in-1 and still use them, but in that case you need to pair them manually. There's no way to charge the keyboard other than by snapping it back onto the tablet, which means it isn't a true Bluetooth accessory that you could use with multiple devices. It's also hard to decipher the two tiny status LEDs that outline the battery level and Bluetooth connection status.
In terms of comfort and layout, we quite liked this keyboard. The dedicated paging keys are much appreciated, but the arrow cluster is still cramped. There are three levels of backlighting. It looks like there's a standard power button in the top-right corner, just like with many laptops, but this is actually only for the keyboard itself when detached. Similarly, some of the Fn keys are standard Windows shortcuts, but others relate to the keyboard itself.
Typing is relatively easy for a portable keyboard. You can adjust its angle of inclination, but it does flex and bend when in use. The keys are a little stiff, but travel is decent. It's possible to get used to this keyboard after a little time, and you can definitely get work done. We found the trackpad a little too small, and the physical click is also stiff, but overall it works well enough.
The Smartron tbook flex weighs 950g without the keyboard cover, and 1.375kg with it. That's a pretty big difference, and pushes this ultraportable to the point where some laptops (albeit much more expensive ones) are actually lighter. In the box, you get a USB Type-C cable, an enormous (and also heavy) 45W charger, and the keyboard cover. There's a very large fold-out cardboard quick-start guide as well. You'll have to buy a stylus on your own if you want one.
Being a relatively thin and light device, we aren't surprised to see Intel's fanless ultra-low-power Y-series Core processors in use here. However, because of Intel's well-documented struggles with 10nm production, it hasn't yet been able to launch its planned 8th Gen 'Coffee Lake' refresh, and so we have to make do with 7th Gen 'Kaby Lake' processors which are now quite old. Our review unit features a Core i5-7Y54, which is a dual-core 4.5W part with a base speed of 1.2GHz and burst speed of up to 3.2GHz. There's also a lower-priced version of the tbook flex with a Core m3-7Y30, and despite the apparently different series names, these are the exact same processors, just with different speeds and different target segments.
Other than the CPU, specifications are identical between the two variants. You get only 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, which could be a bit tight for a lot of people. The touchscreen measures 12.2 inches diagonally and has a resolution of 2560x1600 in the 16:10 aspect ratio which is convenient for portrait as well as landscape use. There's a 40WHr battery, 5-megapixel rear camera, 2-megapixel webcam, dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11ac, and Bluetooth.
You get Windows 10 Home with a few stylus- and touch-optimised apps such as Autodesk Sketchbook preinstalled. The Windows Ink Workspace menu to the left of the system clock lets you quickly scribble on sticky notes or launch pen-friendly apps. Other than that, we have Smartron's own tronx IoT ecosystem app, tcloud online file storage app, and t.care service support app (the inconsistent dots in the names are all as per the company's decisions).
T.care links you to the Smartron forum, product store, and customer support tools. Our tbook flex did not allow us to sign in to the tronx or tcloud apps, which the company says is because of the necessary remote account authorisation not being available prior to the official launch. We've used t.cloud before, and it's an interesting tool that promises to let you back up all your data with no capacity limit. The company tells us that while it's supported on the tbook series, it's being positioned more for smartphones with features such as photo geolocation tagging.
Tronx on the other hand is more intriguing - the company has disclosed some of its plans, and there's mention of several smart devices including a t.band, t.tab, t.home and even t.bike on the company website. We've reached out for more information, but Smartron isn't yet ready to discuss specifics of these products and how they all tie in to its ecosystem.
Because of the issues we described with making the two halves of this device work together, we wouldn't suggest this product for people who aren't comfortable with PCs and aren't up for a little troubleshooting on their own. Other than that, we found usage to be alright. The tbook flex can handle everyday tasks such as Web surfing, video streaming and general multimedia use. As we discovered though, it isn't well suited to anything heavy such as gaming, video editing, or serious content creation.
One thing that concerned us in particular was how hot the upper rear of the device became. When plugged in and on a desk, you won't really notice this, but specific points on the body can become hot to the point where you wouldn't be able to touch them for more than a second or two. When unplugged and on our lap running simple games, we could feel the heat to a slightly uncomfortable degree.
Benchmark tests showed that performance is relatively weak compared to today's mainstream laptops and 2-in-1s. There's definitely a compromise with this class of processor. Also, the CPU cannot stay at its turbo boost speed for very long, so shorter tests tended to finish quickly, while longer ones started off strong and then got hit by thermal throttling. Cinebench gave us 66 and 149 points in its single- and multi-threaded runs, while POVRay took 9 minutes, 23 seconds for its render benchmark. PCMark 10 gave us an overall score of 1,831. Our real-world file compression test using 3.24GB of assorted files with 7zip took 9 minutes, 4 seconds, and transcoding a 1.36GB AVI video file to H.265 took 4 minutes, 13 seconds.
In terms of graphics performance, 3DMark's Time Spy DirectX 12 benchmark failed to run, and we got only 439 points in the Fire Strike test. Unigine Valley also failed to run. We downloaded a few casual titles from Steam and the Windows store, and were able to enjoy them, but recent 3D games are out of the question.
The screen is a bit reflective but we were able to live with it. Videos looked great, with vibrant colours, but as soon as we went full-screen we noticed some severe and uneven backlight bleeding from the sides of the panel. This is really evident in dark scenes and against the black letterbox bands that are inevitable with movies. Thankfully this wasn't distracting when running most desktop programs.
We also weren't terribly impressed with the speakers. They're definitely loud, but the sound is harsh and stretched very thin. There's no bass at all, and it can get a bit screechy. The sound is fine for games and casual entertainment, but not for music or movies.
Smartron sent us its own stylus, simply called the Stylus Pen, to play with. This is another area in which we can see that things aren't quite as polished as they are with the Microsoft Surface Pro. The stylus tip doesn't glide across the screen smoothly - which could be because of the screen surface, the pen itself, or both. We also found that it would make squeaking and scratching sounds. Smartron says that the tablet supports 1,024 levels of pressure. Overall, we found the stylus to be more for casual use, and not for serious note-taking or sketching.
Battery life is quite good, and we were able use it for long stretches throughout a full workday. We did all sorts of things including video streaming and playing casual games, and still had around 15 percent left at night. The intense Battery Eater Pro test lasted for 2 hours, 51 minutes. Charging is also quick, and we were able to get up to 20 percent
There are many things about the new Smartron tbook flex that aren't ideal, such as its tendency to run hot; the wonky integration between tablet, keyboard, and stylus; and the overall performance. We also would have liked at least the option of more RAM and storage. Those who can live with a heavier device without a stylus and touchscreen would be much better served with a laptop at this price level.
However, if you can put up with these things, you might find that the overall convenience of owning such a light, portable computer outweighs them all. If you want a stylish device and don't need serious performance, the tbook flex could fit the bill very well. It also has all the ports we need for future expansion.
The importance of including the keyboard cover in the box cannot be overstated, but the stylus would have been nice too. We're also still curious to see how Smartron's IoT efforts play out, and how its PCs and smartphones will tie in.
Comparsions with the Microsoft Surface Book Pro are inevitable, and a lot of people would like something like this to show off. It looks good, it's easy to carry around, and will definitely be a conversation starter - especially if you choose the orange option. Even though it isn't as slick, the fact remains that the tbook flex is much, much more affordable than the Surface Book Pro, and for that reason it will have many fans.