The Cube i7 hands-on review – the first Core-M tablet from China




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Cube is well-known for their cost-efficient Android tablets, which matched those market-leading flagship slates in terms of overall performance while having a much lower price. And last year, this Chinese company started to enter new areas such as the smart accessories as well as Windows tablets to compensate its shrinking Android tablet business.

Cube's first-ever business-focused high-end tablet, the i7, is a superior system in every way. With a stunning, high-resolution screen and a wider range of connections, but it’s the upgrade to the extremely powerful Intel Core-M processor that is most telling. Also, with Windows 8.1 and the full range of applications at its disposal, the i7 feels like a stronger, more flexible device.

Design 


Cube i7 (left), Acer W700 (right)



Android tablets and Apple iPads might be fighting it out for the thinnest, lightest tablet title, but Windows tablets normally are not competing that fiercely in this department. With its unusual 11.6-inch screen and rather big bezel, the Cube i7, which is 9.1mm thick and 840 grams in weight, is neither particularly svelte nor particularly light by tablet standards. It is as thick as the Microsoft Surface Pro3, which also measures at 9.1mm.






But if we compare it to the older Windows tablet models, we found it a much more compact slate than products such as the Microsoft Surface Pro 2 (13.5mm, 907g) and the Acer ICONIA W700 (11.9mm, 950g). The reason that the Cube i7 is much slimmer than most of its competitors is because it is fanless, and we will discuss this later in our review. With that said, it’s a little too heavy to use comfortably one-handed, and makes more sense if you have it resting on the arm of a chair or your lap while you tap away.



On the plus side, the relatively large bezel makes it very easy to grip, and you have to twist quite hard before there’s a hint of give where the corners meet the sliver metallic rim.





The rear cover sports Cube and Intel Inside logos, while there’s a plastic piece at the top where the 5-megapixel camera pokes through.




The i7 is an incredibly promising tablet when it comes to connectivity. It has a 3.5mm headphone jack, a Micro SD card slot, a Micro-HDMI port for an external display and – best of all – a micro USB 3.0 port as well as a Micro SIM card slot. With these two, it can connect to any USB 2.0 or 3.0 device that will run on Windows 8.1 and access the internet almost anywhere. Fortunately, the i7 is charging through an independent DC port, and I personally prefer this design rather than charging through the Micro USB 3.0 port because we often need to use the USB port to connect to other USB devices such as a mouse or external storages. What’s more, with Bluetooth 4.0 and dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi, it couldn’t be better equipped for wireless connectivity. The only negative I could think of is that the Micro SD card slot featured on the i7 only supports cards up to 32GB, which could potentially be a pain in the ass in the time coming.




There are only two physical buttons – the power/standby key and the volume rocker, both hosted on the top edge of the tablet.





The Touch Windows Key is located on the front panel, below the display. And the front facing 2MP camera is in the middle of bezel above the screen.




Look at the bottom of the tablet and you’ll also spot another connector which connects its keyboard magnetically. Sadly, the keyboard cover, although already on sale as a standard accessory which is included in the retail package, isn’t available for test. That’s a shame. With a keyboard cover attached Cube i7 could rival the Surface Pro 2 as a convertible ultrabook-style device.




The Cube i7's build quality is solid - it has to be at this thickness to ensure rigidity - but not as altogether epic as the Surface Pro 3's look and feel. Cube's use of a blue metallic shell gives the tablet decent premium feel, but it doesn’t offer multi-color options like the Microsoft Surface does.

Screen and sound 



Cube understands well that 1920 x 1080 is the new baseline standard for a high-end tablet, despite the operating system it runs. So we get a full HD 1080p 11.6-inch screen on the i7. That’s tangibly larger than the screen on your average tablet, and 1-inch larger than the screen on the Surface Pro2. That’s bad news for pixel density, but good news if you plan to get some work done, as that little extra bit of screen real estate makes it easier to see what you’re doing if you’re working on Office documents, browsing complex web pages or using the Windows Snap split-screen view. With that said, I personally prefer the 12-inch display on the Surface Pro 3, the 3:2 screen aspect ratio makes better sense for business use, which is the ultimate selling point of Windows tablets.



Quality of the i7’s display, meanwhile, is extremely good. Text still looks smooth and crisp, and while the display isn’t the brightest we’ve seen – particularly when you compared it to the ultra-bright panel on the Acer ICONIA W700 – it does have wide viewing angles and an impressive richness and depth of color to compensate. It’s an excellent screen for entertainment, but a good screen for productivity, as well.


Audio is a mixed bag. It’s clearer and much more detailed than you generally get from a tablet, with a wider stereo sound. Unfortunately it’s also a little thin, a little bit wearing and doesn’t offer much in the volume department, particularly if you’re playing music or watching some Action films. The Cube i7 is nowhere near what the Dolby enhanced Acer ICONIA W700 can do in terms of the volume of the speakers.



As with the vast majority of tablets, we’d recommend headphones if you want decent sonic experience. 

Performance 



Cube has equipped the i7 with an Intel Core-M CPU, which has a base clock of 0.8-1.0GHZ and a Turbo clock of 2.0GHZ, Aided by the incredibly beefy Graphics HD 5300, 4GB of DDR3 RAM and a 128GB Solid State Drive, it is surprisingly fleet of foot. For those who don’t know much about Intel’s Core-M processor, it is a new 14 nanometer processor which matches the horsepower of the Intel Core-i5 Haswell series CPU yet doesn’t need fan cooling!




As a standalone tablet, the i7 delivered, with good on-screen typing, an accelerometer that wasn't too sensitive. Volume controls on the top edge, along with Micro-USB and Micro-SD card slots make it reasonably easy to use this as a standalone device. Startup and application load times are swift, and the SSD is much faster than the eMMc drive we've encountered with budget Windows tablets. Sequential read and write speeds of 504MB/sec and 139MB/sec respectively in the AS SSD benchmark are respectable. To make it short, you won’t be needing any more performance if you use the i7 as a tablet, full stop.







Of course, for a more all-day experience, you'll want to add a keyboard and touch pad or mouse. Cube makes it easy, with a snap-on keyboard dock that transforms the combined system into a traditional clamshell laptop. Although our test unit doesn't come with the customized keyboard base, we had no problem connecting the i7 with different Bluetooth and Wireless keyboards.





Unlike the entry-level Atom Bay-trail powered Windows tablets, which normally struggle with heavier desktop applications. The Cube i7 is built for serious tasks, most of the heavy desktop apps worked brilliantly.



If you find benchmark testing more convincing, the i7 was returned some impressive scores by various benchmarks, beating similar devices such as the Acer ICONIA W700 in most of the benchmark tests.





In the Cinebench Release 10, the Cube i7 was returned a score of 8,616, which didn’t match the 9,324 notched by the Surface Pro 3 (i5, 4GB RAM), but trumped the Acer ICONIA W700 and those entry-level Windows tablets such as the ASUS A100T and Cube iWork 10.






OpenGL is not a strong suite of the Core-M series processor, yet the Cube i7 still managed to get a score close to the test results of those i5 powered tablets in the Cinebench Release 11.5’s OpenGL test. Its CPU performance, according to the Cinebench CPU test, is somewhere between the Surface Pro 3 (i5, 4GB RAM) and the Acer W700.





The Fritz Chess Benchmark returned a score of 3,877, which was indeed far behind the 4,899 by the Surface Pro 3, but still quite ahead of the 2,983 by the Acer W700.







The web browsing performance of the i7 was exceptionally good. In the Sunspider test, the Cube i7 was returned a score of 82.5ms, which was the best I have ever seen on a tablet.




However, in the more graphic-intense Peacekeeper test, the i7’s scored less than the Surface Pro 3 and the Acer ICONIA W700.





Ludashi benchmark focus on the overall performance of a PC, and the Cube i7 also got a decent score running this test.


The HD Graphics 5300 embedded in the Core-M Processor is a slightly more powerful GPU than the HD4000 or HD4200 embedded in the 3rd and 4th generation of i-series processors, and even beats some entry-level discrete graphics, however, it still doesn’t match the performance of the HD4600 and HD5200, both of which have a higher voltage.



The i7 is clearly not a system designed for heavy 3D game lovers, although it is able to run most of the 3D games in acceptable frame rates. But as it is fanless, the heat could be overwhelming if you keep running graphic-intense games for a long period of time.



But if we are talking about business and everyday use, the Cube i7, when paired with a keyboard and a mouse, is a nearly perfect choice. I received the Cube i7 before the Chinese New Year break, and have done a lot of travelling since. I have been using my i7 to check emails, set up meetings and prepare business presentations. I have almost given up the desktop PC in my office because all the most updated business files and emails are now stored in my i7. I only need to connect it to a monitor when the 11.6-inch display feels too small for those complicated Excel sheets.



Even though the Cube i7 is a little more business-focused, but let’s not underestimate its potential for entertainment use. My Samsung Galaxy Tab has also been left unbooted for days as I have been using the i7 to stream my favorite TV shows and entertainment news. With the Windows 8.1 OS, I don’t need to worry about codec support for different formats of video files, like I normally do with Android tablets and iPads. It is true that Android and iOS have more multimedia applications and games designed around a touchscreen, but the number of apps in the Windows 8 store is also growing fast. And neither Android nor OS comes anywhere near Windows 8.1 when it comes to the total number of applications.



Many readers might be concerned about the heat dissipation of the i7’s fanless design like I did upon receiving my unit. The truth is, the i7 does get a little warm after a few hours of consecutive use, but never to a point where you want to get your hands off it.



Overall the i7 excels as a workhorse Windows 8 slate tablet. It's got a lot more performance potential than those Atom BayTrail-equipped Windows 8 tablets. Plus, a detachable keyboard base, which is included in the retail package, can turn the i7 into a full ultrabook. Therefore, the i7 can replace both your tablet and laptop. But if you only want a device for intense 3D gaming, it makes better sense to get a desktop PC with high-end discrete graphics and cooling fans.
 

Connectivity 



Like we mentioned earlier in the review, the i7 offers a great deal in connectivity. Besides the USB port, Micro SD card slot, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth we normally get from a Windows tablet. The i7 also includes a Micro SIM card slot which supports both 4G FDD-LTE and TDD-LTE data services.





Internet access via the 4G and 3G networks is swift. And the Bluetooth 4.0 on board means you don’t always need the OTG adapter if you want to connect your tablet with input devices or an external audio system. With an SSD inside the shell, data transmission through the Micro USB 3.0 port is several times faster than through a USB 2.0 port on a laptop with HDD storage.

Battery Life 



What's funny about the Cube i7 is that it has a chipset which produces as much horsepower as most of the ultrabook systems, along with a 1080p touchscreen -- precisely the sort of thing that would normally suck the life out of a battery. And yet, the 7.4V, 5,000mAh battery lasts several hours longer than bigger touchscreen Windows 8 systems with similar internals. Specifically, we got 9 hours and 13 minutes of runtime after looping a video off the local disk with Wi-Fi off and the brightness fixed at 50 percent.



The i7 looks even more impressive when you compare it to lighter-weight, ARM-powered tablets. You wouldn't expect that to be the case -- this really isn't a fair fight -- but in fact the difference in battery life isn't as drastic as you'd imagine, especially if you take into account tablets that offer merely average endurance. The, for instance, the Xiaomi Pad lasts only about half an hour longer than the Cube i7; and most of the Android tablets we tested before were beaten by the i7.



We'll admit, the iPads or the Samsung Galaxy Tab S offer more longevity in the battery front. But here's the thing: we don't know of any Core-i5 tablets that can even come close. Take the Dell Venue 11 Pro for instance: it merely lasted 6 hours in the same battery run-down test, and also the Acer ICONIA W700, which I have used for more than 2 years, offered an average of 5.5 hours screen time on a charge. Compared to that, the Cube i7's battery life would seem much more exceptional. After all, those are the real competitions of the i7, at least as far as key specs go. It's incredible, then, that the i7's battery life is more typical of a low-powered ARM device.

Cameras 





Photos taken by the rear camera



Like most of the tablets on the market, the i7 has dual cameras. The front-facing 2MP camera is decent enough for video-conferences on Skype, but you wouldn’t want to use it for selfie. The rear-facing 5MP camera is arguably the worst 5MP camera we have encountered. Even with decent lighting, it still cannot shoot photos clear enough for Instagram updates. With that said, who would actually use an 11.6-inch tablet to take pictures?

The Competition 




We get what Cube was going for here and really, it's an intriguing proposition: a hybrid that can be used as a standalone tablet, but is powerful enough to be your next laptop. As we said, it's fast and offers awesomely long battery life, however, let's not forget the cost: with a connectable keyboard, the i7 is priced at RMB3,599 ($574.4), which is pretty aggressive pricing for a tablet with a Chinese brand attached to it. We suppose you'd feel more comfortable researching a few similar options before shelling out 600 bucks.

We mentioned the Surface Pro 3, which has already been on sale for a few months. It starts at $699 for the i3, 64GB model, with the Touch/Type Cover keyboard sold separately. All versions of the Surface Pro 3 support pen input, which the Cube i7 doesn't. For only $489.99, you can get a Dell Venue 11 Pro with a 10.8-inch display, a Core i5-4210Y processor, 4GB RAM and 128GB SSD; for $723, you can get the more updated version of the Dell Venue 11 Pro, the Venue 11 Pro 7000, which features the same Core-M 5Y10, 4GB RAM and 128GB SDD as the Cube i7 does and, if money is less of an issue and you want an even more future-proof tablet, you can get the most advanced Dell Venue 11 Pro 7140 with an even more powerful Core-M 5Y71 processor, 8GB of DDR3L RAM and 256GB of SDD. However, whichever Dell Venue 11 Pro you choose, you will need to spend another tad of money for Dell’s keyboard.



If we take a look at Cube’s fellow Chinese competition, there are also a few options. One of them is the RAMOS M12, which made its debut appearance at CES, 2015, also features a Core-M 5Y10 processor, an 11.6-inch 1080P display and 4GB RAM and, most of all, an adjustable stand as well as a full USB3.0 port. Another one is the PIPO K2, which is powered by the same hardware and also includes a full USB3.0 port. However, neither the RAMOS M12 nor the PIPO K2 is available now, even worse, their prices and release dates are still unknown.





Wrap-up 



Upon unboxing the Cube i7, I instantly fell in love with this slate a lot. After a few weeks spent with it, I still do, and I think you might too, but you'll have to get past some surface flaws in order to truly appreciate it. The i7 is heavy, even for a tablet with a capable Core-M processor, and though it's slim and solidly built, it has a plain look that can be off-putting. The good news is that it's fast, even among Windows 8 PCs, and offers surprisingly long runtime. If I am being honest, after my experience with the Acer ICONIA W700, which consistently disappointed me on the battery life front, I didn’t expect much longevity from a tablet with so much horsepower under the hood, so it's impressive that the i7 succeeds in being powerful while still lasting eight-plus hours on a charge. Most Core i-series tablets don't have that going for them.



The problem, though, is that the Cube i7’s overall design doesn't make the best sense. The inclusion of an adjustable stand would have been a more versatile solution, as you could be able make it stand when you use it as a standalone tablet. And the fact that it only has one Micro USB 3.0 port means that you need to remember bringing the OTG adapter whenever you decide to take the Cube i7 as your travelling company.



The Cube i7 may not have surpassed the Surface Pro 3 in terms of quality, design and performance just yet. But it is among the highest ranks of enterprise-ready tablets. If you want something designed specifically for the business user (as opposed to the consumer-focused iPad Air 2), but you don't want to spend $500 extra bucks on the Surface Pro 3 and its keyboard, then you can't go wrong with the Cube i7.





The good:



Well-constructed metallic body which feels not only solid, but also premium.

The 11.6-inch 1080P IPS display is excellent for both productivity and entertainment.

Solid performance powered by the impeccable Core-M processor.

Fanless, the Cube i7 is quiet, I tested this device for many days and never heard a peep.

An average of 8 hours’ battery life.


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