Back in the fall of 2007, ASUS decided there was room in people’s lives for a highly portable, secondary computer that could handle basic tasks — surfing the web, checking email, listening to music, and playing games. That was the $399 Linux-based Eee PC — arguably the first netbook — and it became quite a hit. You know the rest of the story: it wasn’t long before other consumer electronics companies, with the help of Intel and Microsoft, started to join in and small laptops invaded the market. The tale hasn’t exactly ended, but it’s certainty hit a low point — almost four years later, netbooks have lost a sizable chunk of market share to a new sort of device aiming to fill their original purpose. Indeed, the tablet has arrived.
My apologies for the short netbook history lesson, but it’s ASUS’ past that makes its entry into the tablet market such an interesting one. The Taiwanese company’s Eee Pad Transformer TF101 is part tablet and part netbook. For $399, you get a Tegra 2-powered Honeycomb slate with a 10.1-inch IPS display. Shell out an extra $150 and you get a keyboard dock with an integrated battery, which transforms the tablet into your typical clamshell laptop. It looks and sounds like an absolutely killer package, and it’s one that certainty stands out from the cookie-cutter Honeycomb tablets out there. But there are a few major questions: do a keyboard and touchpad add any real value to an Android slate? Is the $399 tablet a decent piece of hardware? And has ASUS finally, after so many failed attempts at creating netvertibles, been able to create a device that works as both a tablet and a netbook? Answers await in my full review!
Hardware / design
Hardware / design
There are some discrepancies between look and actual feel here
The tablet part of the package — herein referred to as the Transformer — is a stunning piece of hardware when it’s set on a table like you see above. It’s got extremely clean lines and its edges are covered in a bronzish metal. Flip it over and its backside is much more audacious than any of the other Honeycomb tablets out there — the textured brown cover has a diamond pattern of sorts and the material has a slight sparkle to it. There’s no doubt that it is one nice looking tablet; however, there are some discrepancies between look and actual feel here. Given its dapper aesthetic, I expected the tablet to feel weightier in hand and have a more solid construction. Instead I was surprised at the overly plastic build. That’s not to say I think it feels cheap — that’s not really how I’d describe it — but it certainty doesn’t have the same sort of rigidity as the iPad 2, Motorola Xoom, or even Acer’s Iconia A500. On the other hand, the plastic makes it a bit lighter than the other Honeycomb tablets out there.
As you can see in the chart above and in some of the comparison shots, the Transformer doesn’t fare too well in size compared to the other Honeycomb tablets. Oddly, it’s got a noticeably thick left and right bezel when in landscape mode, which results in it measuring 10.6 inches in length — more than a full inch longer than the iPad and .87-inches longer than the Xoom. (I believe ASUS actually did that to accommodate a wider keyboard dock, but that’s just a guess.) In terms of thickness, the .51-inch tablet is on par with its closest Honeycomb competitors, but it’s discernibly thicker than the .34-inch iPad 2. Those numbers actually mean a lot in terms of real usability — the iPad’s thinner stature makes a distinct difference when trying to hold the tablet up for longer periods of time.
The Transformer does boast more ports than Apple's tablet
But of course, the Transformer does boast more ports than Apple’s tablet. It houses a mini-HDMI port, microSD card slot, and 3.5mm headphone jack. It doesn’t have a micro-USB port or a full-sized USB port like the Acer Iconia A500, which can be quite a pain when you want to sync media with a PC, but the keyboard dock houses two of the latter (more on that soon).
Screen and speakers
After reviewing a few ASUS netvertibles with terrible resistive touchscreens, I almost want to give the individual responsible for the Transformer’s IPS panel a big hug. The quality of the 10.1-inch, 1280×800-resolution Gorilla Glass display is just downright impressive, especially for the price. Viewing angles are stellar, and unlike the Iconia A500, colors don’t blur at more pronounced angles. Speaking of colors, the display is extremely bright and crisp. Blacks looked deeper than on both the Xoom and Iconia A500, though, the iPad’s display does appear to be slightly brighter. Like every other glossy slab out there, the Transformer picks up a good amount of fingerprints and becomes a mirror outdoors.
The speaker grills, which flank the screen, aren’t the loudest we’ve heard on a tablet, but at full blast, they were loud enough to bother a lovely couple sitting next to me at a coffee shop. (Although, that could have just been the Lady Gaga music selection.) The PlayBook and iPad 2 still hold the title of best tablet speakers, but these will absolutely do for personal listening. Also, as you will see in the sample video below, the microphone quality is extremely poor.
I want to give the individual responsible for the Transformer’s IPS panel a big hug
The Transformer’s cameras prove my theory that tablet makers don’t really see a point in strapping quality image sensors to tablets
The Transformer’s two cameras — there’s a front-facing 1.2 megapixel shooter and a rear five megapixel one — prove my theory that tablet makers don’t really see a point in strapping quality image sensors to these types of gadgets. The rear camera took mediocre shots, and while they were slightly better than the Iconia Tab A500′s stills, they were still grainy and overexposed in most cases. ASUS didn’t opt to include a flash, but it did wisely position the lens in the middle of the back, so it’s nearly impossible to block it with a finger. On a brighter note, the autofocus was actually quite speedy in comparison to some of these other Honeycomb tablets. The 720p video was clear enough, but the camera had a hard time adjusting to different lighting and the end footage lacked the "high definition" quality we’ve all gotten used to on some Android phones. And that’s really the theme across most of these: none of these tablets have cameras that can compete with the likes of the iPhone 4 or other smartphones on the market.
The front-facing 1.2 megapixel camera was adequate for taking self-portraits and also did its job rather well when I decided to video chat with a friend using Google Talk. It also took markedly better quality video than the Acer and it actually seemed to keep up with me in my new, rather fun, yet nauseating spinning test.
The Transformer is powered by a dual-core 1GHz Tegra 2 processor and 1GB of RAM
Like every other Honeycomb tablet out there, the Transformer is powered by a dual-core 1GHz Tegra 2 processor and 1GB of DDR2 RAM. So, unsurprisingly, the day-to-day performance was on par with the others. For the most part the tablet was snappy, but there was some slight lag when I had a number of applications running. That said, apps opened quickly for the most part and a local 720p video played back without incident. Flash sites were a bit flaky to load, but once the dust settled, the tablet had no problem mustering up the strength to play videos in the browser. My unit had 16GB of storage; there’s a 32GB option for $499.99.
The Transformer is the fourth Honeycomb tablet to be released, and though ASUS hasn’t done all that much work on top of Android 3.0, there are some important tweaks to make note of. Firstly, you can see that it’s slightly retooled the back, home, and recent applications icons. Not a huge change, but definitely a welcome one — I prefer the cleaner look of ASUS’s icons to the cloudier, standard ones. ASUS’s also added a few of its own widgets, including the weather and email ones you can see above. The latter one is particularly useful and it blends beautifully with the Ice wallpaper. Speaking of that background, it took a while for me to realize, but the water level actually lowers as the battery does. It’s pretty trippy, and on top of that the ice cube sways back and forth based on your movement of the tablet. Sadly, the novelty wore off a few hours in when I started to notice it slowing things down.
The biggest adjustment ASUS made is to the onscreen keyboard. The keys have a rounder shape to them and there’s a dedicated number row, which actually speeds things up quite a bit when it comes to inputting passwords. If the new layout isn’t your thing, you can easily switch to the Honeycomb keyboard or use the physical keyboard dock. Point is, you’ll never have a shortage of keyboard options with this tablet.
On top of those, ASUS has preloaded the following apps to, you know, enhance the Honeycomb experience.
This one is ASUS’s attempt to take on Amazon and Google’s Books. There was one book preloaded on the review unit, but I could actually buy any of the other titles in the company’s own @Vibe store. The reading interface is actually decent looking, but it’s no Kindle killer.
This has a similar look, but getting useful content was much easier. I selected the US tab from a list of countries and I was able to download free versions of The Washington Post and The USA Today. The paper is fairly hard to read in its PDF form, however, there’s a table of contents so you can jump to different sections.
Out of all the preloaded apps, this one got the most action. It’s a basic word processing application, but since Google Docs refused to work in the browser I wrote the brunt of this review in the app. Overall, the UI is very clean and changing text color and styling is a cinch.
ASUS houses most of its tools in the MyCloud app. The MyContent section allows you to view music, video, and photos and sync them with ASUS’s WebStorage. ASUS gives every Transformer owner 2GB worth of storage and you can access the files through its secure web portal. The MyDesktop tab is simply a Splashtop Remote app, while the @Vibe section gives you access to a music streaming and radio portal. The Music section didn’t have a ton of selection, but it did have an Usher station, which should make a certain This is My Next editor very happy.
This is ASUS’s DLNA app. I’ve repeatedly had issues setting DLNA up correctly, and to be honest, I gave up this time around. At this point Google should make it a lot easier for these devices to work wirelessly with one another, but that’s an editorial for another time.
All in all, ASUS provides a well thought out software experience with some integrated options and third-party apps that make Honeycomb a bit more user friendly. That said, my opinion of Honeycomb remains the same — it’s incredibly far behind in terms of app selection (even though there are a few Twitter apps out now!) and it still needs some basic UI tweaks. ASUS does promise the Honeycomb 3.1 update in June, but I still haven’t been able to test out the new software to assess how much better the experience really is.
A keyboard and touchpad really adds something to the Honeycomb experience
However, adding a keyboard and touchpad to the Honeycomb experience adds something that really sets the OS and Transformer apart. Sure, Google built the software for touch input, but navigating the screen with a mouse actually works quite well, and while I found myself reaching out to touch the screen quite a bit with a finger, the touchpad is a nice fallback and really does create for a nice clamshell computing experience.
A large part of that has to do with how well the two parts work together and the fact that the $150 dock is quite well built. Interestingly, it actually feels better than the tablet — it seems to have a metal base, which creates for an extremely sturdy keyboard with zero flex. The hinge, which rotates so you can close the device like a netbook, also feels incredibly rigid and allows the tablet to fold over the keyboard very smoothly. In that closed position, the 2.9-pound / 1.6-thick package looks like a premium netbook and much nicer, I’ll say, than those after market Bluetooth keyboard cases and docks. I should mention that the actual mechanism that locks the tablet into the dock is a bit wonky. It takes bit of practice to know if you’ve got it the two docked together correctly, but an audible click and on-screen "keyboard docked" alert are extremely helpful. I did have some issues with the keyboard and touchpad not responding a few times — simply reattaching the two fixed that, though.
The keyboard makes a world of difference when it comes to doing real work
So how is the typing experience? The chiclet keyboard itself is pretty much a replica of the one that ASUS has been using on its netbooks for a few years now — the keys are well spaced and have a good amount of give. In fact, I wrote the entirety of this review on the panel and it didn’t take long for me to start typing at a decent clip. As always, I do wish the left Shift key was full-sized, but it’s nice to see that ASUS made some other adjustments to correspond with the OS. There are home and search buttons in the bottom corner and you can adjust the brightness and other various functions using the top row of keys. On the other hand, some much needed keyboard shortcuts don’t work — for instance, there’s no way to copy and paste. While that did slow down my workflow, the keyboard really did add another dimension of functionality to a Honeycomb tablet and for someone like me, who absolutely needs a physical keyboard to do write and do real work, it makes a world of difference.
The 3.1 x 1.5-inch touchpad is similarly well-made, and as I previously mentioned, it integrates quite well with Honeycomb. An arrow appears on screen as soon as it’s connected, and well, it works like any other mouse. Even better it actually supports two-finger scrolling, and I’m talking the smooth kind, not the jumpy, stuttering kind I’ve seen on so many Windows laptops. The single mouse button is rather stiff, but I actually didn’t use it much since double tapping on the pad just feels more natural given the touch-centric OS. I’ve found myself using a combination of touchscreen and touchpad navigation when the system is docked. Still, I have to say I am surprised at how well the OS paired with a mouse. If you wanted to attach a real mouse you could do that via one of the dock’s two USB ports. The covers are a bit of a pain to unlatch, however. The dock also houses a SD card slot and a 40-pin proprietary charging port.
The result is incredibly long runtime
I mentioned that the dock itself has its own charging port and that’s because in addition to the tablet’s 24.4Wh battery, the keyboard stores an additional cell. And as you may have guessed, the result is an incredibly long runtime. On its own, the tablet lasted eight hours and 21 minutes on our video rundown test, which loops the same standard definition video with brightness set at 65 percent and WiFi turned on. When docked the whole package lasted 13 hours and 49 minutes on that same test. Oh yes, just about 14 hours! That won’t only get you through a flight from New York to Shanghai it will buy you some time at the gate. Just make sure you have time to charge the dock and tablet up — you can charge them both together via the port on the dock, but it takes close to four hours to top ‘em off. Interestingly, the dock can also charge the tablet, so you may even get a bit more juice if you use the keyboard as an external charger for the tablet.
Given ASUS’s history, I think we all knew the company had what it took to build a netbook, but a tablet? And a tablet and netbook that could work together so seamlessly? Well, I had no idea. At $399, the Transformer is the most affordable Honeycomb tablet out there, and even beyond that, it’s actually one of the best. On it’s own, it’s a head-turning slab with a stunning IPS display that lasts over eight hours on a charge. Sure, it has its flaws — it’s larger than others, can get a bit sluggish at times, and the cameras are pretty crappy — but at $100 less than the iPad, it’s got all the vital components to compete.The real appeal of the Transformer, however, comes when you add on the keyboard dock. For $550, you get a tablet / netbook that lasts close to 14 hours on a single charge and provides a pretty great typing experience. Now, that’s not to say Honeycomb doesn’t still have its kinks. And even though the Transformer will get Android 3.1 in June, I’m not sure if / when Honeycomb will get a solid array of iPad-like apps. However, if there’s one device out there that can actually compete with the iPad, it’s the Transformer, and that’s because ASUS’ netbook history has helped it craft a solid blend of laptop and tablet.