What does a laptop in the post-PC era look like? Is it an ultrabook with familiar internals and software in a dramatically slimmed-down shell? Or is it possible to use a modern mobile OS like Android, energy-efficient chips, and build something that bridges the gap between the portability of a tablet and the power of a laptop? Leave it to two companies with deep roots in the PC industry — Asus and Nvidia — to take a stab at that question with the Eee Pad Transformer Prime. It’s the world’s first quad-core Tegra 3 tablet, and not only does it have double the power of today’s dual-core ARM processors, but like the original Transformer, it's available with a keyboard dock that transforms the tablet into a more traditional laptop. On top of that, the $499 device (with 32GB of storage) has been slimmed down from its predecessor and given both an 8-megapixel camera and a brand new SuperIPS+ display. You can see why the package sounds like the perfect blend of tablet and laptop, but is it? Do the added cores enhance the user experience? And as a tablet, is it primed to take on the iPad — the frontrunner in this post-PC competition? Those are big questions, all of which will be answered in the review below.
Hardware / design
Aluminum, concentric circles, 0.31-inches thick: this tablet is beautiful
It’s not really enough to say Asus "redesigned" the original Transformer; gutted is more like it. The 10.1-inch Prime looks nothing like the original, well, save for the fact that it’s a tablet and most of them look alike. The original’s brown plastic back has now been replaced with a Champagne Gold (the color of my review unit) or Amethyst Gray-colored piece of aluminum, which has a similar concentric circle pattern to that on the Asus Zenbook lid. Not only do the materials feel better in hand, but the design on a whole is much more understated than the original. In fact, from just a pure aesthetic perspective, the Prime is tied with the iPad on the tablet catwalk. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is thin, but its glossy, white plastic back isn’t what I’d really consider to be a real eye-pleaser. And the rest of the Android tablets — at least the 10-inch selection — have remained chunky and humdrum in design.
|Dimensions (in.)||Thickness||Weight (lb.)|
|Eee Pad Transformer Prime||10.4 x 7.1||0.31||1.29|
|Eee Pad Transformer||10.6 x 6.7||0.51||1.49|
|Apple iPad 2||9.5 x 7.3||0.34||1.33|
|Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1||10.1 x 6.9||0.34||1.24|
What’s even better is that the tablet has also been nipped and tucked all around. Measuring 0.31 inches thick and weighing just 1.29 pounds, the Prime is now one of the thinnest tablets on the market. Considering it’s the world’s first tablet to squeeze in a quad-core ARM processor, it’s even more impressive. As the chart above indicates, the size and weight difference between the Prime and the iPad 2 is minimal, and that’s exactly how I’d describe holding one in each hand; I really couldn’t feel a difference. It’s a tad heavier than the Galaxy Tab 10.1, but again, I prefer the Prime’s metal to Samsung’s plastic.
Despite cutting down the thickness, Asus has been able to keep the tablet itself well stocked on ports; there's a 3.5mm headphone jack, Micro HDMI port, and a Micro SD card slot. If you’re looking for those full-size ports, you’ll have to go for the $149 keyboard dock — more on that later. I will end this section by saying something I haven’t said of any of the competing tablets out there: this is first tablet that actually rivals the iPad on design, build, and size, while not just copying it.
Screen and speakers
One of the more outstanding features of the Eee Pad Transformer was that for just $399 you got a great-quality IPS display. And to distinguish the delta between the two a bit more, Asus has kindly decided to equip the Prime with a better 600-nit SuperIPS+ panel, which has been optimized for outdoor viewing. The 1280 x 800 Gorilla Glass screen is beyond bright and has very, very wide viewing angles; there’s no color distortion at any angle. You can toggle the SuperIPS+ mode on and off in the status control panel, though the plussed SuperIPS setting is really just designated for "outdoor use." The difference isn’t all that noticeable indoors — it’s a tad brighter when SuperIPS is switched on — however, when I took the tablet outside the difference was more drastic. Now, it doesn’t magically morph the screen into one that’s perfect for reading outdoors — this isn’t the PixelQi or Mirasol dream — but it was easier to spot camera controls in the sun with the SuperIPS+ setting enabled. Asus also brags of the display’s hydro-oleophobic coating, which is supposed to prevent against fingerprints. However, while it may cut down on the finger streaks a bit, after just an hour of use the black screen was covered in smudges.
The single speaker on the back right of the tablet continues to look like a Band-Aid to me, but it is decently loud. The placement, however, makes very little sense. It’s exactly where you’d expect your right hand to hold the tablet in landscape mode, so it’s very easy to muffle sound. If the tablet is docked in the keyboard, it won’t make much difference, but I’m not sure why Asus didn’t place it a bit higher on the side of the tablet.
This isn’t the PixelQi or Mirasol dream — but it was easier to spot camera controls in the sun
Finally! A company paid attention to a camera on a tablet
The Prime’s quad-core processor might be getting all the brand-new-spec attention, but don’t let the 8-megapixel line pass you by. Asus gave the F2.4-aperture lens, back-illuminated sensor some significant attention, and, well, the Prime now has the best camera of any tablet on the market. Now, of course, that isn’t saying much; the competition clearly hasn’t cared about cameras, and probably for good reason — who wants to take out a huge viewfinder to capture life’s special moments? All that said, the image quality is on par with most high-end smartphones. It’s not iPhone 4S good, but as you can see in the gallery below, shots are clear and well-lit. And that’s not something I’ve written about any other tablet camera in the last year. Autofocus is a bit slow, which is why you’ll see a few very out of focus shots; I ended up snapping before the tablet had zeroed in on this building. Also, some shots appear washed out. Naturally, the 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera doesn’t capture as strong shots, but it was fine for video chatting in Google Talk.
The rear camera is also capable of shooting 1080p video. Similar to stills, the cam actually captured well-lit video without any motion blur. It’s not exactly as high-def or crisp as I would have expected, but again, it’s the best I’ve seen on any tablet.
This is undoubtedly the part of the review you've been waiting for. The part where the new quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor (along with 1GB of RAM) gets put to the test, where we learn if that 5x-the-performance-of-Tegra-2 claim is really true, or at least if it translates to some tangible everyday performance benefits. Before I get into the experience, just some basic facts on the new processor since both Nvidia and Asus keep touting a few key features.
Tegra 3: some background
Firstly, while Nvidia is marketing the processor as a quad-core, there’s a fifth companion core that pitches in for low power consumption and non-performance-intensive tasks. Higher performance tasks are distributed across the four other cores so they don’t need to run at full speed. And it is my understanding that lower intensive tasks, like browsing, viewing images, etc. are automatically assigned to that core. On top of that, the chip has a 12-core GeForce GPU, which is what is supposed to provide desktop-class gaming.
Speaking of desktop, Asus has brought over its power setting modes from PCs. I’ve never really dreamed of setting a performance profile on my tablet, but in this case the difference between each of the settings is noticeable so it is something owners will want to pay attention to. The Normal mode provides the full performance mode of the 1.4GHz Tegra 3 chip (1.3GHz in multi-core mode), Balanced caps the CPU frequency to 1.2GHz, and Powersaver kicks it down to 1GHz in single or dual-core mode, 700MHz when three cores are active, and 600MHz when four cores are being used. I kept the tablet in Normal mode for much of this testing since it actually felt noticeably faster in that mode than in the others.
General OS, everyday performance
Going into this review my biggest question was does Android and the general software experience benefit at all from the extra cores and power? I soon learned that the answer to that isn’t that cut and dry. While Nvidia says the general UI and OS should feel faster, I have only found that to be the case some of the time. While you can see in the video that swipes across homescreens are swifter, the waiting that frequently occurs when opening menus or toggling between apps on Honeycomb tablets isn’t completely gone. I also didn’t notice much of a difference when it came to multitasking — it didn’t have a problem running multiple apps, but I didn’t notice a speed increase between the Prime and the original Transformer under heavy loads.
|SunSpider||Quadrant Overall||Quadrant CPU|
|Eee Pad Transformer Prime||1707.3ms||3132||5453|
|Eee Pad Transformer||2273.3ms||1610||3860|
|Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1||2374.2ms||2040||2744|
Similarly, I didn’t notice much of an improvement in the browser, in fact, I didn't think it was as fast as browser performance on some competing Android tablets. Nvidia is promising faster load times, but that hasn’t proven to be the case. Both the Xoom and the Prime loaded this very site in the same amount of time. Scrolling appears to be slightly smoother, but it’s still not as fast or as brisk as the iPad. Pinch-to-zoom gestures were also somewhat sputtery. I am tempted to blame this on the software and the lack of optimization.
As you would expect, the tablet has no problem playing local and streaming 720p or 1080p video. In fact, when I output the 1080p Battleship trailer to a 52-inch Samsung plasma TV, I actually felt like I was watching a Blu-ray movie. Images looked incredibly smooth and audio was completely in sync with the video. Asus also preloads Netflix, and HQ streaming performance was better than the performance I’ve seen on other Android 3.X tablets.
Gaming and graphics
It is here that the performance and those extra cores really shine. When we received the tablet, we also received a review packet that’s actually thicker than the tablet itself. In it, Nvidia outlines exactly how Tegra 3 makes the bundled games more beautiful, more detailed. And Nvidia's absolutely right; compared side-by-side with the standard version on Transformer, ShadowGun looks markedly better. The Transformer Prime tech demo (taken from the second level of the full game) adds steam effects to the loose pipes, more detailed textures, and an entire miniature lake to show off the water physics engine. You can wade through the pool — after clearing the area, of course — and watch the ripples. Although the lighting is also supposed to be better, I didn’t find that to be as noticeable.
If you were reading carefully, you’d notice a key phrase there: "tech demo." All the titles that really harness the Tegra 3 processor are either unapologetic technology showcases or abridged versions of a full game that show off the potential of the platform (Riptide is the most fleshed and definitely a fun jet ski racer). Make no mistake, the games are beautifully detailed and the framerates are smooth (exception here being the slow down during Nvidia’s own Glowball), but outside of these demos, the real games don’t yet benefit from the added power. And they probably won’t until more games are optimized — and that’s going to be a slower process. As of today, Tegra 3-optimized versions of Riptide, Zen Pinball, and Sprinkle are available in Tegra Zone app. ShadowGun will hit in the next couple of weeks, while DeVinci and Bladeslinger are promised by the end of December.
Another benefit is the addition of game controller support. Asus provided us with a $40 Logitech USB gamepad, but the Prime also supports wired Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 controllers — even the Wii remote (configurable via the NV WiiMote app). The supported games work well enough, but we didn’t have a lot of customization options — no look inversion or look sensitivity adjustments in ShadowGun, for example.
Note: Ross Miller, our resident gaming expert, was enlisted to help write the above section.
The games are beautifully detailed and the framerates are smooth
Android 4.0 is coming soon, but is that enough?
Asus has been very vocal about the forthcoming Ice Cream Sandwich update for the Transformer Prime, which doesn’t exactly bode well for the Honeycomb Android 3.2 software that the tablet currently runs. The software is nearly identical to what is now on the current Transformer and the Eee Pad Slider, save for two worthy tweaks. The first is the revamped Settings menu, which contains those aforementioned power controls and some other quick settings shortcuts. Secondly, Asus has added the ability to close apps from the recent app tray. Lenovo did something similar on the IdeaPad K1, and it’s really quite nice to be able to trim down that list. (In ICS, you are able to swipe them away, but the small "X" here isn’t really a bother.)
Other than that, Asus’ other Honeycomb changes still remain: there’s that fun Water Level background, which actually lowers the water based on the battery level, a few fancy widgets, and a handful of its own apps, including its @Vibe media software. In addition to the Nvidia Tegra Zone, Asus includes Netflix, Polaris Office, Zinio, SuperNote, and Press Reader. For an indepth look at any of these, make sure to check out my Eee Pad Slider or Eee Pad Transformer reviews.
This review will be updated when Ice Cream Sandwich is released for the Prime; however, while I do think the new operating system will fix a lot of Honeycomb’s issues, including some of the fit and finish aspects that were mentioned in the Galaxy Nexus review, I don’t anticipate it fixing one of the main problems I continue to have with Honeycomb: app selection. Though Nvidia has proved there’s a strong selection of games, the titles still trail behind what is available for iOS. My bigger issues come with some of the app staples. Companies like Twitter, The New York Times, Flipboard, and Facebook, which make some of the most popular iPad apps haven’t released Android tablet apps yet. Ice Cream Sandwich alone cannot fix the Android tablet problem. I continue to recommend the iPad over Android tablets to family and friends because I know they won’t go searching for certain apps and come up empty-handed or be forced to apps originally designed for phones on a larger screen.
Update: The ICS update for the Transformer Prime is now available. Check out our impressions of it here. The main conclusion is that it fixes a lot of the stability and speed issues, especially the ones centered around the browser. The quality and quantity of tablet apps in the Android Market, however, goes unchanged.
A sturdy keyboard with a very responsive touchpad tops off the hardware equation
As I said in the review of the original Transformer, adding a keyboard and touchpad to the Honeycomb experience adds something that really sets the OS and Transformer apart. The Prime’s new keyboard dock is thinner than the original’s (.4 inches thick versus .5), but the experience remains relatively unchanged. The tablet slides into the top of the keyboard, docks (albeit a bit more firmly now), and you’ve got yourself a Honeycomb netbook, complete with a mouse cursor when you put your finger on the touchpad.
The hardware, like the tablet itself, is well made and quite sturdy. The chiclet keyboard is almost identical to those on Asus’ netbooks; they keys are plasticy, yet provide decent feedback. Unfortunately, the right Shift key is still shrunken. However, the top row consists of Honeycomb-specific shortcuts, including a camera, media, and a browser keys. A home and search key live to the left of the space bar. Overall, the typing experience is quite nice; I typed the second half of this review on the panel with no problem. Although, Google Docs is a complete nightmare, specifically the editing capabilities, and I had to copy over my text to Polaris Office, which provides a more complete word processing experience. Sometimes it appears that not even Google seems to care about the quality of these apps.
A mouse and keyboard turn the tablet into a netbook capable of doing real work
The multitouch pad is also perfectly adequate for navigating Honeycomb. While the OS wasn’t built for mouse input, it works quite well. Two finger scrolling is also very smooth, though pinch-to-zoom isn’t supported. While I used the keyboard quite a bit, I found myself choosing to reach out and touch the screen over using the touchpad quite often. The dock houses a full-sized USB port, SD card slot, and Asus’ proprietary charging port. The tablet and dock can be folded up, which is when the Transformer Prime becomes the best looking netbook I’ve ever seen.
Inside the keyboard hides another battery
|Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1||6:37|
|Lenovo IdeaPad K1||7:12|
|*See chart below for clarification and added tests|
One of Nvidia’s key Tegra 3 selling points is "lowest power, highest performance." Basically, it claims that the added cores shouldn’t impact battery life. How does that hold up in real life? On The Verge Battery Test, which loops a series of 100 sites and downloads high resolution pictures with brightness set at 65 percent, the tablet’s 25Wh battery lasted five hours and nine minutes. That’s obviously not as long as the Galaxy Tab 10.1 or the iPad 2, but it translates to about six hours of continuous normal usage. I should note that I ran that test in "Normal" mode; lowering it down to "balanced" or "power saving" mode should increase battery life, and Asus has already promised a firmware update that should improve the already-solid endurance. (See update below.)
But, of course, the tablet has the keyboard for some great battery back-up. The keyboard houses an additional 22Wh battery, which when strapped to the tablet, let the entire package run for 10 hours and four minutes on that aforementioned battery test. You’re likely to get even more juice out of it when just watching a movie and if you use the tablet intermittently without the keyboard since the keyboard can actually recharge the tablet’s cell.
Oddly, the keyboard dock doesn’t come with its own charger, so if you want to charge them both at the same time you have to dock them together. It’s not convienent, and for $149 for a keyboard, I would expect Asus to include an extra AC adapter. It took close to four hours to charge back up both cells via the AC adapter.
|Transformer Prime (Normal Mode, Verge Battery Test)||5:09|
|Transfomer Prime (Power Saving, Verge Battery Test)||6:05|
|Eee Pad Transformer (Verge Battery Test)||7:27|
|Transformer Prime (Power Saving Mode, 720p video rundown)||9:19|
|Eee Pad Transformer (720p video rundown)||7:14|
|*All tests run at 65 percent screen brightness|
UPDATE: A big update on the battery life: On our standard test with brightness set at 65 percent and power saving mode switched on, the tablet lasted six hours and five minutes — exactly an hour longer than when it was set to normal mode. Still, that's an hour shorter than the original Transformer, which lasted seven hours and 27 minutes on the same standard test (the same 65 percent screen brightness setting, etc). Asus maintains that the screen brightness is the culprit here, and I tend to agree with them — 65 percent brightness on the Prime is higher than on the original Transformer and most other tablets. I don't have a light meter, so I cannot measure the exact brightness equality amongst the screens.
However, there's another explanation for the shorter run time on our standard test: when I ran a video rundown using a 720p clip with brightness set at 65 percent and in power saving mode, the tablet lasted nearly two hours longer — yes, it ran for nine hours and 19 minutes. (By the way, video playback was extremely smooth at that setting.) According to Nvidia, Tegra 3 is optimized for video and thus doesn't use the added cores when playing HD video. Nvidia and Asus hold that the standard Verge Battery Test script keeps all cores active (even in balanced or power saving mode), and that those test results would be representative of somebody sitting down and playing a game like ShadowGun which draws on all the cores.
I am currently rerunning all these tests with the dock attached to give you an idea how much time you'd get with the extra cell, but I think it's pretty clear: the Prime is capable of running for over nine hours on a charge (even longer with the dock attached) with the screen being plenty bright, you just have to be mindful of what you are actually doing with the tablet and the power saving modes. Regardless, the battery life can be very impressive for the thickness and for the power inside.
The Prime is an incredible piece of hardware. It has a marvelous display, form factor, the best camera on any tablet yet, and it’s new quad-core internal organ puts more graphics and gaming power in your hands than you’ll know what to do with (quite literally in fact, until the games start appearing). And then there’s also the added keyboard dock that adds even more battery life and really does transform the tablet into a highly-usable laptop.
But a true laptop replacement isn't about raw power; it's about the productivity that power enables, and Honeycomb just isn't up to the task. The operating system hasn't been optimized for that ridiculous processor or that beautiful display, the app selection remains pitiable at best, and it's just not that intuitive to use. Asus may have produced a brilliant piece of engineering at a price that's competitive with the iPad, but Android hasn't yet matched iOS when it comes to unlocking all that potential. Android 4.0 (or even Windows 8, which we expect to run on this very sort of hardware) might just rectify some of these issues, but one thing is for sure: the laptop of the post-PC world needs the software to match it.