In every tablet review I've written in the last couple of months, I've said the same thing over and over: "it's good, but the Nexus 7 is only $199 and Android 4.1 is a huge leap improvement over Ice Cream Sandwich, so you really should just buy a Nexus 7."
So when Asus announced that the Transformer Pad Infinity would be updated to Android 4.1 this fall, I decided to wait and review the tablet once it had been upgraded. Because the Transformer Pad Infinity, plus Android 4.1, might just be the most compelling Android tablet yet. In addition to specs that match or best the Nexus 7, from the Tegra 3 processor to Google's latest operating system, your extra cash outlay (the Infinity costs $499) also gets you a 10.1-inch, 1920 x 1200 display that's much higher-res than most of its competition, plus compatibility with the Transformer's classic keyboard dock.
The Transformer Pad Infinity always promised to be a great way to watch movies, but does Jelly Bean turn it into a truly killer tablet, worth the price premium over the Nexus 7 and ready to compete with the iPad? Let's find out.
More machine than toy
"Transformer" is an appropriate name for Asus's tablets, and not just for the docking functions – the dark, metallic device looks a bit like it might spring to life and beat you to death at any moment. Assuming it won't do so, I like the slightly aggressive design a lot — even if the dark colors and intense lines leave it right at home in Motorola's terrifying Droid commercials. Unlike the plasticky Pad 300, it's a serious feat of industrial design, a worthy successor to the beautiful Transformer Prime.
The body is incredibly well-constructed, with the same concentric-circled metal back we've seen on the other Transformer models — my review unit is a purple-y gray most of the time, but glistens silver if the light hits it right. The tablet's sides are flat before tapering toward the back, and the slight teardrop effect makes the device feel even thinner than its 8.5mm body. The whole thing is a bit hardened and cold in a way the soft-touch Nexus 7 isn't, but the Infinity feels like a piece of machinery where Google's tablet is more of a toy. At 1.3 pounds it's just about the same weight as the iPad, and as with the iPad it's not particuarly easy to wield in one hand but is quite comfortable in two.
The front of the Infinity is almost totally barren — there's a muted Asus logo you'll hardly even notice in the upper left corner, a tiny downward arrow that helps line up the dock, and two circular interruptions in the bezel for the light sensor and camera lens. The sides and back are a single sheet of aluminum, except for a strip of plastic at the top where the camera lens and a lot of the connection radios live (those radios don't do well with metal, as some Prime owners found). Around the sides are headphone, microSD, and Micro HDMI ports, and the proprietary dock connector is on the bottom. In a much-appreciated stroke of common sense, Asus has placed the power and volume buttons on opposite ends of the top edge, so your searching finger won't confuse them.
The Infinity is a good-looking and well-made tablet, though I'll admit to being partial to the Nexus 7, which feels more... home-y. The Infinity is also quite slick, and threatened to slip out of my hands a few times, but in fairness the tablet's build quality makes me think that a fall would hurt the floor more than the tablet.
A good idea that Android can't make the most of
The Infinity wouldn't be a Transformer without its $149.99 dock, which essentially adds the bottom half of a laptop to the tablet. You get a full, six-row QWERTY keyboard, a trackpad, and a big extra battery, turning the tablet into a productivity workhorse. The Infinity's dock is a fine one, but there's nothing particularly special about it: it's almost exactly like the one on the Transformer Pad 300, despite not being compatible. (You can use the Infinity's dock with a Transformer Prime, but inexplicably no other docks and devices are compatible.) It's relatively easy to dock, which I appreciate, and it connects snugly.
There are a bunch of function keys on the dock, which let you control settings or playback straight from the keyboard; about the only thing you can't do is turn the tablet on, which seems like an insane oversight. Still, I was able to use the Transformer purely as a laptop with almost no trouble. The keyboard itself is pretty cramped, though, and between the smaller keys and the slightly crowded layout it's not a great typing experience. Ditto the trackpad: it's fairly responsive, but the space is so small that scrolling or pinching is hard to do.
The Infinity's keyboard dock is a nice accessory to have, but using the ersatz netbook makes it clear that Android really isn't meant to be navigated with mouse and keyboard, and that carrying a dock that's nearly as heavy as the tablet kind of defeats the point of such a "portable" device. Plus, when the total package costs $650 or more, it's a lot harder to justify. I'm really excited about this type of device for Windows 8, which lends itself better to a combination of touch and keyboard / mouse input, but the Android-based Transformers definitely won't replace your laptop.
Display and speaker
The most recent generation of tablets, in the last six months or so, has been all about screens: higher resolutions, PPI competitions, AMOLED vs. LCD, and the like. That's a very good thing — I'd argue the display is the most important feature on any tablet, certainly moreso than the number of cores in your processor. The Transformer Pad Infinity's screen is among the best I've used, a gorgeous 1920 x 1200 IPS+ screen with vivid colors, fantastic viewing angles and accuracy. I've been really into Planet Earth recently, and watching it in 1080p on the Infinity was pretty mind-blowing. The screen also has a really nice brightness range: it gets dim enough that it won't burn your retinas in a dark room, but also bright enough to be usable outdoors (the + in IPS+ is all about brightness). The screen is well-laminated to the glass, so it feels really close to your finger — that makes everything more immersive, and makes it feel more responsive as well.
Unfortunately, no manufacturer seems especially interested in improving its speakers. Like too many tablets, the Infinity has a single, anemic, backfiring mono speaker, which gets drowned out by even a low-powered fan. You can help it a little by cupping your right hand around the edge and pointing sound toward yourself a bit, but that makes the audio both louder and uglier. The speaker itself sounds all right, clear with surprising dynamic range, but it's weak enough that you're going to need headphones or external speakers just about all the time.
Software and performance
Jelly Bean might not be a magic bullet after all
After an update last week, the Infinity is one of only a couple of tablets running Android 4.1. Jelly Bean here is still very much the same as Ice Cream Sandwich, though, unlike the phone-style interface on the Nexus 7. Google's latest OS brings a litany of performance and feature enhancements, but upgrading the Infinity wasn't quite the revolutionary action I anticipated. Yes, Google Now is great, and it works well on the Infinity save for a couple of performance hiccups. But actually, that's the underwhelming thing: the Jelly Bean upgrade didn't solve the performance, lag, and stuttering issues that are all too endemic to Android. The Infinity still lags a bit when launching or closing apps, and scrolling in the browser is still pretty clunky. Everything's better, for sure, and thanks to the 1.6GHz Tegra 3 processor this is as capable a gaming tablet as I've used. Still, the Infinity's general performance still lags behind the iPad's fluidity and smoothness, and even that of the Nexus 7.
Asus doesn't add much to the software, opting for small tweaks rather than huge overhauls. The changes it does make are small and sort of superfluous, like redesigning the three system icons and changing the default wallpaper. Asus also adds a handful of apps to the device, most of which I never opened except to see what they were: there's the @vibe Fun Center (that's actually what it's called), Asus's MyCloud and MyNet apps, the cool SuperNote app that lets you create neat-looking scrapbooks, and a few others. As always, I'd choose a clean install in a heartbeat, but the bloatware portion here is reasonable enough.
Of course, you could probably preload every single good tablet app onto a tablet and it still wouldn't qualify as "a lot of bloatware." It's surprising, and a little worrisome, that after all this time there are still so few good tablet apps for Android devices. Twitter and Rdio are total eyesores, Netflix is slow and buggy, and there are a lot of apps that simply don't exist on Android. (Games are one of the few bright spots, and are pretty well-represented in the Play Store.) And that's all not to mention the fact that the high-res screen makes everything look even smaller and more spread out. A big, 1080p display on an Android device is great for watching movies, but it's worse for a lot of other things.
A quick note on the camera, despite the fact that I'm still firmly of the belief that no one in their right mind should take pictures with their tablet. If you disagree (or are not in your right mind) you'll be happy with the Infinity's 8-megapixel rear shooter. It's the same camera I tested on the Transformer Pad — much better in low light than most tablets, and quite nearly usable in good lighting, but still a long way behind even a bad point-and-shoot. The camera app is fast whether you're shooting 1080p video or the 8-megapixel stills, and there's surprisingly little shutter lag. But seriously: don't take pictures with your tablet. You'll look ridiculous, and in most situations so will the pictures.
There's a 25Wh battery inside the Transformer Pad Infinity, plus another 19Wh in the keyboard dock. The two pieces together lasted me a solid six days of regular use — tweeting periodically throughout the day, watching a good chunk of the third season of The West Wing, doing some work every once in a while, and streaming lots of music. Without the dock connected, I got about three and a half days from the Infinity. The dock's battery drains first when they're connected, and it actually charges the tablet — you just drop the tablet in when it's dead, and since I left the dock plugged in most of the time I've never once had to charge the tablet itself.
Charging $499 for your tablet is a dangerous move. If the Transformer Pad Infinity cost less than the iPad, or included the dock in the $499 price, it could be really compelling — the screen and build quality are phenomenal, and even though Jelly Bean didn't solve all its performance problems this is certainly one of the most capable and powerful Android tablets I've tested. It's a better tablet than the Acer A700, which has the same 1920 x 1200 screen but a much more bland design, and the Infinity is certainly better than the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1. If the Infinity could match, say, the $379 price of the Transformer Pad, I'd be sold — though I'd still give the Sony Xperia Tablet S and its universal remote capabilities a long look.
But for the price, it's really hard to recommend anything over the iPad. The iPad's screen is at least as good, and its app selection absolutely laps Android's. It's also just faster, and smoother; apparently it takes more than just an Android 4.1 upgrade to fix what's wrong with the Infinity. No, there's no equivalent dock for Apple's tablet, but it's not a perfect complement to Android. For all the Transformer Pad Infinity does right, your $500 is better spent on an iPad. On the flip side, you might be better off pocketing $300 of that cash and buying a Nexus 7 — it's still the smoothest and most usable Android tablet out there, even if its screen can't measure up to the Infinity.
If you want one device that's both a tablet and a laptop, I'd wait a few weeks to see what Windows 8 has in store. From what I've seen, there are a few convertible devices that might have a chance to replace your two devices — one's even called a Transformer.