The Asus Transformer Prime has been the standard-setting Android tablet ever since it came out last year. It's well-made and beautifully designed, has a screaming fast Nvidia Tegra 3 processor, and after an update it runs Android 4.0, a much-improved version of the operating system.
At $499, though, the Transformer Prime competes directly with the iPad, and that's a hard race to win. The new Transformer Pad (TF300T) costs a more palatable $379, putting it in competition with the Galaxy Tab 2, iPad 2, and a couple of other 10-inch tablets. It's the little brother in Asus's tablet lineup, replacing the original Transformer as the more affordable option. To get to such an appealing price point, Asus did make a few sacrifices: the Transformer Pad's processor, display and build quality are all a step below the Transformer Prime. From the keyboard dock to the Tegra 3, though, the Transformer bloodline remains strong.
A lot of Android tablets have come along since the Transformer Prime, but none have unseated it as the best of the bunch. With few sacrifices and a lower price, can the Transformer Pad reign over the mid-tier market as well? Let's find out.
Hardware / design
If it ain't broke...
Broadly speaking, the Transformer Pad looks like... well, it looks like a tablet. Since a tablet is basically all screen and bezel, it's hard for any device to look notably different from any other. The Transformer Pad does have a nice-looking back, to be fair: its tree trunk-like ringed pattern reflects light really nicely, and looks and feels a lot better than the slippery back on most other plastic tablets. It's not the metallic beauty the Prime is, but it's quite well made, very solid and sturdy. The tablet is available in Royal Blue, Iceberg White, and Torch Red — mine was Royal Blue.
Not exactly stunning, but still easy on the eyes
Despite the lesser materials, the Transformer Pad is both thicker and heavier than the Transformer Prime, though not by much — 1.39 pounds to the Prime's 1.29, and 9.9mm (0.39 inches) thick rather than 7.9mm (.31inches). It's still slimmer and lighter than the original Transformer, though, and I didn't notice it feeling any bigger than most other tablets I've tested.
|Dimensions (in.)||Thickness||Weight (lb.)|
|Asus Transformer Pad TF30||10.4 x 7.1||0.39||1.39|
|Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime||10.4 x 7.1||0.31||1.29|
|Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1||10.1 x 6.9||0.38||1.3|
|Acer Iconia Tab A510||10.4 x 6.9||0.40||1.50|
|Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1||10.1 x 6.9||0.34||1.20|
|Apple iPad (3rd gen., 2012)||9.5 x 7.3||0.37||1.44 |
On every surface but the back, the Transformer Pad is pretty nondescript. As you hold the tablet horizontally, there's an Asus logo above the top left corner of the display, with a proximity sensor and camera lens centered above the screen. The only other blemish on the front — I call it a blemish because I tried to wipe it off a few times — is a downward-pointing arrow that indicates where you line the tablet up to insert it into the keyboard dock (more on that in a minute).
I almost always complain about one port location or another, so it's nice to know someone out there does it right — everything on the Transformer Pad feels like it's in exactly the right place. The single-button volume control is at the top of the left edge, just above the micro HDMI port and micro SD card slot; the power button is right around the corner, on the top. That means you won't mix up the two buttons and crank up the volume when you're trying to turn the tablet off, a problem I have all too often. The headphone jack is on the right side, where it will almost never be in the way as you hold the tablet horizontally (though it could get in the way in portrait mode). The dock connector, obviously, is on the bottom.
The only thing that's poorly placed is the single speaker. It's located on the back — itself a bad decision, since sound is directed away from you — and it's placed exactly where the fingers on your right hand will naturally gravitate as you hold the Transformer Pad sideways. The speaker is loud enough to blast through your fingers, and actually outputs pretty good, clear sound, but it gets awfully quiet — it's kind of fun to mess with the sound by moving your hand around, but if you want to actually listen to something you'll have to move your hand to some awkward spot to keep the speaker free.
There are three primary spec differences between Transformers Prime and Pad, and the most noticeable is the display. The Transformer Prime has a 10.1-inch, 1280 x 800 IPS+ display; the Transformer Pad's has no plus. The difference? Brightness. The Transformer Prime's screen gets exceptionally bright, to the point where it's considerably more usable outdoors than most tablets — though it's still far from a good experience. The Transformer Pad has a much more average display: it's reasonably bright, with super-wide viewing angles and accurate colors, but it's no more readable outside than any other tablet. Which is to say, of course, that it's not readable outside at all.
Still, the Transformer Pad's display is only a downgrade compared to the Transformer Prime or the iPad. Against most other Android tablets, it's just unspectacular. You can definitely see individual pixels, and small text doesn't look great, but it's totally usable.
Better than most tablets — but that's not hard work
If you've read our tablet reviews before — hell, if you've used a tablet before — you know what to expect from a tablet camera. That's why I'm happy to report that the Transformer Pad actually over-delivers in this area, at least slightly. Its 8-megapixel rear camera has a nicely bright f/2.2 aperture, and does better in low light than a lot of other tablets; it's still not nearly in the class of even a low-end point-and-shoot. In good lighting photos are pleasingly sharp — many tablets produce pictures that are so soft they appear out of focus, but the Transformer Pad does a nice job of locking on. Quality is still nothing to write home about, and there's some noise even in the best of conditions, but it's better than I anticipated. The 1.2-megapixel front camera takes decent shots as well, for what it is: it's brighter than many other tablets, but it's still nothing special.
The Transformer Pad also shoots 1080p video, but I'm not particularly impressed. Footage comes out really soft, and dynamic range is so poor that even slight differences in lighting get blown out in the shot. That's all fairly normal for a tablet camera, but given the improvements Asus made I expected a little better.
The camera app is easily among the best I've used on an Android device. It's incredibly simple, with all the necessary controls clustered by the shutter release, so you can do everything with only your right thumb while using your other hand just to steady the tablet. You get some manual control, though in fairness you can only do so much to improve mediocre photos. The app's a little slow, though: it takes longer than expected to load or to switch between modes, and refreshes slowly enough that if you move the tablet around you'll notice the viewfinder lagging considerably. Autofocus also takes a half-second to lock, but the shutter lag is pretty minimal once it's focused.
The Transformer Prime was one of the first devices to be upgraded to Android 4.0, and we noticed a considerable difference from Honeycomb: the Transformer Prime immediately became faster and more stable, and the core apps gained a new level of polish. From Gmail to Chrome (which isn't a core app, but is absolutely the first one you should download), Android feels more tablet-optimized than ever.
The Transformer Pad comes with Android 4.0 from the get-go, and as we've seen over and over since the Prime's upgrade, Ice Cream Sandwich is just a really solid tablet operating system. There's far less lag as you move around home screens or open and close apps on the Transformer Pad — it's not a completely fluid experience yet, but it's leaps and bounds beyond Honeycomb's capabilities.
Android 4.0 is a huge improvement, but it doesn't solve the apps problem
Asus doesn't change much, either, opting to leave Ice Cream Sandwich as vanilla as possible. Well, let's call it French Vanilla: the company did redesign the three persistent system buttons and the quick settings menu, but those are fairly minor and cosmetic. There's a setting added so you can take a screenshot by holding the multitasking button, which is handy. Otherwise, the user experience isn't changed at all, so you're getting Ice Cream Sandwich. Which is just like Honeycomb, really, except it works well.
The apps situation is another story. Android 4.0 revamps some of the core apps on the device, and makes them work quite well on the larger screen — like Gmail, which is now an experience completely unrivaled by anything on iOS. Asus adds some non-stock apps to the equation as well, like the Polaris Office suite, the MyNet DLNA app, and a web storage app shockingly called WebStorage. Most will likely sit unopened, but one is quite cool: SuperNote is a nifty note-taking app that lets you combine text, drawings, photos, and more into a single notebook. You can annotate pictures and create scrapbooks, and then export them via email or to the Gallery app.
Beyond SuperNote and a few others, the third-party app situation on Android tablets is still pretty dire. I love apps like Rdio, Spotify, Simplenote, the New York Times, Flipboard, and Facebook, and those apps simply don't have good tablet equivalents for Android. All too often, you'll end up using phone-optimized apps that are both ugly and difficult to use on a screen this large.
There is a small silver lining for the Transformer Pad, though, thanks to its Tegra 3 processor. A number of games have been tweaked to take advantage of the processor, and when you get a Tegra-friendly game it's pretty remarkable how well it plays. I played the Tegra-optimized Shadowgun as well as the standard Android version of the same game, and though both worked well, the game was more fluid, more detailed, and generally smoother when it had been optimized for Nvidia's chip. There aren't a ton of these games out there, and they tend to be graphics-intensive first-person shooters, but when you come across one it's a really nice improvement.
The Transformer Pad's version of the Tegra 3 is clocked slightly lower than the Transformer Prime (1.2GHz rather than 1.4), but I can't say I noticed the difference. It plays games incredibly smoothly, and was more responsive to touches and swipes in Temple Run than some of the other tablets I've tested. It had no problem running a dozen or more apps at once, and pinching and zooming worked really well. Streaming or playing 1080p video went without a hitch, and the Skyfall and Gatsby trailers both look great on the 10.1-inch screen. There are still a few stutters and lags, especially as you open and close apps, but years of testing and dozens of tablets have taught me that's an Android problem rather than an issue with any one device.
I'm increasingly convinced that the Android browser just isn't very good, and a tablet's processor doesn't really make a difference. The Transformer Pad doesn't seem to load pages any faster than any other tablet, and does the same odd hang-at-80-percent thing as most of its competitors. The Transformer Pad does scroll a little more fluidly and it zooms smoothly, but it's not a noticeably better experience. Chrome is a little better, but again, it's better on every device — it seems like Android browser performance only gets but so good.
|Quadrant||Vellamo||GLB 2.1 Egypt (720p)||GLB 2.1 Egypt (1080p)||AnTuTu|
|Asus Transformer Pad TF300T||3,623||1,358||63fps||31fps||9,614|
|Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1||2,590||849||28fps||14fps||4,911|
Our benchmarks tell basically the same story. None of the scores we saw were mind-blowing, but all were above the level required for a device to run well and most scores were near the top of the tablet spectrum anyway.
The Tegra 3 is a monster
Finally, you can actually get things done with a tablet
The Transformer Pad's transformational abilities wouldn't be particularly interesting in a Michael Bay movie, but its conversion from tablet to laptop is a nice trick. It happens via an optional $149 dock, which connects to the Transformer Pad via the dock connector, and two other slots on the bottom of the tablet — it's a lot easier to dock than the original Transformer, which always felt like it was going to break when you snapped it into the dock.
Once they click into place, the two pieces hold together tightly and actually start to work like a laptop. You're basically using an Android 4.0 netbook, for better and for worse. The dock adds a full USB port and SD card slot to the device, but the keys are kind of cramped and a little mushy. There are a lot of function keys for navigating around the tablet — you can control the volume, switch apps, search, and even tweak some settings all from the keyboard. One thing you can't do, at least by default? Turn the Transformer Pad on — that requires a press on the tablet itself, which is a little frustrating. You can change this in settings, and you should. The trackpad is smooth and useful: two-fingered scrolling works smoothly through web pages and moving around in apps is easy, though Android is clearly more designed for touch than for mousing around.
I wouldn't call the Transformer Pad + dock combination a laptop replacement, but it's a great thing to have for travel or for working in a tight space. The dock weighs 1.2 pounds and adds some definite girth to the setup, but it's still lighter and more portable than just about any laptop. My hunch is that Windows 8 is going to be a better operating system for this kind of convertible device than Android is, but it's still a great option to have for an Android tablet.
One oddity: the Transformer Pad's keyboard dock isn't compatible with any of Asus' other tablets. In fact, none of the docks are cross-compatible, so if you're going to get a couple of tablets you're also going to need a couple of docks.
The other thing inside the Transformer Pad's keyboard dock is a big, 16.5Wh battery. There's a 22Wh battery inside the Transformer Pad anyway, and when you combine the two you're looking at a tablet you won't have to charge more than a couple of times a week even with heavy use. Best of all, the dock charges the tablet when the two are connected, so you'll often take the Transformer Pad out of its dock with more battery than it had before. The Transformer Prime's battery is even larger, though (are you catching the trend here?), with a 25Wh cell in the tablet and 22Wh more inside the keyboard dock.
There are three different performance modes on the device: Balanced, Power Saving, and Performance. Balanced is the default setting, and it's where I used the tablet the most — there wasn't a huge difference between Balanced and Performance, though I did notice intensive games stuttered a bit more in the Power Saving mode. Since Balanced mode was how I used the tablet, it's also how I tested the battery.
Put simply, it's long. The Verge Battery Test crashed the Android browser every ten minutes, so it was no use, but when I set brightness to 65 percent and streamed Netflix over Wi-Fi, the Transformer Pad lasted 8 hours and 10 minutes — that was Doctor Zhivago, The Game, Snatch, and a few minutes of Big Daddy all on a single charge (I got a little desperate with the last choice). In more normal use, this is a tablet you're only going to charge every few days, and it's a battery you'll never need to worry about except on the longest of flights and road trips.
That's all without the keyboard dock, too. The dock 's battery is about two-thirds the size of the Transformer Pad's internal capacity, and unsurprisingly gives you about two-thirds more battery life — I got 12 hours and 45 minutes of battery life, adding The Hunt for Red October and Insomnia to my one-charge viewing list.
There's one small caveat with the Transformer Pad's longevity: the Tegra 3 is optimized to be extremely power-efficient on things like video, which doesn't require all of the processor's cores. Things like gaming (or the Verge Battery Test, as we discovered with the Transformer Prime) keep all the cores active, which drains the battery considerably faster. Whether you're playing Shadowgun or streaming Netflix, though, the Transformer Pad's going to last a long time.
Asus made a clever decision with the Transformer tablets: it made two tablets at two distinctly different price points, but the differences between the two are small enough that most people won't notice. The people who don't know or care about the difference between 35 and 60 nits of brightness or between a 1.2 and 1.4GHz Tegra 3 processor will likely buy the Transformer Pad, because it's cheaper. Those who want the best of the best will spend a little more and buy the Transformer Prime.
At a slightly lower price point the Transformer Pad would be an incredible steal, but even at $379 it's a great deal for what is really a great tablet. It performs and looks better than the $399 Galaxy Tab 2 or the $449 Acer Iconia Tab A510, and the keyboard dock is a huge advantage as well. To be fair, it's still a hard sell over the iPad 2, which now sells for $399, just because Apple's tablet app ecosystem is so superior to Google's. Asus does have the keyboard docks on its side, though, and Apple's many similar options don't measure up to the ease of use and tight integration.
Don't buy the Transformer Pad to replace your laptop — it won't. And don't buy it for its selection of tablet apps, because Android still lags iOS in that department. But if you want an Android tablet and don't need the very best specs money can buy, the Transformer Pad is a great choice.
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