|At a glance|
|Product||ASUS Eee Pad Transformer (TF101) [Website]|
|Summary||Most inexpensive Android Honeycomb based 10" tablet with optional docking keyboard.|
|Pros||• Android 3.1 makes this tablet speedy.|
• Excellent IPS LCD Display.
• Cheap compared to competition.
|Cons||• Mediocre standby battery life without keyboard dock |
• Mixed results for Flash support
• Rear-facing camera takes mediocre pictures
• Chews through battery while sleeping
Typical Price: $300 Buy From Amazon
The ASUS Eee Pad Transformer was one of the first Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) tablets announced, and has been hard to find until recently.
ASUS has mentioned in interviews that availability problems have been due to the Japan Earthquake. But I'm sure part of the problem is one of the Transformer's key features: its $399 price.
The Transformer the first tablet to hit a full $100 less than the iPad and be made by a reputable hardware manufacturer (sorry Viewsonic). It has quite the specs as well, so let's take a look at what $399 gets you.
Hardware and Features
The Transformer's key specs are summarized in the boxes to the right, but I'll highlight a few. The Transformer's CPU is a dual-core 1 GHz nVidia Tegra 2, which is also used by the Acer Iconia Tab A500 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1.
The 1 GB of RAM is twice as much as the iPad 2, but I found there is only 512 MB available to user processes.
The $399 model comes with 16 GB of flash storage or you can pay $100 more and get 32 GB. Both models have single-band 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR radios.
There are no 3G or 4G versions available, or as far as I know, planned. But, as the callout diagram below shows, there is a SIM card slot, so there must be some space inside for the companion radio.
The diagram below from the user manual shows all the ports, controls and I/O. You don't see the accelerometer, light sensor, gyroscope, compass and GPS that are squirreled away inside. You also don't see the stereo speakers called out, but they are on the side edges of the tablet (when in landscape orientation).
The tablet itself doesn't have standard or micro USB connectors, but the supplied docking connector cable will connect it to a host machine via USB 2.0.
The keyboard / dock that allows this tablet to live up to its name, tries to provide the best of both (tablet / netbook) worlds. It also will charge the tablet's battery from its own so that you can undock with a full charge.
Speaking of battery charging, it's done via USB. So if you already have a USB wall-wart in your road-warrior kit, you'll just need to bring the Transformer's special cable. It will even charge from a standard USB port as long as it is sleeping.
The dock has been in the same state of "availability" as the tablet until recently. So it was unavailable at retailers when I started the review. Now that it has come back into stock, I'm going to get one and will update the review when I do.
In the meantime, I should note that its basic design is much better than the Acer Iconia Tab W500's, which doesn't allow the screen to be moved at all, much less closed.
Overall, the Transformer is a decent piece of hardware. It's about as heavy as an iPad 1, so your arm will get tired holding it for extended periods of time. But I can find little fault in the design, otherwise.
The 10.1" 1280x800 LED Backlit IPS Panel supports "ten finger multi-touch" and is spec'd at having a 178° viewing angle. I didn't measure the viewing angle, but I'd say it's the best panel I've seen on an Android tablet. This includes the Galaxy Tab 10.1, which I've had the opportunity to spend some time with in my day job.
I received the ASUS Transformer with version 3.0 of Honeycomb loaded. Out of the box, there was a software update to 3.0.1, which was meant to patch some security holes in the OS. Overall Honeycomb 3.0 provided a terrible experience on the Transformer, and I nearly returned the device.
Thankfully, ASUS soon announced (via Twitter) that 3.1 would be available in "early June", so I held out and waited on reviewing the Transformer. ASUS' "early June" meant 12:01 on June 1st, as I had an update pending when I woke up that morning. Honeycomb 3.1 is a significant improvement over 3.0, bringing with it several key features and performance improvements.
Out of the box, the Wi-Fi connection was set to never disconnect from the network, meaning it just sat there draining battery during the night. Digging through the settings in the Wi-Fi panel yielded a rather oddly-worded control panel, with the options to "Never" turn off, "Never when plugged in" and "When screen turns off".
I chose the middle option, which sets some arbitrary amount of time between the screen sleeping and disconnecting. I found that even after 15 minutes, the tablet was still connected, but finally disconnected after letting it sit for over an hour.
As you might imagine, battery life from the internal 24 Wh (3300 mAH 7.4 volt) Li-Ion battery pack was pretty abysmal until I made that change. After the tweak the Transformer lost about 1% of battery life per hour in standby. That equates to about 5 days of standby, given no use.
That's significantly worse that the iPad (which I haven't charged in two weeks and is at 20% battery), and is also worse than initial reports on the Galaxy Tab 10.1. This is probably the largest fault of the Tranformer, although somewhat forgiveable, seeing as it's priced $100 less than both the iPad and the Galaxy Tab 10.1.
Part of the poor battery life could also be attributed to the amount of "crapware" that ASUS has running in the background that can't be removed. I installed Advanced Task Killer (a third party task manager app) that showed nine applications running in the background at any given time on a factory-reset installation, of which at least three are installed by ASUS. This is part of the reason I build my own PCs, and am looking forward to being able to root my Transformer, so maybe I can recover some battery life.
The Honeycomb experience itself is nice, although getting used to the how the "back button" works in Android is a bit strange coming from iOS. Since the back button is global, it will switch applications for you, meaning if you open a PDF from the web in Adobe PDF Reader, and hit the back button, you'll go back to the browser. I wouldn't call this a "bad" experience, just different.
ASUS has made a number of minor changes to Honeycomb's UI, in addition to the three pre-loaded apps. Nearly every place where Google thought it was a good idea to use a glowing blue color, ASUS has changed that to white. In showing this to other Android 3.0 users, they all felt this was a great modification, although I didn't really mind it on the Xoom and Galaxy Tab. Honeycomb's stock task manager is still in effect though, and is reminiscent of Windows-esque task bar, which I think could have been done better.
Widgets are a big part of the Android experience, and Honeycomb 3.1 added resizing of those widgets. This makes many of them signifcantly more useful, and I now have a home screen with my work and personal Gmails, along with my calendar.
I wish iOS 5 was introducing something like this. But widgets do use battery life, so Apple continues to resist putting them in. I'm sure if Honeycomb gains enough traction, though, Apple will put them in. Just like they took Android 2.x's notification system for iOS 5.
Another spot that saw significant improvement in 3.1 was the web browser. Honeycomb 3.0's browser was "faster" than the iPad 2 in loading pages. But that was if you could deal with all its other deficiencies and slowness. Trying to re-arrange tabs was an exercise in frustration and navigation on a page was jerky and difficult. All this has been resolved, and 3.1's browser is silky smooth.