Anyone shopping for a tablet now-a-days has plenty to choose from. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is pretty on the eyes, while the Toshiba Thrive is clearly aimed at hardcore power users who don’t mind being the fattest kid in town. The rest of the bunch fall somewhere in the middle and pretty much give you the same amount of features found throughout the rest of the market with a little different look. There is one tablet that truly stands out from the pack though, and that’s the Eee Pad Transformer TF101 from Asus. An IPS display and HDMI out with 16GB of memory will only set you back $400. Throw in a truly functional and one of a kind dockable keyboard and you have the only actual unique tablet on the market. But do these features truly set it apart from the competition? With Honeycomb running version 3.2, did Android catch up to iOS? Read on to find out.
It isn’t easy to design a truly unique tablet. After all, how much can you really set yourself apart from the crowd when the entire front of your slate is covered in glass? Fortunately, Asus was able to throw a little of their own design into the Transformer. The front is mostly covered in glass with a sliver of a brown metal trim running along the edges. Around these edges you’ll find your power button, volume control, headphone jack, mini-HDMI port, MicroSD slot, stereo spakers and proprietary port for charging and data sync. The proprietary port also connects the dock, along with two locking sections, to the Transformer for full keyboard use.
At first glance, the Transformer looks a little wider than most other tablets, even in the Android realm. Taking out the 1280 x 800 display which is common among Android tablets, you still have a wide footprint. The reasoning behind this lies in the ability for the Transformer to chance into a netbook with the keyboard dock. This extra width provides a little bit more breathing room for the keyboard, which is 92% of a full size keyboard. The extra width doesn’t make the tablet harder to hold or use, at least in my opinion. The weight and thickness, while not the slimmest, don’t affect much in daily use. Though the iPad 2 is both slimmer and lighter, the Transformer feels less dense and manages to be comfortable to hold in normal tablet use.
With a tablet of this caliber only costing $400, where could Asus possibly cut costs to keep the price down? Well, some of that answer lies on the rear of the tablet. While the textured plastic isn’t terrible to look at or touch, by no means is this in the same league as the BackBerry Playbook or iPad 2 when it comes to a quality of feel standpoint. The Transformer isn’t cheap, but this isn’t going to excite anyone. This textured plastic rear does give this a more rugged feel compared to the fragile feeling iPad 2, though the PlayBook manages to feel rugged and premium at the same time with the soft, rubber feeling backside.
In fact, even though Asus makes arguably the most reliable and well built computers, I’m a little let down by their tablet quality. On the bottom of my display, there’s a pretty substantial gap where the glass meets the metal trim. It’s actually a big enough gap to show off a glimpse of the internals of the docking port. Unfortunately that isn’t my only compaint. When holding the tablet in landscape mode, the left side creaks whenever there is pressure from the rear. There’s clearly some sort of mis-alignment or gap in that spot. These issues are frustrating, regardless of the arguably bargain price of the Transformer.
Display and Audio
The most important part of any tablet lies in the display. The Motorola XOOM had a terribly cheap and poorly calibrated lcd display which really hindered Motorola’s ability to market the XOOM as a premium tablet. Fortunately Transformer owners don’t have that same issue. The 10.1-inch, 1280 x 800 IPS display is fantastic by any means, only being surpassed by the new Galaxy Tab 10.1 and arguably the iPad 2. In all reality though, those 3 tablets are at the top of the heap. Viewing angles are superb, colors aren’t overly saturated, and images look silky smooth. Not all is perfect though. The glass display is highly reflective, and the display itself doesn’t get overly bright. This is a common complaint in these early stages of the tablet market, but after using the PlayBook with its extremely bright display, it’s hard not to feel let down in some way. After all, the PlayBook has one of the brightest screens available, which makes outdoor viewing a non-issue. It’s gives you a sense of freedom, which more tablet makers need to utilize.
Being halfway intelligent, Asus placed the stereo speakers on the sides of the Transformer as oppose to the rear facing that so many tablet makers seem to use. While not as optimal as the PlayBook’s front tacing speakers in the bezel, the side firing placement is the next best. These stereo speakers do disappoint though, sounding tinny and slightly harsh a higher volumes. They do get fairly loud and can fill a smaller room with sound.
Video chat is pretty relevant these days, so Asus threw in some complimentary cameras. a 1.2MP shooter up front is paired with a 5MP rear camera on the rear with no flash. There’s nothing really to write home about except the positioning of the rear camera in the middle top of the rear keeps your fingers out of view.
There are a couple of reasons Asus wanted to keep the price of the Transformer down. Throw out market penetrability and it’s actually pretty clear. The keyboard dock is what really makes the Transformer stand out from the pack, and at $150, the initial tablet needs to be cheap enough to get the keyboard. Should you spend that much on an accessory for your tablet that basically turns it into a netbook though? Your financial situation is your own business, but I say yes, oh yes.
To get this out of the way, typing on a tablet for anything meaningful still isn’t a superb experince. It’s not nearly as natural as pecking at those hard keys we’ve all grown up with. The benfits of a keyboard are pretty obvious, but as I’ve said before, the bluetooth keyboard situation with other tablets is a mess. The constant back and forth between the tablet and keyboard make the couple frustrating to use, and just simply unpleasant. That isn’t the case here.
The keyboard dock is fully integrated into the system. Besides doubling the battery life to 16 hours or so, the keyboard has a nice little touchpad that really makes the experience meaningful. You don’t have to go back and forth from keys to screen anymore. Rather the approach is just like you’re used to from any laptop. The touchpad is responsive and effortless, as long as you remember to use the mouse the same way you’d use your fingers on screen, meaning you drag down web pages and flick left and right to navigate from screen to screen.
The rest of the keyboard is equally impressive. Besting the actual tablet from a quality standpoint, the metal chassis and plastic (same as the backside of tablet) underside feel excellent to the touch. The docking hinge is metal as well, and once you get the hang of how to dock the tablet, it’s easy as pie. There’s a little locking slider that unlocks the tablet when you’re ready to drop the keyboard. Speaking of the keyboard, Asus opted for the popular chiclet layout and came away with a pretty impressive setup. Keys are well spaced, and there simply isn’t any keyboard flex whatsoever. The top row is full of Android functional keys with a back button, browser, camera, settings, and music playback among others. It’s just extremely well thought out, except they don’t have a dedicated email key, which you’d think would be on the top of the list.
Using the Transformer as a netbook works pretty well. At 2.9 pounds, the combined setup is extremely portable and easy to take wherever you go. The same can’t be said for a tablet and a portable bluetooth keyboard, which will never be as simple as this. Beyond being fully implemented, the keyboard dock also has a full size SD card slot and two full size USB ports. For portable storage fans, my Toshiba Canvio portable hard drive had no problems sharing its 500GB of storage.
Typing on the keyboard is also a pretty smooth transition, with some caveats. It’s obviously smaller than a full size keyboard (92%), so there is a little learning curve when transitioning between the two. Also, due to the smaller footprint, the trackpad will get some action from your thumb and palms if you aren’t careful. If you keep your thumbs up, or disable the trackpad (dedicated key for this too), you won’t have a problem though as I typed most of this review using it.
We all have some general knowledge about Android’s operating system. It’s closer to a normal desktop environment than any other tablet. It’s excellent in some areas, but was lacking in the app department and polish. The 3.2 update has brought some improvements in the system, but the overall polish is still nowhere near what iOS and even RIM offers.
Simple tasks such as moving around icons leave a lot to be desired. When dragging an icon across the screen, the icon is usually lagging about an inch behind your finger. The system still gets its hangups when operating for a long time without a restart. It almost feels like an old Windows machine where you need to restart the tablet every couple of days to make sure the performance doesn’t lag too much. I’ve never needed to do that on an iPad.
Other areas of Android disappoint as well. Try to type anything in the browser that isn’t in the address bar. Expect anywhere from a one second delay to upwards of 10 seconds at times. Very unbearable. Other areas have improved though, such as Flash performance.
Asus was nice, and again separated itself in the market with some of the pre-loaded apps on the Transformer. The Polaris Office suite is the best I’ve used yet, easily beating out Docs to Go. It handles Word, Spreadsheet, and PowerPoint documents from Microsoft Office and Google Docs. It’s also one of the better looking and more logically designed tablet office suites I’ve come across. The MyNet app is a DLNA controller that lets you push content from the Eee Pad to DLNA compliant devices on the same network. The Asus weather and email widgets are pleasing to the eyes as well, though the latter doesn’t connect with Gmail for some reason.
It may have been on the market for a couple of months by now, but the Transformer is arguably the best Android has to offer. While the new Galaxy Tab 10.1 tops the Transformer in some categories, it simply can’t beat the total package that Asus has brought to the table. The tablet itself is leaps and bounds beyond anything on the market. Take out the couple of build quality issues I have, and the quality is stellar. The Transformer arguably has the best display available, which is insane considering the $400 price point. Take things a little further and you get yourself an Android netbook that’s capable of a whole lot more than what anyone offers. The implementation of the tablet and the keyboard dock works so seamlessly that it should carry an Apple logo.
Of course, the only downside is being paired with Android. At this stage of the game it’s not nearly as polished, smooth, and capable of what iOS offers. The multi-tasking that Android’s known for has been bested by RIM and their QNX platform, which actually borrows heavily from WebOS. The Android Market lacks a real backbone for Honeycomb apps, and still running into force closes and other stability issues grows tiresome compared to the newly stable versions from RIM, and the always stable iOS. Android is still a contender though, and Google will improve the platform. Slowly but surely we will see the Android Market become filled with apps, and the system become a little more polished and cohesive.
If you’re in the market for an Android tablet, make no mistake, this is the one to get if you plan to use your tablet for more than consumption. A top notch display with a full docking keyboard that gives you about 16 hours of battery life for just $50 more than Samsung and Apple’s tablet-only offerings is nothing to scoff at, especially if you’re the type of person that needs to send real emails and work with real Office programs. Rumors point to an Asus quad-core tablet coming this fall to replace the Transformer, and if it’s anything like the current Transformer, it will again sit upon the Android mountain as the best available.