The Asus Eee Pad Transformer TF101 Tablet doesn't stand on its own. But when paired with its matching keyboard dock, the Transformer morphs into a tablet that strikes an admirable balance between productivity and entertainment. At $399 for the 16GB Wi-Fi model (or $499 for the 32GB Wi-Fi model, prices as of May 6, 2011), the Transformer is the least expensive Android 3.0 tablet to date; and the smaller-capacity version bests Apple's iPad 2 by $100.
None of this is to say that the Transformer's implementation is perfect. The hardware has some rough spots, and so do the Android OS and the $149 Mobile Docking Station option. But even taking those patches into account, the Transformer carves out a solid niche for itself in an increasingly crowded market.
Transformer's Hardware: Design Wins and Flubs
In its design, the Transformer shares some characteristics with other current tablets. The front face is dominated by a 10.1-inch display, with various buttons, ports, and slots distributed along the edges. The Transformer has familiar-sounding guts, too: It runs Nvidia's 1GHz dual-core Tegra 2 platform, carries 1GB of RAM, and uses Google's Android 3.01 (Honeycomb) OS.
Like many of today's tablets--the superslim Apple iPad 2 being the notable exception--the Transformer measures 0.5 inch tall. It's longer than other tablets, besting the Acer Iconia Tab A500 by half an inch, the Motorola Xoom by almost a full inch, and the Apple iPad 2 by 1.2 inches. The extra length makes for an extra-wide bezel in landscape mode; it also allows the Transformer's physical size to match the Mobile Docking Station's, so the two can connect as a clamshell laptop would. (By itself, the Transformer measures 10.7 inches by 6.9 inches by 0.5 inch.) Designwise, this approach is a win.
What I found most disappointing about the Transformer was its physical build. At first blush, it feels sturdy enough, but I didn't like the flex built into the textured plastic back. The flex made the Transformer feel chintzy, as did the minute gaps between the metal frame and the scratch-resistant Corning Gorilla Glass screen. But at least the Transformer's plastic design lowers its weight. At 1.5 pounds, it's heavier than the 1.3-pound iPad 2, but the Transformer benefits from good component balance on the inside that makes it feel lighter than it really is.
In other respects, the tablet's design is well executed. When held in landscape orientation, the power button and volume rocker sit at the upper right corners; and the 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera is at the top center. Along the right-hand edge are a 3.5mm audio jack (which doubles as a headphone output and a microphone input), the Mini-HDMI port, and the microSD card slot. Toward the bottom corners of the left and right edges are stereo speakers, but they aren't the only source of sound. Even when my fingers blocked the speaker grilles, I could hear audio clearly.
Asus explains that the Transformer's design also transmits audio through the same openings at the bottom of the tablet that serve as the connection points for the Mobile Docking Station. The tablet has SRS audio enhancements built-in, but there's no equalizer or similar app for adjusting sound, and there's nothing to adjust in the Android OS settings. The integrated SRS Wow HD audio does include support for virtual 5.1 surround sound in videos. In use, the speakers seemed superior to most tablet speakers I've listened to, but not nearly as good as the best ones I've heard on a tablet--those on the RIM BlackBerry PlayBook. Audio sounded reasonably full and distinct, with crisp though somewhat tinny vocals.
Running along the bottom edge of the Transformer is the 40-pin dock connector. The tablet comes with a power adapter and a USB-to-dock connector cable. The dock connector can charge from the adapter or via the cable, when connected to a PC (for a trickle charge only). The cable can also handle data transfers from a PC. Asus says that accessories will be available for the dock connector, including an SD Card reader and a USB-A port; however, the company hasn't indicated whether those accessories will ship in the United States when they become available later this summer.
At back is a 5.0-megapixel camera for still image capture and video capture at 720p; but there's no LED flash, as several competing tablets have. As on other Android 3.01 tablets, images look disappointing (for stills and videos both).
The Transformer uses a 1280-by-800-pixel IPS display, and has a widescreen 16:10 aspect ratio. As in Apple's iPad series, the use of IPS technology helps the tablet achieve excellent viewing angles (Asus says that the range is 178 degrees, and I noticed no color shift and a clear image as I shifted to extreme angles), improved color, and deeper blacks. Colors looked better than on other Android 3.01 tablets, but that could be because Asus adjusted Android's default color temperature and white balance to match its IPS screen. Still, the Transformer can't match the color accuracy of the Apple iPad 2.
The Transformer has 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR connectivity in this version. Asus expects to release 3G varieties via mobile carriers (to be announced) later this summer.
(Stay tuned to this space; we'll update the review with full testing from the PCWorld Labs.)
Transformer's Software, Customized
When I first turned the Transformer on, I noticed immediately some pleasant user-interface improvements that Asus made to stock Android 3.01.
For starters, the core navigation buttons are dramatically better. Asus replaced the standard Honeycomb nav buttons (three light-blue outlines that serve as the primary navigation aids at the lower left of the screen) with three white, solid button formations that are crisp and distinct. In particular, the back/exit button, better represents its function with a looping return arrow--an improvement on the stock Honeycomb's chintzy back arrow that looks more like a bookmark symbol.
Another big change involves the Asus keyboard. The stock gray Honeycomb keyboard is available as an option, but by default the Transformer uses Asus's own keyboard, which features a lighter gray background and dark, well-defined letters and numbers. The redesigned keyboard has a row of number keys up top; and keys in both the number row and the first letter row are slightly taller than the ones on rest of the keyboard. The keyboard appears to occupy about the same depth as the stock Honeycomb keyboard, but with the added benefit of the number row (a native first among the Android 3.0 tablets). The keyboard incorporates Google's predictive text, too, another native first for an Android 3.0 tablet. Unfortunately, this feature behaved a bit unpredictably in my testing. For example, it didn't work consistently when filling in fields in the Web browser. Also, the keyboard sacrifices some of its QWERTYness--by having its Z and S keys stacked, for example. On the whole, the keyboard was responsive.
In addition to introducing these adjustments, Asus provides a small selection of its own Android widgets to use in customizing the front face to dictate how you access your data. For example, you can get a large, friendly weather update; or choose My Zine widgets that present your photos, weather, and recently accessed Web, music, and book content in a fresh way. The approach is similar to--but not as far reaching as--Acer's handling of its Iconia Tab A500, where widgets appear as additional app icons primarily to create a sense of categorized folder hierarchy for your apps (Android 3.0 doesn't have folders, as Apple's iOS does). Asus's approach isn't as far-reaching as Samsung's TouchWiz interface on the 7-inch Android 2.2 Galaxy Tab or HTC's Sense UI overlay planned for its 7-inch Flyer. According to Asus, by omitting an extra overlay, the company can respond faster to OS updates as they come available from Google.
Asus also provides a couple of custom wallpapers, including the interactive MyWater wallpaper that reacts to the motions of the built-in gyroscope, and shows the battery level by changing the water level in the wallpaper. Fun touches, to be sure, but detrimental to battery life.
In use, the Transformer felt about as zippy (and as sluggish) as I've come to expect from the current crop of Tegra 2 tablets, depending on the activity. Its camera was actually slightly faster on the trigger than the ones on other Android 3.01 tablets I've used--but still pokey as molasses. This version of Android has image and text rendering issues, too, as its predecessors did. Images aren't rendered sharply and with good detail in the Android Gallery, and text appears to be insufficiently antialiased. Android 3.01 hasn't yet received a major update; one can only hope that these issues and others will be fixed in the future.
The Transformer comes preloaded with useful software. Some apps are unique to Asus: Asus's MyNet DLNA media sharing app; MyCloud for accessing Asus's Webstorage (2GB free for one year; unlimited storage for $5 monthly) or for connecting remotely to your desktop via the Splashtop-powered MyDesktop; MyLibrary for accessing newspaper, .Epub, and PDF book content. Also on board: Infraware's Polaris Office 3.0 for viewing and editing (and saving as Office 2003 files) Microsoft Office documents, spreadsheets, and presentations; Layar; Fuze Meeting; and a file manager (which, like ones I've seen on other tablets, confusingly interprets the internal memory as a mounted SD Card). To get Adobe Flash 10.2, you'll have to download it on your own.
For the desktop, Asus provides downloadable utilities to complete the Transformer: PC Sync and Asus Webstorage.
The Keyboard Docking Station: How It Works
The Transformer gets its name, of course, from its companion piece, the $149 Mobile Docking Station. And Asus got this critical part of the equation right. The Mobile Docking Station transforms the Transformer into a netbooklike clamshell that weighs just under 3 pounds when combined (the docking station itself weighs 1.41 pounds). The bottom surface is composed of textured brown plastic, matching the design of the Transformer tablet itself. The two parts fit together seamlessly and easily, unlike keyboards that are of separate sizes and designs from the tablet (as is true of Bluetooth keyboards for the iPad 2); and the solution is far more integrated and elegant than even the best designed iPad cases I've seen that include a keyboard. The two pieces are of matching size, and when you attach the tablet to the hinged dock, the dock flips across the front of the tablet, just as if the combination were any other clamshell laptop. I didn't have any trouble aligning the tablet and snapping it into position; a slider lock beneath the tablet conveniently locks it into place.
When assembled as one, the Transformer and the Mobile Docking Station look smart and act clever: The touchscreen is fully operational while plugged in, save for access to the on-screen keyboard; but in addition, some key buttons--including Android back/exit and home buttons, and media playback and volume buttons--are integrated into the keyboard. The island-style keys on the 92 percent of full-size keyboard are distinct and easy to press, and they made accurate touch-typing a breeze. For its part, the silky touchpad supports easy mouse control in the Android environment.
The docking station has two USB 2.0 ports, each tucked behind a flap door, and one SDHC card slot. The ports flaps give the dock a smooth look along the edges, and they felt sturdily made, but they strike me as being an annoying impediment nonetheless.
The dock handled the various SD Cards and flash drives I plugged in, and the USB port can accommodate input devices such as an external mouse. However, Android 3.01 seemed to get confused easily when I repeatedly attached and detached USB drives--especially if I unplugged the drive without properly unmounting the media first.
When I plugged in a USB drive, the Android OS took a few moments to mount the media. Upon recognizing the item, the OS displayed a USB drive icon in the status bar tray at the right. You tap the icon to pop up a tab confirming that external storage has been recognized. At the tab's right are two, more subtle, features: a folder icon that takes you directly to the USB drive's contents via the included file manager; and an obtusely designed icon for unmounting the drive without having to dig into the Settings/Storage menu.
That the folder icon jumps you directly into the file manager is a good thing; otherwise, you have to hunt around in the file manager for the USB drive (which is buried under the Removable directory within the root directory). Finding the USB drives manually was an inefficient experience, given Android's plethora of files and folders. And yet, as rough as that part of the presentation was, the Transformer deserves props for allowing users to access and manipulate files on the tablet.
Here's a real-world productivity example. I could pop in a USB flash drive, open a Word .docx in the Polaris Office 3.0 software, edit the document, and then save it with a new name directly to the directory of my choice on the flash drive or in the tablet. Having resaved the document to the tablet, I opened the Gmail app and attached the newly edited file to an outbound e-mail message. The operation was nifty, convenient, and not doable in the same way with any other tablet shipping today.
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