Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime: The Rolls-Royce of Android tablets

With its quad-core CPU and keyboard dock, Asus's Transformer Prime tablet is truly in a league of its own. But all that power comes at a cost.

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The quad-core advantage

The Transformer Prime's real distinguishing factor, of course, is what's under its hood: Nvidia's new Tegra 3 quad-core processor. Nvidia says the new chip provides up to five times the performance of its dual-core predecessor, the Tegra 2, which powers many of the current high-end Android tablets. Its Nvidia 12-core GeForce graphics processing unit is also said to be three times as fast as the previous model's.

Pair that CPU with 1GB of RAM, and you have a system with more speed potential than any other tablet we've seen. The Prime just feels fast, and its power shows in plenty of places. Swiping through home screens is incredibly snappy, with nary a stutter or hiccup. Three-dimensional graphics fly by with more consistent fluidity than I've seen on any dual-core tablet device.

The most noticeable differences, though, come with resource-intensive tasks -- things like video-editing and graphic-heavy games. You can really see the power shine through in apps like Riptide GP, a jet ski racing game that's been optimized for Tegra 3. The game has higher frame rates and more realistic effects than its dual-core counterpart; water "splashes" up on your screen as you speed through channels, and a motion blur effect makes you feel like you're really zooming when you crank your engine to the max.

Nvidia has worked with other game developers to take similar advantage of the new chip's quad-core configuration. Add in the ability to connect a standard wireless game controller -- PS3, Xbox, Wii, Logitech, and other models are supported -- not to mention the ability to connect the device to an HDTV via the Prime's HDMI out-port, and you can see how this tablet could really open up some interesting new possibilities for gamers.

Gaming aside, Flash video is a night-and-day difference with the Transformer Prime's quad-core CPU. While a dual-core device does just fine with lower-quality Flash playback, when you stream 1080p, you tend to get choppy and unsatisfactory results. On the Prime, even the highest quality high-def Flash clip plays smoothly and flawlessly. The same goes for non-Flash-based HD video.

Other theoretical benefits of the quad-core technology were not as immediately apparent to me during my tests of the Transformer Prime. Web-page loading and scrolling were hit and miss; at times, the Prime was slighter faster than a dual-core tablet, but more often than not, it struck me as roughly comparable. That said, as more developers start updating their apps to take advantage of the multiple core configuration, we should start seeing more and more instances where the quad-core difference is significant.

(For more on the value of quad-core, see my in-depth analysis: Asus Transformer Prime: Does quad-core really matter?)

Tegra 3 and battery life

One area where the quad-core advantage is undeniable is in the tablet's battery life. Paradoxical as it may sound, a quad-core processor actually runs at a lower frequency and uses less power than a dual-core equivalent. That's because the quad-core system spreads out the workload and uses only the minimum amount of processing power needed at any given time. Nvidia's Tegra 3 setup actually has a fifth companion core, too, allowing it to manage high- and low-frequency tasks with an unprecedented level of efficiency.

The end result: Your tablet lasts a long time without needing a recharge. Asus quotes the Transformer Prime as getting 12 hours of battery life -- 18 hours if it's attached to the keyboard dock -- and that's with continuous 720p video playback. In reality, most of us aren't going to be playing 720p videos for 12 hours straight, so we can expect to squeeze even more hours out of this device.

In my experience, the Transformer Prime didn't disappoint. Over three straight days of moderate to heavy usage -- and without bothering to power down the tablet at night -- I didn't have to plug it in a single time.

The cameras

The Transformer Prime's primary camera blows away pretty much everything else on the tablet market right now. The rear-facing cam is 8 megapixels with LED flash and 1080p high-def video recording. It features an F2.4 aperture and a back-illuminated CMOS sensor. As you'd expect, this thing takes sharp-looking photos and professional-quality videos. Other high-end tablets don't even come close.

On its front, the Prime has a 1.2-megapixel camera for video chat. You can use Google's cross-platform Google Talk service for free face-to-face connections with anyone signed in on a phone, tablet or PC (Google Talk is the same chat service used in Gmail, Google+ and other Google products). You can also opt to install Skype, of course, or any other third-party video chat utility.

The software

Asus's Transformer Prime ships with a modified version of Android 3.2.1 (yes, that's Honeycomb), though Asus promises an upgrade to Android 4.0 -- Ice Cream Sandwich -- soon. Already, Nvidia has released a video showing an early demo of Ice Cream Sandwich running on the Prime, and Asus has repeatedly reaffirmed its commitment to getting the updated software rolled out in a timely fashion.

In the meantime, Asus has worked hard to fill in some of the gaps and put its own touches onto the platform. The company has made a handful of aesthetical changes to the OS, such as a custom set of navigation icons in the lower-left corner of the screen, and has added a series of attractive home screen widgets that you can choose to use if you wish.

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