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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Asus has also made functional modifications, some of which bring Ice Cream Sandwich-level features to mind. The multitasking tool on the Prime, for example, has options to remove individual apps from the multitasking list -- something ICS natively provides. (Asus's system is a bit less elegant than Google's -- it uses a small "x" for the command instead of a swipe-based gesture -- but until the official upgrade arrives, it's considerably better than nothing.) The Prime also has an option to capture screenshots directly on the tablet, which pre-ICS versions of Android have not allowed.

With the new Transformer tablet, Asus introduces its own version of the status panel that appears when you tap the clock area in the lower-right corner of the screen. Asus seems to have been striving to make the panel more useful, but unfortunately, it missed the mark on this one: The company crammed so many options into such a small space that my eyes just don't know where to look. The end effect is cluttered and overwhelming, and I'd gladly take the stock Android status panel over this messy (and oddly purple-colored) alternative. Thankfully, Asus provides an option in the system settings to make that switch.

Another slightly disappointing OS-level tweak: As it's done with past tablets, Asus opted to add its own virtual keyboard onto the Prime. I found the Asus keyboard to be below par in terms of both accuracy and overall ease of typing; I'd take the stock Honeycomb keyboard (and certainly the stock Ice Cream Sandwich keyboard) over it any day. Luckily, this choice is easy to make as well: You can switch to the stock Android keyboard with a couple of quick taps, or you can head to the Android Market to snag a third-party replacement like SwiftKey Tablet X.

Beyond the core OS modifications, Asus has squeezed quite a few supplementary programs into the Prime's native environment. Some of them are meant to enhance basic system functionality, like a File Manager app (which is fine, but you'd be better off downloading a full-featured alternative like Astro instead). Others are third-party selections that are preloaded by default, such as Polaris Office, SuperNote, Zinio and Amazon Kindle. These could potentially be useful to some people, but the fact that they're baked into the OS and impossible to remove makes them seem more like bloatware than benefits.

Bottom line

In a sea of sometimes indistinguishable tablets, Asus has managed to create a unique product that stands out from the pack. The Transformer Prime is sleek and attractive, with a powerful new processor that provides top-of-the-line performance and opens up new tablet computing possibilities. With the optional dock accessory, the Transformer Prime has the potential to act as a full-fledged laptop replacement, adding even more value to an already exciting product.

But all of that goodness comes at a cost; the Transformer Prime is a top-shelf tablet at top-shelf price. Put into perspective, it isn't that bad: You can get a 32GB Transformer Prime tablet for $499 -- just $50 more than you'd pay for a 16GB Galaxy Tab 10.1. For that extra 50 bucks, you're getting twice the processing power, twice the internal storage and significantly better battery life. You're also getting native support for microSD and micro-HDMI connections -- and you aren't even sacrificing a thin and sexy form.

(The 32GB Transformer Prime is also the same price as the 16GB iPad 2. However, comparing those products is like comparing apples and oranges: They're two drastically different types of platforms, and the decision ultimately comes down to your own personal preference.)

Of course, if you want the full Transformer Prime tablet-keyboard package, you're looking at a minimum investment of $650 -- no small chunk of change. Because of this, I suspect the Prime will appeal primarily to power users, gamers and people who just enjoy having top-of-the-line, cutting-edge technology. The Transformer Prime is like the Rolls-Royce of Android tablets: It's incredibly impressive and packed with power, but that level of luxury isn't something everyone needs.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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