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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Watch out, Android tablets: There's a new king in town.

Asus' Eee Pad Transformer Prime is set to shake up the world of mobile computing. The device -- expected to launch in the U.S. sometime during the week of December 19, according to Asus -- marks the first time quad-core technology has made its way into a touch-based tablet. But raw processing power isn't the only thing that puts this tablet in a league of its own.

Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime
Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime

The Transformer Prime manages to pull off the rare feat of combining power and style: It's sleek and sexy, yet also jam-packed with robust functionality. And it's armed with a secret weapon: Asus' optional keyboard dock, a slim attachment that instantly turns the tablet into a full-fledged laptop computer. The tablet itself costs $499 for a 32GB model and $599 for a 64GB model; the dock is sold separately for $149.

On paper, this thing has it all. So how does it perform in the real world? I spent several days putting it to the test to find out.

Body and display

First, the surface-level stuff: As I mentioned, Asus's new tablet is no slouch in the looks department. The Transformer Prime features a 10.1-in. display guarded by a gorgeous metallic-spun back, available in "Amethyst Gray" or "Champagne Gold" color schemes. Both designs look classy and -- yes -- expensive.

The tablet is thinner than any other on the market today, with a depth of just 8.3mm. It's light, too, weighing in at a waif-like 1.29 lb. In the big picture, of course, we're talking fingernail-sized differences from one tablet to another -- the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is 8.6mm thick and 1.25 lb., while the iPad 2 is 8.8mm thick and 1.33 lb. -- but all comparisons aside, the Prime looks fantastic and feels great to hold.

Despite its slight frame, the Transformer Prime doesn't seem the least bit delicate; on the contrary, it has a solid and sturdy feel. The screen uses Corning Gorilla Glass, which protects it from nicks and scratches. Coupled with the tough outer casing, the Prime is a lightweight tablet with heavyweight-quality materials.

Speaking of the screen, the Transformer Prime features a 1280 x 800 Super IPS+ display that rivals any other tablet display I've seen. Images are crisp and clear; colors are rich and brilliant. The screen includes an outdoor viewing mode that, according to Asus, boosts brightness up to a level 1.5 times higher than any competing tablet; with this mode activated, I found the Prime perfectly easy to view even in bright sunlight.

The Asus Transformer Prime has a microSD slot, a micro-HDMI port and a volume rocker along its left side; a power button on the far left of its top edge; and a 3.5mm headphone jack along its right side. The bottom of the tablet holds a 40-pin connector port for charging along with two connectors for attaching the tablet to Asus's keyboard dock.

There is one speaker on the back of the unit along the right edge. While other tablets offer a two-speaker stereo approach, I found the Prime's overall sound quality to be surprisingly good; music sounded full and was free from the tinny effect that frequently plagues tablet speakers. At full volume, songs were almost too loud for a single-room environment. This was a welcome change from other tablets, where the volume can never seem to get high enough.

The dock

You can't talk about the Transformer Prime without discussing its killer feature: the keyboard dock. The dock matches the tablet's metallic-spun look (available in either color scheme) as well as its slim and light profile.

The Transformer Prime tablet snaps into the dock effortlessly, forming what looks and acts like a single-piece PC. The display -- the tablet itself -- swings up and down like a laptop lid. When closed, it creates a sleek-looking unit that could easily be mistaken for a high-end notebook.

I found the dock's keyboard and built-in trackpad to be quite pleasant to use. The keyboard isn't full-sized, which can take a bit of getting used to, but its keys are large enough and spaced out enough that the adjustment isn't terribly difficult. The trackpad is fantastic: It has a metallic feel and delivers spot-on accuracy. A standard mouse pointer appears on-screen anytime you touch the trackpad; you can right- or left-click by firmly pressing on the pad's bottom or quickly right-click by simply tapping anywhere on its surface.

In addition to the inherent productivity advantages, the Transformer Prime's dock gives you a full-sized USB 2.0 port, a full-sized SD card slot, and a second battery that tacks an extra six hours onto your tablet's life.

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