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Minimal compromise
The Transformer Pad's exterior is the first thing you'll notice about the device. The second thing is the snappy performance offered by its Tegra 3 processor, which is a big upgrade over the Tegra 2 chip in the old Transformer. Tegra 2 is a dual-core design that lacks ARM's NEO media engine. Tegra 3 adds the dedicated SIMD unit and offers a novel 4+1-core architecture.

Really, Nvidia's approach would be better described as 4-or-1; software switches the chip between a single, low-power core and a separate quad-core unit. The solitary "companion" core uses low-leakage transistors that don't scale well up to higher clock speeds, limiting it to 500MHz. The quad-core cluster is optimized to flip bits at much higher speeds, and it kicks in when there's need for extra processing grunt. Nvidia says transitioning between the core configs takes less than two milliseconds.

Within its quad-core array, Tegra 3 can dynamically adjust clock speeds and cut off power to unneeded cores. The T30L variant in the Transformer Pad 300 has a default frequency of 1.2GHz, 100MHz slower than the Tegra SoC inside the Transformer Prime. Clock speed is the only difference between the two chips.

Naturally, Tegra 3 has integrated GeForce graphics with dedicated logic for video decoding and encoding. The GPU boasts 12 cores and is supposed to offer three times the pixel-pushing horsepower of its predecessor in Tegra 2. Much of that additional performance appears to come from higher clock, since the GPU's core count has increased by only 50%. Alas, we don't know the clock frequencies of Tegra's integrated GPUs.

Processor Nvidia Tegra 3 T30L 1.2GHz with GeForce graphics
Display 10.1" IPS TFT with 1280x800 resolution
Memory 1GB
Storage 32GB
Ports 1 Micro HDMI 1.4a
1 analog audio headphone/mic port
1 USB 2.0 (dock)
Expansion slots 1 Mini SD
1 SD (dock)
Communications 802.11n Wi-Fi
Bluetooth 3.0
Camera 8-megapixel rear
1.2-megapixel front
Input devices Capacitive touchscreen
Chiclet keyboard with touchpad (dock)
Dimensions Tablet: 10.4" x 7.1" x 0.39" (263 x 181 x 9.9 mm)
Dock: 10.4" x 7.1" x 0.40" (263 x 181 x 10.2 mm)
Weight Tablet: 1.29 lbs (635 grams)
Dock: 1.18 (546 grams)
Battery Tablet: 22Wh lithium-polymer
Dock: 16.5Wh lithium-polymer

The Transformer's DRAM memory still weighs in at 1GB, but it's DDR3 instead of DDR2. On the storage front, the $380 model comes with 16GB of flash, while the $400 version gets 32GB. The $20 difference strikes me as a lot more reasonable than the $100 Apple charges to take the iPad from 16 to 32GB. Asus also kicks in 8GB of cloud-based storage that's good for the life of the device, at no extra charge.

If you're one of those people who likes to awkwardly hold up your tablet to take pictures, you'll appreciate the Transformer Pad 300's rear-facing shooter, which captures 8-megapixel stills and supports 1080p video recording. The picture quality is reasonable if there's lots of light, but I can't get over the awful ergonomics of actually taking a shot. There's more utility to the front-facing camera, whose 1.2MP resolution is plenty for Skype calls.

For those Skype sessions, users have a choice of integrated or plug-in audio. The speaker is located along the rear right edge when holding the tablet in landscape mode, but the Transformer can be held in any orientation to avoid muffling. Audio playback sounds pretty good for this class of device, which admittedly isn't saying much. You'll want to make use of the 3.5-mm combo headphone/microphone jack for extended listening sessions.

Around the left edge lies the volume rocker and Micro HDMI output. A Mini SD slot makes an appearance, enabling quick and easy storage upgrades. The sliver-like SD cards that slide into the tiny slot are relatively slow as far as solid-state storage goes, but you don't need much speed for a media library.

The Transformer Pad 300's expansion capacity is further increased by the optional keyboard dock, which serves up a full-sized SD slot alongside an honest-to-goodness USB port. It's only USB 2.0, but that still leaves folks with loads of compatible storage devices. Nvidia has also built USB gamepad support into its Tegra 3 drivers, allowing users to plug in all kinds of console and PC controllers. Having dual analog sticks vastly improves the tablet gaming experience with the arcade-style titles I tend to prefer.

Speaking of preferences, I wish Asus hadn't covered the USB port with a little door. If the port is used regularly, the odds of the cover staying attached for more than a few weeks seem slim to none. Then again, the port will be left unencumbered once the cover is gone. You can always remove it right away.

According to Asus, big retailers prefer covered ports because they cut down on returns. Kids are liable to stick paper clips, peanut butter, and all kinds of other things into open ports. I'd be more worried about them racking up huge bills with in-game purchases.

While we're talking about the dock, we should note that it only works with the Transformer Pad 300. There's no cross-compatibility between any of the docks and tablets in the Transformer line, which is understandable given the different chassis thicknesses involved. And you wouldn't want mismatched colors, would you?

The docking interface is similar on all the Transformers we've seen, and it seems to be getting better with each iteration. While the original needs to be lined up carefully to ensure a smooth connection, the 300 is more tolerant of clumsy hands. A sliding latch locks the two components together, eliminating the chance of premature separation.

Likely due to its thinner profile, the dock has a smaller battery than the one incorporated in the old model. The auxiliary cell is rated for 16.5Wh, or 7.9Wh less than its counterpart in the original. The tablet's battery is slightly smaller, too, although the difference there is only 2.4Wh. Asus says the Transformer Pad 300 will last 10 hours on a single charge and an additional five hours with the dock plugged in. We'll see how those claims pan out in our battery life tests a little later in the review.