Hands on with Asus' $349 Bay Trail-based Transformer

If you start with the specs sheet, it's easy to nitpick the Asus Transformer Book T100 convertible announced last week at IDF. The display uses an IPS panel, which is good, but its 1366x768 resolution seems a bit weak. The 10" display defines the size of the rest of the system, which means the keyboard and touchpad are cramped, smaller than one might like. And the system has only 2GB of memory, which isn't much for a laptop these days.

But those objections kind of melt in the face of one really important fact: the thing is priced at $349, and that's with the keyboard-and-touchpad dock as part of the package.

We're talking less than the price of an iPad for a 2-in-1 convertible that functions as a tiny laptop and as a 10" tablet, with Intel's latest quad-core SoC driving the show. Since it's an Intel chip, the system is essentially a full-fledged PC with true x86 compatibility.

Evidently, Asus wanted to position this system between its own bargain-priced Nexus 7 tablet and the 10" iPad, which is why it kept the T100's size and specs in check. After thinking it over, I've gotta admit that move makes quite a bit of sense. What's more, because we aren't aware of any major design wins for Bay Trail among the major tablet players—that is, nothing from Apple, Samsung, Amazon, or Google's Nexus program—the Transformer Book T100 may be one of the most important systems based on Intel's new SoC during the upcoming holiday season. Fortunately, I got some hands-on time with the T100 during its launch event and came away with a few distinct impressions.

Although we were able to share architectural info and some of the first benchmarks from Intel's Bay Trail SoC with you last week, I was too busy hurriedly testing the Intel reference tablet to get a good sense of its usability. Also, such systems aren't usually representative of the polished state of real products. Somehow, a few minutes spent playing with the T100 felt like a much truer gauge of the Bay Trail user experience—and it was very good indeed.

Win8.1's touch-enabled Modern UI apps felt nearly ideal on the T100. App switches happened instantly, UI elements tracked effortlessly and scrolled silkily beneath my fingers, and web pages snapped open smartly. In fact, the T100 with Windows 8.1 felt smoother than the Haswell-based systems with Windows 8 that were on display across the room. The difference there may be due largely to software, but the T100 is also no slouch. The user experience was a far cry from the sadly compromised feeling of using a netbook. Seemed faster than a 4th-gen iPad, too.

Of course, a big part of the T100's value proposition is that you can dock it and run pretty much any Windows program you'd like with a keyboard and touchpad—or pop off the screen and use it like a regular 10" tablet. I have to say that the tablet setup feels like the T100's native mode. The keyboard and touchpad are indeed cramped due to their small size, and unlike past Transformers, the T100's dock doesn't contain an auxiliary battery to extend run times. In fact, I heard Asus had to add a little extra weight to the dock just to keep an open system properly balanced.

That said, the whole package weighs just 2.4 lbs. and felt incredibly light in my hands. The tablet portion is enclosed in relatively cheap-feeling plastic and weighs in at 1.2 lbs, lighter than an iPad. My impression was that the thing must be mostly hollow. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I'd love to see higher pixel densities on the T100's display, but the IPS panel looked bright and colorful under some really harsh lighting. Windows' ClearType function does help some with smoothing the edges of fonts and such.

You'll notice that the T100 lacks a Windows "home" button below the screen. In fact, it doesn't have any Windows-related branding at all. Instead, there's a lock button on the top left edge of the device in portrait orientation, a decidedly Android-esque button placement. Although the T100 is shipping first with Windows 8.1, we know Intel is working feverishly to enable Android on Bay Trail-based systems. My guess is that, eventually, the T100 hardware could ship virtually unmodified with Android as its primary OS.

You've got to think dual-booting Windows and Android is a possibility, too. I've gotta admit, right now, if I owned one of these, I'd probably prefer to use Android in tablet mode and Windows when docked.

However folks choose to use it, the T100's combination of an eye-opening price and extensive versatility makes it worthy of note. I've already found myself pointing it out to a friend to consider as an alternative to an Android tablet. We're hoping to get our hands on a T100 for review as soon as possible. If our initial impressions are confirmed in further use, the T100 may be the netbook's sweet revenge.

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