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A month with Asus' Eee Pad Transformer

Taking the plunge for $100 less

As a child, most of my Sunday afternoons were spent on the couch with my dad, a massive bowl of popcorn, and episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I'd been a fan of the original series, but when things moved over to the NC-1701-D, I was old enough to have a deeper appreciation for the technological marvels that the future might hold—and a total crush on Tasha Yar. Warp drives, holodecks, and transporters will probably always remain in the realm of science fiction during my lifetime. However, one rather prominent gadget from Picard's ready room has already arrived.

While sipping his Earl Grey tea, the captain could often be seen with a tablet in hand. Little did I know it at the time, but this device would materialize in my gadget-buying prime. The future is now, it seems. If you listen to the hype, tablets would appear to be our new computing overlords. The numbers show that slates are pushing netbooks out of the North American market, and the wild success of Apple's iPads can't be ignored. With childhood bewilderment in tow, I just had to see what all the fuss was about.

But I couldn't bring myself to buy an iPad. I'll be honest; I'm not a fan of a lot of things that Apple does, from its business and marketing practices to the walled garden that makes the Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field all the more difficult to escape. That's not what stopped me from picking up the tablet everyone's been talking about, though. Instead, it was the arrival of Asus' Eee Pad Transformer.

We caught our first glimpse of the Transformer back in January at the Consumer Electronics show, and the one thing that stuck with me from that unveiling was the asking price: $400 for the base 16GB model, or $100 less than an equivalent iPad. Apple charging a premium is nothing new, but with most of the iPad's competition lifting off from the same $500 starting point, the Transformer is a rather unique bargain in the newfangled world of tablets. Well, it is in theory, anyway. Sometimes, you get what you pay for, turning an apparent bargain into something worth less than the sum of its parts.

The thing is, the Transformer has some pretty sweet parts. Some may say that thinking about tablets in terms of specifications is missing the point, and to a certain extent, they'd be correct. Obsessing over entries on a spec sheet is a very PC way of looking at a class of systems that has more in common with smartphones and consumer electronics devices. Some specifications are important, though, if only to establish that the Transformer's discounted price does not imply sub-par hardware. In many ways, the Eee Pad's underpinnings are superior to what Apple provides in even the second generation of its iconic tablet.

Under the hood, the Transformer has the very same Nvidia Tegra 2 system-on-chip you'll find in a slew of Android-powered slates from the likes of Toshiba, Motorola, and Samsung. The SoC has a GeForce-derived GPU and a pair of 1GHz Cortex A9 CPU cores, making it comparable—if not largely equivalent—to the A5 chip tucked inside the iPad. Throw in a gig of RAM and either 16 or 32GB of flash storage, and the Transformer achieves pretty good parity with its more expensive peers.

I wanted to get the silicon out of the way because it's not nearly as vital as the screen, which is arguably the most important hardware component of the entire system. On a slate, the screen serves as both the primary input device and the display. It's kind of a big deal, and the Transformer has a pretty good one. The 10.1" touchscreen is plenty sensitive, and the IPS panel sitting behind all the capacitive mojo is a gorgeous sight to behold.

While cheaper TN panels have become the norm in the notebook world and are even common among desktop systems, far superior IPS displays are taking root in tablets. Splurging on a quality screen only makes sense when it's so key to the overall experience. Still, I'm impressed Asus found room in the budget for this one, especially because it offers a higher resolution than the almighty iPad. Steve's overgrown iPod Touch has a 4:3 screen with 1024x768 pixels. The Transformer's display serves up 1280x800 pixels, which is a whopping 30% more. The extra width means a lot less scrolling when you've go the tablet rotated in portrait mode, and the widescreen aspect ratio is perfect for movies. It's nice having enough pixels to view 720p content without any scaling, too.

I see a lot of folks questioning why anyone would use a tablet over a netbook or a notebook, and I wonder if they've ever compared the screens side by side. The difference in overall picture quality really is obvious, and it's one of the reasons the Transformer has taken over as my primary couch surfing and media consumption device.

My only real complaint about the screen is the fact that its Gorilla Glass exterior has been polished to a glossy shine. Using the touchscreen interface for just a few minutes leaves behind enough smudgy fingerprints to fill an episode of CSI. The reflective coating doesn't do the Transformer any favors under the sun, either. It is, however, bright enough to overpower reflections and heavy smudging when set to just 50% of full intensity under normal indoor lighting. I wouldn't recommend using the tablet if you're fresh from plowing through a bucket of fried chicken, but the smudging surprisingly isn't an issue when the system is powered on. It's only when you turn the thing off that the smeared mess becomes unsightly.

Knowing the Transformer was coming in so much cheaper than its rivals, I initially feared there might be glossy plastic involved. Asus adorns the Transformer tastefully, though. A curved plastic piece makes up the underbelly, but its textured finish still looks fresh after heavy handling. The etched pattern provides a little extra grip when cradling the tablet, so it's functional in addition to imparting an understated artistic touch. There's even a brushed metal rim to satiate my fetish for such materials. Lest Asus be perceived as aping Apple's cold and sterile sense of style, the Eee Pad has a warm tinge that's halfway between copper and mocha. This subtle shade is certainly different, and the Transformer wears it particularly well. Remember, this is a $400 suit we're talking about.

Since I've spent my entire time with the Transformer staring at the screen, the aesthetic appeal of the rest of the thing really doesn't matter to me. How if feels in my hands does, and the Eee Pad is satisfyingly solid. There's no flex in the chassis, and the build quality appears to be excellent. This is one of those devices that feels more expensive than it actually is.

Although the Transformer isn't the skinniest tablet on the market, it's only 4 mm thicker than the iPad 2 at 10.6" x 6.7" x 0.5". The Eee Pad is 80 grams heavier, too, but the 1.5-lb total weight is hardly cumbersome to carry around or hold with one hand.

Asus has put the extra volume to good use, equipping the Transformer with a few features you won't find on the world's most popular tablet. A Mini HDMI output graces the right edge of the casing, as does a MicroSD slot for tiny memory cards. The lack of built-in USB connectivity is a bit of a drag, though. Unless you opt for the keyboard dock, which we'll get to in a moment, there's no way to easily attach a digital camera or to plug in a thumb drive.

Before busting out that keyboard, I should probably note that the Transformer ticks all the usual features one might associated with pricier tablets. There are front- and rear-facing cameras, although I can't see using them for anything other than Skype. Taking pictures with a tablet is unwieldy at best, and the mediocre image quality doesn't provide much incentive.

Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support predictably round out the Transformer. The only omission of note is cellular broadband support available on pricier versions of competing tablets. Connecting the Eee Pad to the Internet requires a Wi-Fi network, which suits my reclusive lifestyle but is considerably less ideal for commuters with smartphones that don't support tethering.