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 1024×768 pixels. The Transformer’s display serves up 1280×800 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.
Eee Pad: Transform!
Like all tablets, the Transformer has an on-screen keyboard with predictive intelligence. The large screen allows plenty of room for my fat fingers to spread out, but the complete lack of tactile feedback makes the keyboard frustrating to use for anything more than a tweet. Hammering out a few words for a web search is surprisingly quick and easy, though. For real writing, Asus has a very slick keyboard dock.
The keyboard is about the same size as the slate, and the two lock together to form a cohesive clamshell that doesn’t require a separate case to hold everything in place. Although the chiclet array is a little smaller than what I’m used to on my 11.6″ Acer ultraportable, I can still type comfortably at speed. Most of the credit goes to the keys, which have plenty of travel and a slightly chunky tactile response. They’re laid out on a sturdy base that’s almost entirely free of flex, which is more than can be said for the keyboards on a lot of modern notebooks and netbooks.
Unlike some tablet keyboards, this one features an integrated touchpad that’s nice and large. Lifting one’s hand off the keyboard to use the touchscreen isn’t nearly as convenient as sliding a finger down to the touchpad. The pointy end of the mouse cursor is a heckuva lot more precise than my stumpy fingertips, too. You might not need the extra precision when web surfing, but editing text documents is much easier when you can place the cursor exactly where you want it.
Unfortunately, there are problems with both of these auxiliary input methods. Notebook touchpads typically ignore input if it occurs while you’re typing, but the Transformer isn’t that smart. I can’t go more than a couple of sentences without inadvertently brushing my thumb across the touchpad, sending the cursor flying across the page. The narrow right shift key is also problematic, at least for my typing style. About half the time, I end up hitting the up arrow instead.
Recovering from errors and typos is more difficult than it needs to be because the keyboard inexplicably lacks a delete key. The only way to get rid of unwanted characters is with the backspace key, which is especially maddening when one counts all the extra function keys taking up valuable space. How anyone at Asus thought we needed a dedicated screenshot button instead of a delete key is beyond me, and delete isn’t even offered as a secondary function. Backspace would be a less maddening alternative if the keyboard let you jump entire words at a time with the usual “Ctrl + direction” key combination, but that doesn’t fly, either.
At least the button assigned to disabling the touchpad works. Hitting it takes only a second, and my middle finger can reach without the rest of my hand leaving the home row. As you can imagine, I’ve been using that middle finger a lot—to disable the touchpad, of course. The touchpad driver should be smart enough to know when contact is unintentional, though.
With a $150 asking price, the Transformer’s keyboard dock sounds rather expensive for just an input device. Good thing there’s more to it, including a full-sized SD card slot and a couple of honest-to-goodness USB ports. Asus has even gone to the trouble of covering the ports with magnetic doors that snap eagerly into place.
As an added bonus, the keyboard dock houses a 24Wh battery that Asus says can boost the Transformer’s battery life from 9.5 hours to a whopping 16 hours. After using the Transformer for about a month now, I can confirm that Asus’ run-time estimates for the tablet portion are pretty accurate. However, I can’t comment on how much the keyboard adds to the equation because mine isn’t working properly. The internal battery doesn’t seem to be able to hold a charge, and the keyboard will occasionally stop working when connected to the system, even while it’s locked in place.
I’ve seen several reports of keyboard issues online but haven’t yet had the chance to swap mine out for a replacement unit. Asus has also acknowledged an issue with the keyboard that causes it to drain the tablet’s battery slowly when the two are left connected in standby mode. There’s purportedly a way around the problem, which appears to be an artifact of a power management scheme that keeps the keyboard in a low-power state during standby rather than turning it off completely.
Life on Cybertron
So concludes our look at the Transformer’s nuts and bolts. Now, I’m going to tell you how it makes me feel. Tablets are all about the user experience, and a lot of that comes down to the interface, operating system, and associated software. Like just about every other tablet, the Eee Pad is equipped with Google’s Android OS. Units ship with Android 3.0, but an update to Honeycomb, version 3.1, is currently available. There’s a definite improvement in overall responsiveness between the two versions; Honeycomb seems to have eliminated the few instances of UI sluggishness that I encountered with the original Gingerbread install.
This is the first Android device that I’ve spent a lot of time with, and I’m quite impressed with how far the OS has improved over the earlier versions I’ve encountered on smartphones. The OS is quick to navigate, settings are easy to change, and the whole thing is surprisingly intuitive. Even my girlfriend figured it out, and she’s a self-proclaimed technophobe who still uses an old-fashioned cellphone.
Asus lays its own Waveshare UI on top of the OS, and I really dig the five-pane desktop that you can flip through with the flick of a finger. The screen’s generous resolution leaves loads of room for widgets to display system information, detailed battery stats, stock quotes, the weather forecast, or anything else you want to see updated in real time. Changing the size or position of widgets is easy, but be careful not to go overboard. Running too many background applications is a good way to drain the battery on a tablet or smartphone, and it’s easy to get carried away with so much effective desktop real estate.
I bought the Transformer to serve primarily as a couch surfing device, and it’s really excelled at the task. Oddly, at least for a tablet with this kind of resolution, the browser is configured by default to present itself as a mobile device. There’s no reason not to switch the browser into desktop mode, which allows web pages to be enjoyed in all their glory—Flash included. Web pages load slower than on Chrome or Firefox on my notebook, but they scroll smoothly and appear to render properly when in landscape mode. When the tablet is cocked in a portrait orientation, the browser has a tendency to make primary text fields a little narrower than they need to be. All the text is still clearly visible; word-wrap just kicks in a little too early.
Flash video playback can cause netbooks and ultraportable notebooks to stumble, so I wasn’t entirely optimistic about the Transformer’s chances on that front. However, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Flash 10.3. The only time I’ve encountered choppy playback or dropped frames has been with 720p content that appears on a webpage. When the video is embedded, only the lower-resolution versions play smoothly when the rest of the page is in view. Getting HD clips to play fluidly requires only that you blow the playback window up to full-screen mode, which seems like a reasonable thing to do if you’re opting for the higher resolution. Mealtime is much more epic when stretched across the Transformer’s entire display, anyway. I was particularly impressed to see smooth video playback not only with YouTube content, but also with Vimeo and Viddler videos.
Along with a web browser, the Transformer is loaded with applications, including an email client, calendar app, and even an office suite. The integration with Gmail and Google’s other cloud-based services is excellent, and it’s easy to manage multiple accounts. I didn’t expect to get an office suite separate from Google Docs, but Polaris Office comes loaded on the system and seems to do a pretty good job of handling Word and Excel documents. I can’t imagine braving the office suite without the aid of the keyboard and touchpad, though.
Some of the Transformer’s other bundled applications are more appropriate for life as a pure slate device. The integrated eBook reader handles PDFs with aplomb, and I suspect Asus was able to make a few bucks by loading Amazon’s Kindle app by default. I don’t read a lot of books, to be perfectly honest, but being able to tote around a virtual library with the Transformer will surely come in handy when the mood does strike. It only took a few minutes to load up a stack of free eBooks using the Kindle app, and I suspect most of my future literary purchases will be made using the device.
While I’ve only flipped through a few pages of pure prose on the Transformer, I have been reading quite a lot of comic books with the aid of Perfect Viewer, a free app from the Android Market. The wide-aspect screen works particularly well with comics in portrait mode, and the pages are rendered beautifully on the Transformer’s screen with no need to worry about creasing the spine, tearing a corner, or otherwise disturbing the mint condition of the original hard copy you’re keeping mint in Carbonite.
One might expect those juvenile tendencies to draw me to gaming, but I just don’t see the allure. One factor, I suppose, is the relatively thin selection of Android games compared to what’ll run on an iPad. The biggest issue I have with gaming on the Transformer—and tablets in general—is using the screen as a controller. Games that are well-suited to touchscreen input tend to be a little too casual for my tastes, and all the genres I prefer benefit from precise input. As far as I can tell, game developers aren’t designing their titles with touchpad-equipped keyboard docks in mind.
The Android Market may be a little short on games, but it’s certainly not lacking for options otherwise (although I’m told it does, indeed, have fewer fart apps than the iTunes store). Everything I’ve installed has been easy to find and download, and the experience has me warming up to the idea of app stores in general. I’m not ready to give up downloading executable installers on my PC. However, I’d rather have my mother use an app store than have to walk her through downloading and installing new Windows apps the old-fashioned way.
So far, I’m particularly impressed with Xtralogic’s Remote Desktop software, which I’m tempted to drop $25 on. Being able to tap into my desktop system remotely is hugely convenient, although I’m a little disappointed that the maximum resolution is 1920×1080, which isn’t enough to cover the dual 1920×1200 panels connected to my primary rig. Nevertheless, flicking around a 1080p version of my PC’s desktop while on a 10″ Android slate is pretty sweet. The keyboard dock’s integrated touchpad comes in particularly handy for RDC sessions, too.
Speaking of things that are especially convenient, the Transformer’s built-in File Manager app should make Windows users feel right at home. You won’t have to install any software onto your PC to load the Eee Pad up, either. Plug it in to an empty USB port, and your OS should detect a generic storage device, providing full access to all the files within.
Bum keyboard aside, I’m rather pleased with my Eee Pad Transformer. There are still kinks that need to be ironed out, but the overall experience has been overwhelmingly positive, especially since I was half expecting to feel like I should’ve paid another $100 for one of the big-name tablets. The fact is that the Eee Pad delivers an excellent tablet experience for less money than the competition and the enjoys the extra flexibility of a keyboard dock with a touchpad, additional expansion options, and an extra battery. You’ll have to excuse the obvious pun, but the keyboard dock really is a transformative accessory for the Eee Pad. With a couple of tweaks and some better touchpad drivers, I can see it luring a lot of folks away from netbooks and ultraportables.
Not me. The more I use the Eee Pad, the more clear its place in my computing hierarchy becomes. The Transformer isn’t going to replace my laptop when it’s time to Get Things Done. As much as I prefer the IPS display, the keyboard and touchpad don’t work as well as the ones on my notebook, and I’m simply not as productive with Android and its associated applications as I am in Windows with my usual software suite. That said, I much prefer surfing and reading on the Transformer, which is why it’s claimed a prominent place on the coffee table in my living room.
As at home as the Transformer is in the living room, it also makes a fine travel companion. For business trips, when I need to get real work done efficiently, I can’t afford to leave my laptop behind. I’ll probably bring the Eee Pad’s slate component along for the ride, if only to get a better screen for idle entertainment. On vacation, where I’m generally trying to avoid productivity at all costs, I can see taking both parts of the Transformer and leaving my laptop at home.
I’m going to have to share the Eee Pad with my girlfriend, though. She’s never been all that interested in the various bits of techno whiz-bangery that overflow from my home office, but she’s quite taken with the Eee Pad. So is my mother, who after a five-minute demo, announced that she would like to have one of her very own. To be fair, they likely would have been just as impressed by an iPad. But they were also surprised to learn that the Transformer is 20% cheaper.
If you’ve already got a notebook, you probably don’t need a tablet. I certainly didn’t. That didn’t stop me from wanting one, though, and the Transformer’s more affordable asking price did help me to justify what amounts to an indulgent purchase. I’m glad I pulled the trigger, because the more I use the Eee Pad, the more convinced I become that it’s the ideal device for an awful lot of my casual computing needs. The fact that Picard got so much use out of a similar device in the 24th century tells me that the novelty isn’t going to wear off anytime soon.