Ice Cream Sandwich? Really? In the annals of product code names, that’s either one of the best or one of the worst. I refer, of course, to Android 4.0, the latest major update to Google’s smartphone and tablet operating system.
The OS source code was released on the web in November of last year, but it’s not the sort of thing one can just download and install—hax0ring excepted, of course. That code first has to pass through verification testing with device makers, which roll their own versions to push out to the products in consumers’ hands. Not all devices are guaranteed to be updated, and some manufacturers are taking longer than others to deliver Google’s latest.
Asus has been particularly aggressive about keeping its Transformer tablets up to date. The Transformer Prime received its ICS update while we were at the Consumer Electronics Show in early January; we downloaded it over the hotel Wi-Fi, in fact. Then, in the last week of February, the original Transformer got a helping of Android 4.0. Since both tablets have been bouncing between my living room and the Benchmarking Sweatshop, it’s time for a Transformer update.
The art of getting out of the way
Although my experience with Ice Cream Sandwich on the Transformers is probably representative of what one can expect from similar tablets, the fact is each device maker does its own thing with the OS. Some fiddle more than others, which may explain why so many devices are still running Honeycomb, the last version of Android targeted at tablets. It surely helps that Asus doesn’t feel the need to layer its own UI on top of the perfectly good one that already comes with the OS. Custom interfaces would need to be updated for a major release like Ice Cream Sandwich.
The first thing one notices about Android 4.0 is that the unlock screen now features a shortcut to the camera app, no doubt a handy feature for smartphones. Once unlocked, the GUI appears very much like the last one. You wouldn’t know the OS had been updated by looking at it, but one swipe of the touchscreen is enough to notice the difference. The interface is noticeably more responsive on both Transformers; UI transitions are smoother overall, and the Prime verges on silkiness. It remains the snappier of the two, although the improvement on the old Transformer is just as palpable—if not more so.
While the interface is undoubtedly more fluid, the web browser doesn’t always feel faster in day-to-day usage. Page rendering times have purportedly been cut, but I haven’t noticed a dramatic improvement. My Core 2 Duo-based ultraportable consistently brings up pages quicker. Once the ICS browser has a page loaded, however, zooming and scrolling both feel smoother than on Honeycomb. The Android 4.0 browser also seems to do a better job of keeping the page’s contents visible while scrolling, especially on the gen-one Transformer.
Scrolling and zooming may be invoked less frequently because of the browser’s biggest flaw: a propensity to load the mobile version of pages regardless of the fact that the Transformers boast 10″ panels with 1280×800 pixels. Honeycomb allowed the default browser’s user agent string to be modified, presenting devices as desktop systems with no fear of full-fat web pages. There’s no such capability in ICS, although the browser does include an option to request the desktop version of a given site. The fact that something so simple—and vital on a 1280×800 tablet—now requires an extra step is painfully annoying. (If you want the user agent string back, try ICS Browser+, a free app available via the Android market.)
Digging into the default browser’s advanced settings reveals optional quick controls that can really speed up navigation. This semi-circle of convenient shortcuts is dragged in on either side of the screen, allowing the title bar to collapse and provide more real estate for the page. The virtual buttons are just the right size, but the tab preview windows are quite small, suggesting the quick controls were designed primarily with smartphones in mind. Nevertheless, the controls are extremely useful on the Transformers, especially since they can be activated anywhere along the sides of the display in both portrait and landscape modes.
Speaking of shortcuts, Asus’ quick-launch panel remains an integral part of the OS. Notifications are now cleared with a swipe rather than clicking a close icon, which is also true for the pseudo-multitasking interface. Tapping is arguably quicker, but swiping a touchscreen feels more satisfying to me than stabbing the glass.
The Transformer Prime’s ICS update doesn’t change the tablet’s already excellent file manager. However, the old Transformer has now been updated to match. The newer interface is much cleaner, and shortcuts make it easier to transfer files between the tablet, memory cards, and USB devices.
Exploring the OS settings menu reveals a reorganization of options, plus some new ones. Android now tracks data usage by application, which is a nice way to see which activities would hurt the most if the currently Wi-Fi-only Transformers were tied to a data plan. Browsing consumes the bulk of my usage, but it’s amazing how quickly the megabytes can add up when flipping through the improved gallery app bundled with ICS. Unfortunately, the battery usage statistics aren’t quite as detailed as they were on Honeycomb.
A collection of developer options rounds out the settings menu. Screen overlays can be enabled to track touchscreen input and CPU utilization, which should benefit enterprising coders. The speed of the UI transitions can also be changed if you want to slow things down or to enjoy instant transitions without any visual flair. There are other tweaking options, too, but few folks will want to get their hands dirty in this section of the OS.
That’s really it for big changes, at least as far as the Transformers go. Ice Cream Sandwich has subtle tweaks throughout, like the ability to resize desktop widgets and stack application icons in pseudo folders, but those tweaks don’t have as big of an impact on the typical user experience.
To the benchmarks
With a full set of performance results left over from our Transformer Prime review, we couldn’t resist benchmarking both Transformers after their ICS updates. We’ll get started with Linpack, a CPU benchmark that offers single and multithreaded tests.
The Transformer Prime has three different power modes, and Ice Cream Sandwich alters the Linpack performance of each one. Scores are down in the single-threaded test—only slightly for the balanced and normal modes but quite dramatically for the power-saver mode. However, multithreaded MFLOPS are way up across the board. The Prime’s performance just about doubles with the balanced and normal settings. In power-saver mode, it’s faster with ICS than any of the Honeycomb configs.
The original Transformer’s performance increases aren’t quite as dramatic, but it still delivers higher Linpack scores regardless of the threading. Indeed, the old Transformer sees a bigger gain in the single-threaded test than it does in the multithreaded one.
Interesting. The original Transformer scores about the same with Ice Cream Sandwich as it did with Honeycomb, but the Prime is sluggish with Android 4.0. The slowdown is more pronounced in the balanced and normal modes, and it’s enough to put the Prime slightly behind the Kindle Fire. How embarrassing.
With one test scratched from the total, it’s no surprise to see the Transformers post lower Peacekeeper scores.
Curious to see how switching browsers might affect the Prime’s performance, I fired up the Google Chrome beta for Android. Chrome scored higher than the default ICS browser in both SunSpider and Peacekeeper, but not by enough to match our initial Honeycomb results.
We had hoped to run several 3D performance tests, but the version of GLBenchmark we used in our initial Transformer Prime review doesn’t work on Ice Cream Sandwich. That leaves us with Basemark ES 2.0 Taiji.
The latest version of Android boosts the graphics performance of the Transformers in this test. Frame rates are 1-2 FPS higher depending on the configuration, which works out to improvements of 11-14%.
Without a Fraps-like utility for Android, it’s hard to say whether games are running any better on Ice Cream Sandwich. The half-dozen titles installed on these Transformers don’t seem to run any smoother than they did on Honeycomb, but they were already running well on the old OS.
Boot time and battery life
Honeycomb had a tendency to boot rather slowly on the Transformer Prime, taking about twice the amount of time required to load the OS on the old Transformer. Fortunately, Ice Cream Sandwich boots much faster on the Prime.
The OS update cuts the Prime’s cold boot time by more than half. The original Transformer is still faster, but the difference between the two tablets is minimal with ICS compared to what it was with Honeycomb. Both tablets continue to wake up from sleep almost instantaneously.
Last, but not least, we have battery life, a particular point of contention for the Transformer Prime. When we first tested the tablet, its battery life was wildly inconsistent in our web surfing test. That test loads up a version of the TR home page and refreshes it every 45 seconds. New ads are loaded each time, and browser plugins are set to “on demand” to prevent Flash from burning through the battery. That’s still a heavy surfing load, but it’s not the sort of thing that should produce a variance in battery life of several hours, behavior Asus confirmed in its labs.
With Ice Cream Sandwich on board, the Prime’s battery life in our web-surfing test is now very consistent—and much improved. The tablet lasts for an extra hour with the new OS, and two more if you have the docking station attached. The original Transformer gains about an hour of web-browsing time thanks to Android 4.0, too. Its web-surfing battery life has been consistent since Honeycomb.
Our second battery life test repeats an hour-long 480p video clip encoded with H.264. We use the ad-supported DicePlayer app, which supports the Nvidia decoding mojo inside both tablets. This test is run in airplane mode, with Wi-Fi disabled.
Battery life hasn’t improved for movie playback. The old Transformer offers identical run times when looping our H.264 video, while the Prime loses 1.5-2 hours. DicePlayer has been updated since our initial testing, so that may account for some of the difference on the Prime.
Because testing battery life is rather time-consuming, we were only able to run the Transformer Prime in balanced mode. The tablet is perfectly capable of browsing and playing our test video in power-saver mode, but that compromises the screen quality in ways we’d rather avoid.
How’s that Transformer working out for you?
More people have asked me about the Transformers than any other products I’ve used or reviewed, PC hardware included. There seems to be a general curiosity about tablets, and more specifically, questions about whether Asus’ offerings are any good. A lot of the folks lobbing questions my way are mainstream users who are very familiar with Apple but have little knowledge of Asus outside its Eee PC netbooks.
Fun fact: the last time there was this much interest in my work from a less tech-savvy crowd was during the netbook craze of a few years ago. Netbook popularity seems to be dwindling in North America, due to the success of tablets. The masses still want cheap, ultra-portable computers, but those devices need not run Windows or come in notebook form.
There’s reason for people to be apprehensive about the Transformer Prime; the tablet’s reputation took an early hit when it was discovered that the gorgeous metal case hampers Wi-Fi and GPS performance. So severe are the GPS issues that Asus has removed all mention of global positioning from the tablet’s spec sheet. The company says it’s continuing to work on improving the device’s Assisted GPS functionality, but don’t expect proper GPS support to return.
The aluminum shell also inhibits Wi-Fi signals, but the Prime’s problems on that front don’t appear to be as severe. The comparatively weak wireless performance was noted in our initial review, but it’s awfully tough to notice with normal browsing. Despite scoring lower in Internet bandwidth tests, the Prime has no problem loading web pages or streaming high-definition video over Wi-Fi to any room in my house.
Asus has been candid about the fact that the Prime’s aluminum skin is to blame for the tablet’s sub-par wireless performance. The upcoming Transformer Infinity even features a new exterior designed to remedy the issue, but the updated case won’t trickle down to the Prime, which is stuck with the disappointing design snafu.
Some users have complained about the Transformer Prime randomly rebooting or locking up. Neither of the Transformers floating around the Benchmarking Sweatshop has suffered an unwanted reboot. However, the Prime has briefly locked up on numerous occasions, most often while browsing with multiple tabs. The system never hangs for more than a few seconds, and Android pops up a little message prompting the user to choose between waiting for the application or closing it. By the time I hit wait, the system is usually back to normal. Nevertheless, the interruption is annoying—and a reminder that Ice Cream Sandwich is not yet fully
baked frozen on the Prime. Honeycomb had no lockup issues.
To Asus’ credit, the Prime seems to be hanging less now than it did in early January. Numerous firmware updates have been released for the device since its first dose of Android 4.0. The original Transformer hasn’t been updated nearly as frequently, but it hasn’t needed extra attention. Since getting a taste of Ice Cream Sandwich, the tablet has locked up only once, while loading a fourth tab in the browser.
Given my lack of issues on the original Transformer, whose Tegra 2 SoC has a conventional dual-core design, I’m thinking the Prime’s stumbling could be related to its Tegra 3 processor. That chip has a novel four-plus-one architecture that switches between a single, low-power ARM core and a separate quad-core component with much higher clock speeds. Nvidia software manages the transitions, and more tuning appears to be needed.
According to numbers published by CNet, only 0.15% of the Transformer Prime tablets sold as of February 6 were returned due to random reboots or lockups. More folks have returned the tablet based on wireless or GPS issues, but the total for that category purportedly amounts to only 0.57%. The overall return rate for the Transformer Prime during that period was 0.81%, Asus says. We’ve been told that return rate is lower than the iPad’s, a claim that’s difficult to verify with absolute certainty. For what it’s worth, several sites have pegged the Apple tablet’s return rate at 2%. In the coming weeks, Asus has pledged to provide us with fresh data on Transformer Prime returns.
Evolving usage patterns
Critics tend to argue that tablets don’t do anything their current smartphones and laptops can’t handle. That’s a fair point to make, and it highlights the fact that tablets very much fall into the category of wants rather than needs. As the owner of both a smartphone and an ultraportable notebook, though, I’d rather use a tablet around the house. More than eight months after picking up the original Transformer, the novelty has yet to wear off. In fact, the tablet is being used more and more with each passing month.
At first, the Transformer spent most of its time rendering the pages of websites and comic books. Recently, though, the Transformer has replaced my big-screen TV as the preferred method for subjecting visitors to stacks of vacation pictures. The screen might be a fraction of the size, but the ability to easily pan, zoom, and flip through the gallery provides a level of interaction that’s worth the downgrade.
Surfing still takes up the bulk of my time with the Transformer, but increasingly, I have to pry it away from my girlfriend, who now expects a tablet to be on the coffee table at all times. Despite having an iPhone 4S and a 13″ thin-and-light notebook, she prefers the Transformers for quick queries. Google Earth and Maps are also favorites, and we’ve been using both to plan out our next vacation. Unlike smartphones and notebooks, the Transformers are quite easy to share between couples on the couch, thanks to their huge touch interfaces and the generous viewing angles of their IPS displays.
Disappointingly, I’ve also been doing more work on the Transformers. After putting the keyboard docks in the living room, I found myself using them to answer emails and to bang out notes for upcoming articles. The touchpad’s inability to ignore inadvertent contact while typing is still hugely frustrating, rendering it almost useless for document work. Based on the grumbling we’ve heard, a resolution to this issue isn’t likely. It seems Google would prefer Android to remain touch-focused, even if that hampers innovative hybrids like the Transformers. At least Asus keeps giving users the option of switching between Android’s clumsy default cursor and a proper pointer with actual precision.
Overall, Ice Cream Sandwich is a nice upgrade for the Transformer tablets. Asus deserves credit for rolling out the latest version of Android so quickly—and on multiple devices. Android 4.0 exhibits more hiccups on the Prime than I’d expect, though. Rare as the Transformer Prime’s lockups may be, the unexpected interruptions are readily apparent when the rest of the experience feels so much smoother.
An increase in fluidity is really what sets Ice Cream Sandwich apart from Honeycomb. Any change in the responsiveness of a touch-based user interface can have a big impact on the user experience, and ICS is a definite improvement on both tablets. The impact feels more like the result of a hardware upgrade. Our Linpack scores at least suggest Google’s latest OS does a much better job of utilizing multi-core CPUs. At the same time, the default browser scores lower in standard, web-based benchmarks, so ICS is far from a clean sweep.
I’m inclined to forgive those lower scores, because the browser is a definite improvement when surfing in the real world. Zooming and scrolling are slicker, and the quick controls really speed up navigation. The extra battery life we observed in our web-surfing test is a nice bonus, too. If only Google made it easier to avoid mobile-specific websites; any tablet with a 1280×800 display resolution should get the full version of a website by default, not some diet variant intended for pixel-starved smartphone screens.
Even after the latest Ice Cream Sandwich release, Android still feels like work in progress. In some respects, the OS is absolutely on the right path, providing an openness and flexibility sure to be attractive to those turned off by the walled garden of iOS. But Google also appears to be catering to smartphone users at the expense of tablets and hybrid devices like Asus’ Transformers. That doesn’t seem wise with a torrent of new iPads poised to flood the market and Windows 8 lurking over the horizon.
Asus seems to have a clearer idea of what it wants to do with the Transformer line. Two additions are due out this spring, one with a gorgeous 1920×1200 display and the other a slimmed-down replacement for the first-gen model. Both will run Ice Cream Sandwich, but I can’t help but wonder whether Asus’ novel spin on a convertible tablet might soon branch out beyond Google’s dessert-themed operating system. Windows 8 beckons, and it might not be so resentful of the Transformer’s PC sensibilities.