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Asus' Transformer Pad 300 tablet

I'm all out of Transformers references

Netbooks sales are dwindling, and it's easy to see why. While consumers remain keenly interested in ultraportable computers, they clearly prefer tablets to tiny Windows PCs. I don't blame 'em. The touchscreen interfaces that permeate modern tablets are far more conducive to couch surfing and media consumption—and considerably more satisfying than mini touchpads and keyboards. Tablets typically offer better displays and longer battery life. They're thinner and lighter, too.

To be fair, netbooks do have some advantages. They can run Windows and its associated applications, which is admittedly becoming less important due to the growing selection of apps for Android and iOS. But netbooks do boast conveniences like video outputs, SD slots, and USB ports. Those standard features are relatively rare on tablets and utterly absent from the iPads that dominate the market. Want to connect your iPad to the big-screen TV in your living room? That'll be $39 for the digital AV adapter. The camera connection kit is an extra $35, but it can't be used at the same time as the AV adapter.

Asus seems acutely aware of typical tablet shortcomings, because its Transformers add netbook flavor to the formula. They come loaded with extra ports and slots, in part thanks to accompanying keyboard docks that also add hours of battery life. The docks cost extra, of course, but at least 50% of the tablets I've seen in the wild have been paired with keyboard accessories of some kind. Besides, the Transformer line started with a $400 model that was cheaper than anything in its class.

Asus has since replaced its budget tablet with the Transformer Pad 300, which lops $20 off the asking price while offering Tegra 3 horsepower in a slimmer, sexier body. This machine has much in common with not only Asus' pricier Transformer Prime tablet, but also its latest netbooks. We'd expect nothing less from the creators of the Eee PC responsible for starting the whole netbook trend.

The old Transformer is one of our favorite tablets, so we naturally have high expectations for its replacement. Let's take a closer look at the Transformer Pad 300 to see how it stacks up.

Ribbed for your pleasure
One of the nicest things about the old Transformer is its industrial design, which is attractive without remotely resembling an Apple rip-off. The Transformer Pad 300 offers a fresh look that's similarly unique and yet completely different. Gone are the textured brown back and copper accents, and in their place, a choice of three colors: red, white, and blue. Team America, baby, by way of Taiwan.

The Torch Red and Iceberg flavors won't be available until June, but the Royal Blue is rather fetching. To me, the tone looks more like Nightcrawler Indigo. No one wants to see Transformers/X-Men slash fiction, though, and Asus doesn't need another trademark lawsuit.

Plastics abound in the Transformer Pad 300, but you'll be pleased to know they haven't been dipped in smudge-prone gloss. The back of the tablet is ribbed with a circular pattern of ridges that resists fingerprints and provides a textured, grippy feel. It's a little hard to see the pattern from a distance, but a close-up is helpful.

For me, the ribbing adds just as much to the feel of the device as it does to the aesthetic. There's none of the sterile coldness that characterizes metallic finishes. The plastic construction also eliminates the poor wireless reception of the aluminum-clad Transformer Prime.

At 9.9 mm thick, the Transformer Pad 300 is a little fatter than the 8.3-mm Prime. The docks are actually comparable in thickness. Both of the 300's components are thinner than those of the original Transformer, though. Here's how the budget models compare:

The two have similar footprints, but the Transformer Pad 300 is noticeably thinner with and without its keyboard dock attached. Each of those components is lighter than its predecessor, too. The 300's tablet and dock weigh 1.3 and 1.2 lbs (635 and 546 grams), respectively, a combined 0.3 lbs (139 grams) less than the first-gen Transformer.

While I would hardly call the old Transformer burdensome to carry around, it feels clunky next to the new model. The difference isn't so much the thickness or the weight as it is the product of the two. The Transformer Pad 300 is noticeably less tablet—in a good way.