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.
The Transformer Pad’s exterior is the first thing you’ll notice about the device. The second thing is the snappy performance offered by its Tegra 3 processor, which is a big upgrade over the Tegra 2 chip in the old Transformer. Tegra 2 is a dual-core design that lacks ARM’s NEO media engine. Tegra 3 adds the dedicated SIMD unit and offers a novel 4+1-core architecture.
Really, Nvidia’s approach would be better described as 4-or-1; software switches the chip between a single, low-power core and a separate quad-core unit. The solitary “companion” core uses low-leakage transistors that don’t scale well up to higher clock speeds, limiting it to 500MHz. The quad-core cluster is optimized to flip bits at much higher speeds, and it kicks in when there’s need for extra processing grunt. Nvidia says transitioning between the core configs takes less than two milliseconds.
Within its quad-core array, Tegra 3 can dynamically adjust clock speeds and cut off power to unneeded cores. The T30L variant in the Transformer Pad 300 has a default frequency of 1.2GHz, 100MHz slower than the Tegra SoC inside the Transformer Prime. Clock speed is the only difference between the two chips.
Naturally, Tegra 3 has integrated GeForce graphics with dedicated logic for video decoding and encoding. The GPU boasts 12 cores and is supposed to offer three times the pixel-pushing horsepower of its predecessor in Tegra 2. Much of that additional performance appears to come from higher clock, since the GPU’s core count has increased by only 50%. Alas, we don’t know the clock frequencies of Tegra’s integrated GPUs.
|Processor||Nvidia Tegra 3 T30L 1.2GHz
with GeForce graphics
|Display||10.1″ IPS TFT with 1280×800
|Ports||1 Micro HDMI 1.4a
1 analog audio headphone/mic port
1 USB 2.0 (dock)
|Expansion slots||1 Mini SD
1 SD (dock)
|Input devices||Capacitive touchscreen
Chiclet keyboard with touchpad (dock)
|Dimensions||Tablet: 10.4″ x 7.1″ x 0.39″
(263 x 181 x 9.9 mm)
Dock: 10.4″ x 7.1″ x 0.40″ (263 x 181 x 10.2 mm)
|Weight||Tablet: 1.29 lbs (635 grams)
Dock: 1.18 (546 grams)
|Battery||Tablet: 22Wh lithium-polymer
Dock: 16.5Wh lithium-polymer
The Transformer’s DRAM memory still weighs in at 1GB, but it’s DDR3 instead of DDR2. On the storage front, the $380 model comes with 16GB of flash, while the $400 version gets 32GB. The $20 difference strikes me as a lot more reasonable than the $100 Apple charges to take the iPad from 16 to 32GB. Asus also kicks in 8GB of cloud-based storage that’s good for the life of the device, at no extra charge.
If you’re one of those people who likes to awkwardly hold up your tablet to take pictures, you’ll appreciate the Transformer Pad 300’s rear-facing shooter, which captures 8-megapixel stills and supports 1080p video recording. The picture quality is reasonable if there’s lots of light, but I can’t get over the awful ergonomics of actually taking a shot. There’s more utility to the front-facing camera, whose 1.2MP resolution is plenty for Skype calls.
For those Skype sessions, users have a choice of integrated or plug-in audio. The speaker is located along the rear right edge when holding the tablet in landscape mode, but the Transformer can be held in any orientation to avoid muffling. Audio playback sounds pretty good for this class of device, which admittedly isn’t saying much. You’ll want to make use of the 3.5-mm combo headphone/microphone jack for extended listening sessions.
Around the left edge lies the volume rocker and Micro HDMI output. A Mini SD slot makes an appearance, enabling quick and easy storage upgrades. The sliver-like SD cards that slide into the tiny slot are relatively slow as far as solid-state storage goes, but you don’t need much speed for a media library.
The Transformer Pad 300’s expansion capacity is further increased by the optional keyboard dock, which serves up a full-sized SD slot alongside an honest-to-goodness USB port. It’s only USB 2.0, but that still leaves folks with loads of compatible storage devices. Nvidia has also built USB gamepad support into its Tegra 3 drivers, allowing users to plug in all kinds of console and PC controllers. Having dual analog sticks vastly improves the tablet gaming experience with the arcade-style titles I tend to prefer.
Speaking of preferences, I wish Asus hadn’t covered the USB port with a little door. If the port is used regularly, the odds of the cover staying attached for more than a few weeks seem slim to none. Then again, the port will be left unencumbered once the cover is gone. You can always remove it right away.
According to Asus, big retailers prefer covered ports because they cut down on returns. Kids are liable to stick paper clips, peanut butter, and all kinds of other things into open ports. I’d be more worried about them racking up huge bills with in-game purchases.
While we’re talking about the dock, we should note that it only works with the Transformer Pad 300. There’s no cross-compatibility between any of the docks and tablets in the Transformer line, which is understandable given the different chassis thicknesses involved. And you wouldn’t want mismatched colors, would you?
The docking interface is similar on all the Transformers we’ve seen, and it seems to be getting better with each iteration. While the original needs to be lined up carefully to ensure a smooth connection, the 300 is more tolerant of clumsy hands. A sliding latch locks the two components together, eliminating the chance of premature separation.
Likely due to its thinner profile, the dock has a smaller battery than the one incorporated in the old model. The auxiliary cell is rated for 16.5Wh, or 7.9Wh less than its counterpart in the original. The tablet’s battery is slightly smaller, too, although the difference there is only 2.4Wh. Asus says the Transformer Pad 300 will last 10 hours on a single charge and an additional five hours with the dock plugged in. We’ll see how those claims pan out in our battery life tests a little later in the review.
All eyes on the display
Take away the Transformer’s keyboard dock, and the device looks like any other slate-style tablet. The business side of the unit is dominated by a 10.1″ touchscreen ringed by a beefy black bezel. The whole thing is covered by a single sheet of Gorilla Glass that is both a blessing and a curse. The material’s scratch-resistant properties are much appreciated, and they’ve kept my first-gen Transformer’s screen free of permanent blemishes through a year of regular use. However, the glossy finish quickly accumulates fingerprints; it’s difficult to avoid touching a touchscreen. Heck, even holding the tablet leaves a thumbprint on the bezel.
The mess of smudges is always visible on the border. Whether you see them on the screen depends largely on what else is being displayed. If the tablet is turned off or the screen is otherwise dark, streaks and fingerprints really jump out. When the screen has something to show, the backlight overpowers the smudges, making them difficult to detect. Glossy screens are a hallmark of modern tablets, so the issue is hardly unique to the Transformer.
Apart from its propensity to gather fingerprints, the screen is pretty good. Our colorimeter tells us the backlight offers 324 cd/m² of brightness at its maximum setting, which is comparable to the 341 cd/m² we measured on the original Transformer. Neither screen comes close to the turbo-charged backlight of the Transformer Prime’s SuperIPS+ display, though. That display pushes over 640 cd/m² and is much easier to read in direct sunlight. Like typical tablet displays, the Transformer Pad 300’s screen works best when it doesn’t have to compete with the sun’s rays.
Typical is probably the best way to describe the display. The IPS panel serves up 1280×800 pixels, just like the original Transformer and numerous other Android tablets—sorry, no high-DPI love here. Some prefer the 4:3 aspect ratio of Apple’s iPads, but the Transformer’s widescreen format is definitely more conducive to watching movies. I also prefer it for reading and web browsing in portrait mode, where the wider screen turns into a longer page.
When we reviewed the Transformer Prime, we immediately noticed the screen’s yellow tinge, a byproduct of its warmer color temperature. Asus says that tablet’s warmer profile was intentional, but cooler tones have prevailed in the Transformer Pad 300. We tested the screen with our colorimeter to get an objective reading, and the data are pretty clear. Below is the color gamut for the screen at a brightness of 120 cd/m². The original Transformer has been included as a frame of reference. The color gamut graph will switch between the two tablets when your mouse cursor moves over the image. It takes a few seconds for the second image to load, so be patient.
The shift in the color gamut is much less pronounced than what we saw with the Transformer Prime. Ideally, the intersection point in the middle of the inner triangle should hit the D65 marker, which corresponds to the color temperature of typical daylight. That marker sits at the intersection of the dashed horizontal and vertical lines that start just above 0.3 on each axis. As you can see, both Transformers come pretty close to the daylight ideal. The Transformer Pad 300 is biased toward the warmer end of the spectrum, but only just.
We can also look at the actual color temperature of the display across multiple gray levels. The graph below has the same mouseover magic as the one above. Here, we’re looking for a color temperature of 6500K, which is equivalent to the D65 daylight illuminant from the gamut graph.
The Transformer Pad 300 has a slightly warmer color temperature across the full range of gray levels. However, this temperature is more consistent—and closer to our 6500K target—than the cooler colors of the old model.
Requesting permission to dock
There’s something very satisfying about touchscreen interfaces. Seeing UI elements change beneath one’s fingertips fulfills my Star Trek fantasies and is gratifying in ways that traditional input mechanisms simply can’t match. There are some drawbacks, however. The lack of tactile feedback makes typing with on-screen keyboards frustrating for anything longer than a sentence or two. Capacitive touchscreens are also short on precision, particularly when combined with my fat fingers, making photo and document editing much more difficult than it needs to be.
Some of these deficiencies are addressed by software. The on-screen keyboard makes generally useful suggestions based on what you’ve started to type. Android also incorporates a number of little features to ease text highlighting and cursor positioning. Ultimately, these are poor substitutes for a proper keyboard and touchpad; that’s where the dock comes in.
With the dock attached, the Transformer very much resembles an ultraportable notebook. The weight balance is a little different, though. On a notebook, the screen is usually much lighter than the base because it’s just an LCD. The Transformer’s screen is the entire tablet—battery and all—and it weighs 16% more than the dock. Put the two together, and the combo is decidedly back-heavy when open.
If the Transformer is sitting on a flat surface, there’s little danger it will topple on its own. However, when placed on even a slight decline, like my lap when I’m sitting in my office chair, the front of the dock has a tendency to lift up. Tilting the screen all the way back exacerbates the issue, although that isn’t enough to reach the tipping point on a flat surface. A heavier keyboard dock would certainly help. Perhaps Asus should cram in a few more battery cells to add weight.
|Total keyboard area||Alpha keys|
|Size||250 mm||92 mm||23,000 mm²||154 mm||47 mm||7,238 mm²|
|Versus full size||87%||84%||73%||90%||82%||74%|
The dock’s keyboard dimension haven’t changed from the original Transformer. While the chiclet array falls well short of full size, there’s enough room for my large hands to type comfortably at speed. Asus has done well to avoid obvious layout quirks. The only exception is the absence of a dedicated delete key. Shift + backspace performs the same function, but I’d rather see the Fn modifier in the lower right corner of the keyboard replaced with delete. There’s a second, larger Fn key in the lower left corner. That’s the one you’re going to use, because only the keys in the inverted-T directional pad even respond to the modifier. Good luck positioning your fingers to hit one of those at the same time as the right Fn key.
Looking at the keyboard, it’s hard to think of additional functions that would require the Fn modifier. Asus already lines the top row with dedicated function keys that include brightness, volume, and playback controls; shortcuts to the web browser and settings menu; and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth toggles. There’s even a key for screenshots and another that disables the touchpad. More on that in a moment.
The layout is only one part of the keyboard equation. The feel counts for a lot, too, and my first stab at the keys didn’t impress. I looked down in horror as the entire keyboard seemed to deform under the weight of my finger. If you move the mouse over the image below, you can see what I mean. Again, it’ll take a few seconds for the second image to load.
There’s an awful lot of flex in the middle of the keyboard. Mercifully, there’s virtually none around the perimeter. The old Transformer’s keyboard feels solid no matter which key is pressed, so the 300 is a definite downgrade on this front.
The flex feels as obvious as it looks, especially if you’re like me, and your fingers dance across the keys with all the grace of a mosh pit set to speed metal. Mildly mushy is perhaps the best way to describe the keyboard’s feel. It’s tolerable, especially since the keys have decent tactile feedback and a nice amount of travel. The tactile response is a tad vague and watered down when compared to the old keyboard, though. I much prefer the harder edge of the original.
Precision isn’t a problem for the touchpad, whose smooth surface allows one’s fingertips to glide effortlessly. The tracking area is generous for a 10″ device, and it’s sunken between the palm rests at a very slight angle to allow the edges to be detected by touch alone. An even larger tracking region could be offered by using edge-mounted buttons. (Don’t most people tap to click, anyway?) The buttons sit under a single, painfully glossy cover. They have a nice click, but I could do without the prints left behind.
Asus is to be commended for pushing back against Google on the touchpad front. We’ve heard the Chrome OS folks are very protective of their turf, which is why Android treats touchpads like gesture panels. The pointer is replaced by a giant circle with all the accuracy of a bingo dabber. This abomination can be banished in the settings menu, where Asus has added an option to enable a real pointer. That mode supports two-finger scrolling but not pinch zooming, which continues to work on the touchscreen.
The addition of a precise mouse pointer is huge for productivity applications. I’d rather not edit documents, spreadsheets, and photos without. To be honest, though, the touchpad on my Transformer is disabled most of the time. The problem is the associated driver, which isn’t intelligent enough to ignore incidental contact when one’s fingers are busy typing. Countless profanities have been uttered at now three different Transformer tablets because I can’t type at speed without routinely sending the mouse pointer halfway across the screen. Good thing Asus puts that touchpad toggle in the function row.
The Transformer Pad 300 has inherited the same performance modes as the Prime, albeit with slightly slower speeds. The default “balanced” mode caps the CPU cores at 1.2GHz. Kicking the tablet into “performance” mode buys another 100MHz for single-core loads, but the maximum frequency remains 1.2GHz when more than one core is active. In “power saver” mode, 1-2 core loads are limited to 1GHz, while 3- and 4-core loads max out at 700 and 600MHz, respectively. Those clock speeds all refer to Tegra 3’s quad-core cluster. The companion core isn’t affected by the power profiles, and neither is the GeForce GPU.
To provide a complete picture of the Transformer Pad’s performance, we’ve tested the tablet in all three power modes. We’ve also assembled a handful of competitors for comparison, including the original Transformer, the Transformer Prime, the Galaxy Tab 10.1, the Kindle Fire, and the iPad 2. Unfortunately, the Kindle and iPad won’t be able to participate in all our tests due the availability of benchmark applications on each platform. The Fire needs to be rooted to access the Android Market, and the iPad runs an entirely different operating system that requires separate binaries.
We’re still getting the feel for tablet testing, and there are plans to add a number of new tests to our suite. There wasn’t time to do so for this review, though. We’ll have to make do with standard benchmarks for now.
Let’s start with Linpack, which measures raw CPU performance. The iOS version of Linpack appears to be quite different from the one available on the Android Market, so the Apple tablet is going to sit out this round. Since the variant of Linpack available through the Amazon Appstore doesn’t specify whether it’s a single- or multithreaded build, the Kindle Fire will also be riding the pine.
That’s weird. The Transformer Pad 300 is largely competitive with the Prime in the single-threaded test but outclassed in the multithreaded one. Oddly, the 300’s power-saver mode offers much better performance than the Prime in the single-threaded test.
Our Transformer Prime sample has since gone back to Asus, so I can’t gather numbers with the latest firmware. However, we do know that the Prime’s multithreaded Linpack performance improved substantially when the tablet was updated to Android 4.0. That update also lowered single-threaded performance in power-saver mode. The Transformer Pad 300 runs the same OS, but it seems to be missing the optimizations applied to the Transformer Prime. Asus is looking into the matter.
Even without those optimizations, the Transformer Pad 300 still outperforms its predecessor in both tests. The Galaxy Tab 10.1 scores even lower than the first-gen Transformer.
Tablets are probably used for web surfing more than anything else, so we’ve run a couple of browser-based tests. These tests run inside the native browser on each device, which should give us a good cross-platform comparison. Silk, the Kindle’s cloud-based web renderer, was disabled throughout because it actually delivers a slower real-world browsing experience than letting the device request pages itself.
Despite its lower CPU frequency, the Transformer Pad 300 edges out the Prime in SunSpider. The difference is particularly prominent in power-saver mode, and I suspect the 300’s quicker execution time might be due to a newer version of the default Android browser. We gathered our numbers for the Transformer Prime in February, and several updates have been released since.
Of course, the Transformer Pad 300 still can’t catch the iPad 2 in this test. The Apple tablet now has a similar asking price, although it’s limited to a 16GB version.
The Transformer Pad 300 remains slower than the iPad 2. It also turns in lower scores than the Prime in the balanced and performance modes. Indeed, Asus’ latest tablet isn’t much faster in this test than the old Transformer.
I wouldn’t make too much of the Galaxy Tab’s strong showing here. It was tested using the old Honeycomb version of Android, while the Transformers are running Ice Cream Sandwich, whose default browser scores lower in Peacekeeper.
Next, we’re going to take a look at graphics performance. Since Fraps (or something like it) isn’t available to track frame delivery during actual gameplay, we have to rely on a handful of 3D graphics benchmarks. The first of these is GLBenchmark, which uses OpenGL ES 2.0 and is available for both Android and iOS. GLBenchmark isn’t available through the Amazon Appstore, forcing the Kindle out of the action for another round.
The Transformer Prime will also have to sit this one out; GLBenchmark didn’t play nicely with Ice Cream Sandwich when we tested that tablet. A newer version has since been released, and that’s what we used on the Transformer Pad 300 and its predecessor. On the original Transformer, version 2.1.4 of the app runs a little bit faster than 2.1. Our results aren’t directly comparable as a result, but they should give a general sense of where the competitors sit.
GLBenchmark’s standard tests measure frame rates as the scene is drawn on the screen. This mode constantly invokes vsync (which can’t be disabled), so we’ve also tested with GLBenchmark’s offscreen mode. Those tests are run at 1280×720 but aren’t shown on the screen, preventing vsync from artificially limiting the performance of the graphics processor.
There are several things we can take away from these results. First, the iPad 2 offers quite a bit more graphics horsepower. The Transformer Pad 300 has considerably more graphics oomph than its predecessor, though.
As expected, changing the Transformer’s power modes doesn’t affect the performance of its GPU. We do see lower frame rates in the standard tests, but only for the power-saver mode, which caps the screen’s refresh rate at 35Hz to further conserve battery life. The Transformer Pad 300 is clearly bumping up against that threshold.
We have one more graphics performance test: Basemark ES 2.0 Taiji. Unfortunately, the free version isn’t yet available on iOS, so the iPad will have to join the Kindle on the sidelines.
Surprisingly, the Transformer Prime’s performance scales up slightly as we move from one power mode to the next. The 300’s frame rate doesn’t budge, and it’s smack in the middle of the Prime’s range. Check out the huge advantage those Tegra 3-based tablets have over the old Transformer and Galaxy Tab, which both use Tegra 2 silicon.
Testing battery life is quite time-consuming when you’re looking at run times in the 10-hour range, so we only have numbers for the three Transformers. All testing was conducted in the balanced performance mode with the screen brightness set to ~40%.
First, we’ll tackle web surfing using the default browser. Our browser 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.
Impressive. The Transformer Pad 300 runs our web surfing test for over nine hours, one hour more than the Prime. That advantage narrows slightly when we add the keyboard dock, which keeps the 300 alive for another five hours.
Although the original Transformer tablet can’t match the battery life its successor, the tables turn when the docks are attached. The old model’s larger auxiliary battery allows it run our web surfing test for two hours longer than the Transformer Pad 300.
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 video decoding mojo in the Tegra 2 and 3 SoCs. This test is run in airplane mode, with Wi-Fi disabled.
Again, the Transformer Pad 300 outpaces the Prime. The deltas here are wider here than they were in the web surfing test, both with and without the docks attached.
The big surprise in the playback test is the old Transformer’s comparatively short run times. I suspect Tegra 3’s companion core helps a lot here. The low-power core should be sufficient for video playback, since all the heavy lifting is handled by the chip’s dedicated decode hardware. The original Transformer’s Tegra 2 processor doesn’t have the luxury of switching to a low-power companion core.
Day to day with the Transformer
Before moving onto our conclusions, we should take a moment to talk about how the Transformer Pad 300 fares in day-to-day life. It short, it does very well. For me, the biggest difference is the improved responsiveness offered by the Tegra 3 SoC. The Android UI isn’t perfectly smooth on the old Transformer, but it’s practically silky on the 300. Applications load faster and feel snappier on the new tablet. Web pages and videos seem to display a tiny bit quicker, too. The overall experience reminds me a lot of the Transformer Prime.
There are still a few sources of frustration, of course. Applications will occasionally hang for a few seconds, causing a “wait or close” dialog box to pop up. The hiccup has always subsided by the time I hit wait, but it doesn’t make the interruption any less annoying. At least there are far fewer hitches than I encountered on the Transformer Prime when it made the move to Ice Cream Sandwich.
Android gives users a fair amount of freedom. Plug the Transformer into a USB port, and it appears as an external storage device, yielding unfettered access to its contents. The desktop environment can be customized with all kinds of widgets and shortcuts, and there are plenty of settings for users to tweak, including a handful of Asus’ own. The most commonly used settings are accessible via a shortcut menu that pops up conveniently from the system tray.
The default applications are generally excellent, but I can’t stand the web browser’s desire to render the mobile versions of sites. Google has removed the option to set the user agent string, which allows mobile browsers to identify themselves as desktop PCs capable of displaying full-fat web pages. Why would anyone want to view the mobile version of a site on a 10″, 1280×800 display? The browser offers a menu option to load the desktop version of a specific site, but it can’t be enabled by default. The best bet is to use ICS Browser+, a free version of the Android browser with a handful of additional features, including that all-important user agent string.
Android quirks aside, we should briefly discuss wireless performance. The Transformer Prime’s metal skin presents problems for its internal GPS module, which is rendered largely useless. Indeed, references to GPS functionality have been stricken from the Prime’s spec sheet. We also found that tablet’s Wi-Fi reception to be weaker than the original Transformer. Fortunately, neither of those issues afflicts the Transformer Pad 300. The Wi-Fi signal strength is good, and it takes only seconds for Chartcross’ GPS Test application to pick up multiple satellites. As I type this, the Transformer Pad is using no fewer than 10 GPS satellites to map its location.
The built-in GPS makes the Transformer a great travel companion, but I’m still not ready to use it in place of my laptop when traveling for work. I’m simply far more productive in a familiar Windows environment—and with the associated applications. Thanks largely to its keyboard dock, the Transformer Pad 300 comes closer than any other tablet to being a viable replacement for my ultraportable notebook, but it’s not there yet.
At least the Transformer remains an appealing platform for media consumption and casual computing. HD videos play smoothly whether they’re stored locally or streaming via the web. Games look good and offer smooth frame rates, and the controller support is a huge bonus. I’m one of those people who preferred Quake over Unreal because the controls felt tighter, even if the game didn’t look as good. iOS does have a larger game library with more high-profile titles if you’re serious about tablet gaming, though.
The original Transformer was a big deal because it offered unmatched features at a much lower price than typical tablets. In the year since its introduction, others have stolen some of the budget mystique. The Kindle Fire set a new low with a $200 asking price—and a user experience to match. Acer’s Tegra 3-based Iconia 10-incher can be had for $450, and the iPad 2 is down to $400. Then there’s that new iPad, with its ridiculously gorgeous high-DPI display for only $100 more. None of those tablets, not even Apple’s new hotness, has matched the mix of features that make the Transformer uniquely desirable.
The optional keyboard dock is a true sidekick, offering a keyboard, touchpad, and auxiliary battery backed by an SD slot and USB port. It adds PC sensibilities to the tablet equation and makes for a much more versatile computing device. The Transformer Pad 300’s dock ticks all the right boxes but loses a few points in the implementation. The issue of smarter touchpad drivers remains, and the new keyboard lacks the solid, punchy feel of the original. Neither ruins the Transformer’s trademark accessory, but both are disappointing.
Finding flaw with the tablet itself is more difficult. Tegra 3 may not be the fastest processor in every metric, but it has enough horsepower to deliver a fluid, responsive experience. The whole companion core scheme apparently works, because the Transformer Pad 300 offers excellent battery life even without the extra five hours added by the dock. The screen is great, too, with neutral colors and enough backlight brightness for comfortable indoor viewing.
Android continues to mature nicely, a few niggling issues aside. I suspect PC enthusiasts will enjoy the freedoms afforded by the Google operating system, at least versus the walled garden of iOS. The Transformer’s custom Android tweaks are smart, subtle additions. Asus has also done a great job of keeping its tablets up to date with firmware and OS updates, rolling out Ice Cream Sandwich long before most other tablet makers were ready.
Even the Transformer’s new body is an upgrade. It’s nice to have a few color options, and the ribbed finish has a great look and texture. The slimmer, lighter chassis hasn’t come at a premium. In fact, the Transformer is selling for slightly less than its suggested retail price. The 32GB version costs $398 on Amazon right now, and the associated keyboard dock rings up at $141.
I’ve now rewritten this paragraph at least five times because I can’t decide whether the Transformer Pad 300 is good enough for our coveted Editor’s Choice award. It’s a great value, no doubt, and a real hybrid. The dock is what really elevates the Transformer into consideration for our highest award, and part of me winces at the thought of rewarding that flexy keyboard. But I type on mechanical Cherry MX brown switches all day and, as a writer, I’m really picky about such things. The fact that the keyboard is there, along with everything else in the dock, is what makes the Transformer special—and that’s the quality that puts it over the top.