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Asus' Transformer Pad Infinity tablet

Ice Cream Sandwich in HD

Months before Apple revealed the new iPad and its gorgeous Retina display, we got our first look at a high-density tablet screen. It sat in Asus' suite at the Consumer Electronics Show framed by a new Transformer tablet, then known as the Transformer Prime TF700. The IPS panel squeezed 1920x1200 pixels—the same number as my 24" desktop monitors—into a 10.1" screen with a wicked-bright backlight. The display was beautiful.

Now, it's finally ready for prime time.

Much has changed in the more than six months since we first laid eyes on the TF700. There's a new name: the Transformer Pad Infinity. More importantly, the third-gen iPad has set the bar for what a high-PPI tablet should be. And it set the bar high, not only by delivering a high-quality screen and excellent performance, but also by keeping the starting price at $499.

When we talked to Asus in January, the TF700 was expected to sell for $600. Yeah, that didn't last. The Transformer Pad Infinity will cost $499 and up, just like the new iPad.

On paper, the Transformer Pad has all the makings of an iPad killer. The base model has 32GB of built-in storage, doubling the capacity of its iPad counterpart. The Infinity is thinner and lighter than the new iPad, too. It also has more connectivity options and an optional keyboard dock packed with extras.

Of course, anyone who's been around knows that topping the iJuggernaut is never that simple. Tablets are more than the sums of their specifications, after all. The Infinity requires a closer look, and we've been hammering ours since it arrived last Wednesday. We've also had our hands all over the new iPad. Read on to see how Asus' latest stacks up to the incumbent.

Sleek and refined
Apple gets a lot of well-deserved credit for its industrial designs, but not from those who copy them blatantly. Asus has certainly been guilty of aping the Apple's style with some products. However, the Infinity has a look that's really all its own. Part of that comes from the colors. Our sample came in Amethyst Gray, and there's a version in Champagne Gold. Both feature the same "spun" aluminum finish, which has a circular brush pattern that's pure Asus.

The Infinity's metal skin is similar to that of the Transformer Prime, whose shell was notorious for hampering GPS and Wi-Fi performance. See that little strip along the Infinity's top edge? That's a plastic piece designed to get along with wireless signals. Looks like it works, too; our Infinity's GPS picked up multiple satellites almost instantly, and it was connected to ten within seconds.

Thank goodness the plastic isn't glossy. Neither is the finely scoured metal shell. The two materials do an excellent job of resisting fingerprints. We weren't able to deposit so much as a smudge, at least on this side of the device.

In addition to giving the Transformer a new stripe, Asus has drawn fresh lines for the exterior. There isn't much one can do with such a thin slab of electronics, but the Infinity has a distinctly tapered edge running along its shorter sides. The edge is just tall enough to accommodate a Micro HDMI port and microSD slot alongside the requisite audio jack. Too bad there's no Mini USB port to go along with them.

The Infinity is too thin for full-sized ports; it measures 8.5 mm (0.33") thick, which is just under a millimeter thinner than the Retina-packing iPad. The Transformer is marginally lighter, too, at 1.32 lbs (598 grams). Those differences are small enough to be largely inconsequential in the real world. Here's how the two tablets look in a stack that includes the Transformer Pad 300 on the bottom.

Once you get past a certain point, shaving millimeters has diminishing returns. The Infinity only looks much slimmer than the others because of its cleverly tapered edge. There is, however, a more notable difference between the two Transformers when their keyboards are attached.

The budget 300 model has thicker tablet and dock components, and the resulting clamshell is noticeably larger. However, the difference in weight between the two combos is pretty negligible.

Both Transformers share the same footprint, which is larger and more oblong than the iPad's. When held in a portrait orientation, the Infinity is about an inch taller and only a tiny bit narrower. The Transformer's screen is slightly larger, and the bezels are a little wider, which accounts for some of the size difference. The rest is due to the aspect ratios. Like the sadly shrinking minority of widescreen monitors, the Transformer's display is 16:10. Apple sticks to the 4:3 ratio familiar from old-school CRTs.

There are benefits to each aspect ratio. The widescreen format is a better match for movies, while 4:3 is closer to the shape of a sheet of standard 8.5" x 11" paper.

Now, about those displays...