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 1920×1200 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…
More PPI, please
The Infinity’s screen scores points for being a little bit larger than the iPad’s Retina panel. However, it has fewer pixels. The Transformer spreads 1920×1200 pixels over 10.1″, while the iPad squeezes 2048×1536 pixels into 9.7″. 1080p video can still be displayed on the Infinity’s screen with space to spare, but the iPad has 37% more pixels in a smaller area, resulting in a much higher PPI.
You’ve seen us use DPI to describe high-density displays. That standard is really meant for print. PPI is the hip new lingo for displays; it refers to the number of pixels along a diagonal line drawn between opposing corners. The iPad’s Retina panel is 264 PPI, while the Transformer manages 224 PPI. The 10.1″, 1280×800 screen typical of Android tablets is just 149 PPI.
Boy, does it make a difference. Text and images look much sharper and cleaner on a high-PPI display. The delta between the Infinity and iPad is less apparent than between those two and a 1280×800 display. After a few days of using nothing but the iPad and Infinity, I’m starting to see jagged edges everywhere on the older Transformer tablets floating around the Benchmarking Sweatshop. The jaggies are more glaring with text than with images. To illustrate, we’ve taken a few close-up shots of the two high-def tablets and the Transformer Pad 300, which has one of those typical 1280×800 panels.
The Transformer Pad 300’s larger pixels are clearly visible. Only a faint pattern is can be seen on the Infinity and iPad 3 screens. Naturally, the text looks much crisper on those displays. Jaggies permeate the 300’s output.
Although the iPad’s pixels don’t look much smaller from this distance, the Apple tablet’s text output is definitely superior. The thickness of the lettering is more consistent than on the Infinity, and fewer jaggies slip through. Let’s zoom in for a closer look.
The Transformer Pad Infinity simply doesn’t have enough pixels to match the iPad’s clarity. Close up, the difference is readily apparent. At arm’s length, it’s harder to tell. The iPad’s text looks a little bit better to my eyes when I’m lounging on the couch, largely because the letters are slightly wider and have what looks like more consistent spacing. The truth is, the Transformer’s text still looks great; it’s much more inviting at the end of a long day than the text produced by the Transformer Pad 300.
Of course, there’s more to a display than its ability to draw the alphabet. Accurate color reproduction is vital, and the Infinity’s screen looks pretty good to the naked eye. The underlying IPS technology offers true 24-bit color with excellent viewing angles. That said, the colors aren’t quite as lush as those painted by the iPad’s Retina panel.
My subjective assessment comes after viewing gigabytes worth of vacation photos, but you don’t have to rely on it. We tested the displays with our colorimeter to get objective readings. Below is the color gamut graph for each screen at a brightness level of ~120 cd/m². The 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 triangle outlined in white represents the range of colors covered by the panel. The Infinity’s triangle is smaller, indicating a narrower gamut. Simply put, the screen has fewer colors on its palette.
When viewed in a vacuum or versus the Transformer Pad 300, which covers slightly less of the spectrum, the Infinity’s colors look bright and vibrant. Put the Transformer next to the new iPad, and it’s clear the Retina panel produces slightly richer tones.
At the medium brightness level we used throughout most of our testing, the Transformer’s whites look a little cleaner than those of the iPad. To my eyes, the iPad has a faint yellow tinge, while the Infinity has the slightest hint of blue. Fortunately, we can measure the color temperature more accurately. The temperature graph below has the same mouseover mojo as the gamut plot above.
That line along 6500K indicates the temperature of typical daylight, otherwise known as the daylight illuminant. The Transformer comes closer up to about 60% gray, but it clearly has a higher color temperature at the darker end of the scale.
Remember that wicked-bright backlight mentioned in the intro? That’s the ace up the Transformer’s sleeve or, more accurately, behind its panel. According to our colorimeter, the display cranks out 409 cd/m² at maximum brightness. Activating the SuperIPS+ mode boosts the backlight’s output substantially, generating a whopping 626 cd/m². The Retina display, meanwhile, tops out at 435 cd/m².
If you’re just surfing around the house, you’ll rarely need much more than half of the brightness on tap in either tablet. Take them outside, and reading becomes challenging at even full brightness. The Transformer’s SuperIPS+ mode is designed to make the screen more visible in outdoor light. It definitely helps, but that doesn’t necessarily make the screen readable all the time. Here’s how the ultra-bright mode looks next to the iPad at full brightness on a hazy day.
The Infinity is brighter, but it’s still hard to make things out in this kind of light. Let’s take them into the shade.
With its SuperIPS+ mode enabled, the Infinity looks great in this lighting. The iPad is certainly usable, though. Perhaps someone should design a smart cover that acts as a sun shade. I want 10% of the Kickstarter proceeds.
Expecting the SuperIPS+ mode to, ahem, transform the Infinity into a daylight warrior is unrealistic. We’re not talking about an e-ink display like the Kindle’s. That said, the SuperIPS+ mode should extend the Transformer’s reach into environments that would overpower the Retina’s backlight. For what it’s worth, the two look evenly matched when the Infinity’s turbo-charged backlight is disabled.
The requisite sidekick
The Infinity wouldn’t be a Transformer without an accompanying keyboard dock. Tablet keyboards are pretty common—about half of the slates I see in the real world are paired with one—but none match the features and functionality of the Transformers’ sidekicks. There’s a custom keyboard dock for each Transformer tablet, including the Infinity. The latest Transformer Pad is also compatible with the keyboard dock designed for the Transformer Prime, so long as it’s running firmware revision 207 or newer. Kudos to Asus for the backward compatibility.
Attaching the keyboard involves little more than sliding the tablet into the dock’s hinge. Two prongs ensure that everything lines up correctly, and the tablet snaps into place easily. A sliding lock prevents the two components from separating prematurely.
The hinge provides enough tilt to give users a good view of the screen. It also allows the Infinity to close like a clamshell, making the dock perhaps the smartest screen cover around.
Although this hybrid design is undeniably slick, it comes with some baggage. In a traditional notebook, the base is much heavier than the lid, which contains nothing more than the screen. The Infinity’s lid is the entire tablet, and it weighs 61 grams more than the dock. That discrepancy produces a back-heavy system in notebook mode.
Fortunately, the Infinity’s balance isn’t too precarious. The screen can be tilted all the way back on a flat surface with no issues. However, if the system is on a downward slope of about 10°, the front edge of the keyboard dock starts to lift. This isn’t a huge problem because one’s hands are usually on the keyboard dock to prevent the whole thing from tipping. Short of making the tablet lighter, which I’m sure Asus has tried, the only solution would be a heavier dock.
The keyboard is the dock’s most obvious element; it’s pretty good, too. Heavy-handed typing will produce some visible flex in the center of the keyboard, but there’s less warping than we observed on the Transformer Pad 300. The Infinity’s keyboard definitely feels more solid.
Despite the dock’s slim profile, the keys have a decent amount of travel. They offer good tactile feedback, with none of the vague mushiness that plagues all too many notebook keyboards.
|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 chiclets are a little on the small side, producing a keyboard that falls short of full size. Keep in mind that this is a 10″ system. Even with the screen’s wide bezel, there’s only so much room for the keyboard. My XL-sized hands can still type comfortably at speed on the Infinity without generating too many typos. It would be nice if Asus gently contoured the keys to help keep one’s fingers centered, though.
Overall, the biggest impediment to typing on the Infinity is the touchpad that sits below the keyboard. Most notebook touchpads detect when the user’s fingers are tickling the keys and ignore inadvertent contact. Not the Infinity. This problem plagues all of Asus’ Transformers, and we’ve been told by the company that Android is actually to blame. Google is apparently loath to offer too much touchpad functionality in Android, lest it steps on the toes of Chrome OS. Fortunately, the keyboard’s top row of function keys includes one to disable the touchpad.
It’s a shame the toggle is necessary, because the touchpad is a nice addition to the dock. Few tablet keyboards have integrated pointing devices, requiring users to lift their hands and fat-finger the screen. The Infinity’s touchpad offers a smooth tracking area and a precise pointer that works much better than the touchscreen for photo and document editing. Reaching up to stab the screen takes longer than shifting one’s hands to the touchpad, as well.
While a larger touchpad would be nice, Asus makes good use of the available real estate. The touchpad’s surface is nicely delineated from the palm rests, and the integrated buttons depress with an audible click.
Tegra 3 inside, expansion outside
The Transformer’s keyboard dock isn’t just an input device. Under the hood lurks a 19.5Wh auxiliary battery that backs the 25Wh unit in the tablet. When the two are connected, the dock’s battery is used to charge the tablet, adding hours of run time. Asus boasts the Infinity’s real-world battery life tops 13 hours with the dock attached, a claim we’ll test later in the review.
In addition to the battery, the dock contains a full-sized SD slot and a standard USB port. The USB port may lack SuperSpeed connectivity, but it makes transferring files to and from the Transformer a snap. So does the SD slot, which promises instant compatibility with just about any digital camera.
Thanks to the Tegra 3 SoC that powers the Transformer Pad Infinity, the USB port is good for more than just portable storage devices. Nvidia has built robust game controller support into the Tegra’s drivers. Everything from current-gen console gamepads to generic controllers can be plugged into the Transformer, though it’s up to game developers to take advantage. The handful of tablet titles I’ve played with a gamepad have been more enjoyable than those restricted to touchscreen input. To be fair, I tend to prefer arcade-style games and am picky about precise, responsive controls.
|Processor||Nvidia Tegra 3 T33 1.6/1.7GHz
with GeForce graphics
|Display||10.1″ IPS TFT with 1920×1200
|Ports||1 Micro HDMI 1.4a
1 analog audio headphone/mic port
1 USB 2.0 (dock)
|Expansion slots||1 miniSD
1 SD (dock)
|Input devices||Capacitive touchscreen
Chiclet keyboard with touchpad (dock)
|Dimensions||Tablet: 10.4″ x 7.1″ x 0.33″
(263 x 181 x 8.5 mm)
Dock: 10.4″ x 7.1″ x 0.41″ (263 x 181 x 10.4 mm)
|Weight||Tablet: 1.32 lbs (598 grams)
Dock: 1.18 (537 grams)
|Battery||Tablet: 25Wh lithium-polymer
Dock: 19.5Wh lithium-polymer
The Transformer Pad Infinity uses a new version of Nvidia’s Tegra 3 processor dubbed the T33. This isn’t fresh silicon, but a higher speed grade that’s been cherry-picked from the mass of Tegra chips rolling off TSMC’s 40-nm fabrication line. With single-core loads, the chip can reach speeds up to 1.7GHz. Occupy two or more cores, and the ceiling drops to 1.6GHz. Those clocks are 300MHz higher than those of the Tegra chip in the Transformer Prime. They have an additional 100MHz advantage over the T30L Tegra variant in the Transformer Pad 300, too.
All those speeds apply to the Tegra 3’s quad-core cluster. The chip also has a fifth “companion core” that tops out at 500MHz. This low-power core is separate from the main quartet, and Nvidia uses software to switch between them based on the system load; all five cores can’t be used at the same time. Nvidia describes the architecture as 4-plus-1. Given how the scheme works, 4-or-1 seems more fitting.
The cores are all based on the ARM Cortex-A9, a popular choice for mobile SoCs. There is one more difference between them, though. The companion core is made up of transistors optimized for low leakage, while the other cores use transistors designed for operation at higher frequencies. Those low-leakage transistors have relatively slow switching speeds, which is why the companion core’s top speed is so low.
While processor cores take care of computing duties, an integrated GeForce handles graphics. Nvidia has revealed little about the nature of this IGP. We know it has 12 “cores” that are likely ALUs, but their origin and clock speed remain a mystery. Other members of the Tegra 3 family have 12-core GeForce graphics, and there’s no indication that the Infinity’s T33 flavor runs its graphics component any faster. That immediately throws up a red flag for the Infinity, which has more than twice the number of pixels of a typical Tegra 3 tablet. Apple beefed up the iPad’s graphics horsepower when it moved to a high-PPI display. A faster integrated GeForce may have to wait for the next-generation Tegra SoC.
1080p video playback shouldn’t be a problem for the Tegra 3, which has a dedicated video block to accelerate the decoding process. A wide variety of formats is supported, of course. The video block also handles 1080p encoding, allowing the Infinity to capture HD video using its rear-facing camera.
The rear shooter is an 8-megapixel unit with an F2.2 aperture and LED flash. There’s also a front-facing 2MP camera meant for video conferencing. It supports HD video chat, but 1080p video recording seems to be limited to the rear camera.
The rest of the Transformer Pad Infinity’s specs stack up as one might expect. There’s a gig of low-power DDR3-1600 RAM backed by either 32 or 64GB of flash storage. As an added bonus, both models come with 8GB of cloud-based capacity courtesy of Asus WebStorage. The cloud storage is good for the life of the device, which is better than the single-year freebies Asus has offered in the past.
Wireless connectivity options include Bluetooth 3.0 and 802.11n Wi-Fi. You’ll need to tether the tablet to a smartphone to get online via cellular data networks, though.
Naturally, the Infinity runs Android 4.0, otherwise known as Ice Cream Sandwich. Asus has done a better job than any other tablet maker of keeping its devices up-to-date with the latest version of Google’s OS. We hope that trend continues with Jelly Bean, the Android update rumored to be released this summer.
Like Asus’ other Tegra 3 tablets, the Transformer Pad Infinity has multiple operating modes: balanced, power-saver, and performance. The performance mode has slightly higher CPU clock speeds than the default balanced config, while the power-saver mode is slower. Changing modes doesn’t impact the integrated GeForce.
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 three other Transformers: the original, the Prime, and the Transformer Pad 300. The Galaxy Tab 10.1 and Kindle Fire are both in the mix along with the iPad 2 and its “new iPad” successor. We’ll call that one the iPad 3.
Unfortunately, the Kindle and iPads 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 iPads run 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 got the Infinity on Wednesday afternoon, leaving less than five days (including the weekend) to complete this review. 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 tablets are 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.
In Linpack’s single-threaded test, the Infinity breezes past the competition. That should come as no surprise given the higher clock speeds of its Tegra 3 processor. Even in power-saver mode, the Infinity is faster than the original Transformer.
The multithreaded results are a little curious. The Transformer Prime comes out on top despite its slower processor. Our results for the Prime were gathered back in March, and numerous firmware updates have been released for the tablet since. Our Prime sample needed to go back to Asus, so we haven’t had a chance to test any of those revisions. We’ve asked Asus about what’s going on but haven’t heard back.
If we take the Transformer Prime out of the picture, everything seems to be fine. The Infinity leads the pack, edging out the Transformer Pad 300 and its slower SoC. The Transformer Prime should slot in between those two.
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.
Even in performance mode, the Transformer Pad Infinity can’t catch the iPads in SunSpider. The Apple tablets complete the test about 13% faster than the Asus. Curiously, the Transformer Pad 300 is closer to the Infinity than one might expect. It’s also faster than the Prime, though as we’ve noted, that tablet is running an older firmware revision.
This time around, the Transformer Pad 300 edges out the Infinity in all three performance modes. Could the latter’s high-density display be at fault? The Infinity’s browser window is made up of many more pixels, after all.
The drama between the Transformer Pads takes place in the middle of the pack. The iPad 3 tops the field in Peacekeeper, and it has a healthy lead over the Infinity. We’ll examine the real-world browsing experience in a moment.
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 Transformers and the iPad 3. The iPad 2 and Galaxy Tab used an older version of GLBenchmark, so their results aren’t directly comparable. We’ve included them to give you 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.
The iPads come out ahead across the board, and the third-gen model simply blows away the competition in the offscreen tests. Apple has long had a clear lead in tablet graphics performance, so these results should come as no surprise.
Take a closer look, though. The iPad 2 wins the standard tests, which appear to run at the tablet’s native resolution, while the iPad 3 rules the offscreen tests. Part of that may come down to the iPad 3’s newer version of GLBenchmark. But the Transformer Pads are using the same version of the app, and they exhibit a similar split between the standard and offscreen results. The 300 scores higher with the former, while the Infinity does better with the latter.
We wish we had better tools for evaluating the graphics performance of tablets. There is one more test in our graphics suite: Basemark ES 2.0 Taiji. Unfortunately, the free version isn’t yet available on iOS, so the iPads will have to join the Kindle on the sidelines.
Even without the iPads in the mix, it’s clear screen resolution plays a role in determining performance in this test. The Transformer Pad Infinity scores lower than its Tegra 3-based siblings despite the fact that all of ’em have essentially the same GPU.
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. We had hoped to include results for the iPad 3, but we had fewer than three business days to prepare this review. There just wasn’t enough time. The fact that the new iPad’s battery takes forever to recharge didn’t help, and neither did the fact that we fully cycle tablet batteries at least once before testing run times.
All testing was conducted in the balanced performance mode and at similar screen brightness settings. The original Transformer, the Transformer Prime, and the Transformer Pad 300 were all configured with a ~40% brightness level. The Infinity’s screen is a tad darker, so it took a brightness setting of closer to 50% to get a good match.
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.
The Transformer Pad Infinity lasted for just under nine hours in our web surfing test. Adding the dock extended the device’s run time by six hours, giving the Infinity a definitive edge over the Transformer Prime.
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.
The Transformer Pad Infinity looped our test video for more than nine hours on its own. Adding the keyboard dock extended the run time by nearly six hours, putting the Infinity neck-and-neck with the Prime but more than an hour behind the 300. Still, that’s a good result for a high-PPI tablet. Remember that Apple had to make the iPad 3 thicker to accommodate the bigger battery required by the Retina panel. The Infinity’s 1920×1200 display surely sucks more wattage than the other, low-res Transformers.
Back and forth between high-PPI tablets
The Transformer Pad Infinity’s obvious competition is the third-generation iPad, and we’ve been using the two side by side for a number of days now. In some ways, they’re very similar. Both offer snappy performance and gorgeous displays. At the same time, there are substantial differences between the two tablets. Some of those differences are more philosophical than others, but that doesn’t mean they affect the user experience any less.
One of the most striking differences is the openness of the operating systems. Android simply feels far more permissive. The Transformer comes with an excellent file manager that lets users organize files as they see fit. Plug the tablet into a PC, and it acts like an external storage device, providing unrestricted access to folders and the ability to shuffle files back and forth. That functionality is extremely handy when loading a tablet with media before a long trip, and it’s also convenient when filling the tablet with high-res photos from said trip.
Apple, by contrast, doesn’t want users fiddling with files themselves. iOS lacks a file management app, and it doesn’t do much when plugged into a computer that isn’t running iTunes. All you’ll see in My Computer is an iPad folder filled with images taken with the device’s camera. Images can be copied from that folder, but nothing can be added to it. Seems everything has to go through iTunes, iPhoto, Apple’s iCloud service, or a third-party application. Ugh.
The iOS desktop is short on freedom, too. While the background image can be customized, widgets are restricted to the Notification Center and seem more limited than the multitude of options available on Android. The Transformer Pad Infinity comes preloaded with a collection of useful widgets, only a few of which are displayed by default. There’s definitely something to be said for keeping one’s desktop free of clutter. It’s also nice to have widgets for weather, recent emails, and upcoming calendar events displayed on one’s home screen alongside icons for the most frequently used applications.
There are certainly things that iOS does better than Android. The on-screen keyboard can be split by dragging each half to the edges of the display, making thumb-typing in landscape mode much easier. Annoyingly, though, the keyboard displays capital letters at all times; the Transformer is smart enough to switch between upper- and lower-case letters based on the status of the shift key.
Apple has a definite edge on the gesture front, too. Flipping through open applications with four-finger swipes is very slick, and a list of running apps can be displayed by dragging four fingers up from the bottom edge of the screen. That beats viewing a list of open Android apps by hitting the requisite button on the OS’s taskbar.
The Android taskbar has merits and drawbacks. I like the fact that some things—the back button, the time, plus Wi-Fi and battery status indicators—are always easily accessible. The taskbar is also the gateway to Asus’ custom control panel, which offers a screen brightness slider, toggle switches for the wireless modules, and a handful of other useful functions. You pay a price in pixels, though. While the Asus panel disappears when not in use, the Android taskbar is always 72 pixels tall, reducing the screen’s usable resolution to 1920×1128. The icons on the taskbar may fade out during full-screen movie playback or picture slideshows, but the black bar remains.
Folks often gush about the responsiveness of the iPad and other Apple products, and for good reason. Navigating the iPhone 4S is smooth, and the iPad 3 is positively silky. The Infinity is also very responsive, yet it doesn’t feel quite as fluid, perhaps because the UI transitions seem to be running a little too fast, as if hopped up on one too many cans of Red Bull. More likely, Android has been optimized for processors much slower than the Infinity’s clock-boosted Tegra 3. The Transformer’s transition animations can be slowed down or sped up through the Android settings panel, but the iPad’s still look better overall.
The Transformer isn’t as responsive as the iPad while web browsing, although again, there’s a little more to the story. In side-by-side testing, the tablets took about the same amount of time to finish loading a variety of pages over my home network. However, the iPad always displayed elements of the pages faster—almost right away, in some cases, allowing reading to commence before loading was completed. We were running the Transformer with Flash disabled, so that wasn’t the issue.
Speaking of Flash, it’s rather nice to view web pages without the tap-to-load placeholders that result from setting the browser’s plug-in mode to “on demand.” Score another one for the iPad, which should probably lose a point for lacking Flash support entirely. That said, none of the sites I browse regularly are hampered by that omission.
As it turns out, the Transformer is problematic for a number of the sites on my daily reading list. The default Android browser stubbornly insists on loading the mobile versions of web pages by default. That’s idiotic on a 10-inch tablet with a 1280×800 display resolution, let alone on one with more than twice as many pixels. You’ll want to download an alternative like ICS Browser+, which adds a couple of features to the default browser, including the ability to request full-fat web pages automatically.
While the Android browser’s penchant for mobile sites is unconscionable, its quick controls are fantastic, even though they’re still in beta. The controls replace the application bar running across the top of the browser with a semi-circular array of buttons that can be dragged in from the left or right edges of the page. When holding the Transformer, the quick controls are much faster to access than anything in the application bar. They also free up that area to display more of the page.
Next to web browsing, picture viewing seems to be one of the most popular things to do with a tablet. High-density tablet displays seem particularly ideal for photographers, since even today’s budget smartphones have more megapixels in their integrated cameras than typical tablets have in their displays. Naturally, we were pretty jazzed about viewing high-res pictures on high-PPI displays. To put it bluntly, the experience on the Infinity was disappointing.
We started by loading the tablets with hundreds of full-resolution JPEG images shot with a Canon T2i DSLR. Getting them onto the Infinity was much faster, but Android’s Gallery app seemed overwhelmed when we tried to view them. The Transformer was slower to load thumbnails, which are admittedly several times larger than the ones used by the iPad’s Photos app. While browsing full-screen images, it never took more than a few quick flicks to leave us with a blank screen and a momentary pause before the next image was displayed. No matter how frantically we swiped at the iPad’s screen, there was always another picture waiting.
On both tablets, full-screen images are first displayed at a lower detail before a second pass bumps up the resolution. The second pass takes noticeably longer on the Infinity; one can actually see detail being added to different sections of the image. This behavior persists on the Transformer even when flipping back and forth between the same two images. The Transformer was slower to bring details into focus when zooming in and out, as well.
Turns out the playing field might not have been entirely even. When zoomed in, the iPad clearly didn’t display our images at full resolution. The Transformer seemed to be showing everything at full size. I’m not sure which is worse: displaying full-resolution images more slowly or surreptitiously reducing the pixel count to make the job easier.
Time constraints prevented us from logging much gaming time on either tablet. However, we were curious to see how the Transformer fared in Blood & Glory, a wanna-be Infinity Blade that’s conveniently free. The game looks better with extra pixels at its disposal, but it’s no Infinity Blade. Blood & Glory doesn’t appear to be optimized specifically for the Tegra 3, either. We’ve played a number of games that are, but none of them has really blown us away.
Apple gets more attention from game developers, and based on the volume of iOS devices in the market, it’s easy to see why. Also keep in mind that the number of different iDevices is relatively small. The Android market has a more diverse array of configurations, creating additional challenges for developers who want to support multiple devices. In a sense, iPhones and iPads have become the consoles of the mobile gaming market—and unlike traditional consoles, they don’t have horribly outdated graphics hardware.
It’s no secret we love Asus’ Transformer approach to tablet hybrids. Potential balancing issues aside, the keyboard dock is a great complement to a device that would be truly less capable without a real keyboard attached. In addition to offering a great keyboard, the dock serves up a precise touchpad, six hours of additional battery life, and conveniences like a full-size SD slot and USB port. The implementation isn’t perfect, but it’s better than any tablet keyboard we’ve seen.
The Transformer Pad Infinity can’t be judged on the merits of an optional accessory, however. There’s a lot to like in the tablet, including its attractive design. The fact that the 32 and 64GB models cost $100 less than their iPad equivalents is a nice perk, as well.
Perhaps there’s a reason for the discount. The Infinity’s 1920×1200 display looks fantastic, but it’s not as impressive as the Retina panel in the iPad 3. The text isn’t as crisp and the colors aren’t as lush. There aren’t as many pixels, either, although PPI alone is an insufficient indicator of display quality. Our benchmark results suggest that the Tegra 3 struggles to keep up with the A5X SoC in the new iPad, knocking the Transformer down another peg.
If you’re a PC enthusiast accustomed to the flexibility of a Windows-powered desktop or notebook, the Infinity’s Android OS might be its saving grace. Despite some glaring flaws, Google’s tablet OS offers easy file management, a customizable interface, and nifty browser controls. At least on the Transformer Pad Infinity, nothing feels slow or chunky. Well, nothing except high-res picture viewing. That was a big disappointment on the Infinity, and the fact that the iPad doesn’t preserve images at full resolution just pours salt into the wound.
After spending some quality time with both tablets, I’m very much tempted to replace my aging first-gen Transformer. High-PPI displays really do make a difference, and once you’ve seen it, going back to a low-res display is difficult.
with keyboard dock
Which high-PPI tablet is best? Hard to say. If you’re in the market specifically for a high-density display, it would seem obvious to skip the Infinity and spring for the iPad’s superior screen—and the more powerful graphics hardware behind it. But the Infinity’s display is still a big improvement over traditional tablet panels, and you’d need a stack of iPad accessories to match the additional functionality offered by the keyboard dock. The Transformer easily delivers more value, and I think it’s a better general computing device. However, the iPad 3 seems to be the superior tablet.
That conclusion leads us to a conditional recommendation. The Transformer Pad Infinity is TR Recommended only when it’s paired with the optional keyboard dock. The dock adds $149, but it really is key to the Transformer’s appeal. Expect to be able to buy both around the middle of July.
Me? I’m going to wait. Windows 8 and its ARM-optimized RT cousin loom large on the horizon. Metro has intriguing potential for tablets, despite all the hate it gets on the desktop, and I suspect it will be less finicky than Android. By the time Win8 arrives, we should have a wider selection of devices with high-PPI panels. We should also have a few new tricks for evaluating them. Stay tuned.