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 1920x1128. 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 1280x800 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.