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Asus' Transformer Book T100 convertible notebook reviewed

The natural evolution of the netbook

If you've been paying attention to the mobile scene, then you've probably seen Asus' Transformer Book T100 coming from miles away. Asus planted the first seed with the Eee PC, which brought basic, highly portable Windows computing to the masses. Netbooks like the Eee PC sold for only a few hundred bucks, much less than the grand or more one had to pay for ultraportables of that era.

The netbook craze burned brightly but briefly. Before long, the iPad arrived, spawning a tablet revolution that would have an even greater impact on the mobile PC industry. The first tablets were slimmer and sexier than netbooks. Thanks to intuitive touchscreen interfaces and fancy displays, they were also ideally suited to couch surfing and general media consumption—home turf for netbooks at the time.

Netbooks still had an edge for productivity, which really requires a keyboard and a precise mouse pointer, but tablets soon obliged with separate accessories. Asus opted for a more integrated approach; its first Transformer convertible combined a traditional tablet with a touchpad-equipped keyboard dock.

The Transformer concept was refined over several generations of Android devices before finally jumping to Windows in the VivoTab RT. Although that system was ultimately hampered by its ARM-based OS, the VivoTab hinted at the potential for a comparable config based on the full version of Win8. Unfortunately, the x86 camp didn't really have anything capable of taking on the ARM-based titans of the tablet world. Intel's Clover Trail Atom came close, but it was ultimately held back by weak graphics and dated CPU cores.

The latest Bay Trail Atom chip is far more potent, and it's been joined by a Win8.1 update that promises a more refined version of the touch-friendly Windows formula. Those developments apparently set the mood just right for the Eee PC and Transformer to produce their first true offspring: the Transformer Book T100.

Even though the Eee PC and Transformer have long been on a collision course, Asus still managed one surprise: the T100's $350 starting price. That's incredibly cheap for an honest-to-goodness Win8.1 convertible with a 10" IPS display, a quad-core Bay Trail SoC, 32GB of flash storage, and a touchpad-infused keyboard dock with USB 3.0 connectivity.

The $400, 64GB version arrived in our labs late last week, and I've been using it non-stop ever since—not only because I've been in crunch mode on this review, but also because I'm genuinely enjoying my time with the thing. Read on to see why.

First impressions
We don't bother with unboxing videos here at TR. However, it's a shame my facial expression wasn't captured when I unwrapped the T100. Initial excitement turned instantly sour when I saw the glossy plastic on the back of the tablet. Asus has relapsed, I thought to myself.

You may recall that Asus was responsible for all too many netbooks with fingerprint-prone finishes. The company appeared to be kicking the habit with its first Transformer tablets, which were clad in matte and textured surfaces that resisted unsightly smudges. Glossy plastic was banished from the company's notebooks, too. Unfortunately, it has returned in the T100, where it covers the one surface most likely to be cradled in the user's oily mitts.

Handling the T100 for even a few minutes deposits visible fingerprints on the back of the tablet. Eventually, the rear panel becomes a mess of streaks and smudges. Those blemishes end up being a lot more noticeable than the subtle radial pattern layered under the glossy top coat.

The Transformer Book's budget isn't rich enough for a brushed aluminum exterior. However, the keyboard dock demonstrates that Asus has suitable alternatives in its arsenal. The T100's secondary component is draped in matte plastics that seem largely immune to smudging. The top piece covering the keyboard tray and palm rests has a lightly brushed texture, while the underbelly sports a soft-touch finish. Both surfaces hold up much better than the glossy plastic.

Snapping the tablet into the keyboard dock produces a satisfying click. The release mechanism is a little stiff, but it holds the tablet tightly. There's no wobble in the hinge, either.

Although the docking system seems strong, the keyboard dock is a little flexy. Ours was warped slightly right out of the box, causing the right front corner to lift slightly with the system sitting flat. Bending the dock back into shape didn't take too much effort, but it shouldn't have been necessary in the first place.

Apart from some flex in the keyboard, the dock and tablet both feel sturdy. They weigh 1.2 lbs each, and the balance is just right. Unlike previous Transformers, the T100 isn't on the verge of tipping over if the screen is tilted all the way back. Asus actually added weight to the dock to ensure that the T100 wouldn't be as tippy as its predecessors.

Despite the dead weight in the dock, the T100 is hardly a chore to carry. The tablet portion is light enough to hold comfortably with one hand, and I've had the complete clamshell perched on my lap for hours with no ill effects. The system has barely made a crease in my pants.

The tablet is 0.4" thick, so it's not the skinniest slate around. I don't find myself longing for a thinner profile, though. Even with the extra 0.4" added by the dock, the T100 doesn't feel too chunky. For reference, that's an American nickel in the picture above.

Even though the Transformer Book T100 isn't the thinnest or lightest device out there, there's no questioning its ultraportable credentials. Now, let's take a closer look at the screen.