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.
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.
IPS without the high PPI
Netbooks were always weak in the display department. The first Eee PC had a tiny 7″ screen, and 1024×600 was the resolution of choice for most of the 9-10″ systems that followed. TN panels were the norm. In that context, the T100’s screen looks pretty good. The 10.1″ panel uses IPS technology, and the 1366×768 resolution is comparable to that of larger budget notebooks.
The resolution is a decent fit for the screen size, even if it doesn’t set any PPI records. In landscape mode, Microsoft’s ClearType tech does a good job of smoothing out fonts. I don’t see any jagged edges from a normal viewing distance, though text isn’t as sharp as on higher-PPI displays.
Fonts look noticeably worse in portrait mode. On the Windows desktop, they’re definitely blurrier. The smaller text on some unzoomed websites is difficult to read, as well, although zooming in on the main column resolves the issue. The limited horizontal resolution in portrait mode also produces visible artifacts in the images on unzoomed web pages. A higher pixel density would definitely help even if the 16:9 aspect ratio remained unchanged. A higher pixel density with a 16:10 aspect ratio would be even better.
When I’m flipping through vacation pictures in landscape mode, I don’t see any obvious deficiencies unless I’m a few inches away from the screen or viewing the T100 next to a high-PPI tablet. Side-by-side comparisons make it easy to see more detail in higher-resolution displays. The T100 looks sharp enough when viewed in a vacuum, though.
The screen’s color reproduction is similarly satisfactory. The display is definitely lusher than the TN panels typically found on netbooks and budget ultraportables. However, the colors aren’t quite as vivid as those produced by the iPad’s Retina panel. Compared to the IPS panels I’ve seen on other tablets, the T100’s screen is about average.
Don’t rely on my subjective impressions alone, though. We’ve used our colorimeter to measure the T100’s color gamut precisely. Click the buttons under the plot below to compare the Transformer’s color gamut to that of other mobile systems. Pay particular attention to how the T100 fares against the X202E, an ultraportable with a TN panel, and the iPad 3, which has the widest color gamut we’ve measured in a tablet to date.
The Transformer Book T100 clearly produces a wider range of colors than the X202E. However, it doesn’t cover nearly as much of the spectrum as the iPad 3. The T100’s color reproduction is almost identical to that of the VivoTab Smart, Asus’ last-gen Atom tablet.
The 6500K “daylight illuminant” represents the color temperature of typical daylight. The T100’s output is a little higher than the 6500K ideal, denoting a slight blue bias. My eyes don’t detect much of a tint, perhaps because I tend to prefer cooler colors overall.
Colors can shift and become washed out when displays are viewed from off-center angles, so we snapped some pictures of the T100’s screen leaning back at 110°, rotated 30° to the side, facing the camera at 90°, and leaning forward at 70°.
The T100’s vertical viewing angles are quite good; the picture quality doesn’t change too much when the screen is tilted forward or back. However, the right side of the display clearly looks darker when the tablet is viewed from 30° to the left. I noticed similar darkening while browsing in portrait mode with the screen tilted slightly away from me. The angle wasn’t as extreme, but the browser window was noticeably dimmer toward the far edge at the top of the tablet.
Like most tablet displays, the T100’s touchscreen is highly reflective. That’s not a problem if the backlight is bright enough to overpower reflections, but the T100’s 278 cd/m² maximum luminosity is pretty dim by modern standards. Reflections remain visible in some indoor lighting conditions even with the backlight cranked all the way up. Those reflections are only apparent in darker portions of the screen and in the surrounding bezel, though.
Since the cheap Ikea lamp next to me produces enough light to reflect my ugly mug in TR’s blue theme, I’m not optimistic about how the T100 might fare poolside. I’ve seen far brighter screens wilt under direct sunlight.
With the screen cranked up to maximum brightness, our colorimeter detects a 13% difference in luminosity between the brightest and darkest regions. The lower right corner is the dimmest spot, while the center is the brightest. We measured no more than a 9% difference in luminosity between the other regions and the center of the display.
Luminance values don’t track exactly with perceived brightness. When viewing a pure white background, the bottom right corner of the screen only looks slightly dimmer to me than the center. The brightness appears completely uniform when the screen is filled with actual applications.
Viewing a black background in a dark room exposes backlight bleed, which is minimal on the Transformer Book T100. Although a handful of slightly lighter regions can be seen around the edges, they’re barely brighter than the rest of the display. We’ve certainly seen worse—and on more expensive devices.
At the controls
Well-integrated keyboard docks have defined the Transformer family, but they’ve usually been sold separately. The fact that one is bundled with even the entry level T100 is a pretty big deal, especially since the keyboard is a pleasure to use.
Let’s start with the layout, which follows the standard notebook formula. All the expected keys are there, and they’re all in the right places. Some of the keys are narrower than others, but there’s no double-height nonsense. The T100’s compact footprint makes a little cramping unavoidable.
|Total keyboard area||Alpha keys|
|Size||250 mm||82 mm||20,500 mm²||155 mm||42 mm||,510 mm²|
|Versus full size||87%||75%||65%||90%||74%||66%|
The total keyboard area is substantially smaller than that of our full-size reference. However, the alpha region is wide enough to accommodate my meaty digits without too much squishing.
To be honest, I’m surprised the shorter alpha keys aren’t more uncomfortable. But I’ve been hammering away on this thing all day without any undue fatigue. I can’t type as quickly as I can on my Acer ultraportable, which has larger, square keys, but I’m pecking away at a good clip despite having little time to adapt to the T100. Apart from the forward slash, which keeps tripping me up, typos have been rare.
Typing on the T100 is easy in part because the key action inspires confidence. The tactile feedback is good, with a well-defined actuation point that requires a concerted push. After actuation, there’s plenty of travel to blow through before the keys bottom out with a dull ka-chunk.
Even though the panel surrounding the chiclets flexes visibly under heavy typing, the underlying frame feels solid. The mushiness that plagues all too many mobile keyboards isn’t apparent in the Transformer Book.
Moving south, the touchpad offers a 3″ x 1.65″ tracking area that’s smaller than I’d like but still more convenient—and more precise—than straight-arming the touchscreen. The touchpad’s surface is perfectly smooth, allowing fingertips to glide effortlessly. The underlying button mechanism is inconsistent, though. Like most clicky touchpads, the bottom of the tracking area takes a lot less effort to activate than the top. One can always tap to left click and two-finger tap to right click.
Along with multi-finger taps, the touchpad drivers support a wide range of gestures. All the basic scrolling, zooming, and rotating functions are included. Win8’s edge-based touchscreen gestures have also been grafted to the touchpad, but they’re disabled by default. I’d leave them that way; the edge gestures are too easy to trigger accidentally on a touchpad this small.
The touchpad has a few three-finger gestures that replicate functions normally activated with keyboard input. Using the keyboard shortcuts feels more natural to me, but I do like the visual attached to the Alt+Tab alternative.
Unlike its key-bound counterpart, this task-switching gesture sorts desktop and Metro apps into different groups. Alt+Tab lumps everything together.
I tend to believe that a touchpad’s ability to ignore inadvertent contact is just as important as how well it tracks deliberate input. Perhaps that’s because I’ve spent too much time with Android-based Transformers that have difficulty distinguishing between intentional and unintentional contact. The T100 is smarter, at least most of the time. It effectively ignores touchpad contact when I’m typing in Notepad, Word, and Chrome. The intelligence extends to various OS functions, including search windows and the command prompt, but not to Notepad++, my preferred text editor. Numerous times while writing this review, my thumb has accidentally brushed the touchpad mid-sentence, sending the cursor halfway across the screen.
The touchpad’s aggressive power saving has also caused me some frustration. If there’s no contact for more than about eight seconds, the touchpad apparently goes to sleep. Any initial input after that point takes about a second to register, adding obvious latency. Keyboard input doesn’t appear to keep the touchpad awake, compounding the issue. The keyboard at least responds instantly, regardless of how much time has passed since the last key press.
Power-saving measures are necessary because the dock lacks the integrated battery found in older Transformer sidekicks—the keyboard and touchpad are powered entirely by the tablet. If users have to live with the touchpad snoozing every so often, they should at least be able to tweak the auto-sleep delay. I’d like to see keyboard activity considered by the idle-detection routine, as well.
Connectivity and expansion
Unlike traditional tablets, which have typically have limited expansion and connectivity options, Asus’ Transformers have been pretty good about providing a variety of industry standard ports and slots.
The T100’s dock drops the full-sized SD slot available on some older Transformers, but it adds a full-sized USB 3.0 port for speedy access to external storage. A microSD slot can be found on the tablet along with the Micro USB port used for charging.
The tablet also features a Micro HDMI port capable of 1080p output. Audio can be piped over HDMI, routed through the analog audio jack, or blasted out of the dual speakers in the rear panel. The integrated speakers are certainly loud, but they’re definitely short on fidelity. What did you expect from a budget $350 tablet?
Volume controls are available in the OS and through a rocker button on the side of the tablet. The power and Windows buttons are also located on the edges. We’re used to seeing the Windows button deployed as a touch-sensitive icon on the display bezel, so the edge-mounted alternative is a bit of a surprise. I much prefer it, though. Unlike bezel-based buttons, the edge-mounted one is pretty much impossible to activate unintentionally.
The Transformer Book T100 comes with a Micro USB wall charger. As much as I love the charger’s matte plastic body (older Transformers shipped with glossy adapters), the 36″ cable is a little on the short side. Someone in the accounting department probably decided that cutting a few feet was worth saving a few cents. Thanks to the standard port, swapping in a longer cable shouldn’t be too difficult—or too expensive.
Can you believe we’ve made it this far without geeking out over the T100’s internals? Here’s the spec sheet:
|Processor||Intel Atom Z3740 (1.33GHz
base, 1.86GHz Burst)
|Graphics||Intel HD Graphics|
|Display||10.1 IPS panel with 1366×768
|Storage||SanDisk 32/64GB eMMC SSD|
|Audio||Stereo HD audio via Realtek I2Scodec|
|Ports||1 Micro USB 2.0
1 Micro HDMI
1 analog headphone/analog microphone
1 USB 3.0 (dock)
|Expansion slots||1 Micro SD card reader (64GB
|Communications||Dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi
via Broadcom adapter
Chiclet keyboard (dock)
|Dimensions||Tablet: 10.7″ x 6.7″ x 0.41″
(272 x 170 x 10.5 mm)
Dock: 10.7″ x 6.7″ x 0.34-0.40″ (272 x 170 x 8.6-10.1 mm)
|Weight||Tablet: 1.2 lbs (544 g)
Dock: 1.2 lbs (544 g)
The Atom Z3740 SoC is undeniably the star of the show. This quad-core Bay Trail chip has next-gen CPU cores based on the Silvermont architecture. The cores support out-of-order execution, a first for the Atom family, and there are more of them than in the previous Clover Trail generation. Bay Trail also features DirectX 11-class integrated graphics derived from the GPU in Ivy Bridge. The IGP has a lot more horsepower than previous Atom graphics implementations, and it should have much broader game support, as well.
According to Intel’s specifications, the Z3740 has a base CPU frequency of 1.33GHz. The cores can scale as high as 1.86GHz in Burst mode, which is the Atom’s version of Turbo. For those of you keeping score at home, those frequencies are lower than the 1.46GHz base and 2.39GHz Burst clocks of the top-of-the-line Atom Z3770 Scott tested last month. The flagship chip has the same integrated GPU and 311-667MHz graphics frequency range, though.
Asus combines the Atom SoC with 2GB of low-power DDR3 memory. A SanDisk eMMC storage device provides either 32 or 64GB of flash, and users can add up to 64GB more via the microSD slot. Kudos to Asus for providing a storage expansion option, even if it’s limited to fingernail-sized memory cards.
A collection of checkbox items rounds out the Transformer Book T100’s feature list. There’s a 1.2-megapixel webcam, an internal microphone, a 802.11n Wi-Fi adapter, and a Bluetooth radio. Gyroscope and accelerometer? Check. The only notable absentees are a GPS unit and a rear-facing camera. The lack of GPS functionality rules out offline navigation, which I do quite frequently while traveling with GPS-equipped tablets. The rear-facing camera I can do without. In fact, if I’m ever that guy taking pictures with a tablet camera, please rip the device from my hands and hit me across the face with it.
Our testing methods
On the next page, we’ll compare the Transformer Book T100’s performance to that of several other mobile systems, including the Windows-based configurations listed in the table below. Pay particular attention to how the T100 stacks up against the VivoTab Smart, which is based on the last-gen Clover Trail Atom processor. That system was initially tested with Windows 8, and we’ve run it through the suite again with the latest 8.1 update installed. The T100 is the only other system in the bunch running Microsoft’s latest OS.
Our test results cover other notable systems that aren’t listed in the table below. We’ve included numbers from the Kabini whitebook we reviewed in May, for example. This system features a quad-core AMD A4-5000 APU with Jaguar-based CPU cores and Radeon integrated graphics. We also have performance data from the Bay Trail demo tablet Scott tested at IDF. That machine will give us a sense of how the Atom Z3740 compares to its higher-clocked Z3770 sibling.
Where possible, we’ve thrown in scores from a bunch of other tablets, including Android and iOS-based models. The VivoTab RT even makes an appearance in a couple of the graphs. Speaking of which, let’s move on to the performance results. The rest of this page is filled with nerdy testing details that you probably don’t need to read. We’ve provided the additional information for reference—and so that interested parties can replicate our results.
We ran every test at least three times and reported the median of the scores produced. The test systems were configured like so:
|System||Asus VivoTab Smart||Asus VivoBook X202E||Asus Transformer Book T100|
|Processor||Intel Atom Z2760 1.8GHz||Intel Core i3-3217U 1.8GHz||Intel Atom Z3740 1.33GHz|
|Platform hub||N/A||Intel HM76 Express||N/A|
|Memory size||2GB||4GB (1 SO-DIMM)||2GB|
|Memory type||LPDDR2 SDRAM at 800MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||LPDDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz|
|Audio||Intel SST codec with 6.2.9200.25166 drivers||Via codec with 126.96.36.1990 drivers||Realtek codec with 6.2.9400.4028 drivers|
|Graphics||Intel Graphics Media Accelerator
with 188.8.131.529 drivers
|Intel HD Graphics 4000
with 184.108.40.20675 drivers
|Intel HD Graphics with 10.18.10.3286 drivers|
|Hard drive||SanDisk SEM64G 64GB SSD||Hitachi Z5K500 500GB HDD||SanDisk SEM64G 64GB SSD|
|Operating system||Windows 8, 8.1 x86||Windows 8 x64||Windows 8.1 x86|
Thanks to Asus for volunteering laptops and tablets for us to test.
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- Stream 5.8
- 7-Zip 9.20
- TrueCrypt 7.1a
- Google Chrome 27.0.1453.94
- SunSpider 1.0
- Kraken 1.1
- x264 encoder r2334
- Handbrake 0.9.9
- Cinebench 11.5
- FRAPS 3.5.9
The tests and methods we employ are usually publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
Memory bandwidth is vital for systems with integrated graphics, so we ran a quick test to measure it.
The Atom Z3740’s dual-channel memory controller turns in an excellent performance. It more than triples the bandwidth of the last-gen Atom SoC and has a comfortable lead over the A4-5000. Heck, the Transformer Book even has more memory bandwidth than the Core i3-based X202E. That system only uses one of Core i3’s dual memory channels, so it’s at a disadvantage out of the gate.
The Transformer Book T100 trades blows with the Kabini whitebook in both tests. The AMD-powered notebook is slightly faster in SunSpider, while the T100 comes out ahead in Kraken. Both of those systems have comfortable leads over their ARM-based rivals. However, they’re a step behind the X202E and the Bay Trail reference system.
TrueCrypt disk encryption
TrueCrypt supports acceleration via Intel’s AES-NI instructions, so the encoding of the AES algorithm, in particular, should be very fast on the CPUs that support those instructions. We’ve also included results for another algorithm, Twofish, that isn’t accelerated via dedicated instructions.
You probably didn’t expect to see an Atom-based tablet chip outclass an Ivy-based ultrabook CPU. The X202E’s Core i3 processor lacks AES-NI instructions, though. Without them, TrueCrypt’s AES algorithm runs much slower than it does on the T100.
Bay Trail and Kabini both accelerate AES instructions to great effect. The T100 trails a little behind the Kabini system with AES encryption but makes up the difference in the TwoFish test. Although the TwoFish results are much closer overall, the Bay Trail SoCs still trounce their Clover Trail predecessor.
7-Zip file compression and decompression
The figures below were extracted from 7-Zip’s built-in benchmark.
Chalk up another impressive performance for the T100. The Transformer Book stays a step ahead of the Kabini whitebook in our 7-Zip tests, and it nearly doubles the performance of the VivoTab Smart. Only the higher-clocked Bay Trail reference tablet scores better in both tests.
Our x264 encoding test compresses a 1080p .m2ts source video down to H.264 at 720p. The Handbrake test shrinks a 1080p H.264 source video using the app’s “iPhone & iPod Touch” preset.
Bay Trail is a little slower than Kabini here, pushing the T100 toward the middle of the pack. The Transformer Book is still much faster than the VivoTab Smart, though.
Keep in mind that the A4-5000’s 15W TDP is much higher than the Atom Z3740’s thermal envelope. We haven’t seen the A4 chip deployed in anything resembling a tablet, let alone one as thin and light as the T100.
Rendering on an Atom-based tablet? Sure, why not?
The T100 finds itself a little bit behind the Kabini whitebook in Cinebench. Considering the A4-5000’s higher TDP, that’s a solid result for the Bay Trail convertible.
Before moving on to some real-world gaming tests, let’s indulge one synthetic graphics benchmark.
The Kabini whitebook flexes its integrated Radeon in this test. The Transformer Book T100 can’t keep up, but it scores five times higher than the Clover Trail-based VivoTab Smart. That’s a heck of an upgrade from one generation to the next.
Oddly, the Bay Trail reference tablet scores a little lower than the T100. The Z3770 system we tested was a pre-production unit, so we won’t dwell on the difference. The T100’s performance in real games is far more interesting than what it can do in 3DMark, anyway. I’m afraid I got a little carried away on that front…
I began our gaming tests with low expectations. I’ve tested loads of Atom-based systems over the years, and even the ones paired with discrete GPUs have struggled to run games smoothly. With that in mind, I started with something easy: Race the Sun, an addictive indie flying game with relatively basic graphics.
Race the Sun ran pretty well at the native resolution with the graphics quality turned all the way up. Fraps reported frame rates around 25 FPS, and the gameplay was reasonably fluid. Dialing down the graphics detail improved the frame rate noticeably without diminishing the retro visuals. So far, so good.
Next, I careened through a couple of levels in Dyad, a considerably more colorful title loaded with seizure-inducing eye candy. The T100 handled the game with aplomb, cranking out 30-40 FPS at 1366×768 with all the graphical options enabled. The frame rate occasionally dipped into the high 20s with lots of action on the screen, but the game was perfectly playable.
Fez was next on my indie list, and it also ran very well at the T100’s native resolution. I don’t think the frame rate ever dropped below 30 FPS during my brief test session.
Mark of the Ninja is a stealth-focused side scroller that’s full of awesome. Despite playing out in only two dimensions, it proved to be a little more challenging than the previous titles. The game was playable at the native resolution, but only with the eye candy turned down. Even then, the frame rate hovered around 20 FPS—acceptable given the slow pace of the gameplay, but definitely not ideal.
Trials Evolution apparently doesn’t support 1366×768 display resolutions. Even with the all the detail turned down at 1280×720, the frame rate spent far too much time in the teens. Lowering the resolution smoothed things out a little, but not enough for me to enjoy the experience. There was some graphical glitching, too. Frustrated, I suspected the honeymoon was over.
To confirm the Transformer Book’s inability to handle more demanding games, I selected DiRT Showdown for what I thought would be my final test. The T100 would choke on the big-budget blockbuster, I figured, and I’d then be free to prod other aspects of the machine. Except that’s not what happened.
DiRT Showdown ran surprisingly well at the native resolution with all the details turned down to their lowest settings. The FPS counter rarely climbed out of the low 20s, but the frame rate was consistent enough to make the game playable.
Further testing was required.
Portal 2 was my next subject—and the next surprise. The game felt a little choppy with all the details cranked (except for antialiasing and anisotropic filtering), but lowering the shader detail smoothed things out nicely. After that little tweak, the frame rate jumped to around 30 FPS, and the game felt great.
Suddenly emboldened, I started to get cocky.
Yeah, I played Mirror’s Edge on the T100. The frame rate dipped into the high teens too often with the in-game details dialed back at the native resolution, but dropping down to 1024×768 helped a lot. At that resolution, the FPS counter oscillated between the mid-20s and low-30s—playable but not great. The keyboard controls were a little problematic, too. For some reason, hitting Left Shift to slide didn’t work reliably when I was moving forward with the W key depressed.
Serious Sam 3: BFE has loads of graphical detail settings, and I had to disable pretty much all of them to get the game running on the T100. But I didn’t have to lower the resolution from the native 1366×768. This shooter ran at 30-40 FPS, and it only dipped into the 20s with loads of enemies on the screen. Swarming hordes are pretty common in Serious Sam, but the game remained playable even when I was overwhelmed with baddies.
At this point, I seriously considered installing Crysis. The only thing that stopped me was not having the installation discs on hand. Instead, I tried something a little more recent: Dishonored.
This game proved to be more demanding than the others. I had to disable all the eye candy and lower the resolution to 800×600 just to get a playable frame rate. Dishonored looks pretty crappy with those settings, but I’m impressed that it ran at all. Most of these games won’t even load on a last-gen Atom system. Intel’s integrated graphics solutions have improved immensely in recent years, and Bay Trail has credible gaming chops as a result.
We tested battery life twice: once running TR Browserbench 1.0, a web browsing simulator of our own design, and again looping a 720p Game of Thrones episode in Windows Media Player. (In case you’re curious, TR Browserbench is a static version of TR’s old home page rigged to refresh every 45 seconds. It cycles through various permutations of text content, images, and Flash ads, with some cache-busting code to keep things realistic.)
Before testing, we conditioned the batteries by fully discharging and then recharging each system twice in a row. We also used our colorimeter to equalize the display luminosity at around 100 cd/m².
Even without an auxiliary battery tucked under its keyboard, the Transformer Book T100 managed 10 hours of web surfing and 12 hours of movie playback. Those run times are pretty good for a tablet, especially since the keyboard dock was connected for both tests.
For this test, we probed video performance using two versions of the second trailer for Rian Johnson’s Looper: one in 1080p H.264 format from the Apple website and the other, also in 1080p format, on YouTube. We played back the former in Windows Media Player and the latter in Internet Explorer 11, and we used Windows’ Performance Monitor utility to record CPU utilization.
|CPU % (low)||CPU % (high)||Result|
I think we can call 1080p video playback a solved problem now. Even when streaming the HD
We measured temperatures using an infrared thermometer at a distance of 1″ from the system after it had been running TR Browserbench 1.0 for about an hour.
The T100 barely warms up after extended web browsing. There are no fans, so the tablet is completely silent, as well.
A few days in convertible country
My time with the Transformer Book T100 got off a bit of a rough start. The U.S. government shutdown apparently delayed the initial shipment from Taiwan, so we got our sample much later than expected. Asus recommended applying the latest Windows updates immediately, and we obliged. However, something went awry during the first update, prompting a failed auto-recovery attempt and, eventually, a full system reset. The system reset was triggered automatically, and the clean slate seemed to do the trick, at least for that problem. But there were more.
The T100 had close to a full charge when I took it out of the box. I plugged in the system while installing OS updates and our test applications, but the battery indicator continued to trickle down. Windows said the Transformer was charging—it just wasn’t charging fast enough to offset whatever battery power I was using. Fortunately, the charging issue sorted itself out when the battery ran dry for the first time. Ever since that first full discharge, I’ve had no problems charging the T100 while using the device.
The next problem was a weird one: the T100 changed the screen’s color profile every time I loaded the Mail and Calendar apps. I sent Asus this shaky cam footage when I couldn’t figure out what’s was going on:
It turns out this behavior is part a special “reading mode” feature designed to reduce eye strain. The color shift kicks in by default with the News and Reader apps, as well. This feature’s application preferences can be tweaked via the Asus Reading Mode app, which also allows reading mode to be disabled entirely. If Asus is going to turn on a feature like this by default, there should probably be a notification attached.
Apart from the Reading Mode utility, Asus’ web storage client, and the requisite Netflix and Kindle apps, the Transformer Book T100 is largely free of extraneous software. A copy of Office Home & Student 2013 is included, though. The activation code in the box unlocks Word, Excel, OneNote, and PowerPoint—all the essentials for students, who are surely a big part of the T100’s target market.
Office doesn’t take up too much storage, which is a good thing, because the T100 has very little to spare. Our 64GB sample exposes 58GB to the OS, and 9GB of that is inaccessible to the user: 100MB is devoted to the EFI partition, 900MB is monopolized by the first recovery partition, and 8GB is consumed by the second one. Fresh from the box with the OS installed, our unit had only about 34GB of free storage. Folks who opt for the 32GB version will have to be very careful about what they put on the embedded flash.
Despite the quirks and initial setup issues, my time using the Transformer Book T100 has been thoroughly enjoyable. The system feels incredibly fast and responsive even with loads of applications running on a crowded desktop. Most web pages load quickly, the Photos app handles high-res image galleries gracefully, and the Modern UI and desktop interfaces are silky smooth.
Like its Atom predecessors, Bay Trail shows some signs of weakness when loading flash-heavy web pages. The Windows Task Manager shows all four cores hard at work rendering demanding sites. That said, Bay Trail’s browsing performance is noticeably improved over Clover Trail. It’s definitely better than what I’ve experienced on Android tablets.
The Transformer Book T100’s overall performance reminds me more of my CULV ultraportable than it does of any Atom- or ARM-based systems I’ve used. This particular Bay Trail chip isn’t fast enough to challenge low-end Core processors, but I can understand why Intel will be rolling out Pentium and Celeron chips based on the same silicon. Bay Trail raises the bar for baseline PC performance in fairly dramatic fashion, especially with the integrated graphics taken into account.
On the storage front, Bay Trail’s eMMC interface isn’t as slick as Serial ATA. We’ve suffered through sluggish application load times on a few Windows 8 systems, so I was a little worried about the T100. Fortunately, the Transformer Book’s storage subsystem is reasonably fast. Most applications load in about two seconds or less, and those that have been run recently launch even quicker.
Switching between open applications is pretty much instantaneous, too. I spent a lot of time multitasking while writing this review, and the T100 never felt slow or overwhelmed.
Much of my time has been spent on the desktop, which offers a familiar environment and x86 application compatibility. The ability to run standard Windows software is one of the defining characteristics of the Transformer Book T100—and the one thing that really sets this system apart from devices based on Android, iOS, and Windows RT.
While the T100 can tap into a deep library of desktop applications, there’s no escaping the fact that the Windows Store still has a more limited selection of tablet-friendly apps than Google Play or Apple’s App Store. If you’re attached to particular Android or iOS apps, then making the transition to Win8.1 could be difficult. Of course, if you’re attached to particular Windows applications, being without them on Android and iOS devices can be just as problematic.
Windows 8 was designed to switch seamlessly between desktop and tablet modes, and the latest 8.1 update brings some much-needed refinements in a few areas. I need to spend some more time playing around with the OS to gauge the impact of those upgrades, ideally when I’m not under the gun trying to get an article finished. The underlying formula feels right at home on the Transformer Book, though. The T100’s hardware transforms from notebook to tablet with only slightly more effort than switching the OS between the desktop and Start screen. I’m still not thrilled with some elements of the OS, but at least its hybrid nature makes sense on devices like the Transformer Book.
The 64GB Transformer Book T100 we tested is priced at just $400, and the 32GB version will sell for $50 less. Even though a device like this has been such a long time coming, I don’t think anyone expected it to be this affordable. Not that I’m complaining.
Except that, well, I am. A little. Like most value-oriented systems, the T100 isn’t perfect. The screen is a bit dim, the glossy plastic quickly becomes a smudged mess of fingerprints, and the touchpad has a few annoying quirks. Our keyboard dock was warped out of shape, and we encountered a few hiccups while setting up the system. I could excuse those flaws by pointing to the T100’s price tag, but I’m not sure how many of them can really be attributed to budgetary constraints. These are things Asus should be able to get right even in a value-priced machine.
Of course, the Transformer Book T100 still gets a lot of things right. Its Bay Trail chip is more than fast enough for day-to-day computing, and I’m incredibly impressed with the system’s gaming potential. Even though you can’t play Battlefield 4 on the thing, there is no shortage of good games that should run very well on the T100.
The rest of the hardware nicely complements the SoC. The IPS display delivers better colors than the TN panels on cheap notebooks, and the keyboard feels excellent despite its smaller size. Thanks to the T100’s collection of slots and ports, users can easily add more flash, connect a larger display, and interface with USB 3.0 storage devices. They can also look forward to 10+ hours of battery life—and paying only $350-400 for the privilege.
I’ve circled back to the price because it’s so central to the Transformer Book’s appeal. Even taking the flaws into account, this is a heck of a system for the money. There’s nothing else quite like it on the market right now, and I’ve already recommended that a few friends and family members check one out for themselves. I’d probably be contemplating purchasing the T100 for myself if I weren’t intent on getting something a little more upscale.
Yeah, I just complained that the T100 is too affordable. But just think of what Asus could offer for another couple hundred bucks. It could add a slightly larger high-PPI display, providing room for the keyboard and touchpad to grow. The polished plastic could be replaced with something—anything—and the dock could pick up more ports and slots. I bet there would also be room in the budget to add a faster Bay Trail chip and more RAM.
As it stands right now, the Transformer Book T100 is still deserving of our TR Recommended award. I almost rolled out our coveted Editor’s Choice award, but the T100 has a few too many rough edges for that distinction.