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.