Tablets are popping up everywhere, with manufacturers trying to turn some of the success of Apple’s iPad into their own. Android has helped this along with Honeycomb, their tablet-specific version of Android, and many manufacturers have rallied around it.
This has resulted in quite a few Honeycomb tablets from makers such as Motorola, Samsung, Acer and of course, the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer.
The ASUS Eee Pad Transformer comes in at a recommended retail price of R4,299 for the 16GB model and R5,199 for the 32GB model. The separately purchased dock is priced at R1,499.
The question is, what sets the ASUS apart, and is that enough?
The ASUS Eee Pad Transformer is quite similar to other Honeycomb tablets in that it has a 10.1″, 1280×800 capacitive touch screen powered by an NVIDIA Tegra 2 system on chip (SoC) with a dual-core processor clocked at 1GHz.
It has 1GB of RAM, WiFi b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1 and has two models with either 16GB or 32GB worth of internal storage that is extendible by up to another 32GB via a microSD card.
A distinguishing feature for the Transformer is its optional keyboard dock, which also doubles as an extended battery.
Design and build quality
ASUS has gone with a bronze colour scheme on the Transformer. The back is a hard, textured plastic that looks and feels good with only an ASUS logo in the middle and a 5 megapixel camera at the top. The rest of the casing is metal, and rounds the design off nicely.
When in landscape orientation, the front facing 1.2 megapixel camera sits in the top bezel of the device.
On the left side at the top is the power button and below that sits the volume rocker. Both of these protrude enough to be easily found without looking and are out of the way to avoid errant presses.
On the right side – from top to bottom – is the 3.5mm jack, mini-HDMI port and microSD card slot. On both the left and right side, at the bottom, are speaker grilles.
The top edge of the tablet has no buttons or interface connections, while the bottom holds the proprietary port needed for charging and docking. To the left and right of this port are places for clips to firmly hook the tablet in to its dock.
Screen and responsiveness
The 10.1″ IPS display on the Transformer renders surprisingly vibrant colours. Text is crisp and it’s quite comfortable to use fro reading. Additionally, the screen also provides very wide viewing angles which makes it great for watching videos.
In direct sunlight, as can be expected, the Transformer becomes a very shiny paperweight – it’s almost impossible to see anything happening on the screen.
Responsiveness was good for typing, browsing and gaming. While Honeycomb itself isn’t as snappy as what we’d like it to be, it’s certainly above average in terms of responsiveness and we’re hoping that it will get better with future updates.
The rear 5 megapixel camera takes surprisingly good photos. We wouldn’t suggest ditching your SLR or even your smartphone (especially in those low-light situations, seeing as the Transformer lacks a flash), but the Transformer is certainly capable of taking the occasional happy-snap.
The front-facing camera is similarly surprising and should be more than competent for video calling.
Speaker sound quality was good, lacking any sign of Koo. While one may think that the positioning of the speakers where your hands would be holding the Transformer is a silly design mistake, the presence of hands actually helps by channelling the audio towards the user.
In day-to-day use, battery life was excellent.
With a constant WiFi connection, browsing, checking and answering e-mails, reading books and articles, watching videos, using and updating various social networks, viewing and editing documents, and even playing the occasional game, the battery lasted a full workday and even had some juice left over.
Adding the dock didn’t quite double that, but the battery did make it through another work day of almost constant use.
In another test where we turned on WiFi, set the brightness to about 65% and looped some video, we managed to get around 7 hours out of the tablet by itself, while the dock added about another 6.5 hours. Therefore, I have no reason to doubt ASUS’ advertised specs of 9.5 hours for the Transformer alone and 16 hours with the dock, as I definitely had some feeds updating regularly in the background.
The dock provides a 6-row keyboard with evenly-spaced keys. The top row contains shortcut keys while, on the bottom row, to the left of the spacebar are “Home” and “Search” keys and to the right is a “Menu” key. The rest of the keyboard is standard QWERTY.
Typing takes a little getting used to as the keyboard is smaller than standard, but after the brief introduction period it’s full steam ahead and is actually quite comfortable. Indeed, this entire review was written on the Transformer and the experience was quite pleasant. The one thing I would have liked to see is backlighting for the keys, but its lack is by no means a deal breaker as keys are clearly marked and visible in low-light.
Below the keyboard is a trackpad. When docked, the Transformer can be navigated with a cursor like a normal netbook and it actually works quite well.
Left-clicking is the standard select, while long-pressing left-click brings up context menus and right-click functions as a “Back” button. While strange at first, it does make sense in terms of how Android works on a touch screen and eventually you get used to it.
Overall, the keyboard dock is done really well and integrates quite nicely into the underlying Android operating system.
I won’t do an in-depth review of Honeycomb. Some reviewers have said it feels like a beta, while others have complained that it feels unfinished. I’m not yet sure whether I agree or disagree with those assessments, though I will say that it’s not perfect. Sure, there were points where things slowed down for a second or two, and yes, some apps did force close at times, but 99% of the time things ran smoothly.
That said, the Transformer comes with a neat stack of pre-installed software.
First off are the software keyboards. While the ASUS keyboard provides Swype-like functionality, it’s also more error-prone and slightly less responsive than the standard Honeycomb keyboard. When you dock it there is an irritating popup that tells you to switch to the ASUS keyboard to keep consistency with the hardware keyboard (if you aren’t already using the ASUS keyboard, that is), but as far as I can tell key mappings stay correct even if you did select the Honeycomb keyboard.
Zinio and Press Reader are both included and take care of magazine and newspaper subscriptions respectively. The MyLibrary application consolidates all your downloaded books, magazines and newspapers into one place.
There’s also a MyNet application that allows you to stream digital media wirelessly over your home network. It’s not particularly great at its job, but the Android Market does have some good alternatives available.
MyCloud is ASUS’ cloud solution application which gives you access to ASUS WebStorage as well as Splashtop – an application to remotely access a PC or Mac. ASUS is kind enough to provide you with unlimited space on their WebStorage for a year, though there’s no real mention of what happens after that year is out.
Splashtop works as expected: install and run the application on your PC/Mac and connect the Transformer. The only problem I could find was that it disconnected abruptly whenever I tried to use the two-finger scrolling gesture on the trackpad; using scrollbars, though irritating, worked fine.
Polaris Office is the included office package. While it may not be as full-featured as desktop office suites, it is good enough for basic document creation and editing.
The only gripe I have with it is that document files created with Polaris Office seem to crash LibreOffice, though spreadsheets and presentations open fine. However, documents can be converted to Google Docs without any problem.
The last piece of software worth mentioning is the aptly named “File Manager”. While there are more visually appealing applications available on the Android Market, the bundled one will get the job done if you need to get down and dirty with the innards of the Transformer’s file system.
The oddity with the file system is that the internal storage of the Transformer is available on the /sdcard mount point, while the micro SD-Card is available on the /Removable/MicroSD mount point.
The SD-Card on the dock and the two USB ports are then available at /Removable/SD and /Removable/USBdisk1 and /Removable/USBdisk2 respectively.
It’s a bit of a pain for people who prefer things like their music and photos to be stored on their microSD card for easy removal and transferal, and it looks like the only way around it (for now) is to copy things over and delete the “original” files.
The question remains: is this the tablet for you?
The ASUS Eee Pad Transformer is an excellent piece of hardware backed by some great software at a reasonable price. The addition of the keyboard dock makes it that much more powerful as a device that is both great for content consumption and competent at content creation.
As a competitor to the iPad 2 the Transformer falls short in certain areas, but surpasses in others.
If you’re looking for a tablet that can be used as a good approximation of a netbook (with 4 times the battery life) and is indeed more than meets the eye, then I would definitely recommend the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer.