Asus Eee Pad Transformer TF101 full review

The very smart Android Honeycomb tablet is clad in a bronze-coloured, textured chassis. It has a 10.1in viewable screen (measured across the diagonal) crafted from an 1280x800-pixel IPS panel, making for above-average viewing angles. The surrounding band around the viewable area  is also touch-sensitive. This hides the dual cameras – a 1.2Mp webcam and a 5Mp one. Around the tablet’s edges are the power and volume buttons, plus ports for HDMI, headphones and a media card slot. Lower down on either side are hard-to-spot speakers. See also: New iPad review.

Getting around the Eee Pad is zippy. Accessible from the left hand corner are shortcuts to the Home screen, scrollable thumbnail s of open and recently used apps, and a Back button. You can swipe left and right through a series of screens and minimise all open screens in favour of at-a-glance information about the time, weather, appointments and more. UPDATE: Asus 'fixes' EeePad Transformer TF101 with ICS update... again

Typing using the software keyboard is slower and less responsive than on the likes of the iPad 2 and the Playbook. However, the Transformer comes with its own docking keyboard. This improves text entry options, adds USB 2.0 ports, media card slots and, importantly, an eSATA port to which an additional battery pack can be added. This, claims Asus, transforms the Transformer into a 16-hour productivity device. Unfortunately, as soon as you dock the tablet, it goes from a svelte and fairly lightweight tablet to a rather lumpen and unbalanced laptop. It’s not as chunky as the Acer Iconia W500, which suffers the same ignominy, but the shift in perception as you switch from tablet to notebook use is very pronounced.

The tablet isn’t as heavy as some, making its rather wide dimensions forgivable. Unlike the Xoom, on which gameplay is gripping fun but a few laps leave your wrists sore, here you can comfortably cradle the tablet without tiring your limbs. With a snappy processor and a 3G wireless module onboard, the Eee Pad makes light work of tasks such as searching Google Maps for nearby venues of interest. We also liked the inclusion of the Dolphin web browser as an alternative to either Firefox or Google Chrome. The camera works well enough but is far too slow. As with all these devices, the form factor doesn’t lend itself to accurate, impulsive snapping.

Melissa J Pereson's review

The Asus Eee Pad Transformer TF101 tablet doesn't stand on its own. But when paired with its matching keyboard dock, the Transformer morphs into a tablet that strikes an admirable balance between productivity and entertainment. This Android 3.0 tablet costs £429 for the 16GB Wi-Fi model, including the docking keyboard.

None of this is to say that the Transformer's implementation is perfect. The hardware has some rough spots, and so do the Android OS and the Mobile Docking Station unit. But even taking those patches into account, the Transformer carves out a solid niche for itself in an increasingly crowded market.

Asus Eee Pad Transformer: Design successes and failures

In its design, the Transformer shares some characteristics with other current tablets. The front face is dominated by a 10.1in display, with various buttons, ports, and slots distributed along the edges. The Transformer has familiar-sounding guts, too: It runs nVidia's 1GHz dual-core Tegra 2 platform, carries 1GB of RAM, and uses Google's Android 3.01 (Honeycomb) OS.

Like many of today's tablets - the super-slim Apple iPad 2 being the notable exception - the Transformer is 13mm thick. It's longer than other tablets, surpassing the Acer Iconia Tab A500 by 12mm, the Motorola Xoom by 23mm, and the Apple iPad 2 by 31mm. The extra length makes for an extra-wide bezel in landscape mode; it also allows the Transformer's physical size to match the Mobile Docking Station's, so the two can connect as a clamshell laptop would. Design-wise, this approach is a win.

What I found most disappointing about the Transformer was its physical build. At first blush, it feels sturdy enough, but I didn't like the flex built into the textured plastic back. The flex made the Transformer feel chintzy, as did the minute gaps between the metal frame and the scratch-resistant Corning Gorilla Glass screen. But at least the Transformer's plastic design lowers its weight. At 680g, it's heavier than the 590g iPad 2, but the Transformer benefits from good component balance on the inside that makes it feel lighter than it really is.

Google Android tablets

In other respects, the tablet's design is well executed. When held in landscape orientation, the power button and volume rocker sit at the upper right corners; and the 1.2Mp front-facing camera is at the top centre. Along the right-hand edge are a 3.5mm audio jack (which doubles as a headphone output and a microphone input), the Mini-HDMI port, and the microSD card slot. Toward the bottom corners of the left and right edges are stereo speakers, but they aren't the only source of sound. Even when my fingers blocked the speaker grilles, I could hear audio clearly.

Asus explains that the Transformer's design also transmits audio through the same openings at the bottom of the tablet that serve as the connection points for the Mobile Docking Station. The tablet has SRS audio enhancements built-in, but there's no equaliser or similar app for adjusting sound, and there's nothing to adjust in the Android OS settings. The integrated SRS Wow HD audio does include support for virtual 5.1 surround sound in videos. In use, the speakers seemed superior to most tablet speakers I've listened to, but not nearly as good as the best ones I've heard on a tablet - those on the RIM BlackBerry PlayBook. Audio sounded reasonably full and distinct, with crisp though somewhat tinny vocals.

Asus Eee Pad Transformer TF101

Running along the bottom edge of the Transformer is the 40-pin dock connector. The tablet comes with a power adaptor and a USB-to-dock connector cable. The dock connector can charge from the adaptor or via the cable, when connected to a PC (for a trickle charge only). The cable can also handle data transfers from a PC. Asus says that accessories will be available for the dock connector, including an SD Card reader and a USB-A port.

At the back is a 5Mp camera for still image capture and video capture at 720p; but there's no LED flash, as several competing tablets have. As on other Android 3.01 tablets, images look disappointing (for stills and videos both).

The Transformer uses a 1280x800-pixel IPS display, and has a widescreen 16:10 aspect ratio. As in Apple's iPad series, the use of IPS technology helps the tablet achieve excellent viewing angles (Asus says that the range is 178 degrees, and I noticed no colour shift and a clear image as I shifted to extreme angles), improved colour and deeper blacks. Colours looked better than on other Android 3.01 tablets, but that could be because Asus adjusted Android's default colour temperature and white balance to match its IPS screen. Still, the Transformer can't match the colour accuracy of the Apple iPad 2.

The Transformer has 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR connectivity in this version. Asus expects to release 3G varieties via mobile carriers (to be announced) later this summer.
(Watch this space for an update.)

Transformer's software, customised

When I first turned the Transformer on, I noticed immediately some pleasant user-interface improvements that Asus made to stock Android 3.01.

For starters, the core navigation buttons are dramatically better. Asus replaced the standard Honeycomb nav buttons (three light-blue outlines that serve as the primary navigation aids at the lower left of the screen) with three white, solid button formations that are crisp and distinct. In particular, the back/exit button, better represents its function with a looping return arrow - an improvement on the stock Honeycomb's chintzy back arrow, which looks more like a bookmark symbol.

Another big change involves the Asus keyboard. The stock grey Honeycomb keyboard is available as an option, but by default the Transformer uses Asus's own keyboard, which features a lighter grey background and dark, well-defined letters and numbers. The redesigned keyboard has a row of number keys up top; and keys in both the number row and the first letter row are slightly taller than the ones on rest of the keyboard.

The keyboard appears to occupy about the same depth as the stock Honeycomb keyboard, but with the added benefit of the number row (a native first among the Android 3.0 tablets). The keyboard incorporates Google's predictive text, too, another native first for an Android 3.0 tablet. Unfortunately, this feature behaved a bit unpredictably in my testing. For example, it didn't work consistently when filling in fields in the web browser. Also, the keyboard sacrifices some of its qwertyness - by having its Z and S keys stacked, for example. On the whole, the keyboard was responsive.