When we first saw the Asus Eee Pad Transformer back at CES in January, we never anticipated that Asus would get it on sale so quickly. We expected it to be just another of Asus’ harebrained schemes that never really quite came off, and yet here we are, three months on, and we’re holding not just the cheapest Android Honeycomb tablet, but the best one too.
It’s what’s in the Asus Eee Pad Transformer that counts, not the look of it. When laid flat on a surface it looks like your average 10.1-inch tablet, but the underside is a bronze mess. It’s sporting the same mottled design that we’ve seen on many an Eee PC, but this time, it’s pure metal.
That results in a sturdy finish – it certainly feels more premium than the more expensive Xoom, but it is however, a chunkster at 680g. Compared to the waif like iPad 2, there’s no competition. It sounds vain, but we urge you to at least handle one of Apple’s babies before ordering either way – those extra millimetres really do make a discernible difference.
Asus has positioned the lock button on the side, a much more sensible spot than the back of the tablet (Yes we mean you Motorola), but loses a lot of goodwill for using a proprietary port for connecting via USB and charging. You’ll also find a mini HDMI port on the side for screen mirroring on your telly – that requires a different cable than the micro HDMI port on other new phones and tablets, but in our experience it’s one that’s a bit easier to come by. You don’t get one in the box, but it’s not a key feature by any means.
We’ve got to hand it to Asus here: this is the best capacitive touchscreen we’ve ever seen on a tablet priced to undercut the iPad. It’s far brighter than the display on the first Honeycomb tablet, the Motorola Xoom, with broad viewing angles – hardly surprising when you consider the panel uses IPS tech, just like an iPad.
We’ve had the privilege of being able to test a lot of tablets, and we have to admit we do think Apple’s made the correct compromise with its more square screen ratio. The 1280×800 resolution on Honeycomb tablets we’ve seen so far results in a slate that’s just far too wide, and top heavy when held in portrait mode since it’s so long. But it’s a matter of personal preference, and you won’t be disappointed by the colour at any rate.
For a while, it looked like Google had managed to keep tablet makers from messing with the vanilla Android 3.0 experience. That’s quite evidently not the case with the Asus Eee Pad Transformer however, which sports a custom look and exclusive apps all of its own. But you know what? Asus has pulled off the rare feat of actually improving on Android.
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The homescreen weather widget and redesigned navigation icons are of no particular interest, but we’re really quite taken with the keyboard. Asus and Asus alone has apparently realised that on a tablet there’s actually enough space to include a separate line for numbers as well as one for word prediction – the result is an extremely fast typing experience for a slate of this size.
The custom apps are also welcome, including a DLNA media streaming app, cloud storage and remote desktop access. But our issues with Honeycomb itself still apply. Apps designed for Android on mobile work with varying degrees of success – Flash works fine but the BBC iPlayer app, which uses Flash, does not – and the number of Honeycomb tablet apps is meagre.
It’s still a complete guessing game as to where the options and settings buttons on an app are going to appear, the browser can still conk out on you and there’s the odd delay swiping through screens, tapping on text fields and loading up apps which can frustrate on occasion. In other words, this is a rewarding and powerful tablet OS, but one that will require some patience. If you don’t have that, get an iPad.
Performance and battery life
Honeycomb tablets continue to impress us with their longevity: you can get a solid eight hours of use out of the Asus Eee Pad Transformer with brightness high, Wi-Fi on and email syncing away in the background. Left on overnight with email whirring away still it tends to lose about 10 percent of its battery life – switch account syncing to manual and it’ll go for much more.
It’s more of a mixed bag when it comes to hardware – this is another dual-core Nvidia Tegra 2 tablet that doesn’t quite feel like it’s living up to its hardware potential, except when it’s playing back HD video. Why on earth is there lag, ever, just moving across homescreens?
Now, about the transforming part
In case you missed the hype at launch, and are still wondering why it’s called a Transformer, take a look. You can plug it into a separate keyboard dock and use it as a netbook, complete with on screen cursor, USB ports, and extended battery life.
We’ve gone into much more detail about it here. It’s certainly a nice idea, and the best attempt yet at it, but truth be told, we still don’t see ourselves using this accessory enough to make it worth the outlay and expense on your shoulders of having to carry the damn thing around – it is very heavy. But at just £50 more for the bundle, it’s still remarkable value.
Asus has been trying to break into the mobile category for a long time, and rarely with much critical success. We’d say that with the Asus Eee Pad Transformer, it’s finally cracked it, and at a superb asking price. It still suffers from the fate of looking fugly next to an iPad 2, but if you know you don’t want iOS, it’s still the next best thing. We can take or leave the keyboard dock though.