We may have chuckled at the idea of a viable keyboard-equipped Android tablet, but Asus has brought in its laptop experience to create a professional-quality laptop dock to add to the base tablet.
How does it fare against the rest of the Android tablet crowd? Will this one managed to pull tablet customers away from the iPad? Can it walk the tightrope between stand-alone tablet and netbook replacement?
What we like
It’s one ruggedly constructed tablet; the textured metallic backing is suitably grippy, and looks like it means business, even with the rear-facing camera. Granted, when connected to the keyboard and held in a certain way, it does look a bit like a purse.
The screen measures 10.1 inches, matching rivals like the Motorola Xoom and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. It also uses IPS (in-plane switching), meaning you’ll get some great viewing angles; great if several people are crowding around the Transformer to look at pictures or watch a video.
We were able to update the Transformer to Android 3.2; this is still Honeycomb Android but with a list of bug fixes and the ability to scale all those made-for phone Android apps for your screen. You’re now able to adjust the app to stretch to fill the 10.1-inch screen or keep it scaled, yet zoomed-in, for the larger tablet screen.
Asus have made some minor tweaks to their Android tablet interface; we liked the number row on the touchscreen keyboard, bringing it in line with the physical keyboard dock.
The Nvidia dual-core chipset means it has just as much processing power as the Motorola Xoom, but we found it more reliable- some of this is down to the Android upgrade, but the Transformer certainly feels more finished. In our testing, we didn’t experience any apps kicking us back to the homescreen, and multitasking was effortless, even with more intensive games and streaming media apps.
Like Android phones, there’s plenty to customise here. Aside from the staple wallpapers, there’s several live wallpapers. These use some of the built in features of the tablet to give a bit more texture behind all those widgets and icons (also customisable, by the way) one uses Google Maps to show you exactly where you are as you use the tablet, another utilises the accelerometer, making an icy, water-filled backdrop come to life as you handle the tablet.
Pre-installed, the @vibe bookstore offers a selection of newspapers and books. There’s even a few free credits, and prices for access to newspaper issues starts at 69p per issue. The app provides high-quality newspaper PDFs with clickable links to a more readable format- and at that price, it’s generally cheaper than the same physical paper on sale. There’s also countless international and local newspapers.
Battery-life of the tablet is impressive, especially against the Android competition. Bought with the keyboard accessory, which can also charge the tablet when plugged-in, and you’ll get a few days of heavy use.
With casual use, we found the tablet lasted well, with impressive standby times too. Sound was suitably loud; both stereo speakers are located on the bottom edge, which makes them difficult to cover up when holding the tablet at the corners or edges.
The keyboard dock is also a quality product; with a multitouch trackpad. This means you can use two fingers to switch between Android homescreens, zoom, and use other multi-touch functions, without having to paw at the screen. There are also dedicated buttons for the Android buttons; like homescreen, menu, search and screen-lock.
What we don’t like
We often felt uncomfortable when docking the tablet and keyboard add-on. It’s not exactly smooth, and often difficult to tell whether the tablet is truly ‘locked in’. Sometimes it sounds like we may have snapped the dock connector- we hadn’t, but the fear was there.
We also noticed a that the screen had some undulations on the right and lower edges, with a bit too much light bleeding out next to the bezel - this could have been isolated to just our review model. Video colours were also a little subdued.
The keyboard; whilst an add-on, for the price, it’s pretty much integral to the full Transformer experience. We found that using it with non-Asus software, like Google Docs, the keyboard would play up a little; grazing the trackpad meant transplanted paragraphs and inserted text. The pre-installed Polaris Office seems a bit more tolerant of trackpad slip-ups.
The Transformer is charged by its own proprietary port, like the rival tablet, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. This means you’re stuck with the cable that it arrives with, and you’ll have to take it everywhere with you - or buy another one if you’re likely to be using it at work and home. A microUSB port, or even an old-style ‘tube’ charger like that found on feature phones of the past.
Whilst cameras have a reduced importance on tablets compared to smartphones, the 5-megapixel rear-facing, and 1-megapixel front-facing sensors on the Transformer are pretty underwhelming; both lacking an autofocus option. This means the Transformer attempts to focus on everything when you press the shutter button. We found our pictures came out a bit washed-out. Good lighting is also a necessity without a flash.
Android’s Honeycomb apps are improving, but the rate is still slow; especially compared to current tablet champ, the iPad, which has just passed the 100,000 mark of built-for-tablet apps.
We were surprised by the Asus Eee Pad Transformer; it’s easy to shrug it off as a desperate attempt at marrying an Android tablet the the keyboard-based convenience of a netbook. But it charms, and is a great standalone tablet - more stylish and stable than the Motorola Xoom, yet more rugged than the Galaxy Tab range.
The keyboard is great; but that docking mechanism could be smoother; it’s agony to hear the tablet scrape and squeeze into the dock connection. Given that the keyboard works out at around £50 when bought with the tablet, we’d heartily recommend, especially as it doubles as a battery booster.
The best Android tablet yet? Perhaps - it’s difficult to choose between the Transformer and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1; whilst the latter has a richer screen, and is ever-so-slightly faster and lighter, the Transformer gives you more options, with a well-integrated keyboard, and connectivity options like the microSD slot and HDMI.