- Full Windows 8.1
- Windows not quite on par with iOS/Android
Once upon a time, manufacturers thought that extremely affordable PCs called netbooks were a good idea. As it turns out, they were all kind of bad. Build quality was poor, but worst of all, they were ridiculously slow. Netbooks thankfully died a slow death, making way for the iPad and the many tablets that followed.
No one wants to buy Windows RT tablets due to the dearth of apps, and previous Windows tablets – like the Surface Pro – were simply too expensive. The solution, it seems, is to turn to Intel’s Atom processors once again to try and get full Windows 8 tablets into the hands of the masses. Will consumers jump at the chance to own a touchscreen netbook in 2013?
Cut the corners, blast the corners, melt the corners
Given that the Transformer Book is trying to hit roughly the same price point as netbooks – but with better internals – sacrifices had to be made to the build quality. Don’t expect the same spun metal that Asus includes on other tablets – this is an all plastic affair.
It’s not the good kind of plastic either. Asus’s tablet isn’t just a fingerprint magnet, it seemingly needs them to live. No matter how little you use it, the device *will* eventually be covered in gross, greasy fingerprints. Please, guys, stop using this kind of glossy plastic. It’s 2013.
The button choices are strange too. That Windows logo at the bottom of the tablet? That’s not a capacitive key like you would expect it to be. Imagine my confusion upon jabbing it a few times only to discover that the Start button is actually located beneath the volume rocker. The power key, meanwhile, sits above the Asus logo at the top left hand side of the device.
I understand the logic: why force the user to move their finger all the way to the Windows logo when they’re gripping the tablet with both hands? The problem with that reasoning is that most people don’t hold tablets by the top, they hold them by the bottom. No matter what you decide to do with a 16:9 aspect ratio, reaching for buttons is going to be an awkward task.
Nothing is illuminated
Speaking of 16:9, it’s still a silly aspect ratio for a tablet, especially at 10.1-inches. Browsing or reading in portrait is pretty much out of the question given the weight and size of the Book, leaving you permanently stuck in landscape mode. Look, 16:9 is great for videos, but we don’t just watch videos on tablets, we do a little bit of everything. 4:3 – or even 16:10 – would be better choices.
The display itself is lacking too. 1080p is pretty much the default resolution for phones and tablets alike these days, with some devices even moving into 2560×1440 territory. The 1366×768 resolution on the Book, then, is a letdown coming from any other device on the market right now. True, it’s an IPS panel, so colours and viewing angles are good, but it’s not nearly bright enough. Reading text isn’t much fun given the aliasing and jaggies, especially since Windows 8.1 is particularly text heavy.
Jam, type, throw
Still, the keyboard dock isn’t anywhere near as bad. It has the same type of construction as Asus’s more expensive Transformer offerings – pretty solid all in all, then. The board doesn’t flex when you’re hammering away at the keys, and Asus has finally sorted out the weight distribution between the keyboard dock and the attached tablet. Because both pieces are now the same weight, the tablet no longer falls over if you push the screen right back against the limit of the hinge.
Having said that, there’s no extra battery inside the keyboard dock. Asus’s included accessory is equipped only with a keyboard, trackpad, and USB 3.0 port. That’s pretty disappointing given other devices in the Transformer range include that extra battery power, but Asus has to hit its intended price point somehow.
Typing for long periods of time is also out of the question. Typically I can reach between 80 and 100 words per minute depending on the keyboard and the lunar cycle. I only managed to hit around 60 WPM at the very maximum when I was really pounding away – in reality, my average was closer to 50. Really, the keyboard is just too cramped for serious text entry. It’s good enough for basic tasks – social networking, light emails, password entry and whatnot – but not much more.
The trackpad is fiddly too. It would more often than not take a second to wake up from idle, and it’s not particularly great for precision pointing either. It’s certainly clicky, but it’s that kind of harsh click that only serves to annoy not only yourself, but anyone in the immediate vicinity. Tap to click is a better choice, but then so is simply using the touchscreen. Icons and elements are large enough at this size and resolution for it not to be a problem.
An unlikely tablet OS
Surprise! Windows 8.1 is a pretty good tablet OS. It looks like Intel’s latest Atom chip is more than good enough to handle the full operating system too, because everything is zippy and smooth. I was actually shocked at how fluid Internet Explorer is – it’s definitely on par with Safari on iOS. Pinch to zoom is close to perfect and I never felt like browser was lagging behind or trying to catch its breath, as Chrome is often wont to do on Android devices.
Even though the app situation still isn’t quite there in the Modern/Metro UI, app design still seems to surpass the equivalent apps on Android. Take Netflix, for instance. Even the updated Android app just doesn’t look all that great despite the performance improvements. Navigating the choice of TV shows and movies is just far easier using the Windows 8 version of the app.
Windows’s Snap feature is also great. This is really the way multitasking should be done on every tablet: you pull across and put your most recent apps wherever you want. The size of both windows can be adjusted in small increments, and it’s easier to jump back to a single app if you want to focus on one task. You can keep an eye on Twitter while watching a movie, or put a browser and email side by side – there are a ton of possibilities. It’s simple to use, and works extremely well.
Having access to the traditional desktop is a boon for power users too. Yes, it can be awkward to use with a touchscreen, but the keyboard dock and USB port give you plenty of input options. And there are still a ton of apps that haven’t made the jump over to Microsoft’s Modern UI, so having access to them on the desktop can be extremely handy in some situations. It’s not ideal, but having the desktop as a backup option is nice, especially at this price point.
The only major downside is battery life. A 1080p video playing on loop with the display set to maximum brightness sapped the battery in 6 hours and 9 minutes – decent, but not great. It’s really standby where the battery disappoints, though. I came back to the Book 24 hours after leaving it at 90% battery only to discover it had drained all the way down to 25%.
That kind of drain really doesn’t seem to be unprecedented when actually using the tablet either. Simply put, this won’t last as long as an ARM tablet from Apple or any Android vendor, and you won’t be able to leave it and come back three days later to still find a healthy battery.
Should I buy it?
If you think you could get away with using this as a primary PC, then no, you shouldn’t buy it, nor should you if you want a simple layabout tablet for use around the home. The Retina iPad mini and latest Nexus 7 are better choices.
Still, if you’re curious about Windows 8 on a portable tablet, the Transformer Book has a much lower barrier to entry than the Surface Pro. Including the keyboard dock while still hitting the £349 price point is really what makes the decision hard compared to other devices. Dell’s Venue 11 Pro, for instance, has a 1080p display, 64GB of internal storage, and a slightly faster Atom processor – there’s even the option to upgrade to 4GB of RAM and a fanless Core i3 processor – yet the base model is £90 more expensive than the Transformer Book.
Dell’s Venue 8 Pro, then, could be the most reasonable alternative. It’s slightly smaller at 8-inches, but it’s also more portable and costs £249 – that’s £100 cheaper than the Book.