Asus Eee Pad Transformer

The Asus Eee Pad Transformer combines a 10.1-inch Honeycomb tablet with an accessory keyboard that looks to put other docking, and non-docking, tablets to shame. When the Eee Pad Transformer was first announced it drew a smirk from us, but seated on the Pocket-lint reviews desk we have to take our hat off to Asus: the Asus Eee Pad Transformer looks sensational.

Usually there is some sort of compromise to be had when convergence takes place. In the case of the Eee Pad, once you separate it from the keyboard, you still have a slim and elegantly designed tablet, which is one of it’s strengths: there doesn’t seem to be a weak link in this forging of tablets and netbooks, except perhaps that the keyboard retains it’s hinge-style dock once the tablet is removed.

Pop that tablet

The Eee Pad (technically the TF101) measures 271 x 171 x 12.98mm. It’s the same thickness as the Motorola Xoom, but the design looks slimmer thanks to the taper towards the edges. It’s the sort of move that Apple would make and means that the Eee Pad looks thin at the edge where the Xoom looks decidedly chunky. It is wider, yes, but the Eee Pad weighs in at 680g. It’s still heavier than the iPad, but lighter than the Xoom.

The edge of the Eee Pad is metal, which surrounds the glass screen at the front and is finished with a plastic back. The textured finish and brown colouration is a little more kitsch than Louis Vuitton to our eyes. Colours aside, the edging does offer up a sensible placement and collection of buttons and ports.

The bottom of the Eee Pad is given over to the two cutouts to hold it onto the keyboard dock alongside their proprietary dock connector. This connector is used for charging the device (in lieu of Micro-USB) and appears both on the tablet and the keyboard, so you can at least charge both parts with the same power cable. The absence of USB or Micro-USB on the tablet means you won’t be able to take advantage of USB host features coming in Android 3.1: you’d either have to have the keyboard dock connected, or an adapter for the proprietary connector, which we’re not sure that Asus will manufacture. 

The right-hand side of the Eee Pad sees a 3.5mm headphone jack, mini HDMI and microSD card slot (which works from the off), while the left-hand side offers up the power/standby button and the volume rocker. There is a front-facing 1.2-megapixel camera and a rear facing 5-megapixel camera. Unlike the Xoom there is no LED flash, but we can’t see that being a significant factor for any potential buyers.

We did find ourselves missing the pulsing notification LED that the Motorola Xoom has to alert you to new emails and there is no LED on the Eee Pad to tell you that it is charging, which we feel is a slight omission.

Camera performance doesn’t quite stand up to what you’d expect from a mobile phone these days, with rather mediocre results. That’s less significant than on a mobile phone where you are likely to grab candid shots on the move and wielding a tablet trying to grab a shot of a passing celeb is a little awkward. Video too, which comes out as 720p HD suffers the same fate of being lacking in vibrancy, struggling to deal with bright conditions and lacking real detail.

Power up

Fire the Asus Eee Pad up and you are greeted by the shiny new face of Android 3.0, Honeycomb, the Google OS for tablets. We like Honeycomb a lot, especially following a 2010 filled with awkward Android tablets that just didn’t quite click. Of course Honeycomb is new, so there is some work still going on behind the scenes, especially when it comes to the wider app environment. However, the core native applications (such as Gmail, Calendar, Contacts, YouTube, etc.) all work very nicely. We’ve covered Honeycomb in some detail in our Honeycomb review, so if you are interested in finding out more about how it works and what it looks like, head over and read that review.

As we said in our review, Honeycomb is a great operating system for tablets, delivering the Android experience you expect but making much better use of space than previously. There are some great natural features and the core applications work really well. Apps that are optimised for Honeycomb are a little in short supply at the moment (we’ve been compiling our favourites in a separate rolling feature). The process of updating is slowly taking place and we predict that by the end of the 2011 the Honeycomb app space will be much more advanced, but currently when put alongside the iPad offering we’re not quite there yet.

On the Eee Pad we tested, we found the Android Market threw up some oddities, often failing to install first time and needing a second prod to get the app to install. We also found the Google Search would open the browser to return results and just refresh the last browser page we had open; the second search would then deliver the results we were looking for. Minor points and not too irritating once you know about them.

MyEeePad

What is more interesting, however, are the additions that Asus have brought to the Eee Pad. There are some very minor cosmetic tweaks, so the icons on the system bar are slightly different from those we saw on the Xoom and occasionally you’ll find slightly different labelling, but more significantly, Asus have turned their hand to some useful apps.

The Asus Weather Widget is based on AccuWeather.com (as so many are), but rather than giving you blocks of graphics or animations, it’s a simple text overlay, with a light dab of graphics. As such it doesn’t dominate the homepage. The same applies to the Asus Time widget and the Asus E-mail widget, although unfortunately the latter only works on the email client rather than the Gmail app. (Gmail gets it’s own widget, which is also pretty good.)

There is also a funky MyZine widget, which gives you a sort of mock magazine cover drawing in various elements from the device - website, calendar, photos, weather, music, etc., to give you one funky spread. It eats virtually a whole page but it looks nice and there are two variants available.

Asus have also added to the basic out-of-the-box feature set with some of their own applications: MyCloud, MyLibrary and MyNet. MyCloud is a collected selection of services, including MyContent, MyDesktop and @Vibe. To take advantage of MyCloud, you’ll need to download the PC Suite on your computer (we couldn’t find a Mac version, but the Windows version was available from the Asus support website).

Starting with the weak link, the @Vibe elements accessed through MyCloud offers up internet radio and music. Neither are very impressive, both lack content and are slow to navigate. TuneIn Radio presents a much better option for internet radio and if music is what you are after then perhaps Spotify is worth a subscription.

MyContent will let you access content on your Asus WebStorage. Once you have set-up your account, you’ll be able to move content to the cloud to sync between devices (rather like Dropbox). At the top level things look nice on the Eee Pad, but as you dive deeper it lacks consistency as you reveal all the little services running: music comes from MEar, photos from PixWe and other file types offered through the Asus WebStorage interface, and in general it could do with a dab of polish to give you a greater level of uniformity and cohesion.

MyDesktop is in fact Splashtop Remote, so once you have a Splashtop server on your PC (or Mac) you’ll be able to then access and control it from your Eee Pad. It is a little slow, but works well enough for ad hoc access, perhaps to access files or applications on your main computer.

Moving on, MyLibrary is an ebook reader app which will offer up book files you have on your system. We found it detected EPUB and PDF files and given that you can pinch zoom, it’s an easy way to read PDFs. It offers Adobe DRM, so in theory if you have purchased ebooks, you’ll be able to authenticate your Transformer and read them. However, we found that when we tried to access our protected EPUB files the application would quit to the homepage. MyLibrary also offers to read EPUBs to you.

MyLibrary links through to Asus’ @Vibe service, which in this location offers reading material. We decided to grab a sample of the Daily Star (although a wide range of more edifying titles are on offer) and it works well enough offering up full colour, zoomable pages, with an overview to dive to the page you want, and links to the “text only” stories, which to be fair on the Daily Star were rather sparse. @Vibe also offers books, but we couldn’t progress beyond the menu to access any.

MyNet will offer to play content from sharing computers or servers in your house. We fired it up and it was quickly offering content from our Cisco media server. You also get a play to feature, so if there are other compatible devices you’ll be able to send that content over. We found it worked well enough, but like so many devices, it lacks a full run of native video codecs to tackle all the file types we had on our media server and at times it did seem to stumble, so wasn’t as smooth as we’ve seen on other similar services - Samsung All Share for example on their phones.

Autobots, transform and roll out!

The Asus EP101 Mobile Dock follows the same eye-catching design points paid down on the tablet, with a metal deck presenting a neat chiclet keyboard which crams in a lot of functionality, as well as a touchpad. The tablet slots into a hinge dock and locks in place. This arrangement means you can close the “lid” as you would on a netbook, which is a convenient arrangement of the two parts.

The back of the keyboard dock is finished in the same Louis Vuitton-esque plastic, so when docked and closed, the Transformer feels cohesive. We also like the fact that the hinge dock drops down slightly to form a back bulge, raising the keyboard to a slight angle for more comfortable typing. This isn’t a mish-mash partnering, it is an elegant and considered design and a credit to Asus.

In design terms we don’t have too much to complain about. It’s better than the slightly precarious arrangement we’ve seen from Acer’s docking tablets, which don’t feel balanced or secure. Like the Motorola Lapdock, the Transformer offers up shortcuts specific to its Android application, so you not only get media, volume and brightness controls, but you also get a lock button, a back button and shortcuts for the browser, camera and settings.

You also get a number of hardware control buttons as you’d find on a netbook: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and the trackpad can all be toggled from the keyboard. The keyboard dock offers a full-sized USB 2.0 port (which will come into play when Android 3.1 lands on the Transformer offering greater USB compatibility) and we had no problem plugging in various thumb drives to access files. There is also an SD card slot, so you could take the card straight out of your camera and access the files on your tablet, or pre-load content onto a card to play back on the Transformer. The SD card is fully recessed, so can be left in the slot without fear of damage.

An Android netbook that works?

We’ve seen a couple of Android netbooks that really didn’t work well, but Honeycomb is much better suited to working with a keyboard thanks to the efficient use of space. Of course some apps are better than others, but the advantage of using a keyboard is that it frees up all the screen to see what you are doing. It isn’t a completely seamless transformation however, and you’ll still, at times have to touch the screen to get things going, or deal with apps that only work in portrait.

The great keyboard means typing is actually a pleasure and within no time we were up to speed, writing and responding to emails and working on documents. The touchpad is small, but does offer up some key multi-touch functions that make navigation easy. A two-finger scroll means you can read long pages easily, whilst a two-finger swipe across the page will switch through your home pages.

However, we encountered a fairly significant problem with the Asus Eee Pad Transformer: 9 times out of 10 our keyboard stopped responding, locking up completely and meaning we had to remove the screen and get it running again. We’re not alone in this problem either as others online have reported similar problems across various forums. We’ve been in contact with Asus to determine the latest with this problem and are still awaiting a response. We found that using the trackpad would often lead to a lock-up quickly, but disabling the trackpad would give us longer typing before it happened again.

We also found that when docked the Transformer would turn off the Wi-Fi for no reason. It’s easily toggled back on again, but it’s an annoying bug. Yes, the placement of the Wi-Fi button next to the back key meant that we did occasionally hit the wrong button as well as the unexplained switch-off - a minor design foible.

Control of the keyboard is fairly light at the moment, with a notification telling you that you are docked, but giving you no other options. There is a single LED indicator on the side of the keyboard that will reflect battery status when connected to the charger, but we feel this needs more prominence with an on-demand indicator so you always know the charge state of the dock. As battery power dropped we found that the keyboard lock-up became more frequent.

Essentially, we love the design, we love the docking and the final result, but there is obviously some work to be done here. Fortunately it doesn’t destroy the Eee Pad - it is perfectly usable regardless of what the keyboard is doing.

Going on-screen

Of course the docked keyboard isn’t the only keyboard. Asus have altered the standard keyboard for their own effort with interesting results. The Asus keyboard offers prediction, corrections and “trace” entry, which let you swipe your finger across the keyboard like, erm, Swype. The biggest change visually is that Asus include the number keys on top of the standard QWERTY array. You lose screen space over the standard Android 3.0 keyboard (which you can also opt for) but it’s useful if you regularly enter a lot of numbers.

The screen is 10.1-inches, which gives plenty of space to roam and offers up a resolution of 1280 x 800 pixels, giving you a pixel density of 149ppi. It’s also an IPS display, like the Apple iPad, and viewing angles are fantastic. It is bright and colourful and looks great. The touch response is excellent too and you can leap around the tablet-optimised OS with wanton abandon.

Sitting beneath the slender brown exterior is the 1GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 dual core chipset, the same as the Motorola Xoom and a number of recent high-end smartphones. 1GB of RAM sits in support, with internal memory options of 16 or 32GB. As mentioned already you’ll have access to the microSD card slot from the off and Asus have included a file manager that works well enough to cut around and manage your content. It’s essential too if you want to take advantage of the USB 2.0 and SD card slots on the keyboard, as together you’ll be able to manage files, move things around, create folders and subfolders and so on, just as you might on a regular notebook.

That gives you plenty of local storage, as well as the option of external storage for all your content. The external speakers supply a reasonable level of volume and are surprisingly good considering their small size, but naturally lack bass delivery and are easily bettered by using your own headphones.

The screen makes video playback a real pleasure and being lighter in the hand than the Motorola Xoom makes watching long videos that little bit more confortable. Video codecs are a little on the light side, but other video players from Android Market will solve this problem for local content. We found that MyNet used the default video player, restricting your streaming pleasures at home. Of course, you could plump for the non-Honeycomb optimised Skifta, which works well enough at streaming content and lets you choose your software player. Locally, we found the lightweight 720p footage played back well, but some higher bitrate files didn’t. We’ve seen Tegra 2 devices do better than this, offering smoother playback of these files, so this looks like a software optimisation issue more than anything else.

Battery life is impressive, with the tablet offering an expected 9 hours or so of use, and often more with casual use. The dock extends this up to around 16 hours, although at times we found that the battery meter simply showed us a question mark as it seemed to have lost track of how much charge it had after charging, docked, through the night (the status menu told us 0%, it was in fact 100%). 

Verdict

Drawing out a verdict on the Asus Eee Pad Transformer isn’t as tricky as it might seem - we love it. There are places where things could be improved on the tablet front - wider video support, increased uniformity across Asus’ app offerings - but some of the current Honeycomb limitations (e.g.: number of optimised apps) we can’t fault Asus for. 

We did have issues with the keyboard. Again, we’re sure that Asus will work these problems out, and judging by the comments on forums across the internet, these problems aren’t universal and Asus are aware of them. Given that the keyboard dock is an accessory (it’s not as though the operational problems make your tablet useless) we’re happy to give Asus the benefit of the doubt here: you might be looking to just buy the tablet on its own after all. 

It looks to be good value for money too, especially as the design is rather handsome. You can pick up the Eee Pad Transformer (both parts) for £429, or the Eee Pad (tablet only) for £379, making the keyboard about £50. It might be £50 that doesn’t always work right, but when it does work, it’s a wonderful experience.

We’ve picked out some faults, but overall we’re happy to recommend the Asus Eee Pad Transformer with the keyboard caveat. Asus have put in the effort to enhance the user experience out of the box, without running the raw  Honeycomb look and feel out of town. Support for microSD cards from the off is to their credit, as is the provision of a range of extra services.

Overall a wonderful Android tablet that surpasses the Xoom, but not without some accessory problems.



>