The Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime isn’t a robot in disguise, but it does have a few tricks up its sleeve that any Autobot or Decepticon would be proud of. This new Transformer improves upon the original version from earlier this year, adds more power and funky new styling.
But is this update worth the substantial price - it's more than a budget laptop - and does it offer enough to be crowned the best Android tablet on the market?
Design on a diet
The Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime sports a new thinner design, is clad in metal and ultimately looks considerably better than its predecessor, the Eee Pad Transformer. Gone is the plastic outer case, and in its place, a new slimmer and lighter approach. It weighs just 586g and measures 8.3mm thick, resulting in a device that makes even the iPad 2 look like it needs to go on a diet.
As is typical on Android tablets, Asus has opted for a 16:9 aspect ratio 10.1-inch Super IPS+ (1280 x 800) display. Like so many new devices, it's protected from moderate knocks and scrapes by Corning’s Gorilla Glass.
Running Google Android Honeycomb, and eventually Ice Cream Sandwich, there are no buttons on the front of the tablet. The black bezel is perhaps thicker than it needs to be, although does give a good perch on which to hold the tablet without getting your fingers in the way. Only a front facing 1.2-megapixel camera breaks the darkness of the border.
The sides offer power and volume buttons, a hot-swappable microSD slot, headphone jack, micro HDMI port. There's also a docking port for connecting accessories and the all important power cable.
The back sports a brushed aluminium finish to match the company’s Zenbook, and is again only broken by the inclusion of an 8-megapixel camera and flash on the top edge.
The Transformer Prime is light, solid, comfortable to hold and use. You are unlikely to be disappointed.
Tablet transforms into laptop
Like the Transformer, the Transformer Prime also comes with a laptop dock that allows you to not only extend the battery life of the tablet, but also use it like a laptop. The "keyboard" comes bundled in the box, you won’t be able to buy the Transformer Prime without it, or so we're told.
The tablet slots into the dock and the result is well-designed and strong enough to pass off as a single unit, rather than two disparate pieces.
The island keyboard is easy and comfortable to type on and also comes with a smattering of shortcuts that can be used to speed up important functions. There is a large glass trackpad, the same ratio as the screen, that allows for more of a laptop-like experience, although we found it to be very sensitive.
Shortcuts will allow you to turn off the trackpad, toggle Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, load up the settings pane, fire up the browser, as well as offering playback controls and volume.
The keyboard dock also gives you a USB port and SD card socket for transferring images, music, movies and files to the device quickly, be it from your camera or portable hard drive.
It's worth pointing out that as soon as you disconnect the tablet from the keyboard, access to any connected memory or devices is cut-off. You'll need to consider this when managing files, especially if you want something off the SD card when you don't have it docked.
As a pair the two work perfectly together. To the untrained eye, this is a netbook rather than a tablet with a keyboard, and there is enough weight in the base unit for the pair to be used on your lap, without risk of it over-balancing and toppling over.
Not just a pretty face
If you were wondering whether the Eee Pad Transformer Prime is just a visual "tarting up" of the previous model you would be wrong. Asus has worked hard to improve virtually every facet of the Transformer to create the Transformer Prime.
The Prime comes with a Nvidia Tegra 3 quad-core processor, 1GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage. Battery life is promised at 18 hours with the dock - the keyboard contains its own battery - 12 hours without.
The Tegra 3 processor also gives you plenty of power on tap. The experience is silky smooth in daily navigation, with no sigh of lag or delay as you interact with Android. Games play extremely well and we've even had it playing 4k video smoothly. Unnecessary, perhaps, but undeniably powerful.
The biggest change, however, is in the screen. As the primary point for interaction, having a good screen on a tablet is critical. Here you get an IPS display, which is brighter - so offers better visibility outdoors - and great viewing angles. The display is scratch resistant - thanks to the Gorilla Glass - but it does still have a glossy finish. This can have an impact on how easy it is to see the screen when you're outside.
The brightness can be boosted with what Asus is calling "Super IPS+ mode". This essentially increases the brightness of the display at both ends of the scale. This mode can be toggled, and whilst boosting the brightness, it also appears to put some effort into conserving the integrity of the image displayed, rather than merely tinkering with the brightness and contrast settings.
With potent graphics, the ability to play any game on the market at the moment easily, HDMI out, and USB gamepad support, you’ve got to ask yourself whether really you are buying a games console in disguise.
We played a number of games, and weren’t disappointed. Riptide with all that water, ShadowGun with its third-person shooting action, and other demos like Glowball all go to show what is possible with the graphics.
And it’s not just the graphics that are good, sound is excellent too. There's a good speaker on the back, ready to pump out sound effects and tunes, when needed, thanks to some dedicated "SonicMaster" technology.
Camera and video
We don't get too hung-up about cameras on tablets because they're unlikely to be set to any great task. But Asus have produced a camera that is actually very good, giving us an F/2.4 aperture lens and flash to get you out of trouble when it's dark. Photos contained plenty of detail, good colour balance, and we would happily share them with others.
On the video front, the Prime offers 1080p capture and we were very happy with the performance. Playback on the Prime is a breeze, with the tablet easily coping with 1080p footage you’ve recorded or imported from elsewhere.
Honeycomb, Ice Cream Sandwich and apps
The Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime currently runs Google Android Honeycomb 3.2.1, which is something of a shame, as there is a new kid on the block: Google Android 4.0, or Ice Cream Sandwich. Thankfully Asus has confirmed that the Prime will be getting the update as soon as it is available, but you guessed it, there is really no confirmed date yet.
Honeycomb is well-suited to the larger display of tablets, but isn't without its flaws and it's not uncommon for apps to crash occasionally. The Prime is no exception here, although that's a wider Android issue rather than something Asus is responsible for. We've covered both Honeycomb and Ice Cream Sandwich operating systems in full reviews, so it's worth reading those if you want to know more.
A bigger issue perhaps is compatibility. It's a frustrating one too, because you know that, technically, there should be no barrier to a particular app running on a device, but it doesn't. For example, we downloaded BackStab HD, but it refused to play.
As for apps bundled and pre-installed, you’ll get the very good Polaris Office, SuperNote, @Vibe Music, and a host of dedicated Asus apps to help you share and save your files in the cloud, as you did with the previous Transformer.
The performance of the Transformer Prime is top-notch. The design is stylish, and the addition of the keyboard is a great way of turning what many see as a consumption device into a creative device. The promise of an Ice Cream Sandwich update means that the tablet should be as fresh at the end of 2012 as it is at the end of 2011.
The biggest bugbear some might have is the lack of 3G connectivity. Asus tell us that there are no plans to bring a 3G version of the Prime to the UK at the moment, so you'll have to make a different provision if you need data on the move.
The Asus Eee Pad Transformer is a beast of a machine that looks likely to stand the test of time. It's well-specified and well-equipped with ports and connections, offering greater flexibility than you'll find on some rivals.
An early arrival on the market means you don't get the latest OS, but Asus is building on an already successful product line and the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime continues to impress.