Mobility

ASUS Eee Pad Transformer tablet is a mixed bag

Despite its issues, the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer is the strongest Android Honeycomb tablet on the market, according to reviewer Donovan Colbert.

I've spent a week with the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer TF101 tablet, and like Android, the experience is a mixed bag. Where the device shines, it beats the tablet-format market leader the iPad to a pulp, delivering an empowered user experience that Apple tablet owners can only dream about. Where the Eee Pad Transformer fails, it fails badly enough that it might be a deal breaker for the pickiest of users.

Packaging and product appearance

The packaging that the Eee Pad Transformer arrives in will seem familiar to anyone who has ever owned an Apple product. It is slick and polished and certainly shows the influence that Apple has on ASUS.

Likewise, the Eee Pad Transformer and the keyboard dock are visually stunning devices. The unit has a copper brown color scheme that is unlike many other devices on the market currently, but I bet we see a lot of devices adopting this look in the next few years. It looks elegant and classy.

Specs

In terms of specifications, the Eee Pad Transformer is more or less like all the other Honeycomb tablets on the market. Rather than describe what the tablet has, I'll focus on what it doesn't have.

The ports on the tablet include the proprietary USB charging port, a micro-SD slot, a mic/headset port, and a mini HDMI port. There is no USB host port on the tablet. Everything else is what you've probably already heard about the device, good and bad. The fit and finish is a little less solid than an iPad, but I think people are exaggerating how "cheap and flimsy" this tablet feels. There is a little flex, but it still feels solid and of good build quality. (See photos of the Eee Pad Transformer in this gallery.)

Honeycomb

On day one with the Eee Pad Transformer, I felt lost and overwhelmed by Android 3.0 Honeycomb. As I get more familiar with the new OS, I'm beginning to feel comfortable navigating it.

Honeycomb is a much more robust OS than iOS or regular Android, and things aren't where you've come to expect them. There might be some design issues that make it less intuitive how to get to where you want to be in Honeycomb, but overall, it is actually a pretty impressive platform. I haven't loaded all of my apps yet, but most of those that are most important to me work fine. More importantly, I haven't had any problems with any of my critical apps I can't live without. My guess is that most of the hottest and in-demand apps will eventually make their way to Honeycomb tablets.

Keyboard dock

The keyboard dock is not perfect. The device has quality construction, but the keys seem muddy and require a very firm keystroke in order to register compared to other devices I use.

My typing accuracy is taking a hit on the Eee Pad Transformer keyboard. The layout of the right Shift key next to the cursor keys is a poor design, leading me to hit the up-arrow frequently when looking for Shift. I've also experienced and read other users complaining about accidental input from the included multi-touch trackpad, hindering input rather than assisting it.

However, the top row of the keyboard shines, with a row of custom keys suited toward delivering an optimized Android experience. From left to right are a Back key, a Wi-Fi key, Bluetooth, Trackpad enable/disable, brightness down, brightness up, brightness auto, screenshot, Web, (Android) settings, play buttons, sound buttons, and a lock key. I'm still learning to use these keys effectively, but I can tell they're very well thought out and give access to the most frequently required Android features. All Android users should appreciate a dedicated screen-shot button that doesn't require root-access. (I'm not sure why this isn't standard in all versions of Android OS.) The enable/disable trackpad key is also great.

Two built-in USB ports

With the two (!) built-in USB ports, it is easy to disable the touchpad and use a USB mouse, which is what I am using now. I've learned to be pretty good using the cramped keyboard of the original Eee PC 701, so I'm sure my struggles with this layout will improve with practice. I know many users aren't willing to learn how to deal with a new keyboard, so that might be a deal breaker for some consumers.

In addition to the two USB ports, the keyboard dock has a full-size SD slot and a proprietary USB-charging port. I've tested the USB ports with a 32 GB thumb drive and a 1 TB portable USB hard drive, both of which mounted and could be browsed with no problem. This is where the Eee Pad Transformer tablet shows how much more than an iOS device it is.

There isn't any reason to buy more than the base 16 GB unit when you can easily add nearly unlimited additional storage. It is confirmed that the MicroSD on the tablet and the SD on the keyboard dock both support 32 GB cards, but it is possible both will support 64 GB cards as well. The USB ports should support any size thumb drive, and if you still need more storage, a 2.5" hard drive should meet all your needs. Other external USB devices like webcams and keyboards have also been confirmed to work. You simply can't do this with an iPad without the hassle of jailbreaking, and to me, this is the killer feature that trumps any growing pains with the Android tablet format. It elevates the device from "mostly a content consumption device" to a viable (if modest) content creation platform.

SD slot

The SD slot is a flush mount slot, meaning that an SD card inserted into the slot sits flush with the edge of the slot, with only a sliver of the card protruding. This is a design optimized for leaving a card always inserted into the device, and anyone who has owned an Eee PC will be familiar with it. I prefer this on a portable device to the type of slot found on my Lenovo S10, where the card simply slides in and most of the card remains outside of the slot. The main difference is that the former requires a spring-loaded slot. To eject the card, you push it in further, and it springs back out. With the Lenovo design, you simply slide the card in to access it, and pull it out to remove it. The latter type is probably less expensive and less likely to break. On a device with limited solid-state internal memory though, having the card sit completely internal to the device is the way to go.

Proprietary USB charging cable

I've got mixed feelings about the proprietary USB charging cable. My guess is that there are design limitations that prevent manufacturers from using regular USB to charge these devices, but by using proprietary cables, they make this port available for sync duties as well as charging. With all of the other ways of loading data, I haven't synced using the proprietary cable once.

Battery life

The battery life is phenomenal, especially with the keyboard dock attached (which adds an additional 10 hours battery life to the nine hours that the tablet already boasts), though I've already found the device "dead" when pulling it out of my bag at least once. I blame this on the thirsty and sloppy battery management of Android.

My experience with the iPad is that when you put the device to sleep, it sleeps, sipping just enough juice to occasionally wake up, connect to an AP and check for alerts, notify you of those alerts, and then go back into a power-sipping coma. Android seems to turn off most visible signs of activity, but all radios seem to continue to broadcast and monitor at full blast, sucking down battery life as if there were an endless well of energy.

Standby life is rated at 300 hours, but I haven't seen even a fraction of that. My guess is that if I disabled GPS and Wi-Fi, I'd see standby life increase dramatically. Unfortunately, this is a platform limitation where Android simply lags behind iOS, and I think you'll find the same issues with any Android tablet device.

Clamshell design

A coworker who owns an iPad displayed some gadget envy when I first brought the Eee Pad Transformer to the office, but he also noted, "with the clamshell format, I think I'd end up using it mostly like that, and not like a tablet." It turns out that this was a very astute observation, because my experience has been that I haven't had much desire or reason to undock the tablet. This makes me wonder if tablet mania may not be a bit of a novelty.

I think having a touch-screen in a clamshell device is an awesome idea. Sometimes pointing, swiping, or touching makes more sense than a track pad or a mouse, especially on a laptop format — and there are times and places where a tablet is more logical and convenient than a clamshell design. Reading eBooks and casual browsing, gaming, and some other applications seem to work better with a tablet format, yet so much of what we do, especially in a device that has been empowered to do those things, is better suited to a clamshell format.

I very much get the sense that I am on the bleeding edge of this emerging segment of computing, and two years down the road, I may regret this purchase when I look at the wonders that are available.

Two more issues

There are some lingering issues that have been noted elsewhere that I've experienced myself. One issue is that with an update from ASUS, the browser becomes frustratingly unresponsive and manifests in slow page loads and lagging text entry. It seems like this is either software or firmware, and so we can hope that the issue will be resolved, but for now, it is a major annoyance for many users. In addition to the included browser, I've also installed Dolphin HD and Firefox, and all of the browsers seem to display this issue to a certain extent.

Oddly, the Backspace key seems to have a problem with backing up two spaces for each input, as well, but only in web browsers.

These issues are annoying, and serve as an example of how finely polished Apple iOS products are compared to Android alternatives. Apple seems to handle perception better than Android. I can only assume that these issues will eventually be addressed by updates from ASUS.

Conclusion

Overall, the Eee Pad Transformer's format and features make for a very compelling package. The battery life and the productivity features of the docked Eee Pad Transformer make it a well-positioned contender against my Lenovo netbook and lead me to think the rumored demise of netbook platforms may be a bit premature. The ability to undock the unit for those instances where a tablet format makes sense is a big bonus. In addition, the open expandability and data transfer of the Android platform makes the steeper technical curve compared to an iOS device worth the effort, in my opinion. My wife is currently adopting my 64 GB iPod as her own. The fact that the Eee Pad Transformer is $399 for the 16 GB tablet and $150 for the keyboard dock really hits the sweet spot on price and features.

Despite being built on a fairly young platform that isn't quite as refined or polished as the competition, I think that the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer is the strongest Android Honeycomb tablet on the market, with great features that make it suitable for light to moderate computing for both professional and personal use.

Also read: CNET's review of the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer. (CNET is a sister site of TechRepublic.)

About

Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his profession...

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