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Review of Asus eeePad Transformer Prime TF201
Live photos of Asus eeePad Transformer Prime
Asus were not the first to come up with the modular design of an Android tablet and a keyboard. A combo solution of a laptop with a removable screen you can take off. In case you need a real keyboard and some extra juice you attach the keyboard+battery section to the tablet. It seems like a brilliant idea but only Asus has been successful in this area so far. And the first Asus Transformer was hardly a success – Asus began shipments in early April when the market did not know how many Android tablets were needed. As a result the shipments to distributors in Q2 amounted to 400 thousand tablets instead of the planned 300.000. But in Q3 2011 already Asus partners lowered their orders and the company had to cut down the production to 10.000 units a month to avoid overproduction and consecutive give-outs at unprofitable prices like HP with their TouchPad and RIM with Playbook had to do.
Anyway, Transformer was a success for Asus so it was only a matter of time until its successors is released. I think this modular concept can work because there are a lot of users who long for unusual gadgets and those who don’t want an iPad for a number of reasons. it is not a legion of millions but an army of hundreds of thousands for sure.
We should take into account that the tablet market is yet forming and Apple iPad is still the paragon tablet. Millions of iPads are sold every month worldwide and no other manufacturer can yet get close to such figures. Unfortunately Android 3.x is still too slow and crude and it is not really suitable to tablets and it became the main concern of tablet manufacturers. Prime runs the 3.2 version but Asus promises an update to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich in January 2012. This makes this review a bit precocious and this tablet will certainly work faster and the general user experience will be better on the newer OS.
Asus were in a great hurry to release their new transformer tablet for two reasons. Number one: there will be a lot new tablet on Ice cream Sandwich at CES 2012 and the announcement of Asus Prime would be less impressive and drew less attention. The second reason: it is the first tablet (the first device of any kind actually) to use NVidia Tegra 3 (Kal-El) with a quad core CPU and a companion CPU. So the early release can not only attract more attention but also increase sales because the rivals are not yet on the market. It was a race against time and the product must hit the shelves as soon as possible. NVidia is also interested in promotion of their products as the company needs to ascertain its position as a supplier of mobile chipsets for phones and tablets.
The story of NVidia Tegra 2 shows how important is the release time. Phones using this chipset were popular for two months until the competition came up with similar solutions, moreover theirs were more efficient and faster and Tegra 2 did not become a standard. And now the story with quad core chipsets will be the same. However, the difference between chipsets is not that great to proclaim an undisputed leader. Naturally, NVidia is paying a lot attention to their new mobile chipset and we will certainly review some aspects of its usage but this is mostly interesting only to gamers. And just as desktop PCs can be office and gaming we may speak about regular and gaming tablets. So far this distinction is not real as iPad offer a lot of interesting games but does not focus on graphics. Meanwhile Android is getting new tablet built to amaze with visual effects and powerful hardware. Tablets make more and more game developers go from PC gaming touchscreens.
So the positioning of this tablet is following: it is combo replacement of a laptop and a gaming Android tablet. It is a unique product for those who need a real keyboard. Its big advantage as compared to other Android tablets is the dock station with a number of standard ports for flash drives and SD cards. It makes working with this tablet a lot easier. This tablet’s target audience is mainly the youth and young professionals, the older generation will prefer iPad.
Unfortunately, the race against time made Asus not include a 3G modem in the first revision of Prime – it will be available sometime in early 2012 but you will not be able to upgrade you will have to buy a new one. This will certainly drive away users who need a fully mobile solution and not just a Wi-Fi tablet.
In the box you find the tablet attached to the dock station. The polished aluminum surface is the first thing you see. In hands the tablet feels like a rather heavy piece of metal. It weighs 1.14 kg/2.5 lbs. which is not that heavy. MacBook Air 11” weighs 1.08 kg/2.4 lbs. but the Apple laptop feels lighter thanks to design. It is, of course, not a valid comparison as MacBook is a real laptop twice the price of Transformer which is a tablet.
The bottom of the dock station is also aluminum but a darker one. There are rubber angle bumpers and the hinge serves as the rest for the screen when the laptop is open. The assembly quality is high, everything is solid.
It is almost impossible to open the laptop with one hand – the halves weight about the same (dock station 586 g/20.7 oz., tablet 537 g/18.9 oz.). You have to hold the bottom while opening the top. Since the tablet has a double purpose there are no latches to help you. When you open it your hand gets on top of the camera (it was not getting smudged in my case).
The maximum opening angle is 120deg which quite comfortable, the tablet stands firmly on an even surface. But if you try to use the tablet’s touchscreen to e.g. use Photoshop Touch the bottom takes off the table. It is not a big problem and only occurs if you press too hard.
When the laptop is open you can see the hinge that holds the halves together. If you slide the latch right the tablet easily detaches from the keyboard. Despite the lightweight of 537g it feels heavy because of the low center of mass required for the dock station. iPad 2 weighs more (637g) but feels lighter just like Galaxy tab 10.1 (565g).
On the front side there is a 1.2 MPix camera that can be used for video calls. On the back there is an 8MPix camera with an LED flash. The display is protected by Gorilla Glass (scratch resistant plastic) but it does not have an oleo phobic finish like Samsung’s Galaxy tab or iPad 2. But fingerprints are only visible when the screen is off and are invisible otherwise. And though Asus claims that there is an oleo phobic finish of some kind it does not seem so.
The right side of the tablet features a 3.5 mm audiojack for earphones or a headset, on the left side you’ll find the Reset button, the microSD slot above it covered with a lid, a microHDMI slot for TV and the volume rocker. The Power button with a tiny light indicator is on the top side. The mic is in the middle. The interface slot is original and is situated on the bottom side. On the back there is a single speaker. The tablet measures in 263 x 180.8 x 8.3 mm / 10.3 x 7.1 x 0.3 in.
The dock station features an additional battery and a number of slots. On the left side there is the interface slot with the charger light indicator next to it. on the right side we find an SD memory card slot and a USB port. The USB port is standard and supports external drives and HID devices like mice. This is a really big advantage of this dock station.
The keyboard is typical for a 10-11” laptop, the keys sit apart and don’t have a backlight. The top key row consists of the functional and quick launch keys. There is the Home screen and the Search keys as well. All in all, the keyboard is fine and convenient. If you put Prime as a laptop on your knees the top side overweighs so you have to keep your hands on the keyboard which is not very convenient.
The touchpad is small and not very comfortable. If you are using the dock station you’d better use a USB mouse. The dock station measures in 263 x 180.8 x 10.4 mm / 10.4 x 7.1 x 0.4 in.
The display is the most important part of a tablet - potential buyers can make an opinion just by looking at a tablet. The two undisputed leaders in these terms are Samsung and Apple they set the bar for others. So you could hardly expect Prime to amaze you but it does – it uses a Super IPS+ matrix.
Super IPS matrices have excellent viewing angles (178 deg. in Prime). Picture remains colorful and vivid at any angle which very good for watching movies with someone but might be downside if you work with documents in public places like planes. Here are a couple of images to explain how this technology works:
A few shots of the Prime display.
Another display’s feature is the different brightness levels. In the regular mode it reminds the Galaxy tab 10.1 screen (380 nit), in the ISP+ mode the brightness goes up to 600 nit. Asus recommends using this mode outdoors to increase legibility. In the Battery section we will talk about how these modes affect power consumption.
The screen resolution is 1280x800, standard for tablets of this size (10.1”). The screen supports multitouch up to 10 points – it is important in games and image editing.
All in all, Prime’s screen is on a par with the best tablets and outdoors it is beyond any expectation.
iPad sets the bar in battery life as well and this tablet follows the lead and uses a 25Whr Li-pol battery, the dock station has a 22 Whr battery. The total battery life according to Asus is 12 hours for tablet and 18 hours for laptop (720p, brightness 60 nit). I think data at such low brightness is irrelevant for users so I carried out my own test: 720p playback at maximum brightness in IPS and IPS+ modes at the maximum sound volume. In the IPS mode the battery lasted for 8 hours and 40 minutes, in IPS+ mode 6 hours 40 minutes – the difference is dramatic. I must also mention that the first firmware was badly optimized and the figures were twice lower (you should remember this if your battery depletes faster).
In the second test I used the IPS mode and medium brightness – the battery life amounted to 10 hours 15 minutes. Together with the dock station in the same mode the batteries lasted for 14 hours 15 minutes. The longest I could make the battery work was at the minimum brightness – 16 hours 15 minutes (power saving mode). In all tests I used the same 720p video file, sound playback through earphones with sound volume at medium.
Prime does better than any other Android tablet on older chipsets and gets very close to Apple iPad 2:
NVidia’s tests of Prime battery life as compared to its predecessor are also very conclusive:
Asus (NVidia actually) added three power modes: normal, balanced, power saving. In the normal mode the maximum performance is one core working at 1.4GHz and the other three at 1.3GHz (except for the companion CPU – its clock never increases). In the balanced mode the maximum clock of cores is limited by 1.2 GHz while mostly working at lower clocks.
The power saving mode disables display settings and the brightness is set to 60 nit. The core clock is limited by 1GHz with only two cores enabled, 760 MHz with 3 cores active or 620 MHz if all four cores are active. All graphic accelerator options are also disabled and if you launch a ‘heavy’ game the tablet automatically switches to the balanced mode. Although sometimes it does not happen (probably due the game software peculiarities).
In games the battery life is significantly shorter than during video playback (naturally you won’t be using the dock station while playing although it is possible). Battery life greatly depends on the game but is about 3.5-4 hours.
The power distribution between the tablet and the dock station is very interesting. If both of them are fully charged then they both use their own batteries. As soon as the tablet gets to 92% charge the cradle starts charging the tablet. Ac charging takes about 2.5 hours for tablet and slightly less for the dock station (about 5 hours one after another). The dock station also consumes power and if you use an eternal drive or a mouse the power consumption increases. If the dock station battery is fully depleted the tablet starts charging it.
Concerning everything above mentioned it is obvious that NVidia Tegra 3 gives a significant boost to the battery life and Prime lasts almost as long as iPad 2 and it is one of the best Android tablets. Besides, Android 4 might increase its battery life even more.
Prime is available with 16 or 32GB of storage onboard. The amount of system memory is 1GB. There is a microSD slot with the hot swap feature (support for cards up to 32GB).
The tablet supports the NTFS system and files bigger than 4GB for external drive compatibility.
You can find a full description of the NVidia Tegra 3 chipset here.
Asus proudly mention that the dock station has a subwoofer and when the tablet is connected to it works together with the tablets loudspeaker (the marketing name is SonicMaster). At the maximum sound level both speakers start to rattle. This solution is a lot better than what iPad2 has to offer and it is good for a laptop in general.
The main camera has 8 MP, offers 1080p video recording, but the quality of resulting photos or video shots is below that of comparable phone cameras. I do not know the exact reason, but it must be connected with the use of inexpensive camera modules. You can assess the samples below. I would only like to mention that while focusing on an object it is better to select it on screen to avoid blurred images. The white balance is not perfect either. The same happens in Galaxy Tab 10.1, but its camera is slightly better. This is my subjective feeling though.
Is a 4 core processor much faster than a 2 core one? This question can be answered only in connection with games as far as in other apps it will not be crucial. See below a series of screen shots from test apps, but they are all synthetic ones and measure abstract figures. We have to look at the true performance of a gadget.
I think that the majority of Android tablets lose out to iPad first of all by their everyday speed of operation, which is associated with the OS itself and not the hardware. Until we get ICS it is impossible to say that iOS 5.x has comparable performance with Honeycomb. I will not discuss this point in detail as the majority of users will be happy with the OS performance, but it is far from perfect as you can see slowdowns while opening specific menus and slow opening of apps is normal here (which is often influenced by their size). There is nothing critical and many people do not pay any attention to it. Watch the video with the interface performance. It is exemplary for the evaluation of the operation speed. On the other hand Tegra3 allows playing games with advanced graphic features and this tablet is a true gaming solution.
As far as the model uses standard Android version feel free to read appropriate reviews:
In the settings you can find an Asus panel, which offers few additional features: screen brightness management (IPS+ mode activation), screen shots option, quick settings panel from Asus and type of cursor (both for the mouse and gesture controls). Here you can also disable the tablet activation in the dock station by pressing the space key. As you see the changes are not ground breaking, but in the preinstalled apps you will find many useful things.
Asus tried to add utilities to boost standard features of traditional Android tablets, for example added Asus Cloud, which is a data cloud service offering 8 GB of storage forever. I think it should be enough for the bulk of your files. Then we should mention Asus@Vibe to listen and purchase music (in fact it is a multimedia store). Among apps you can find a utility to block apps from erroneous uninstalling, archives manager to backup software and other useful applications to make the life of users a little bit more easy.
The tablet comes equipped with an app to control other devices through WiFi (uPnP), which can be handy to view the content of your PC hard drive and watch movies on a tablet.
SuperNote helps to create notes with finger controls and images.
We cannot say that the tablet has unique software features, but the additions available here are nice and useful for a better experience.
Similarly to the first Transformer you can connect any game manipulator from every console. It is possible to use the USB jack in the dock station too. If you send the signal through HDMI to your TV you will end up with the gaming console featuring decent graphics. In my test sample were included 10 games, which all looked well. Watch the related video to get a taste of things.
I will also add screen shots from some games and those offered by Nvidia to highlight differences with other versions for different processors (effects, smoke and so on).
My verdict is the following: this tablet is a useful gaming device (which applies to any other tablet too) and the processor turns some optimized games into especially impressive ones. In some games you will not feel the difference and your experience will stay the same, but dedicated gamers will find this tablet useful and for the first time the graphics is decent on tablets. Other users may ignore the gaming features and look at the rest of characteristics to get a whole image of the model.
I did not have a goal to describe all possible features of the tablet as it was not really necessary. I just briefly touched upon synthetic tests, because they are not realistic enough for everyday experience. The main question was if I liked it enough to buy and what are the strong points of this solution. As an Apple iPad user I realized that in a standard mode Prime almost closes the gap with iPad and even overtakes it if used with the dock station. Another issue is that no one wants to carry dock stations around, while MacBook Air has a similar size and weight. More often than not I carry a small laptop instead of a tablet these days as the former is more useful and takes up a comparable space. Unfortunately, you cannot put the tablet in a pocket.
I would not replace my iPad with Prime, but it is an interesting choice for first time tablet users looking at Android models, though it is still catching up in the tablets battle. The main advantage here is the presence of a dock station. In the US the tablet costs $499, while the dock station will require additional $150, which is together comparable to a decent netbook. Sadly, you cannot use Android for standard computing purposes now. If you enter the text in Polaris Office you can lose it while switching to the mail and back. The main problem is that the OS is not developed yet for such purposes and you will not feel comfortable enough. Once again you cannot substitute a laptop with a tablet and dock station. This model is unique, but it cannot be used everywhere and has some limitations. There are too many small details here, which spoil the overall impression and they are all connected with software. Even the upgrade to ICS will not solve the issue as it is merely a small step in the same direction, but third party apps do not work well in the multitasking mode. Many applications have not been adapted for ICS yet.
At the same time when comparing Asus Prime with Galaxy Tab 10.1 I found many advantages of the former. I like the screen in Prime more and the same applies to settings. It also offers a slightly longer operation time, which is still important in real life use. It has the same weight, but offers metal in the body, which is a plus too. You get a better processor for the same amount of money. At the same time I cannot say that Galaxy Tab 10.1 has a clearly inferior operation experience. Both models are still catching up with iPad.
My verdict will be simple. If you need a keyboard and longer operation time then Prime has no rivals at all. If you like games, but do not want to buy a console look no further. Even without the TV connection the tablet gives you high quality images in games. It is one of the first new generation Android tablets and must be treated as such. In March and April of 2012 we will see many rival solutions with similar parameters (the absence of 3G here is a serious mistake), but the dock station will stay the unique feature of Prime and it must be considered as the game changer while choosing a tablet. Everything else is not that important.
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Published 13 January 2012
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