No one has yet come up with the perfect Windows 8 laptop-tablet hybrid, despite dozens of attempts between late last year and now. The powerful Asus Transformer Book, however, comes pretty close, adding several premium features that are on my wish list.
This is, at first glance, an ultrabook-thin 13-inch laptop, similar to Asus' Zenbook line, and with a desirable 1,920x1,080-pixel screen resolution. The CPU, RAM, and other components are all packed inside the lid of the system, which pops off when you activate a small latch near the hinge, leaving you with a 13-inch touch-screen Windows 8 tablet.
We've certainly seen that setup many times before in systems such as the HP Envy X2. So, what makes the Transformer Book, at a very expensive $1,499, so different from these other systems? First, it's the premium components. The CPU is a high-end (although low-voltage) Intel Core i7. The Envy X2 or Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 for example have only very low-power Intel Atom CPUs. Then there's the high-resolution touch screen -- we're seeing more 1,920x1,080-pixel displays this year than ever before, but it's still not the laptop standard.
Beyond that, the Transformer Book has a 128GB solid-state drive in its tablet half, augmented by a full 500GB hard drive in the keyboard base. That lets you store big movie and game files in the larger spinning hard drive, but applications, photos, and other things you'll need in tablet mode can stay on a faster SSD. This type of hybrid storage is more popular than ever, but rarely implemented in such a way that the two drives can live separately like this. Asus also doubles up on the battery, with one battery in the screen and a second one in the base.
But, if the Asus Transformer Book is packed full of good ideas, the execution can fall frustratingly short at times. Part of the fault lies with Windows 8 -- despite being built for tablet use, Microsoft's latest operating system is still terrible at switching among tablet, laptop, landscape, and portrait modes, with long pauses, blacked-out screens, and other occasional weirdness. It's a problem that has plagued all Windows 8 hybrids, so while I don't blame Asus specifically for this, it makes the system harder to use.
I do, however blame Asus for some of the physical quirks of the system. In true Asus fashion, the touch pad is a mess, registering multitouch gestures sometimes, but not others. The keyboard has another common Asus feature -- too much flex while typing, especially in the middle. And finally, no one has yet nailed the perfect hybrid tablet hinge. Most, like this one, rely on clunky physical release buttons, which make removing the screen a two-hand job, while reattaching it requires trial and error as you feel around for the exact right spot.
If it sounds like I'm being tough on the Transformer Book, that's because it has so many of the other features I want from a laptop-tablet hybrid, making these shortcomings all the more painful. This is still one of the best hybrid executions I've seen, and I certainly hope we get more Core i7, SSD/HDD, high-resolution systems such as this in the future.
|Asus Transformer Book TX300||Acer R7-571-6858 Touch Notebook||Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch w/ Retina Display (October 2012)||Acer Aspire S7-391-9886|
|Display size/resolution||15.6-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen||15.6-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen||13-inch, 2,560x1,600||13.3-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen|
|PC CPU||1.9GHz Intel Core i7-3517U||1.8GHz Intel Core i5-3337U||2.5GHz Intel Core i5-3210M||1.9GHz Intel Core i7-3517U|
|PC memory||4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz||6GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz||8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz||4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz|
|Graphics||32MB Intel HD Graphics 4000||32MB Intel HD Graphics 4000||768MB (Shared) Intel HD 4000||128MB (Shared) Intel HD 4000|
|Storage||500GB, 5,400rpm hard drive||500GB, 5,400rpm hard drive||256GB Apple SSD||256GB Intel SSD|
|Networking||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Windows 8 (64-bit)||Windows 8 (64-bit)||OSX 10.8.2 Mountain Lion||Windows 8 (64-bit)|
Design and features
In basic look and feel, the Transformer Book is very reminiscent of Asus' other ultrabook-style laptops, particularly the Zenbook series. Which is to say, it also looks a lot like a MacBook Air, although cast in a darker hue. As a long-time manufacturer of laptops for other brands as well as itself, Asus has a keen sense of design, at least in terms of the physical silhouette.
Because most of the components are packed behind the screen, the system is very top-heavy, and can potentially tip over backward if you tap the screen too hard. It's not going to rock backward every time you use it, but it feels unbalanced. Even worse, with two hard drives and two batteries, the tablet-plus-keyboard weighs a whopping 5.3 pounds, without the AC adapter -- that's more than a clunky old pre-Air MacBook, and the entire package feels too heavy to carry around on a regular basis. If you've ever commuted with a 5-pound laptop, you'll know what I mean.
The big selling point of the Transformer Book is that it, well, transforms. Used by itself, the tablet screen is excellent, and I appreciate the extra real estate the higher resolution gives you in the traditional desktop view of Windows 8. In the tile-based Windows 8 (which really was easier to refer to when Microsoft called it "Metro"), the onscreen icons autoscale, so you're less likely to notice one resolution over another.
The keyboard base has a flat-topped, island-style keyboard that works reasonably well, but like many Asus keyboards has a lot of flex in the middle, even under moderate typing. The large buttonless clickpad below the keyboard is a generous size for a 13-inch laptop. Single-finger input works works well enough for pointing and clicking, but multitouch is frustrating, another issue I've found on numerous Asus laptops. Two-finger scroll gestures worked with some browsers and modes, but not others, and the entire pad has a floating feel, making it easy to over- or undershoot your target.
Fortunately, the 10-input touch screen is very responsive and accurate. I often say that a 13-inch screen is the perfect middle ground: large enough for all-day use, while still small enough for frequent transport, and that being combined with a full-HD 1,920x,1080-pixel resolution is a big plus. Sharp-looking edge-to-edge glass covers the screen, but the entire thing is a fingerprint magnet -- an occupational hazard for touch screens, but this particular one seems especially smudge-prone.
One nice bonus is the stereo speakers built into the tablet. They won't fill a room, but they sound full, rich, and deep for laptop speakers in a system this size. The credit goes to Asus' long-standing partnership with Bang & Olufsen ICEpower on speaker design (that's a Bang & Olufsen subsidiary company -- I'm unclear on the exact difference, but everyone involved gets very uptight if you just refer to the speaker design as being by Bang & Olufsen). In any event, they sound excellent.
|Asus Transformer Book||Average for category [13-inch]|
|Video||Micro-HDMI, DisplayPort||HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||2 USB 3.0, microSD card reader, SD card reader||2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
Connections, performance, and battery
Most hybrids tend to be a little light on ports and connections -- likely because the bulk of the machine needs to fit into the lid section. The Transformer Book is better than some, but still offers less than you might expect in a high-end 13-inch laptop. Some ports, including the full-size USB ports and DisplayPort video output, are on the keyboard base, so are only available when the system is in laptop mode.
The tablet screen itself has only Micro-HDMI and microSD card ports, which are more useful if you're the type to walk around with a handful of adapters in your pocket.