Hands-on with the Asus Transformer Prime

CNET gets down and dirty with the Asus Transformer Prime and lives to talk about it.

The Asus Transformer Prime's refined design is a few echelons above the original Transformer. Josh Miller/CNET

Do not adjust your monitors. This is, in fact, only a hands-on and not a full review of the Asus Transformer Prime.

Unfortunately, during the review process, we experienced some very suspect performance issues (detailed below), which led us to believe we were possibly in possession of a faulty unit. So, we are going to hold off on giving final ratings for the Prime, but check out our initial impressions.

Everything below is accurate to our experience with the Transformer Prime.

Design
The Prime comes in two colors, amethyst gray (gray and purple) and champagne gold (silver and gold). We got the amethyst gray version in for review, and while a purple tablet admittedly wasn't the highest item on our holiday wish list, the gray and purple are blended in a sleek and sexy way.

Although the aluminum backside does a good job of resisting fingerprints, the glossy screen and bezel succumb to them easily.

Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime Asus Eee Pad Transformer Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 Apple iPad 2
Weight in pounds 1.32 1.52 1.24 1.34
Width in inches (landscape) 10.3 10.7 10.1 9.5
Height in inches 7.1 6.9 6.9 7.3
Depth in inches 0.32 0.51 0.34 0.34
Side bezel width in inches (landscape) 0.8 1.1 0.8 0.8

The tablet is about an inch wider than the iPad 2 but a hair thinner than it and than the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. And while it's slightly heavier than both aforementioned tablets, its weight is distributed evenly, so we felt only a negligible difference.

That's the iPad 2 on the left, Prime in the middle, and Galaxy tab 10.1 on the right. They're all really thin, but the Prime wins the supermodel contest by a hair. Josh Miller/CNET

The Prime takes some design cues from the iPad 2 with a sloped backside and well-rounded corners that don't dig into our palms, as the previous Transformer did.

For connections, the Prime includes a Micro-SD slot and Micro-HDMI on the left side. On the same side rest a volume rocker and a microphone pinhole. On the top is a smallish power/lock button, next to a second microphone pinhole, with a headphone jack on the right side. A 40-pin connector port for data/power is located on the bottom.

On the front bezel sits a 1.2-megapixel camera, and almost directly opposite it on the the back is an 8-megapixel camera, which is capable of recording 1080p video.

Like with the previous Transformer, the Prime connects to an optional keyboard/dock ($150), transforming it (heh) into what is essentially an Android laptop. With the previous Transformer, that connection wasn't the easiest thing in the world to achieve, but the process has improved dramatically on the Prime, as it now easily slides into the awaiting slot.

The dock includes a trackpad, a 40-pin data/power connection port on the left, and a full-size SD slot and USB port on the right.

Once connected, the tablet feels a bit top-heavy, though, and could easily slip off a lap or table if enough care isn't taken. Also, the dock is compatible only with the Prime and vice versa. No interswitching between the older Transformer and this newer one is supported.

Hardware features
The Prime is the first tablet to house Nvidia's new quad-core processor, the Tegra 3. The Prime also includes 1GB of RAM and comes in either 32GB or 64GB varieties. There's 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi support, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, a gyroscope, and GPS.

The Mobile dock includes an extra battery that--while connected--"feeds" the Prime its power, meaning that the dock's battery will deplete its reserves before the tablet's.

Through its Micro-HDMI port, you can connect the tablet to an HDTV or monitor and play full-screen Android games using both wired Xbox 360 and PS3 gamepads as well as supported wireless pads through the use of an USB dongle.

Software features
The Prime comes preinstalled with Honeycomb 3.2.1 and is upgradable to Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS). According to Asus, ICS should arrive on the Prime before the end of 2011.

Asus MyCloud enables users to access 8GB of cloud-based storage space in Asus WebStorage, to remotely access the desktop of a PC or Mac, and to access the @Vibe online music and radio service.

MyNet lets you stream content to DLNA-enabled devices on your network, and with MyLibrary, Asus' book e-reader software, you can read and purchase new books directly through the interface.

SuperNote is intended to help with taking notes and allows you to not only type them, but "write" notes with your fingers as well. You can also draw graphs, or take pictures or video right from the interface. This could be especially useful for taking notes in a math class.

Via Asus's tweaks to the Honecomb interface, users can choose to run the Tegra 3 CPU in normal, balance, or power-saving modes. While in normal mode, the CPU runs at full speed. In balanced mode and power-saving mode the CPU speed is throttled to save on battery life.

Asus also adds a Super IPS+ (In-Plane Switching) mode, which boosts the brightness, making reading in sunlight a bit easier. It also adds a feature that allows you to take screenshots using the Recent Apps button.

Performance
While the Prime's IPS screen was immediately clear and sharp when first we powered it on, it was the screen transitions that really impressed us. The first time we tapped the Apps button, we were treated to a noticeably higher framerate transition than any previous Android tablet.

While we hoped this fluidity would carry over to apps like Marvel Comics, that was not the case. Reading a comic through the app on the iPad 2 is still a considerably smoother experience, but this may have something to do with specific optimizations of the iPad app.

While the resolution and contrast on the IPS panel are about as impressive as on the previous Transformer or the Asus Slider, the new Super IPS mode+ increased the brightness up to 570 candelas per square meter cd/m2, which is the highest brightness we've yet seen on a tablet and makes reading in direct sunlight a bit more tolerable than on other LCD tablets. Still, both the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and 8.9 are more impressive in terms of displaying vibrant colors.

Tested spec Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime Sony S Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 Apple iPad 2
Maximum brightness IPS mode (Super IPS) 358 cd/m2 (570 cd/m2) 393 cd/m2 336 cd/m2 432 cd/m2
Default brightness 183 cd/m2 160 cd/m2 336 cd/m2 176 cd/m2
Maximum black level IPS mode (Super IPS) 0.27 cd/m2 (0.45 cd/m2) 0.47 cd/m2 0.30 cd/m2 0.46 cd/m2
Default black level 0.15 cd/m2 0.19 cd/m2 0.30 cd/m2 0.19 cd/m2
Default contrast ratio 1,220 842 1,120 926
Maximum contrast ratio IPS mode (Super IPS) 1,325 (1,266) 836 1,120 939

We used Riptide GP as a games performance benchmark. On the Prime, GP runs smoothly with a high framerate, although maybe a bit lower than on the iPad 2; however, thanks to specific optimizations made by the developer, GP has added graphical effects, like water that splashes on the screen, which adds to the feeling of immersion. Also, on the Prime, the water physics knock you around more violently. Overall, we enjoyed the experience on the Prime much more.

The 8-megapixel rear camera provides the Prime with what is, on paper, the most technically advanced camera we've seen on a tablet. Pictures taken by the camera retained details other cameras like the Tab 10.1's and Sony S Tablet's rear cameras didn't.

Also, shutter speed on the Prime is nearly instantaneous, whereas the Tab 10.1's camera took several seconds to focus and shoot. Also, thanks to the 2.4f aperture of the camera, which allows more light through the lens than typical tablet cameras, we're able to see more detail even in low light situations.

1080p video recorded with the camera is clear and smooth, with no noticeable artifacts like what we saw on the Tab 10.1's 720p videos.

Performance issues
As I mentioned before, the reason you're reading a hands-on and not a full review is because of the performance issues we experienced with the Prime, particularly with its Web page loading speed. We didn't think it fair to post a performance rating on what could be a faulty unit.

The Web page loading was painfully slow compared with the iPad 2 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 in both real-world tests and using Speedtest.net. We also experienced download speeds of equally low quality when attempting to get apps from the Android Market. We used a closed Wi-Fi network to test these speeds.

Also, although the rear camera does a great job of capturing subtle detail, colors looked somewhat washed out in comparison with other tablet and smartphone cameras.

In addition, we experienced seconds of hanging when opening apps and navigating through Honeycomb menus.

While sound delivered by the speaker carried heavy bass, neither the volume nor the clarity could match the iPad 2's sound.

We spoke with both Asus and Nvidia representatives and they were unable to replicate our performance issues. Asus is sending a replacement unit, so expect a full review with full ratings and a conclusion later this week.

The Prime will be available online on December 12 at $500 for the 32GB version and $600 for the 64GB version.The dock/keyboard clocks in at $150.

 

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