With the introduction of Android 3.0 (aka Honeycomb), Google is showing its commitment to tablets. With the exception of legacy support for existing Android apps, Honeycomb is a dramatic departure from the Android of smartphones.
Even experienced Android users will need some time to get accustomed to Honeycomb's navigation. Gone is the familiar four-button navigation across the bottom of the screen. Contextual menus and options are accessed through the top of the screen, notifications pop out from the lower right, and the trusty old back arrow will occasionally morph into a down arrow when the keyboard is engaged, allowing you to conceal or reveal the keyboard.
Out of the gate, the first thing we noticed about Honeycomb compared with iOS is the amount of information conveyed on the home screen. Through the use of widgets, you can glance at your inbox, Twitter stream, Facebook news, and YouTube channels, all in one view. The whole metaphor feels more like a deck of cards on a playing table rather than the grid of apps we're accustomed to in iOS or an Android phone app drawer. It's not quite the clumsy mess of a conventional desktop, but it's not as rigid and size-constrained as a mobile OS. It's a thoughtful compromise.
That said, Honeycomb's added complexity and sophistication is a double-edged sword. To Google's credit, Android 3.0 in many ways pushes tablets in an exciting new direction by blurring the line between a mobile OS and a conventional desktop. But as much as iOS gets push back from users who find it insultingly simple, Android Honeycomb is at times needlessly secretive. A task as simple as opening the lock screen plays out like an IQ puzzle. Home screen customization is broken down into separate categories for widgets, app shortcuts, and app-specific shortcuts, such as browser bookmarks and Gmail labels. There will be users who are going to rejoice in the flexibility and options on offer by Honeycomb, but there are bound to be just as many who are turned off by the complexity. We're just thankful that users now have more options when it comes to tablets.
As one of the first Honeycomb tablets to use a non-Google Experience version of Android 3.0, its alterations to the OS range from cosmetic to utilitarian. Right on the home screen, there's a current local weather display and an e-mail counter, displaying the number of new e-mails in your Gmail account. The home, back, and recent apps buttons have had their art altered slightly from the base Honeycomb experience. Also, Asus added an additional choice to screen timeout times. Previously they maxed out at 30 minutes, but now have the option to never timeout. For someone who runs a lot of tests on tablets, this is a welcome addition.
The look of the software keyboard has changed as well. The Transformer uses light-gray buttons instead of dark gray, and keys are slightly wider. Instead of three rows of keys, we conveniently get four, providing no need to toggle back and forth between letters and numbers, although you will need to toggle the special characters screen.
We did encounter a few locking bugs with the tablet attached to the keyboard/dock. It was nothing that was repeatable or too consistent, but it occurred enough times that we feel compelled to mention it.
Both OS-navigating speed and app-launching speed were just as fast as on other Honeycomb tablets; however, the weather widget on the Transformer made screen transitions slightly choppy. Once we removed the widget, things smoothed out nicely.
Surfing speeds using Wi-Fi were fast, but unfortunately we weren't able to visit any busy nonmobile sites. The UA String Debug mode didn't work by press time
The Transformer includes a high-quality in-plane switching (IPS) screen, demonstrating a wide viewing angle. Its colors are improved over the G-Slate's and look more accurate in the menus.
The 5-megapixel camera's picture quality was in line with previous Honeycomb tablets, but the video playback and recording was choppy with lots of dropped frames, compared with every other Honeycomb tablet. Asus already released a ROM update to improve things, but it's still not up to the smooth quality of the other tablets. Asus says it is continuing to work with Google on this issue.
The front-facing camera, on the other hand, had no frame rate problems, recording images with deeper and more-accurate colors than the comparatively washed-out look of photos from the Xoom and G-Slate.
Sound on the Asus wasn't nearly as thumping and bombastic (relatively speaking, of course, these are still tablets after all) as from either the Xoom or iPad 2, but it was an improvement over the G-Slate's comparatively low volume.
With no high-drain cellular signal to worry about, the Transformer's battery drained at a decent pace under normal use. Asus claims nearly 9 hours normally and 14.5 hours connected to the dock.
Here are our official CNET Labs tested results. More tablet testing results can be found.
|Video battery life (in hours)||Maximum brightness (in cd/m2)||Default brightness (in cd/m2)||Contrast ratio|
|Asus Eee Pad Transformer||7.3||10.7||320||85|
The 16GB version of the Transformer costs $400 (a 32GB version is available for $500). At that price, it's the cheapest Honeycomb tablet on the market, and even $100 cheaper than the lowest priced iPad 2. The $150 keyboard/dock accessory is a useful and relatively cheap extra that pretty much transforms the tablet into a Honeycomb Netbook.
With the Wi-Fi Xoom and no-contract G-Slate asking for $600 and $750, respectively, the Transformer is a great lower-price alternative. Though it lacks cellular options and has a video-recording performance issue, it's a better deal than the Xoom. The G-Slate's 4G out of the box and better build quality still ensures its place as the best Android tablet, however.