Editors' note (May 14, 2012): The Eee Pad Transformer is now upgradable to Android 4.0; however, those interested in this product should also check out the new step-up version, the Asus Transformer Pad TF300.
Tablets are still a hard sell to most, but one of the most important factors is price. The lower the price (without being too low to raise suspicions of quality), the more likely consumers are willing to part with their money.
At $400, the 16GB, Wi-Fi-only version of the Asus Eee Pad Transformer is the cheapest Honeycomb tablet on the market and undercuts the lowest price iPad 2 by $100. But, what sacrifices did Asus make to get it that low?
Design and features
Before even powering up the Asus Eee Pad Transformer, we were struck by its wider-than-normal left and right bezel, each measuring about 1.1 inches. That's a lot wider than the Motorola Xoom's 0.5-inch bezel. We also noticed that the Transformer is the longest of the new generation of tablets, measuring a full 10.7 inches in width compared with the Xoom's 9.8 inches. Make no mistake, this is a large tablet; it's the largest Honeycomb tablet we've seen, in fact.
I thought of writing a superlong paragraph detailing dimension differences between the latest tablets, but that's what charts are for. Here's a handy chart to illustrate the size differences between the Transformer and other recent tablets.
|Asus Eee Pad Transformer||Acer Iconia Tab A500||Motorola Xoom||Apple iPad 2|
|Width (in landscape)||10.7||10.2||9.8||9.5||9.6|
|Side bezel width (in landscape)||1.1||0.8||0.6||0.8||0.9|
Complementing the Transformer's wide-screen aspect ratio is a 10.1-inch 1,280x800-pixel capacitive touch display. As a result, we felt more comfortable holding it in landscape orientation. Unfortunately, the corners and edges of the tablet aren't rounded and smoothed off like they are on the G-Slate or Xoom, for example, and while holding the tablet, we felt the corners slowly cutting into our palms. Not nearly enough to draw blood or anything, but enough to convince us we'd rather hold a less aggressive tablet.
At first glance, the build quality of the Transformer seems solid enough; however, pushing in on its backside with even just a medium level of pressure yielded a bit too much give, making it feel a lot less substantial than the G-Slate or Xoom. The Transformer's textured, almost snakeskin backside provides an added level of grip compared with silky smooth tablets like the iPad 2, which are prone to slippage at times.
Speakers are located on the left and right sides. The requisite two cameras are here as well; there's a 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera and a 5-megapixel rear-facing one. Both are located near the top center of the device.
On the right side are the microSD card slot, a Mini-HDMI port, a microphone pinhole, and a headphone jack. On the left are the power/lock button and volume rocker. The bottom houses the 40-pin connector for charging the battery or connecting to a PC for data transfer, but unfortunately, no USB port is included. This is may be an intentional oversight that may incentivize the purchase of the keyboard/dock accessory.
Once attached, the Transformer's $150 keyboard/docking station option transforms the tablet into what could be considered a Honeycomb Netbook. The keyboard includes a full array of keys and a multitouch touch pad. It also includes two USB ports, an SD card reader port, and its own battery. The keys feel soft, snappy, and are wide enough and spaced far enough apart to provide comfortable use by someone with larger-than-average hands. Like on a MacBook, two fingers are used to scroll up and down on Web pages via the touch pad.
Attempting to properly connect the keyboard to the tablet can be a highly frustrating experience. There are no markers to assist you in lining up the two pieces, and you essentially have to slide the tablet around until you feel it connect. Also, in order to get the tablet to lock into the dock, we had to push down fairly hard on it.
The usual suspects of tablet features are available with the Transformer, including Bluetooth 2.1 for audio and peripheral support. The Wi-Fi antenna supports bands up to 802.11n. Embedded sensors for screen brightness, accelerometer, and gyroscope are all included.
With no cellular option, the Transformer is a Wi-Fi-only tablet. A 1GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 dual-core mobile processor and 16GB of storage round out the specs.
Up until the Xoom, every Android tablet we'd reviewed suffered from behaving too much like a smartphone. Google's mobile operating system, its apps, and its developer tools were all geared for the small screen, and it showed.
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.