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Asus Transformer Book TX300 review: A high-end hybrid bursting with features

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The Good The Asus Transformer Book TX300 is a rare hybrid with a Core i7 CPU, a high-res screen, and smart dual hard drives -- there's an SSD in the tablet half, and a larger hard drive in the keyboard base.

The Bad The system is awkwardly top-heavy, and you feel as if you're fighting the touch pad at every turn.

The Bottom Line Asus adds a lot of what I've been looking for in a hybrid to the Transformer Book, but no one has yet really nailed the perfect laptop/tablet combo.

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7.9 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8
  • Battery 7
  • Support 7

Review Sections

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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
Price $1,499 $999 $1,499 $1,649
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
Optical drive None None None None
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)
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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.

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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
Optical drive None None

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.

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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.

For $1,499, you'd be right to expect better performance than from most of the other hybrid laptops we've seen to date. One of the Transformer Book's best assets is its high-end Intel Core i7 CPU, which allows it to compete with nonhybrid laptops in this price range, including the Acer Aspire S7 and the Toshiba Kirabook.

You might be able to get away with a Core i5 CPU in a system like this, but with a full-HD touch panel to drive, as well as multiple hard drives, I'm happy to take the upgrade. For everyday use, including office tasks and HD video playback, it ran without a hitch, but certain Microsoft-approved apps, such as IE10, still feel smoother than non-Microsoft alternatives like Chrome, which is a shame (but seems like a software optimization issue).

I had hoped that the Intel Core i7 CPU could make up for some of the shortcomings of the Intel HD 4000 built-in graphics and make it possible for me to use the Transformer Book as a modest gaming PC, but that was not the case. Games ran slowly, even at lower resolutions, and trying to use just the tablet portion of the system reminded me that games that might work well in that format, such as the recent strategy game X-Com, are not designed to understand finger input instead of distinct left and right mouse button clicks.

The two-cell 5,000mAh battery in the tablet part of the system ran for 4 hours and 11 minutes in our video playback battery drain test, which is decent for a Core i7 system running a 1,920x1,080-pixel-resolution screen -- but far from the all-day computing tablet users may be looking for. There's a second, smaller battery in the base, and we're currently running additional tests on the docked combination of tablet and base, and will report the results in an update. Keep in mind the combined system needs to run the spinning platter hard drive in the base, as well as the keyboard and ports, so don't expect battery life to double.

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Conclusion
The Asus Transformer Book highlights the difficulty of bridging the gap between laptop and tablet. Despite having excellent components, and added features that make a lot of sense, such as dual SSD/HDD storage, the final product is still not as seamlessly easy to use as it should be, partly because of quirks of Windows 8, and partly because of the top-heavy design and suboptimal touch pad.

That said, this is still one of the best hybrid attempts to date, and if you're looking for a powerful full-time laptop and part-time tablet, and don't mind paying more than you would for a MacBook Air, you'll probably join me in applauding Asus for packing a high-end CPU and high-res screen into a sharp-looking aluminum body.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

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System configurations

Asus Transformer Book TX300
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.9GHz Intel Core i7-3517U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 4000; HD1 SanDisk 128GB SSD, HD2 500GB 5,400rpm Hitachi

Toshiba Kirabook
Windows 8 (64-bit); 2GHz Intel Core i7-3667U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 256GB Toshiba SSD

Acer R7-571-6858 Touch Notebook
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Core i5-3337U; 6GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 4000; HD 1 24GB SSD, HD 2 500GB 5,400rpm hard drive

Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch w/ Retina Display (October 2012)
OSX 10.8.2 Mountain Lion 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-3210M, 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz, 768MB (Shared) Intel HD 4000, 256GB Apple SSD

Acer Aspire S7-391-9886
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.9GHz Intel Core i7-3517U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 128MB (Shared) Intel HD 4000; 256GB Intel SSD

Toshiba Satellite U845T-S4165
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Core i5-3337U; 6GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 128GB Toshiba SSD

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