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Asus Transformer TF103C review: Transformer Pad TF103 is an affordable tablet hybrid with a basic build

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MSRP: $329.00

The Good The Asus Transformer TF103 ships with a keyboard dock, Asus' slick, feature-filled Zen user interface, and useful preloaded apps. Its $299 starting price is low for a tablet hybrid.

The Bad The plastic construction of the keyboard feels cheap, the trackpad response sometimes lags, and its thick-bezeled, girthy design is outdated.

The Bottom Line With Asus' slickest user interface yet, included keyboard, and a competitive starting price, the small but chunky Transformer Pad TF103 is an attractively affordable tablet hybrid.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

7.7 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8

Review Sections

The latest release in the Transformer line of Asus tablets is a simple hybrid for simple needs. The TF103 delivers a full slate of features and a sturdy -- albeit outdated -- design with an optional keyboard. And in a big improvement over the previous model, the new Asus Zen user-interface has useful preloaded apps, free storage and media services, and plenty of customization options.

Yet, the Transformer Pad TF103's biggest selling point is its competitive $299 starting price -- $299 in the US, £240 in the UK and AU$429 in Australia. That's as low as it gets in the tablet-hybrid category; it's one of the most affordable Android tablets with a keyboard around. It cuts a few corners to get there, however. Its downfalls include a boring out-of-date and overwhelmingly plastic design and laggy trackpad.

Still, the Asus Transformer Pad TF103 remains a basic tablet-hybrid. Even with its unfashionable look, its many features, slick user interface, and cheap price tag make it an attractively affordable option for students, writers, and anyone who needs a keyboard one-the-go.

Editors' note: The Asus Transformer Pad TF103 and the cheaper Memo Pad 8 both use the Asus Zen user interface, so parts of these reviews may look the same.

Design

The TF103 lives up to the Transformer Pad name by easily transitioning from a tablet to laptop-like device. As a standalone slate, its design is rather humdrum, with a soft and smooth matte finish on the back that provides little grip support. Manufacturers have been hopping on the thin-bezel bandwagon, but Asus ignores this trend and slaps on an unfashionably thick black frame around the Transformer Pad TF103's 10.1-inch screen.

The top edge of the Transformer Pad TF103 is home to the power button and microphone pinhole, with the microSD card slot, Micro-USB port and volume rocker on the left, and a solitary headphone jack on the right. The dual speakers can be found in the center of the left and right sides on the back of the tablet.

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The improved hinge is easy to use and sturdy. Josh Miller/CNET

Asus made the Transformer Pad TF103 with a cost-effective plastic build. It's on the heavy side, weighing 1.2 pounds (544 grams), with most of the weight located in the tablet itself. Its girth is unfashionably thick too -- even more so with the dock attached.

The Transformer Pad TF103's design doesn't look like much of an upgrade from previous models, but the updated hinge on the dock is the most sturdy to date. Connecting and disconnecting the two is almost foolproof. When attached to the keyboard dock and closed, the Transformer Pad TF103 sports a clamshell-esque design that also slightly dates its aesthetic.

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The thick design dates the TF103's look. Josh Miller/CNET

The plastic keys on the keyboard dock have a cheap feel to them and it's a little cramped to type on, but it beats typing on an onscreen keyboard. After a while, I soon got used to the smaller workspace. I can see how folks with larger hands might have more trouble adjusting to it though. The dock also offers the added bonus of a full USB port -- a rare sight on a tablet.

Features

The Transformer Pad TF103 ships with Asus' new Zen user interface, which features a trendy flat design, a bevy of customization options, and many software goodies, like Asus' suite of apps.

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The soft matte finish on the back is comfortable, but not very grippy. Josh Miller/CNET

The Asus apps help fine-tune your tablet to your needs and offer a few cool perks. The Splendid app allows you to calibrate the colors of the screen easily, the Power Saver app is a robust battery-saving feature, and the AudioWizard tool is essential for optimizing audio quality when listening to music or watching a movie.

If you're familiar with the Android OS, you will easily find your way around the Zen UI. If you're a little wet behind the ears, Asus offers a ton of tutorials to guide you through the getting-to-know-you process. I found the tutorial for the robust SuperNote app the most refreshingly useful -- it could give Samsung's Note line a run for its money if the Transformer came with a stylus instead of a keyboard.

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The Zen user interface features a trendy flat design. Screenshot by Xiomara Blanco/CNET

The Transformer Pad packs more preloaded exclusively Asus functions with WebStorage and PartyLink. WebStorage, Asus' cloud storage service, offers two years of free cloud storage, and PartyLink allows you to share photos with other Asus devices. The Snapchat-esque function works swiftly, but it's confusing to use; I found other methods of transfer to be easier.

The Transformer Pad also stuffs in a few other free perks, including music downloads from eMusic, magazines courtesy of Zinio, and 500GB of free cloud storage for two years via Asus' WebStorage service.

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The keyboard can feel cramped, especially for those with large hands. Josh Miller/CNET

Hardware

The Asus Transformer Pad TF103 houses a 1.86 GHz quad-core Intel Atom Bay Trail processor, 1GB of RAM, 16GB of internal storage, and a microSD card slot, which accepts cards of capacities up to 64GB.

Performance

The Asus Transformer Pad TF103 garnered great gaming benchmarks, however, I wouldn't call it a gamer's tablet; its real-life performance reflects its status as a capable tablet-hybrid hindered by an outdated design. Large games, and their subsequent levels, take some time to load, but they run smooth once launched. Unfortunately, the gaming experience is hampered by the chunky design of the TF103.

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The screen's resolution is average, but still sharp enough for HD video watching. Josh Miller/CNET

Whether playing a movement intensive activity or a simple mobile game, the heavy weight of the slate takes its toll on your hands and wrists after a while. Though its internals are suited for gaming to go, its design lends itself to keyboard-centered activities, not handheld ones.

Large apps loaded a little quicker than large games, but they also ran smoothly once up and running. Performance slows down if downloading big files or many files at once, as well as if many RAM-hogging apps are open in the background, but this is a typical problem for most tablets.

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The improved hinge is foolproof. Josh Miller/CNET

For typing on the go and sending the document to yourself later for further editing on a computer, the Transformer Pad TF103 does just fine. I found the touchpad response to frequently lag and the default settings caused me to frustratingly and unintentionally return to the previous screen. There are a few customization options to change this, but nothing as robust as a laptop's touchpad. I personally preferred using the touchscreen to navigate instead.

The 1,280x800-pixel resolution display on the 10.1-inch screen is far from the pixel-packing competition at the top of the tablet charts. HD movies still look good though, and its range of color is decent for a borderline budget buy. There is no ambient light sensor, so you have to manually adjust the brightness settings when switching environments.

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Floats like a laptop, stings like a slate. Josh Miller/CNET

The 0.3-megapixel front-facing camera and a rear 5-megapixel camera both produce underwhelming photos. Pictures primarily look washed-out and fuzzy, despite the robust native camera app. The rear camera offers manual focus, but the focus isn't very sharp. The front-facing camera works fine for video conferencing, but don't expect flattering selfies -- unless you're using the beautification mode, of course.

As a stand alone tablet, the TF103 averaged 8 hours of battery life in our official CNET Labs battery test. Check out the rest of the results here.

Conclusion

To be sure, the TF103 has its performance and design downsides, but when manufacturers make sacrifices for the sake of meeting a budget price, those two features are usually the first out the window. As a standalone tablet, this Transformer Pad is mediocrely specced with an outdated aesthetic.

However, students and writers who need a cheap portable device to take their word processing on-the-go should put the TF103 on their short-list. It packs all the abilities of Android, with Asus' useful Zen interface, and a keyboard dock in a compact package.

Considering affordable tablet hybrids aren't in abundance, the Transformer Pad TF103 fills the void cheap netbooks have left. You can forgive its faults thanks to its competitive price, but if you need a portable keyboard toting device with more horsepower, they're available too, just not in the $300 price range. If your needs can be met with a simple keyboard and basic functionality, the Asus Transformer Pad TF103 is a solid bargain buy.

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