Honeycomb finds itself on a double threat:
Thin, light Android tablet doubles as a capable Android laptop
Is it a tablet? Is it a netbook? Is it a tablet? Is it a netbook? Is it a laptop? What, exactly, is the ASUS EeePad Transformer? Sitting here with it on my lap, typing away on the full keyboard, it's easy to forget that I'm using an Android Honeycomb tablet. With a keyboard. And a trackpad. Like a laptop. With Honeycomb.
That, folks, is the U.S. version of the ASUS EeePad Transformer.
So here's the general idea: The Transformer is a 10.1-inch tablet running Android 3.0.1, the most recently released version of Honeycomb. It's got a dual-core NVIDIA Tegra 2 processor running at 1GHz. Sound familiar? It should, as those are specs shared by the Motorola Xoom, the first (and until now the only) available Honeycomb tablet. But the Transformer gets its name from the optional keyboard accessory. And it's not a Bluetooth keyboard. It's not using some janky tethering system. It's a full-fledged (if slightly undersized) laptop-style keyboard, complete with hinge, that turns the not-so-mild-mannered Android tablet into so much more.
We've heard it before -- tablets are killing netbooks. There's no reason to carry around a full-size laptop anymore. And so on and so forth. Neither statement is true. But whereas other tablet-keyboard combinations have come up short, the ASUS EeePad Transformer (henceforth to be referred to by its surname) is the most viable Android laptop we've seen yet. Our full review's after the break.
The EeePad Transformer hardware
Let's start with the tablet itself. There's the aforementioned 10.1-inch screen. It's an IPS display, which is the same kind of screen technology you hear Apple raving about. (Though as you can see in the picture above, you'll still have issues in direct sunlight, and with fingerprints.)
It's at a 1280x800 resolution, which is standard for tablets of that size, and a density of 160 pixels per inch. And for those of you who have a habit of scratching things up, the Transformer's got the scratch resistant Gorilla Glass from Corning. There's a pretty thick bezel around the screen -- about three-quarters of an inch. And that's ringed by more trim done in the same copper motif as the rest of the Transformer. It makes the screen feel a little smaller than it actually is, but it doesn't give it nearly the picture-frame feel like you see on some other tablets.
The Transformer's speakers are on that front bezel trim. They're facing you, which is good, but they're not nearly as loud or have the depth as the Motorola Xoom's. But they'll do, we suppose. An optional speaker dock would be nice.
The left-hand bezel is home to the power button and volume up-down rocker switch. They're placed pretty close together, so don't be surprised when you reach to turn up the sound and accidentally turn off the screen. That'll probably be less of a problem over time as you become more used to the tablet. But at first, it's something to watch out for.
The right-hand bezel has the 3.5mm headphone/microphone jack, microphone, mini HDMI port for high-definition output, and a microSD card slot. And unlike the Motorola Xoom's, it actually works. Pop in a microSD card, and it appears as "External storage," or /removable in the file structure. No hacks -- it just works.
The Transformer's bottom bezel has a 50-pin connector and a couple docking connectors that you'll use for the keyboard. We're getting over the fact that we have to use proprietary chargers on Android tablets, but that doesn't mean we like it.
As for what's under the hood -- there's the Tegra 2 processor and graphics processor, and you've got 1GB of RAM. The Transformer comes in either a 16GB or 32GB version (our review unit was the former).
Battery life for the tablet is listed as a 24.4-watt-hour lithium-polymer, rated for 9.5 hours of use. There's a battery slice tucked into the keyboard dock, too, which ramps up battery life to a massive 16 hours on paper, anyway. But ASUS notes its tests were with airplane mode on, running 720p video. So like with any other device, your mileage will vary. And like most Android tablets, you can't swap out the battery for a fresh one when you run dry.
In our few days of testing, we got through a day of fairly normal use -- above average Gmail syncing, some web browsing and gaming. You might want to charge it overnight, which isn't a big deal.
The Transformer is a Wifi-only device. And to that end, it's got 802.11 b/g/n for connectivity, as well as Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR. There's also GPS, so you can use it for navigation and location-based services.
Yeah, yeah. But how's it feel? Kind of plasticy, actually. That's not unusual for ASUS' Eee line of computers, but it is a little disappointing, given the excitement we have for the Transformer as a platform, and especially compared to the likes of the Xoom and the LG G-Slate.
The back of the Transformer is done in a nice textured pattern, and the copper color almost makes you think it could be some sort of faux-leather. That it's cold, hard plastic is a bit of a letdown, but that's kind of a minor problem, eh?
Compared to the Motorola Xoom, it's actually a little taller at 10.6 inches. Thickness is right on at a half-inch. It's a skosh wider at 6.9 inches. But the big difference is in heft. The Transformer weighs in at 1.49 pounds compared to the Xoom's 1.6 pounds. That's not that big a gap, but you definitely can feel it.
The keyboard transformation
Now on to the bit of magic that is the keyboard dock. It's actually billed in the packaging as a mobile dock. But really, we'd like to call it a transformative experience. OK, that's a bit much. But from the moment you slip in the Transformer, you've gone from tablet to Honeycomb laptop. No, not a tablet with keyboard dock. A Honeycomb laptop.
The keyboard's just as wide as the tablet. It slides into the hinge and clips into place. And once it's there, it's a single solid piece of hardware. An Android laptop.
You can kind of feel the Transformer's way into the keyboard dock. The 50-pin connector fits in the middle, and there are a couple spring clips that keep it in place. There's a locking mechanism that you'll need to make sure is unlocked first. It sets itself once the Transformer is properly in place. You release the tablet from the dock by moving the switch. The hinge is a tad bulky and sticks out about a quarter-inch from the rear of the device, but considering you're connecting two devices into one, it's not bad. Movement is stiff, but not overly so -- about like a normal laptop/netbook -- and it allows the screen to tilt back to 130 degrees.
The keyboard dock has four ports -- one for the 50-pin connector for charging, a pair of USB 2.0 ports, and a full-size SD card slot. Yes, the SD slot works. Pop in a card, and it's recognized as external storage. Next to the charging port is an LED indicator light.
At the bottom of the keyboard dock is an honest-to-goodness trackpad with mouse buttons. It's a single bar, but we had no problem with it differentiating left-clicks from right-clicks. But this is Android -- and these are ASUS customizations on top of that -- so things are a little different. Left clicks select things just as you think they should on a traditional desktop. Right clicks serve as a back button, which makes up for a little niggle we'll talk about in a second. Scrolling, however, is backward from what you're used to on a laptop. To scroll down, you swipe two fingers up. To scroll up, you swipe down. Strange, and we couldn't find a setting to switch it. But you get used to it quickly enough.
The keyboard itself is pretty good. If you're used to chicklet-style keys, you'll be at home here. You've got a full number row, plus arrow keys, and Android's usual home-menu-back-search keys positioned strategically around the keyboard. Home, search and menu all flank the spacebar.
There's a top row of functionality keys. They are:
- Back -- this is way up top. We'd like it down on the bottom with the other Android buttons, but having the right-click function makes this moot, we suppose.
- Wifi toggle
- Bluetooth toggle
- Trackpad toggle
- Display brightness up
- Display brightness down
- Auto brightness
- Screen shot -- yes, an actual screenshot hardware button.
- Volume down
- Volume up
- Lock/screen off
Pretty good choices for function keys, we think. And speaking of function keys, there's a pair of Fn buttons that in conjunction with the arrow keys serve as page up/page down and home/end keys.
So this isn't a full-size keyboard. A 15-inch laptop easily has a couple of inches on it. But once you get used to the size, it's more than usable.
The EeePad Transformer runs Android 3.0.1 Honeycomb, the Google's tablet version of Android. It's largely unskinned -- the stock Google apps all look as we've come to know them on Honeycomb. The buttons in the System Bar -- back, home and multitasking -- are customized and have a much softer feel than the Tron-like buttons in stock Honeycomb.
ASUS starts you out with a pretty wide-open landscape when it comes to the five home screens. The center screen has a weather widget powered by AccuWeather -- and we love that font -- with nice little graphics for the day's forecast. There's a date widget on the bottom right of every home screen, and you can remove it if you want.
The standard Google apps are on board -- YouTube, Google Books, the Android Market, Gmail, etc.
ASUS has included some of its own apps as well. There's the @Vibe music Internet music player. But with Pandora on board, plus any number of other music apps like Amazon MP3, well, we'll see how much you use ASUS's apps.
ASUS also has its own bookstore and reader, which are under the "MyLibrary" app. You can purchase new books from it, but with two other bookstores already on board -- Amazon Kindle and Google Books -- it'll get passed over. Pandora's pre-loaded as well, so there's that for music.
The Polaris Office documents app is loaded as well, and it's functional enough. We initially began writing this review in it to get a feel for the keyboard -- until the tablet froze up and we lost a couple hundred words. Polaris also allows you to create a spreadsheet and PowerPoint-like presentation.
The Transformer also is DLNA-enabled, allowing you to share pictures, music and video wirelessly with other DLNA-enabled devices. That's still not yet as widespread as manufacturers might like, but it's better to have the feature and not use it than to not have the option.
This being a tablet, it does come with an on-screen keyboard, and it's one of the few customizations ASUS has put in place. It's decent enough, and you have the option to switch back to the stock Honeycomb keyboard if you want -- or you can install a new one.
All in all, there's not a whole lot to say about the software. It's Honeycomb as we've come to know it. (Though we do love the ice cube live wallpaper that came on our review unit.)
The Transformer has a 5-megapixel camera on the back, and a 1.2MP shooter facing you. They're, well, they're tablet cameras, right? Nothing to write home about. And the rear camera doesn't have a flash. But, as we keep saying about tablets, it's not like you're going to be running around with this thing like it's a 10-inch point-and-shoot, right?
The front-facing camera is at least useable for video chats through Gtalk, so it has that going for it.
Eds. note: ASUS released a firmware update just prior to this publication that improves camera quality. We'll update with sample photos soonest.
Life as an Android laptop
This is what the ASUS EeePad Transformer really comes down to, isn't it. It's a perfectly capable Honeycomb tablet. But it should be, given Google's close watch over it's latest baby. But it's not enough for the Transformer to merely look like and pretend to be a laptop. We've tried that with with Motorola Xoom and a Bluetooth keyboard, and it's a pretty disconnected experience. Work a little on the keyboard, then you have to reach up and touch the screen. Type, reach. Type, reach. That's no good.
From the moment you connect the Transformer to the keyboard dock, it ceases to be a tablet. It automatically recognizes its new purpose and kicks into laptop mode. No settings to worry about. It just works. But it's the little things that Transformer gets right after that that really make it one of a kind.
We've written before how the Honeycomb home screen experience seems to borrow from traditional desktops. And so it lends itself particularly well when met with a proper keyboard and mouse pointer. That's what the Transformer keyboard dock does. To launch an app, you click on it with the mouse. To move between home screens, you swipe left or right with two fingers on the trackpad. The tab key moves between fields just like it should. And the enter key confirms actions, just as it should.
So the Transformer has the mechanics down. What about about the core experiences?
In the stock Android browser, things pretty much run as expected. It's still not up to a full Chrome or Firefox experience on a laptop, but you do have Adobe Flash 10.2 at your service. Firefox is strong in its latest version and lends itself to the usual desktop metaphors just fine.
Yes, please. Thanks to Gmail's redesign in Honeycomb, you get a very Outlook-like experience. There's very little thought required. Same goes for other e-mail clients.
Apps and gaming
Surprisingly enough, our usual complement of apps also translated to the mouse and keyboard experience quite well. That's not to say we're entirely happy with the time it's taking for applications to be optimized for Honeycomb and the large-screen format -- and one glaring omission remains native Google Docs support. In fact, Google Docs is fairly unusable, and sends us scrambling for a third-party app. But that's not the Transformer's fault. Touchscreen-based games? You're going to want to undock for them. Accelerometers and attached keyboards just don't mix. (And playing Angry Birds with a mouse pointer? Just wrong.)
We did have some hiccups in the Transformer experience. We had a couple instances where the Transformer became unresponsive and finally restarted. And as we mentioned above, one of these instances led to the loss of some 500 words of this review. Those might well be chalked up to pre-release software.
And as decent as the word processing experience is with the pre-loaded Polaris Office software, selecting text and jumping from word to word instead of letter by letter just couldn't be done with the keyboard only. And we saw some graphical flaws pop up in the ice cube live wallpaper over time; they'd clear up with a reboot. Small niggles, but mentionable nonetheless. Nothing that shouldn't be able to be fixed with software.
Do I need an Android tablet/netbook? (aka pricing and necessity)
And that's still the big question, isn't it. As a Honeycomb tablet, the ASUS EeePad Transformer is as good as any we've used. And with a working microSD card slot and being more svelte, it's got a leg up on the Motorola Xoom, even if we do prefer the soft-touch coating on the Xoom and other tablets But add on the keyboard dock, and no other Android tablet compares.
Then there's the pricing. The 16-gigabyte version will cost $399; the 32GB version runs $499. The keyboard dock is another $149. So for $550 -- less than the cost of a 32GB Wifi-only Motorola Xoom, you can have a 16GB Android tablet/laptop.
Will the Transformer replace a traditional Windows or Mac OS laptop? Not just yet. And for $550 (or $650 for the 32GB package), you can get a more powerful laptop with a better feature set. But look past the necessity issue. With the ASUS EeePad Transformer, you get a semi-laptop experience with the might of Android 3.0 behind it. You get an Android tablet. And an Android laptop. And that's something nobody but ASUS can yet offer.