ASUS is in a bit of a pickle, but it's one that most manufacturers would love to be in. When designing the Transformer Pad TF300, they had to ask themselves how to refresh what has become an iconic symbol to Android tablet fans. The original ASUS Eee Pad Transformer was a big hit for the company last year, and anyone who has used one can tell you why. It's a great tablet in its own right, but the addition of an excellent keyboard dock puts it on a sort of a pedestal to the folks using it. It's more than a tablet, it's not quite a laptop, but it found a way to fill a need most people didn't realize was there to fill. To describe it in one word -- genius.
In this case the question is more difficult than the answer. You simply take what works, keep it the way people love it, and put the best hardware and software under the screen. The addition of the Tegra 3 SoC, and ASUS' special blend of Ice Cream Sandwich to the formula is exactly how the TF300 should have been done, and is how it was done. Hit the break to see if it worked.
A great tablet in its own right, and the addition of the keyboard dock puts it in a league of its own. The Tegra 3 chip chews through multimedia and gaming like butter, and the quality control on our unit was excellent. There's also a surprisingly good 1.2MP front facing camera, which works great for videoconferencing.
The audio, while loud enough, sounds a bit tinny and there was obvious crackling at full volume. Not enough to be concerned about normally, but ASUS is touting a "Supreme" audio experience and I'm not feeling it. Video artifacts are apparent on the display while the tablet is docked in the keyboard.
There's a lot of choice if you are in the market for an Android tablet. If the idea of having the docking station appeals to you, and you don't want to spend a little extra for a slightly better display on the Prime, the TF300 is a perfect choice. Even if you're not interested in a docking station, the Tegra 3 and very clear front facing camera makes the TF300 a wise purchase.
Inside this review
There a several great 10.1-inch Android tablets out there, and most will be seeing a big hardware refresh this year. ASUS was first out of the gate with the Transformer Prime (which we're not going to compare to the TF300 in this review), and Acer and Samsung have both shown new product this quarter. Forgetting the dock for a moment (not everyone will want one), the TF300 still stands tall beside the best from any vendor. You've got the 10.1-inch size, the beef under the hood, ports and slots galore, and Ice Cream Sandwich to run the show. Let's start with the screen, because in the end it's the screen that makes or breaks the tablet experience.
I promised we wouldn't be comparing this one to the Prime, but here's where the real difference lies between the two. The Prime has an amazing LCD display. It also retails over a hundred dollars more for the 32GB model. The TF300 only has a great display. If you haven't had any time with the Prime, you would think the screen, the viewing angle (178 degrees), the color rendition, brightness (350 nits) and sharpness of the TF300 was incredible, because it is. The Prime, and its super-duper outdoor IPS mode trumps it, but just barely. You will appreciate the screen on the TF300. Unless I got the very best one ever made to review, I promise you will like it -- it's that good.
After I have told you how good it is, I'm about to drop this on you -- there seems to be an issue with the display (driver?) while the TF300 is docked. The far left side of the screen shows artifacts and odd random noise in an area about 3mm wide. Undock the unit, reboot it, and you won't see this again until you put it in the dock again. I'll go out on a limb and say this is a software issue, because I can't recreate it without docking the unit. There's a lot going on when you drop the TF300 in the dock, and plenty of chances for bugs to appear. I expect an OTA to address this eventually.
The rear of the TF300 is one solid piece of plastic, with a deeply grooved concentric circular design. If you have ever seen one of ASUS' laptops with this finish, it's the same thing, only in plastic versus aluminum. Unlike the laptop, it feels good because it's "grippy" while holding the tablet. It also looks pretty damn good. Our review unit was the blue color, but it's very deep and almost a black finish. The back of the tablet, like most tablets, is bare of holes and gizmos save the 8MP rear camera and a speaker grill.
Move around to the front, and you have a generous bezel, and a very good 1.3MP front facing camera. Cory, our forums admin, and I have a fairly regular Google+ hangout session where we talk shop and shoot the BS. He is picky about people joining hangouts with a mobile device, because most of the time the quality is lacking. I don't think he noticed I was using the TF300 instead of my laptop. I'm no expert on how camera hardware works, but I know for sure now that MP isn't everything.
The bottom of the tablet holds the proprietary 40-pin connector, and two alignment holes for docking. The connector is the data path for communication with a computer as well as the power port. Yes, we all wish it were microUSB, but it's a trade off to keep things thin.
The right side of the TF300 has a 3.5mm headphone/microphone jack, and it works really well. The sound from the main speaker lacks a little bit of quality like most tablets, but sound through the headphones is great, and the mic feature/controls work exactly as intended with several different headsets.
The top of the tablet is barren save for the power button. A minor niggle here -- the power button sits fairly high and is easy to bump. Not a big deal, but it does happen and it's my job to mention it.
The left edge is what I like to call the money side. Up top you have a volume rocker switch, ad it does what volume switches are supposed to do. Under that, you've got a micro HDMI socket, a microSD card slot, and a pinhole to reset the tablet. All of these work like they should, are conveniently placed, and there to be a thorn in the side of other vendors who don't include such luxuries.
The keyboard dock
We've all seen pictures of the dock, and seen Transformers sitting pretty in them, but I thought it was high time to show how specialized the keyboard is for Android. Peep the video and have a look. Watch the right side of the screen when you see it, you'll notice the screen anomaly I talked about earlier when the tablet gets docked.
I'll put this bluntly, and throw it right out there --for me, the keyboard dock makes the ASUS Transformer series the best choice in tablets today. Better than the Google-supported Motorola Xoom. Better than any upcoming mega-core Exynos beast from Samsung. Better than the iPad. I said it, crucify me if you want to.
Of course I can't hang that big chalupa out there without showing why I feel like I feel. Hardware-wise, it's a no brainer. A full size USB port, USB host mode, and a built in stand (with a full featured keyboard) makes for one hell of an Internet machine. Or a game machine. Or a work machine.You get the idea. You can switch from any HID compliant mouse (or Bamboo trackpad) to a game controller to a USB stick on the fly, just like you would on a laptop or netbook. It's insanely thin, ultra-portable, and does what most people need their computer to do. Yes, it takes the TF300 out of the tablet category and plops it squarely in with netbooks. If the apps you need are available (and that list is growing) chances are you could use any of the Transformers as your on-the-go and stay-at-home machine. And the Tegra 3 gives it enough ass to do it well.
While docked, you have three important additions to the hardware. On the right side of the dock itself, you've got a full-size USB port, and a full-sized SD card slot. There's nothing to configure, you just plug the tablet into the dock and they work just like you would expect them to work, and you've got yourself hot-pluggable storage and a USB gadget port to do whatever you need or want to do with. It makes a difference in usability. For some of us, it makes all the difference.
- Operating System: Android™ 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS)
- CPU: NVIDIA® Tegra® 3 T30L Quad-Core @1.2GHz
- GPU: GeForce® 12-core, 3D stereo (built-in)
- Memory/Storage: RAM:1GB / ROM:16GBNetworking Wifi/3G/4G LTE
- Data rate: 3G SKU: HSPA+ 21/5.76 Mbps, 4G LTE SKU: 100/50 Mbps
- Connectivity: 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth v3.0
- Display: 10.1" WXGA (1280 × 800) LED Backlight 178° wide viewing angle IPS panel, 10 finger multi-touch
- Camera: 1.2MP ( front ) camera and 8MP auto-focus (rear) with large F/2.2 aperture
- Interface: 2-in-1 Audio Jack (head-out/MIC-in 2-in-1) , 1 × micro-D HDMI 1.4a port / 1 × microSD Card Reader / built-in microphone / High Quality Speakers
- Battery: 10 hours; 22Wh Li-polymer; 15 hours with mobile dock; Dock: 16.5Wh Li-polymer
- Keyboard: Mobile dock with full QWERTY Keyboard (Optional)
Looks pretty, doesn't it? Do note that we're reviewing the Wifi-only version, and the LTE/HSPA versions aren't available just yet.
Odds and ends
Again -- we're not reviewing this one by comparing it to the Prime, but in some cases we just have to. In simple terms, Wifi and GPS work as intended on the TF300. Maybe it's the non-metallic back cover, maybe it's improved antennae, maybe it's magic. Whatever it is, there is no issue like there is on the Prime. I know, because my Prime has both weak Wifi and weak GPS. In the same spots, with the rest of the equipment the same, I've no issue with either on the TF300.
Battery life is good, even if you forget to turn power-saving mode on at night. If you goof around on the Internet, chat with friends and use social media, watch some Netflix, and play some regular games you'll want to charge it up after a days use. If you play some of the power munching THD games, you'll have to charge it up every night. In any case, you'll make it through the day with little or no adjustment to your habits. My ultimate battery test was to connect a Bluetooth speaker and stream Google Music all day long while Phil was off playing golf and he made me get up early. At the end of the 12-14 hour day, the battery was orange but not dead. It gets much better battery life than any 10-inch tablet I've got here, and by a noticeable amount. What was really cool was just putting it in the dock and recharging it without plugging it in.
Take Ice Cream Sandwich, add in a few customizations in the settings, and add a handful of apps that are useful even though people will hate them, and you have the TF300's ROM. All the Google services are on-board, and the default black and blue holo theme is used throughout. It's very well done, seems very stable (none of that rebooting silliness some with the original Transformer are seeing since the ICS update), and will be instantly familiar to anyone who has used ICS on a phone or other tablet. The goal was to unify the user experience, and I think Google, and ASUS, were successful.
The ASUS bundled utilities include software like Polaris Office 3.0, SuperNote 1.5 (an excellent alternative to services like Evernote), App Locker and App Backup (which password protect applications and provide backup of downloaded apps on the internal storage with no root), MyLibrary, MyNet, and MyCloud -- Part of ASUS' online cloud utilities. All are simple to use, offer something that a stock Android experience doesn't, and are well written and good looking apps. It's the kind of bloat that most people won't mind, and chances are you'll use some or all of the services.
Ad-hoc connections work great right out of the box, and behave identical to managed connections. For giant nerd points, I tethered my Galaxy Nexus to my laptop, then shared the connection via an ad-hoc network with the TF300. It worked as expected, minus the music and lights from above I was hoping for. Wifi Direct is also on-board, and connection to another ASUS tablet was flawless, but there is no built-in sharing like you have between two Samsung devices. Eventually, an enterprising developer will harness the API for Wifi Direct and we'll not remember how things were before we had it. That, or Google has plans bigger than just an API in store. We'll have to wait and see.
Expect an OTA out-of-the-box when you power up your TF300, as we had one waiting for us when we received the review units. ASUS mentioned that they wanted to get it out before retail units shipped, and they did. I'm sure there will be other bumps with the software -- there always are -- but ASUS has a track record of timely updates and should keep a close eye on things.
One more thing -- the Tegra 3 plays games like a champ. If you pick one of these up, you simply have to download some THD games and push it to the limit. NVIDIA goes the extra mile with developers, and helps them optimize games with Tegra-specific instructions. When you're playing them, it shows.
The cameras on the TF300 are great. So good, they almost make us change our minds about how useful a camera is on the back of a 10-inch tablet. The rear camera takes excellent photos with its backlit CMOS sensor and f/2.2 aperture, and the front facing camera is proof that MegaPixels don't matter. At the same resolution as other popular Android devices (1.2MP) it takes bright, clear video whether saving to the device storage or streaming through a video chat app. Check out a selection of stills and a sample of that great FFC below.
Like all ICS devices, you can edit your shots with the built-in photo editor and hipster them up for sharing.
Wrapping it up
There's a whole lot to like here. As a stand alone tablet the TF300 holds its own against any other choice, and the option of being able to use the dock brings things to a whole 'nother level. For multimedia and gaming, the Tegra 3 works like a champ. It has the features we think are going to be important in the coming months with Wifi direct and a multi-core processor, and ASUS has been great at keeping their products up to date. If you're thinking about getting a tablet, give this one a long, hard look.