Take one of the more popular -- if not wonderfully eccentric -- Android tablets of 2011, slim it down, clad it in brushed metal, pump it full of new specs and march it off into 2012 with the likelihood of one of the first upgrades to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. Oh, and throw in a nearly full-size keyboard dock with trackpad, full USB and SD ports, turning it all into a solid Android laptop.
This, friends, is the ASUS Transformer Prime. And this is our Transformer Prime review.
Welcome to the era of NVIDIA's Tegra 3 platform. The Transformer Prime is but the first of the quad-core devices. Other tablets are no doubt on their way, and smartphones are coming down the pike as well. But the Transformer Prime is the one leading the way, and it's definitely doing so in style.
So let's dive on into our Transformer Prime review and look at what's new, what's continued from the Transfomer line, and what it means for you.
ASUS has refined the design of the original Transformer, making it slimmer and sexier while boosting the internal storage. NVIDIA's quad-core Tegra 3 processor is nothing short of astounding. The optional keyboard dock has gotten an excellent makeover as well, turning the whole thing into an outstanding Android laptop.
Is shipping with Android 3.2, but has already been promised an upgrade to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. While you now get more bang for your buck with Tegra 3 and the internal storage upped dto 32/64GB, it's still a pricey package for both the tablet and keyboard dock.
The Transformer Prime ushers in a new breed of Android tablets. Familiar, yet more powerful (and thus with more potential) than anything you've used before. If you can part with a minimum of $650, it makes for a great Android mobile computing/gaming rig.
Inside this review
Ed. note: We've had the Transformer Prime here for review for a short time. Not too short to jump it throught most of our usual hoops for a proper review, but some features -- particularly battery life -- will be revisited. Check back for our updated findings.
Also note that we're going to refer to the original Eee Pad Transformer as the Transformer, and the Transformer Prime as the Prime.
The Transformer has definitely grown up with the Prime, both inside and out. Let's start with the exterior.
Gone is one of our initial complaints about the Transformer, which had a rear cover of textured plastic. Not that plastic in and of itself is unusual or a bad thing -- something about it just struck us funny, almost cheapening the overall feel. That's of no worry with the Prime, which has traded in the checkered plastic for a "metallic spun finish." It's not quite the same as a brushed metal finish, but it's close enough for our taste (and likely not as cold). Either way, it's a certainly more polished matte finish.
The edges of the prime are nicely rounded and full of features. One of the short edges sports the 3.5mm headphone jack; the other the HDMI out port, volume rocker and microSD card slot, along with a pinhole mic.
On the top edge you'll find the power button (with an inset LED that lights up orange when charging) and another pinhole mic.
The bottom edge has the proprietary data/charging connector, along with two slots that are used to seat the tablet in the optional keyboard dock. The slots are covered by rubber stoppers that need to be removed before using the keyboard -- good luck not losing them.
Also on the rear of the Prime is the 8-megapixel camera (more on that in a bit) with flash, and the ASUS logo.
The Prime touts having stereo speakers. But unlike in the Transformer and most other Android tablets we've used, they're only coming out of one section of the device. That means when you're holding the tablet in the normal landscape position, everything sounds like it's coming out the right-hand side of the device, because it is. It's a pretty disappointing change -- especially if you've used tablets with proper speakers. (If you're coming from an iPad 2, you won't know any better.)
And it's even more disappointing because of the way it affects gaming. We don't really expect too much from the speakers that you get in devices like this, insofar as audio quality goes. But it's a shame that the first Tegra 3 device to hit the market is lacking in basic audio quality. In other words: Use headphones or external speakers.
Flip the Prime over to its business end, and you've got a 10.1-inch Super IPS+ display, and a front-facing 1.2MP camera. The front side's been refined a bit, too. It's still got a pretty large black bezel, which is unfortunate. But the glass -- Gorilla Glass, actually -- is now edge-to-edge. You lose the Transformer's sort of faux speaker look on the bezels, but it's traded in for cleaner lines.
While IPS displays (it stands for in-plane switching) have been around a while, this one gets its extra Super and + designations by having a turbo-charged backlighting option. There's the "standard IPS mode," which allows for a maximum brightness of 380 nits (which is a unit of brightness), or there's "Super IPS+ mode," which jacks things up to a whopping 600 nits. ASUS has done a nice job tweaking the tablet's quick-settings menu with (among other things) a toggle switch for "Super IPS+" mode alongside the usual brightness slider and auto brightness buttons.
So how's it look? Damn bright. It does so, however, with a marked reduction in battery life. Depending on what you're doing, you can almost watch the battery percentage drop. We wouldn't recommend using Super IPS+ mode for any great length of time, but it's really only intended for outdoor use anyway.
ASUS is also touting a 178-degree viewing angle with the Super IPS+ display. That looks to be about right, insofar as you can still see a little sliver of screen at that angle, and it's not washed out or anything. But neither is it a really practical way to use the tablet. (It's a nice spec, though.)
From a purely physical standpoint, the Prime's a little bit bigger than the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, which for most of 2011 was our benchmark for Android tablets. But adding a few milimeters to the height and width doesn't bother us much. It makes up for it by being just 8.3 mm thick -- shaving three-tenths of a milimeter off the Galaxy Tab 10.1. That's not a noticeable difference -- but it's a noticeable thinness.
All in all, what we have from a superficial external point of view is another 10.1 inch tablet. But it's the only one we've seen that can really take on the ergonomics of the Galaxy Tab 10.1. And we haven't even talked internals yet.
Quad-core processor, with a fifth core to lighten the load
For all the changes ASUS has done on the exterior of the Prime, it's the parts you don't see that are really going to knock your socks off. As we mentioned in the outset and in our Transformer Prime preview, the Prime is the first quad-core Tegra 3 device to hit the market. That means even better graphics power when compared to dual-core Tegra 2 platforms, plus additional battery savings. But NVIDIA's gone even further. As you'll recall in our posts on Tegra 3, it's actually got a fifth processor -- a lower power, lower frequency core that runs basic tasks while saving the quad-core work for the quad-core processor, leading to even greater battery life.
Yeah, yeah. That's all great. You want raw numbers, don't you. So the Transformer Prime will do up to 1.4 GHz in single core mode. It'll do up to 1.3 GHz per core with two to four main cores in use. The lower-power companion core works at up to 500 MHz.
Worried about RAM? Don't. The Prime's got a full 1GB to use.
As for on-board storage, you can get a Prime with 32GB on board, or a whopping 64GB. Those options depend on how much you're willing to spend, of course. And along with that, ASUS throws in another 8GB of ASUS Webstorage space.
We've talked a little bit about the Super IPS+ display and what cranking up the backlight can do to battery life. We'll update this review with more conclusive real-world battery findings once we've got more time under our belts.
The three power modes on the Transformer Prime
The Prime's actually got three power settings -- "Power saving mode," "Balanced" and "Normal." Here's how ASUS describes the three modes:
- Normal Mode: Will deliver the maximum performance and good battery life. This mode is recommended for tasks such as system benchmarking, advanced gaming and CPU-intensive media processing apps.
- Balanced Mode: Delivers optimal performance and battery life. Balanced mode is recommended for common-use cases such as Flash-enabled web browsing, gaming, multitasking, etc.
- Power saving mode: Power saving mode delivers the best battery life without compromising performance for use cases such as web browsing, HD video playback, casual gaming, music playback, book-reading, etc.
You can easilly switch between them via the quick settings menu. ASUS says it's to "further extend battery life." A neat trick, but here's something to consider: (True Android nerds can plug your ears now.) Do you want to be responsible for remembering to use the proper power mode? It's a nerdy setting, for sure, probably not something normal consumers will ever notice, let alone want to worry about.
On paper, ASUS says you'll see 12 hours of 720p video playback with the Prime in power-saving mode and the brightness at 60 nits (whatever that is percentage-wise) with the default volume and headphone in. That jumps to 18 hours if you've got the keyboard dock connected -- it has a battery tucked inside it, too.
This is what really sets the original Transformer and the Prime apart from other Android tablets. ASUS again has crafted an excellent keyboard that, when connected to the Prime, creates a solid, single-piece Android laptop, complete with trackpad and cursor.
Much like the change from the original Transformer to the Prime, the keyboard dock has been slimmed down and refined. The keys are relatively unchanged, done up in chicklet fashion, with dedicated keys for the traditional Android buttons (home, search, menu and back, along wtih settings keys for Wifi, Bluetooth, brightness, volume, etc.
The keys are very much like what you'll find on any number of traditional laptops (right down to the raised bumps on the F and J keys for proper finger placement by feel) and have the same travel and feel as the original Transformer keyboard. You're still a couple of inches or so shy of using a full-size keyboard. But for something that's scaled down, it's very, very good.
Seating the Prime in the keyboard dock is the same process as with the Transformer (just remember to remove the new rubber feet from the tablet and stash them somewhere safe). You get the same satisfying click, and there's the familiar lock to keep things in place.
The tablet-turned-laptop screen then can fold down in the traditional way, giving you a pretty sleek netbook-sized device. The hinge on the keyboard dock has also been slimmed down and refined, so it's got less of a bulge at the back of the device. The keyboard dock's got four rubber feet on the bottom to keep things in place if you're typing on a flat surface, like a desk.
The weight of the Prime itself isn't all that impressive -- a full 20 ounces -- and that doubles when you connect the keyboard dock. The whole package might be fairly svelte, but it's still fairly weighty.
Once everything's where it should be, the OS automatically recognizes the keyboard, a cursor appears on the screen, and the trackpad is active. Speaking of the trackpad, it's been refined as well and is now a single piece, with a thin stenciled line showing you where to press to select things. And while you start out with a traditional mouse cursor, dive into the settings and you also have the option to switch to a gesture-based control. So instead of a pointer, you're moving around a fingertip-sized dot. Very cool, and pretty intuitive.
Also like the original dock, the new one's got a full-size USB port and full-size SD card reader. There's a charge/sync port on the left-hand side with LED indicator.
About that USB port: It's magical. OK, it's just a USB port. But think about everything it can do. Want a real mouse? Plug in a corded one, or use a wireless one with a USB dongle. Want a full-size keyboard? Plug one in. Or use a wireless dongle. (Both of those examples are a little absurd, but that's not the point. It's the potential that's cool here.)
Or -- and this is something ASUS and NVIDIA will be stressing -- you can plug in a game controller (again, either wired or with a USB dongle), then output the video from the Prime to your high-definition TV via the HDMI port. And, voilà, instant Android game console. Of course, this isn't going to take the place of an Xbox or PS3. But it's a hell of a lot more portable than both of those consoles, which is a big plus.
Our only real negative about the keyboard dock is that it can be a bit cramped. But it's not like you don't know that going into it. It's not a full-size keyboard, but it's a very good scaled down keyboard.
The Transformer Prime, as it stands, runs Android 3.2.1. Yes, it's a Honeycomb tablet born into the age of Ice Cream Sandwich. But ASUS has already committed to bringing ICS to the Prime, and in fact we've already seen it teased in video.
Still not convinced? The first thing you see when you open the Prime's box is a sticker saying it's going to get Ice Cream Sandwich. So, yeah, you'll have to suffer with Honeycomb for a few weeks. Or maybe a month or two.
And, just like on the Transformer, the Prime's been slightly skinned, with custom back, home and multitasking buttons. There's a new "My water" live wallpaper that changes the waterline as the battery level decreases. (This one's also traded ice cubes for a killer whale. Very cool.)
The other major change in software is the customization of the settings menu accessible from the home screen, which you've already seen teased above. Tap the lower-right corner to bring it up. You get the date, time, Wifi info, battery level, power modes, rotation lock, Wifi and Bluetooth toggles, Super IPS+ toggle, brightness slider and autobrightness toggle.
The Prime's also got the e-mail, calendar and weather widgets we first saw on the Transformer. And there's a rather nice "ASUS MyZine" widget that comprises shortcuts to the e-mail app, calendar, book library, weather and gallery apps, as well as recent music played and recently visited website. It's really nicely done.
ASUS also has a nice battery widget that shows remaining power of the tablet (seen as Eee Pad) or the keyboard.
ASUS has its own on-screen keyboard on the Prime. We kind of gave it a pass when we reviewed the Transformer. Not so much this time. It's not great. At all. Consider a third-party keyboard (or at the very least the stock Honeycomb keyboard, which is also available on the Prime), or shell out for the keyboard dock.
ASUS has a cadre of apps pre-installed, including @vibe Music, Amazon Kindle, App Backup (which backs up your apps and app data to the tablet as well as to external storage), an App Locker (which password protects applications), ASUS MyCloud (cloud storage), MyLibrary (an online bookstore), MyNet (for DLNA streaming), Photaf Lite (for panoramic photos), Polaris Office, SuperNote, Zinio (for magazine reading) and WebStorage.
That's all fine and dandy. But it's not so much the pre-installed apps that make the Prime so sexy. It's the games that have been updated for Tegra 3.
Like most other traditional Android tablets, the Transformer Prime sports a pair of cameras. And like most Honeycomb tablets, it's using the uninspired Honeycomb camera app. You've likely seen it before, and it has the same buttons and toggles for bouncing between settings and modes. As for those settings and modes, you can change resolutions, switch to negative or sepia filters or the like. Or you can even do time-lapse shots in video mode, though we're having a hard time figuring out when, exactly, that'd be useful with a 10-inch tablet. But to each his own.
Missing is the highly touted panorama mode added in Ice Cream Sandwich.
On the front of the Prime is the aforementioned 1.2-megapixel shooter that you'll use for video chats and such. It's decent enough. Not great, but it gets the job done. (And you don't exactly want to be having a high-def video chat through your tablet, right?)
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On the rear is an 8-megapixel camera with flash that ASUS is pretty proud of. It's also got an F2.4 aperture, if you're into that sort of thing.
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There's very little doubt that the ASUS Transformer Prime is the most powerful Android laptop -- erm, Android tablet -- available. On paper and in our abbreviated real-world use, it's great. It's fast. The design is improved over the original Transformer. It's already promised to get an upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich.
But. (There's always a but.)
One thing that hasn't changed since the original Transformer is the usage case, especially when you take price into consideration. And there's a reason we haven't mentioned pricing until now. The 32GB version of the Prime will retail for $499. The 64GB version will retail for $599. And the optional keyboard dock adds another $149 to the price.
You'll see fluctuations in that pricing, of course, but that's still a lot of money for what in the end amounts to an Android tablet/laptop hybrid that for many won't completely replace a traditional laptop. Or a traditional gaming console. And with the price of the original Transformer set to drop to $399 (16GB) and $499 (32GB), you have to ask yourself if you really need the hardware bump.
Don't get us wrong -- the ASUS Transformer Prime and Tegra 3 are quite the combination, packing powerful graphics and gaming power into a platform that can also be more (and easily) productive than just about any other Android tablet we've seen. But when you're talking a minimum of $650 for the whole kit and caboodle, you're going to start looking at traditional laptops again. ASUS hasn't changed that. NVIDIA hasn't changed that. And that's not really their fault -- nobody has yet. Specs alone aren't going to change that. Even the excellent games available aren't going to change it.
But the ASUS Transformer Prime with its quad-core power plant, stable of stunning games and ability to (apologies) transform into an Android laptop for more buttoned-down use make it the best candidate yet.
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