There’s been an influx of Android tablets over the last six months, including such ordinary devices such as the Motorola Xoom, Acer Iconia A500 and Toshiba Thrive. Their aim has been squarely at the king of the segment for a second year running, the Apple iPad (see the Xoom’s somewhat overly bold Superbowl advertising push), but can anything come close? Nearly all of these devices feature NVidia’s Tegra 250 SoC, 10” displays of various types and different numbers and types of ports, but none can boast a seamless user experience or perfect fit and finish. Enter the Asus Transformer TF101 (referred to from here on as ‘TF’), a device from a manufacturer notably absent from the Android smartphone fray (the Garmin-phone range is very easily forgotten), one that has traditionally been known of a maker of mid-range netbooks and other PC devices, putting to use their manufacturing and design expertise.
The TF101 is neither draw-droppingly beautiful nor hideously repulsive
Can the TF succeed where others have failed? After a few weeks of usage and learning it’s intracacies, the short answer is no, but it’s appreciably close, with a particular charm all of it’s own. Let’s proceed with the no-nonsense review.
What do we have then? The specs are familiar, a 1Ghz dual-core Cortex-A9 NVidia Tegra 2, 1GB of DDR2, 16GB (optionally 32GB) of internal storage, along with a MicroSD card slot, Bluetooth, 802.11 B/G/N, front and rear cameras, GPS, compass and a 10.1” 1280×800 WXGA resolution display with capacitive multi-touch ability, there is certainly nothing short in the hardware department. From here, the similarities with other tablets mostly end. Where the A500 and Xoom use TFT LCD displays, the TF uses an IPS display, the same technology that the iPad utilises, except protected with a pane of Gorilla Glass (a type of hardened, tempered plastic), which is extremely resilient, but adds noticeably to the unit’s weight. These guys test the TF101’s screen pretty thoroughly.
The standard loadout
As a result of the IPS LCD, color distortion at off-angles is next to nil and viewing angles are exceptional (178 degrees), with commendable contrast and colour reproduction. IPS LCD has also been used to great effect in devices such as the B&N Nook Color (which I wrote a review of earlier). It’s worthwhile to also note that even Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1 doesn’t utilise the superior AMOLED displays which Samsung are famous for, due to production limitations, instead utilising a Super-PLS display. This IPS display also suffers more than AMOLED displays in direct sunlight (the reflective display doesn’t help), though not terribly so, and it did suffer from some minor backlight bleeding issues only on pure black backgrounds (which can be seen in the video in part 3). Overall, the panel does still manage to be crisp and vibrant, pleasant to look at over extended periods of time.
If you have a keen eye, you will have noticed the 1280×800 resolution of the screen vs the iPad’s 1024×768 resolution. In other words, an aspect ratio of 16:10 vs the 4:3 of the iPad. Practical terms, it means a longer, narrower screen, vs the shorter/flatter aspect ratio, though the average person will mostly likely not pay much heed to it, though arguably one is better for reading of webpages/text/magazines/books (4:3), while the 16:10 is ideal for watching TV/movies in landscape mode (after taking into consideration the 48px high Honeycomb ‘System Bar’). Landscape mode also feels more natural on such a device, for all purposes. The multi-touch capacity registered all 10 simultaneous touches on the multi-touch test.
From left to right: Front camera/light sensor, Proprietary connector, Volume/Power buttons, Mini-HDMI/Headphone Jack, MicroSD Slot/Speaker grille, Rear facing camera, Asus logo
The weight of tablet devices is a serious consideration. A highly portable tablet device which is easy to hold adds tremendously to the device’s strengths, as it widens the gap from a traditional laptop (which in turn are also becoming increasingly light). The leaders in this segment are both the Tab 10.1 and the iPad2, which boast weights of 565gm and 601gm respectively. The TF weighs in at a noticeably heftier 680g, quite livable and doesn’t sound like a large increase, but when you’re holding the device in landscape mode on one end, it adds up quickly. Any heavier weight would rule this tablet immediately out of contention (such as the Xoom and A500’s gargantuan weigh-ins). Fortunately, the curiously patterned curved back plate of the device does add some degree of grip when holding the device, though a case of some description is generally recommended. The orientation lock button is purely in software near the clock.
Side by side with an I9000-GT Samsung Galaxy S and an A4 piece of paper
Speaking of holding the device, the TF’s brushed plastic frame does add some impression of solidity (including it’s angled hard edges which can add to minor discomfort after lengthy periods of gripping) but it still feels undeniably plastic in hand, compared to aluminium of the iPad. A pair of speakers adorn the device, producing decent stereo sound, though if you’re playing a landscape game with dual controls, your hands often end up covering the speakers, resulting in muffled sound. The power and volume buttons are sensibly positioned on the left / top, depending on orientation, with a standard headphone jack, along with a mini-HDMI output port completing the array.
An important consideration – A proprietary Asus connector adorns the bottom of the tablet, which then leads to a USB 3 connector (backwards compatible with standard USB ports when connecting to PCs). The unconventional charger outputs 5V@2A or 15V@1.2A and includes a short cable for charging purposes. Generic extensions are compatible, though they would need to be of the USB3 (9-pin) variety. Charging is quick, at just over an hour to full charge the 6600mAh battery (actually 2 x 3300mAh units) via the mains, though Asus indicate that trickle charging is possible via your PC’s USB port, though only when the unit is sleeping (screen off) – presumably this takes a colossal amount of time. Also included is a quick start guide, warranty card and user manual to complete the package. There is no MicroSD card included.
That extra screen space sure comes in handy. Note the warmer tones of the TF display.
These criticisms aside, the TF feels well-constructed and a device which is very livable on a day-to-day basis, a durable workhorse then, especially with it’s gorgeous IPS display and sturdy Gorilla Glass front panel. It’s not as slim nor as portable as a Galaxy Tab 10.1 / iPad2, but it provides alot of hardware for the price point. It’s very important to also note that the namesake feature of the Transformer, the ability to plug into a separate keyboard dock, adds another 6600mah battery to the mix (to double battery life to a claimed 16 hours), a physical keyboard, trackpad (with properly integrated mouse pointer), two USB ports, a full-sized SD card reader is a worthwhile upgrade. It propels the TF into netbook/laptop territory and addresses one of the key complaints about tablet usage – on-screen keyboard usage, in one swoop. A review on this additional dock will be forthcoming in the future.
Read on in Part 2: Software.