[Review] Asus Transformer TF101 (Part 2 – Software)

If you haven’t already, read Part 1: Hardware.

This ‘B70’ revision Transformer (TF) came pre-installed with Android 3.1 Honeycomb, (changelog) which brings USB host support and widget resizing amongst other improvements, though earlier units were loaded with 3.0. Nearly immediately after initial setup, an indicator for a system update appeared, with the subsequent OTA upgrade process was painless. A reboot later and Honeycomb 3.2 was installed (changelog), a minor update which includes screen scaling for non-optimised applications amongst a few improvements.

The quick app switcher can be brought up on any screen. Here, the wallpaper/widget/desktop customiser runs in the background.

Kudos to Asus for such speedy rollouts of system updates, something which other OEM’s should attempt to follow (*ahem* Sony Ericsson *ahem*), though admittedly the TF OS has minimal manufacturer customisations. Note that many of the Honeycomb features and customisations mentioned below are also applicable to similar tablet devices.

The Android Market is optimised for large screens.

First up: some pre-installed software exists – Polaris Office, Asus File Manager, an Asus Keyboard (with Swype-like functionality) round out the useful apps, followed by somewhat questionable @vibe, Asus MyCloud/Library/Net and a trial-version of PressReader. Note that Asus also provides free Cloud storage as a customer, though I didn’t utilise this feature. Asus Drivers and Sync software is required on Windows machines to recognise the device. The Asus Keyboard adds a row of number keys to the top of the keyboard, reducing the need to switch between keyboards, though the sliding functionality didn’t seem particularly accurate, nor allow easy correction of words. I found myself bouncing between the standard Honeycomb keyboard (which is surprisingly useful) and Swiftkey X for Tablets (which provides a split keyboard, ideal for thumb-typing).

The standard Honeycomb keyboard works well. Note the tabbed browsing.

The Asus custom keyboard can be easier to read, though lacking a voice input button.

Swiftkey X for Tablets, split keys and a very Honeycomb colour scheme.

If you’re familiar with Honeycomb, you’ll know that a fixed status bar exists at the bottom of the screen, which consists of the Back, Menu (if available), Home and App Switching buttons, since the device has no physical buttons for these. This approach is somewhat of a necessity, since placing physical buttons on the device would result in confusion as the screen was rotated around (it supports full 360 rotation). These buttons also auto-hide to small dots when an application requests it (ie. fullscreen movies or games). The notification bar also consists of a quick brightness, sound and notifications toggle and access to the Settings panel. The app switching is surprisingly intuitive, allowing for jumping between applications a breeze, though this is in no doubt assisted by having no shortage of RAM. Applications which have been scaled up can be either stretched or zoomed via a status bar shortcut, the former being a far more elegant solution, redrawing the page to fit, instead of the latter, which literally expands the application to fit and results in blurry edges (ie. Ipad zoom).

Interactive widgets and live wallpapers add some life to the homescreen. 

The standard launcher also performs admirably, with smooth screen transitions and logical optimisations for larger screens, such as the ability to fit up to 42 icons (on an 8 x 7 grid) per homescreen and natively resizable widgets on-the-fly. Most people will likely leave plenty of empty space, allowing for aesthetically pleasing widget and icon arrangement. Integrated quick Google search at the top and an Asus-specific ‘Water’ wallpaper which shows the battery level as an animated, rotation sensitive water-level (complete with floating ice cube). Notably absent are folders, fixed dock icons (only the ‘Apps’ button exists) and a ‘Clear All’ option for notifications, which can be slightly annoying if you install many applications at once.

The Settings panel continues the Honeycomb theme, and includes a detailed Storage disk breakdown.

The other notable improvement in Honeycomb are customised versions of GMail, Youtube, Calendar, Google Reader, Android Market, Browser and Settings specifically for the larger screens of tablets, a solid complement of applications. Dual-pane GMail is a joy to use, though it lacks the customised label-by-label individual notification of the recently updated phone-based GMail, whilst Youtube provides an immersive experience with it’s ‘Wall of Videos’ approach. Widgets are also redone, allowing for live-resizing of widgets on all screens and scrollable widgets (useful for Calendar and EMail). The number of large-screen optimised applications is also gradually increasing, with NY Times, BBC, Pulse, Plume, Tweetcaster and more jumping on board.

Google Maps in action.

The browser deserves a special mention, if you’re like me, a lot of time is spent in the browser, and it doesn’t fail to impress. Full-tabbed browsing is implented, easy User-Agent switching (to choose between Mobile/Tablet/Desktop versions of websites), a quick dial-based control system (optional) and full Chrome bookmark synchronisation (via your Google account), make this the closest experience to a desktop web browser on an Android device. Performance is admirable, though gesture-based tab switching/closing would be welcome.

One of the ‘labs’ features available is the quick control pop-up, as seen here. It maximises usable screen space.

There are four other areas which many people will use these tablets for:

EBook / Magazine reading: This one is simple, choose your app of choice (Amazon Kindle, Nook Reader and Google Books are the forerunners), or Zinio (Tegra 2 optimised) for magazines and you’re set. For third party .epub / .mobi files, there are a choice of localised e-book readers available (see my roundup here). If all you do is purely e-book reading, then you may be better served with a 7″ e-book reader, such as a Nook Color. For standalone PDF viewing, eZPDF Reader, Repligo Reader, Adobe Reader and QuickOffice all did the job admirably, though I settled on Repligo as it was the most responsive.

Google Books is a great choice, although the Amazon Kindle app is far more popular.

Remote Desktop Access: There are a variety of solutions here, either using accessing your machine remotely via RDP protocol (using Remote Desktop Client, Remote RDP, though these crashed for me), or an RDP compatible viewer, such as Wyse Pocketcloud. Other solutions includes Splashtop HD, Logmein Ignition or TeamViewer Free  (though these required additional software install).

Video: The built in video player is decent, but there are other players available which also take advantage of hardware-acceleration, including Moboplayer [video driver], MX Video Player [video driver], VPlayer, Rockplayer and Dice Player. In my experience there’s not a huge difference in playback between them, just interface improvements and subtitle handling, though your mileage may vary. The Transformer also consumes relatively little power when using hardware-accelerated video playback. Note: At this time, hardware-acceleration 720p in MKV format does not work correctly. Transcoding or converting is required prior to playing these video clips.

The Youtube app looks distinctly different from the phone version.

Games: Here is where the Transformer excels, gaming on a ‘large’ screen is a joy and also since there are a number of Tegra 2 optimised games. NVidia’s Tegra 2 website highlights a number of them. I installed around half a dozen of them and found performance and visuals to be good, noticeably better models and textures than traditional games found on Android smartphones (see video below). A number of titles had a ‘high resolution’ option which sacrificed some frame rate for a sharper image, as per personal preferences. In addition, there are titles which are not listed as Tegra 2 optimised, but still had ‘HD’ versions, consisting of higher resolution assets ideal for large screens, such as Plants vs Zombies HD.

Bonus: For those who are planning to use Office applications, there is a great comparison between four major office suites here. I’m still deciding between Polaris and QuickOffice, though they seem quite similar to me.

The inbuilt software for the 5MP auto-focus camera is par for the course, allowing only white balance / exposure / geo-location and digital zoom functions. The pictures produced were expectedly washed out, with a somewhat overly cold temperature on auto-balance.

Camera Interface

Sample Photo

Read on for Part 3: Usage Video

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One thought on “[Review] Asus Transformer TF101 (Part 2 – Software)

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