It's now a common dilemma for buyers of devices for light computing: go for what's cool and get a tablet, or go for something practical and more useful like a netbook? With the Eee Pad Transformer and its keyboard dock combination, you can have both. The Transformer promises to be adaptable to both keyboard-and-mouse and touch-and-swipe uses, and form-wise it does deliver. The genius of the Eee Pad Transformer design is that feels like a purpose-built tablet when detached, yet it appears so well to be a sleek netbook when docked. It does this so well that it takes a while for most people to realize what they are looking at.
|The Eee Pad Transformer, docked, does a good job of pretending to be a netbook!|
Certainly, on its own the Eee Pad is already very usable with now standard Android Honeycomb hardware features:
- 10.1" LED Capacitive IPS Touchscreen (WXGA 1280x800)
- NVIDIA Tegra 2 Dualcore 1Ghz ARM processor
- 1GB of memory, 16 or 32GB of internal storage
- WiFi b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1
- 1.2MP front and 5MP rear camera
- microSD card slot
- 9.5 hour battery
- Stereo SRS speakers
- G-Sensor, Gyroscope, Compass, GPS
Overall, the tablet feels solid, but, like the first generation iPad, feels too heavy for prolonged use when handheld. Feel around the otherwise solid frame, and the rear casing, being made of plastic and not made as a single construction, shows some play on the edges. This detracts from the otherwise reassuring quality of the device, but still feels more durable than other Honeycomb tablets with plastic backs. The screen, as with other touchscreen devices, is a fingerprint magnet, but is easy to wipe clean. As is now standard with most Android tablets, the screen is protected by scratch-resistant Corning Gorilla Glass and should be able to take some abuse.
While sold separately, the combination of Eee Pad with keyboard dock really deserves its own review. Unlike a wired or bluetooth keyboard add-on, the Eee Pad keyboard dock adds more than just a comfortable typing experience. Most notably, the dock houses a battery that takes the Eee Pad's capacity up to 16 hours of battery life. It also adds a working multitouch pad which activates the mouse pointer mode in Android 3.0. It's possible to get at more storage through two USB 2.0 ports and a full size SD card slot.
The Eee Pad's integration with the keyboard dock more than just a neat trick. On its own, the keyboard is closer in terms of comfort to a notebook than a netbook, thanks to the generous proportions of the keyboard and the reasonable spacing between the chiclet keys. Asus have dedicated four hardware buttons for the common Android keys (Home, Back, Menu and Search) and added a Settings button, plus wireless radio toggles (WiFi, Bluetooth), volume and screen brightness controls, media controls (play, pause, previous, next) and touchpad on/off. Also, one very welcome inclusion: a screenshot button, something that most Android devices lack out of the box, even as a software feature. The built in touchpad supports two finger tracking, so not only can it be used to control an on screen pointer, but it can also support two-finger scrolling.
The USB ports are not just there for show or limited use with approved peripherals (hint: iPad). They allow you to browse and transfer files with USB storage from flash drives to external hard drives to card readers, and not only FAT32 but also NTFS volumes, out of the box, with no dramas. The USB ports also work with any USB mouse, and surprisingly Honeycomb will even recognize a mouse scrollwheel.
What really sells the keyboard dock as an extension of the Eee Pad and not a mere accessory is the robust docking hinge. The tablet snap firmly into place with two mechanical locks, and the cushioned hinge can pivot with the tablet as you would the lid on a netbook. When opened, the hinge raises the back of the keyboard to a comfortable position for typing. The dock has the same proportions, metal frame, and bronze finish as the tablet, so the entire combination blends perfectly together.
The front and rear facing cameras are, by today's standards, nothing special, but essential additions. The front facing camera lets you do video calling with many supported apps, including cross-platform options like Skype and Tango. The clarity of videos from the modest 1.2MP front camera is not going to impress, but it is very usable.
You may expect more of the 5MP front camera, but would be disappointed. As is often the case with these small cameraphone class sensors, images are typically washed out and full of chromatic aberration in direct sunlight, and unsurprisingly noisy in less well lit conditions. It does one-up the soon-to-be-obsolete iPod and iPad cameras in that it delivers more resolution on both sides. Unfortunately, the stock Android Honeycomb camera app is a little light on features that really put you in control of the image to compensate for these short comings (exposure, ISO, contrast). At least it isn't completely bare, with some color effects thrown in (Monochrome, Sepia, and Negative).
|The Android Honeycomb Camera App|
|Sample from the rear camera|
|Another sample from the rear camera|
|A sample from the rear camera in bad light|
Android Honeycomb OS 3.2
The made-for-tablets Honeycomb OS is at times familiar and at times completely different than the phone experience, mostly in good ways as it makes full use of the extra screen space on a 10-inch screen, instead of aping the same paradigms as the phone version. Just like any Android phone, the scrollable homescreens can all be customized to feature apps and widgets in whatever configuration suits you, but it one-ups the stock Android phone experience by allowing you to stretch widgets to whatever size you would like them to occupy on the spacious screen.
|The clean, efficient default homescreen on the Eee Pad Transformer .|
The top of the screen is now dedicated to the Google search box and a shortcut to the Applications tray. The all new status bar and notifications tray is relocated to the bottom of the screen, with space on the left dedicated to Back, Home and a new Recent Apps shortcut. The space on the right shows the usual battery, network connectivity indicators and clock, as well as notification icons for various apps, but now tapping on the individual icons brings up overlay menus. Settings and toggles are now within easier reach, and individual notifications can now be dismissed, or other actions can be done with the same notifications. This is especially handy when working with external storage, as immediately you get the option to launch a file manager app in the notification, and an eject option when you're done.
In the case of the Applications tray and Market app, the apps are able to display more items on the screen, making it easier in general to browse and page through lists. At the same time, the top of the screen is devoted to app-specific context menus. For the Applications tray, a set of tabs lets you filter the tray to apps installed from Market, and a shortcut to Android Market has been handily added. For Android Market, navigation through categories, search and Menu shortcuts are found at the top.
This maximized use of the extra space is carried over in other Honeycomb-optimized apps, usually as a split-pane view as in the Gmail app, or as more elaborate layouts that only work with bigger screens, as with the Google Music and Movie Studio apps.
|Gmail for Honeycomb|
|Google Movie Studio|
|The ASUS MyLibrary e-book reader|
|The Zinio app for Honeycomb|
|Zinio in portrait mode showing a magazine spread|
The only problem is there are just a few Tegra 2 compatible games available at this time, but with Android growing in popularity, more titles are likely to make it to Android. Fortunately, in Android OS 3.2, you can choose to run non-Honeycomb apps zoomed or stretched, with the default being stretched. Most of the big-name made-for-phone games (Angry Birds, Plants Vs. Zombies, Cut The Rope) seemed to run fine without problems with the Eee Pad in stretched mode, though zoomed mode can often cause crashes. Some games, unfortunately, were not built to support either the larger screen resolution or are incompatible with the Nvidia graphics and were unplayable.
|Galaxy on Fire 2, a Tegra 2 optimized game.|
|Cordy, a Tegra 2 optimized game.|
|MiniSquadron in stretched mode.|
As a tablet may be more likely to be a shared device, it's handy that unlike other tablet OSes, you can have more than one of any type of account configured on an Android device. Try to add more than one Google Account and can switch between these accounts for instance in Gmail, Google Docs, Android Market and any Google sites through the browser. Apps purchased and downloaded in either account can also be downloaded onto the Eee Pad (as long as it is compatible). Not all apps support multiple accounts, as it is left to the app developer to provide a way to switch. This is an issue even for some Google apps like Google+ and Google Music.
|Multiple account support for automatic sign-in on the browser.|
In Honeycomb, Google have all but forbidden the extensive customizations that Android phone makers often do. But, as almost mandatory, ASUS have loaded up the Eee Pad with extra apps and widgets to differentiate their offering even more. While it's a mixed bag, there are a few keepers that you will be happy to have for free. Polaris Office offers a decent MS Office compatible suite (word processor, spreadsheet and presentation). The transparent weather and email count widgets are nicely done, if a little limited. Free cloud storage through MyCloud, a network based storage solution very much like Dropbox and less like the upcoming iCloud, is also nice to have. MyDesktop gives you remote desktop control of your Windows and Mac computers over WiFi, which is easy to configure and use out of the box, but seems to have stability problems with Windows XP. MyNet is a DLNA client and server that lets you share pictures, music and videos with other DLNA-compatible devices (TVs, media servers, other mobile devices).
|ASUS MyCloud cloud-based storage|
|MyDesktop running Windows XP|
- Well integrated design between tablet and keyboard dock
- Easy to access external storage through built-in microSD and keyboard dock ports
- So far keeping up with Android OS upgrades with frequent downloadable updates; OS 3.2 is more stable than ever
- Better, funner games, easier to use apps
- Longer battery life than a typical netbook
- Multiple accounts supported; have access to files, emails and apps from different accounts
- Speakers' position not ideal when holding while in landscape
- The power button can get clicked easily by first-time users, especially when rotating between landscape and portrait.
- The trackpad button is stiff and can be hard to press sometimes.
- The compass tends to be sensitive to interference.
- No authentication when switching between accounts.
It's a no-brainer, at $399 for the 16GB version and $499 for the 32GB model, the Asus Eee Pad Transformer is practically the best value for tablets at the moment. The excellent optional keyboard dock only sweetens the deal for the features you get for only $150.
Even though Honeycomb, at version 3.2, is still a work in progress, and the app selection still limited, it's now at a point where you don't have to be an early adopter to enjoy it, and the distinct Android features can really demonstrate advantages over the competing platforms.