Asus Eee Pad Transformer In Asus we finally have a tablet manufacturer willing to play hardball on price. Starting at just $399, the Taiwan company's new Eee Pad Transformer is nearly 25 per cent less expensive than the cheapest iPad, sweeping away in decisive fashion one of the key advantages Apple's dominating tablet has held over the competition.
However, from the perspective of hardware and operating system, Asus' tablet is better compared to Motorola's recently released Xoom. Both slates run Google's Android 3.0 (a.k.a. Honeycomb), feature 1280-by-800 pixel 10.1-inch capacitive touch screens, come with five megapixel HD cameras on the back and lower-res lenses on the front, and use NVIDIA's Tegra 2 processor for data crunching.
That said, they're not identical twins. At 680 grams, the Transformer weighs about one energy bar less than Motorola's tablet, but is counter-intuitively larger in all dimensions, with a depth of 13 millimetres and sides measuring 271-by-171 millimetres (that also makes it quite a bit bigger and heavier than an iPad 2, for those keeping track).
The screen, however, is among the best I've seen on a tablet. Viewing angles are unbeatable; you'll have no problem sharing pictures and videos with friends gathered around the display. Images are crisp, vividly coloured, and an all around pleasure to view. It even looks great in moderately sunny conditions, though I'd give the edge to Apple's tablet in direct sunlight.
Sadly, Asus' pad is - to my eye, anyway - a little less attractive than most other tablets on the market. The frame's black screen edges are surrounded by a brown metallic bezel. The back is composed of a darker brown plastic with a pattern of hexagrams, and occasionally creaks when gripped. A power and volume rocker sit on the tablet's left edge, while a headphone jack, HDMI, and microSD card slot line the right edge. The front plays host to a power jack.
The Transformer comes with a couple of storage options: 16-gigabytes - this is the attractively priced $399 model mentioned earlier - and a 32-gigabyte version that goes for $499 (the 32-gigabyte Xoom lists at $599). However, with a year's subscription to Asus Web Storage thrown in, few people should have much need to invest in the latter.
It's worth noting that while both models have WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity and GPS functionality, neither have mobile data options. If you want to take your tablet online wherever you go, the Transformer probably isn't for you.
Unlike Motorola, Asus has fiddled a little with Honeycomb, but not overly much. Widgets for date, time, weather, and mail can be moved around the operating system's five home screens. A cool - if purely aesthetic - flourish comes in an active wallpaper that shows ice cubes bobbing in liquid that automatically orients itself with the ground, like water in a glass, regardless of the angle at which the device is held.
Surprisingly, given their essentially equal specs, the Transformer feels a smidgeon pokier than Motorola's Xoom. Apps function well enough, even when multitasking, but I saw repeated hesitancy when opening new programs and swiping between home screens. Not a deal breaker by any stretch, but it's noticeable.
One of the most useful apps that comes pre-installed is Polaris Office, a handy productivity suite that delivers word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation authoring and editing functionality. You might think that you'd be unlikely to use a tablet for serious work, but this is where the "Transformer" part of the pad's moniker comes into play. Asus offers an optional keyboard dock that, for all intents and purposes, transforms the slate into an Android-based netbook. Just plug the pad into the keyboard's solidly built hinge and whammo: instant notebook computer.
The keyboard is just a tinge shy of standard size, and its keys feel great. Instead of a row of function keys at the top we're given a selection of handy hot keys for brightness, volume, and wireless connectivity. A Honeycomb "back" button is smartly placed where the "ESC" key would normally be.
The tablet/netbook marriage isn't quite a perfect one, though. For example, there's a fraction of a second delay when controlling the pointer using the multi-touch mouse pad. Plus, the tablet froze a couple of times while docked, a problem that wouldn't resolve until the pad was popped out.
Still, such quirks are weatherable, especially given some of the dock's other advantages. Like a pair of USB ports to facilitate external mice and thumb drives, and a memory card reader for standard-sized cards. Most importantly, though, it has a built-in battery that boosts the tablet's 9.5 hour rating up to 16 hours in total. (Anecdotal testing saw the Transformer make it through a day of avid use while not connected to the dock with a quarter of a bar of energy to spare.) The keyboard goes for a cool $150. Combined with the price of the tablet, it brings the total cost of the Transformer to a little more than a basic iPad and closer to the price of a Xoom. Keep in mind, though, that the keyboard is completely optional.
The Eee Pad Transformer purchased on its own remains an incredibly good deal. It establishes a new baseline price not just for full-sized Android pads but slates in general.
Finally, the tablet price wars have begun.