The Asus Transformer Prime has finally landed, and it’s no wonder why it has been one of the most searched topics in the past couple of weeks: it a fabulous tablet and a concept that has come to maturity. If you haven’t seen it before, the Asus Eee Transformer Prime is the world’s first Tegra 3 powered quad-core tablet that can turn into a small laptop, thanks to a keyboard-dock accessory.
The story is good, but it gets better: the keyboard virtually doubles the already long battery life of the tablet while keeping the overall shape elegant and thin. This sounds great, but how does it behave in the real world? In this review, we will look at the strengths, weaknesses and real world usage of the Asus Eee Transformer Prime – are you ready?
NVIDIA Tegra 3 processor, 1.3GHz (read our Tegra 3 overview)
10.1” 1280×800 Super IPS+ display, Gorilla glass
8 MP camera with LED light in the back, 1.2MP front camera
32GB to 64GB of internal storage + micro-SDHC slot (32GB max)
1080p MPEG-4/H.264 “High Profile” (Blu-Ray) decode, 1080p video capture
WiFi B/G/N, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR
263 x 180.8 x 8.3mm, 586g
25WHr Li-Polymer battery
Note: the unit used in this review does not yet have the final firmware which should be updated at least one more time on December 2nd to version 188.8.131.52. (I’m currently using 184.108.40.206)
If you are curious about what’s in the box of the Asus Transformer Prime and the Keyboard dock, I’ve shot a quick unboxing video:
We all perceive the gadgets usefulness differently depending on our lifestyle, so let me tell you where I come from. Most of my (computing) time is spent using a powerful desktop computer (a PC) with large displays. If I need to get some real work done outside of the office, I use a laptop (Macbook Pro + Win7). On the go, I keep track of emails with a smartphone, but I tend to reply only moderately from it because typing long emails is a bit painful on a touchscreen. With the tablet, I check news websites and social networks a lot, and I often use a laptop or tablet on my couch.
Because tablets have such a long battery life, I have been searching for ways to use them as laptop replacement in some situations like trade shows and meetings where I don’t do anything drastic like programming or video-editing.
External design (excellent)
The Asus Eee Transformer Prime has a beautiful design. It is simple, thin, elegant and built with quality materials. Asus has simple outdone itself with this product, and I have to admit that I’m very impressed. This is a high-quality industrial design that can be compared to the iPad 2 without hesitation. Although it is not made of a single bloc of aluminum, it feels very rigid and offers a micro HDMI and a microSD slot on the left side.
The 3.5mm audio plug serves as headphones and microphone connector and it is placed in a way that doesn’t obstruct when holding the Transformer Prime horizontally.
At the top, you will find the Power button and a tiny hole for the microphone, and at the bottom, there is the docking port with two holes for the rather solid retention mechanism for the keyboard dock.
Overall, the tablet feels great in the hand or on the lap. It seems a little heavier than the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, but that’s the price to pay if you want to have a metallic build – you can’t have it all. I think that the Power button and Volume buttons are a bit too recessed, but I’ve never heard anyone complain about this on other tablets, so it should be fine. The Transformer Prime passes the “design” exam with flying colors. This is one nice tablet.
Transformer Prime keyboard dock (excellent)
There’s no question that without this keyboard dock, the transformer couldn’t live up to that name. This is by far the best keyboard dock on the market. It is thin, light and even has a battery. If you compare this with the offerings from Motorola and formerly from Apple (I can’t find it anymore), ASUS wins hands-down and there’s no Bluetooth involved. I was going to write another paragraph to compare the alternatives, but this image speaks for itself:
In practical terms, the keyboard dock will almost double the battery life of the Transformer Prime, so it’s a very important factor for anyone who wants to drop $150 on this accessory, which I think is a must-have. It also has one USB 2.0 port from which you can copy files via a regular USB key (can it get easier than this?), and one SD card slot – no adapter involved.
Once attached, the tablet is solidly retained by two latches and it feels surprisingly strong. At that point, the Transformer Prime truly feels like a small laptop. Finally, there’s the keyboard part. It is not a full keyboard, and it reminds me a bit of Netbook keyboards, but the quality is actually fairly high, and is very usable but I would say that a “real” laptop keyboard like the Macbook air 11” remains noticeably more comfy. Yet, on a tablet platform, this is the best option that I have seen to date – especially if you take into account the small 10″ form factor.
1x SDXC card slot (2TB theoretical limit)
1x USB 2.0 port
Touchpad (click space)
22WHr Li-Polymer battery
263 x 180.8 x 8 to 10.4 mm, 537g
A huge potential for user storage (384GB today)
The storage potential for the Asus Transformer Prime with the Keyboard dock is *enormous*. With the micro SD port of the tablet, you can easily extend the storage by 64GB, and with the SD Card on the keyboard it is possible to add another 256GB. And it gets better: Asus has confirmed to me the SDxC port of the keyboard dock can address the full 2TB of storage that the SDxC standard is capable of. We’re just waiting for the first 512GB cards to arrive…
Check your favorite online store, and you’ll see that the cost of extending the user storage is relatively small when compared to the storage options from devices like the iPad 2 and others. To me this is worth real dollars, and today, I would favor using a 32GB micro SD and a 64GB SD card to extend a basic 32GB Asus Transformer Prime into a 128GB one for $40+$100. Not bad, huh? (384 = 64+64+256)
Super IPS+ Display (excellent)
It’s no secret that IPS and AMOLED display technologies are currently fighting for the image quality supremacy on the high-end. Each technology has its own strengths and weaknesses. As it is always the case with AMOLED, the contrast is extraordinary, with black levels that LCD displays simply can’t reach. On the other hand, IPS LCDs tend to have a better color reproduction (out of the box) and consume less energy when displaying bright images. All in all, they are both excellent choices, but there’s no point debating this further as there are no 10.1” AMOLED tablets anyway.
I’ve compared the Transformer Prime display with the iPad 2 display, which also uses IPS (although not labeled as “super IPS+”). Both perform admirably, and while there are differences, I don’t think that one is clearly superior in terms of image quality. The iPad 2 has a slightly better contrast, but the ASUS Transformer Prime has slightly higher brightness. In most cases, the experience is comparable. The only thing is: the Transformer Prime has a 1280×800 resolution while the iPad 2 has only 1024×768, so things do look sharper on the Prime. also, because of the wide format of the Prime, movies show up slightly bigger.
Virtual keyboard: The Asus Transformer comes with two virtual keyboards. The first is the Android stock keyboard, which is just like any other Android 3.x tablet. The second one is from ASUS and mimics the layout of the dock keyboard. It is completely functional and I really like the fact that it has more keys visible at once, however it may take time to get used to it.
At the moment, I prefer the Android keyboard, and I may try adapting to the ASUS keyboard but right now, the key positioning induces too many typos. I also have the keyboard dock, so I tend to use it as soon as some serious typing is required.
There’s one thing that either Google or keyboard developers should improve: key response time. There are a number of reasons why the system does not respond right away (suggestions…), but even if you disable everything that may slow down the keyboard response, it is still not as fast as Windows Phone or iOS.
Skype (very good, no video-out yet): The incoming audio and video quality in Skype looks good and it is on-par with what I’ve seen on iPad and slightly superior to the Galaxy Tab 10.1. However, there currently is a software issue with Skype that prevents outgoing video from working. From what I understand, this will be solved in an upcoming release of Skype – possibly within a week.
Email: without the keyboard dock, the email experience is very similar to previous Android 3.x tablets. The support for Microsoft Exchange, GMail and POP email is good, so even professionals can use it (check with your IT department).
With the keyboard dock, the email experience goes to a new dimension. Now it is possible to work for a longer period of time, and type faster in general. If your life revolves around sending emails, you should seriously look at the dock.
Microsoft Office documents: nothing really replaces Microsoft Office on Windows, but if you are using the Asus Transformer Prime as a secondary or tertiary machine, you can get by with apps that will open and edit Microsoft Office documents. Usually people would visualize Word and PowerPoint documents and make slight edits. I typically don’t like using spreadsheets on a small screen, but technically you can open and edit them too.
Web browsing: The web browsing experience is comparable with other Android tablets, and I did not notice any particular gains in speed. Actually, The Asus Transformer Prime was on-par with the Sony S tablet, and slightly slower than the iPad 2 in terms of page load speed. The difference be as high as 2 or 3 seconds depending on the page. It didn’t bother me, but one may have expected the Asus Transformer Prime to come out on top, because this may be seen as “performance-related”.
Facebook: for Facebook, I use a mix of Android app and full-on website. The android app is convenient most of the time, but it has not been optimized for tablets yet, so you’re running with a stretched “phone” version. It gets the job done, but there is room for improvement. If it comes down to it, going to the desktop web site is always an option, but things are usually slower than the app, and you can’t conveniently upload photos.
Maps: As usual, the Google Maps experience is excellent. The Asus Transformer Prime does a great job at rendering the maps and things are overall very fast, especially over WIFI. At the moment, there is no 3G version of the Transformer Prime on the market, but if it comes out, that would be a great option for mapping.
Task Manager: In case you haven’t followed all the Android 3.x updates, you may have missed the task manager update. It is possible to list all the currently running apps, but originally it was impossible to shut them down from that list. This is now possible and users who like to be in control of their apps will be happy. I don’t want to fan any more flames on the “should you kill tasks” discussion, but I consider closing tasks manually to be a good thing (versus a blanket “kill” of apps that will eventually reload in the background).
Books: no problem there. There is a large choice of eBook apps and providers. The easy way is to use the android market, but I personally like Amazon’s Kindle as it is neutral in the operating system war raging in the mobile world. The experience is good, and clearly the ASUS Transformer Prime is probably a bit of an overkill for reading books anyway.
Video: The ASUS Transformer Prime hardware should not have any problem handling MPEG-4 / H.264 videos, even at very high bitrate (40-60Mbps). I don’t have any 1080p file that would go anywhere near 20Mbps, so it’s a bit hard to test this one, but the 1080p files that I had on hand worked without a hitch.
I also tried to connect the Transformer Prime to a 55″ TV via HDMI and if your video file is good enough, it looks impeccable. This wasn’t even a “high profile” 1080p video and it looked very nice. Check this out:
If you are curious, here are the CODEC specifications:
Decode: H.264 1080p30/60i (HP @ 40Mbps), VC1-AP 1080p30, MPEG2 1080p30/60i, MPEG4 1080p/30, DivX 4/5/6 1080p30, XviD HT 1080p30, H.263 4CIF/30, Theora, VP8 720p30.
Encode: H.264 1080p30 (Baseline), MPEG4 720p30 (Simple), H.263 4CIF/30, VP8
Video Teleconference: H.264, MPEG4, H.263, VP8
Music: Music fans can rejoice: it’s very easy to find music, free or paid. Google has its own music service (at least in the USA), but there are a lot of choices out there: Amazon, Rhapsody, Mog, Spotify… etc. You can also do it the old-fashion way and copy MP3 files from your computer.
The Asus Transformer Prime shines during gaming sessions, for two reasons: first, because the Tegra 3 SoC is much faster than its Tegra 2 predecessor (by 3X in graphics according to specs, and confirmed by early benchmarks), but more importantly because NVIDIA has managed to get developers to upgrade their games with new effects and features. The end-result is that Tegra 3 will be the main platform to offer upgraded graphics, at least for some time.
A few apps are will be available at launch time, and you can expect more to come relatively quickly. Some of the technology upgrades are in use in PC or console games, so no further research is really needed — just more processing muscles. Right now, I have Shadowgun, Bladeslinger, Riptide GP, Davinci THD, YSKK, Sprinkle, Zen Pinball THC, Big Top THD and… NVIDIA’s Glowball demo.
Additionally, the tablet can be used with an array of existing wireless game controllers, including Playstation, Xbox, Logitech and Nintendo, so “serious action gaming” is now an option for those who dislike virtual game controllers. Note that each developer need to add this feature on a per-game basis, but this should not be a real problem.
If you take into account the game exclusivity, the Asus Transformer Prime + Tegra 3 currently is the best gaming platform on Android. In time, more tablets will come, and other hardware will get the same features, but that could be months from now.
Photography / Video
In terms of photography, the Asus Transformer Prime does well and the photo quality is among the best in the tablet arena. Against the iPad 2, there’s not even a fight because Apple has equipped its tablet with a low-end camera. The size by side is pretty obvious and shows the that Asus Transformer Prime can easily outgun an iPad 2 in photography. To be fair, the iPad 2 has decent color controls, but that’s not enough to make up for the low-resolution and the overall noise in the photos. Note: I have uploaded the full-size photos to the Ubergizmo Flickr account if you are curious…
The real competition comes from the Galaxy Tab series. Samsung manages to come out with better, more natural colors even if the overall sharpness is comparable. I suspect that it is due to various tweaks in the image processing software, but the verdict is clear: out of the box, the Galaxy Tab 8.9 (and I suspect the 10.1) is a slightly better camera. The video aspect pretty much reflects what we have observed above. I have to re-shoot a 1080p video with the Prime because the first one was not shot at the proper resolution. I’ll get back to this later.
Kids and seniors
Kids: even very young kids should like the ASUS Transformer Prime because it’s easy to unlock, and games are simple and never further than two taps away. It may be scary to let young kids use a $500 tablet, but what I’m hearing from my friends is that it’s mostly fine with their children. It’s not really a scientific way of measuring this, but I haven’t heard too many horror stories, even on social networks.
Parental controls: I haven’t seen any parental controls in Android 3.x, but ASUS came up with an App Locker that will protect apps with a password. For example, it may be a good idea to lock the Android Market, your email, or the web browser if you let your kids play with the tablet.
Seniors: I don’t want to generalize, but this paragraph covers the usage for a cliché image of “seniors”, meaning “people who aren’t usually techies”. If you are tech-savvy, you can skip this.
Anyhow, most tablets are now fully independent from their larger PC cousins, so I feel confident that this tablet could be used as a basic independent computer. However, I would recommend that mainly for basic email and web usage.
But the real strength of tablets is that they are very hard to “break”: It’s very hard for the user to unintentionally do something that will cause them to “not work” anymore. Seniors will like it, not only because it’s easier, but most importantly because they can explore, and try stuff without fear that they cause something bad. Because they try, they learn and they enjoy.
Accessibility: Android 3.x accessibility features work on a “per app” basis, so I consider that overall, there’s nothing that makes life better for the visually impaired. I know the situation well because I know people who would need that. Text in email apps and in the general user interface can be very small and low-contrast. Now, there is always the possibility of using a special “launcher” (a different Android user interface), but I haven’t seen any that would get the job done – not that I have searched extensively. Just keep that in mind.
Tegra 3 Performance
NVIDIA has built quite a name for itself in the mobile space, and “Tegra” is now synonymous of high-performance. The prior Tegra 2 chip has dominated benchmark numbers for almost half of 2011, but was eventually displaced by newer chips. The thing is: in February 2011, NVIDIA already had Tegra 3 (read our Tegra 3 overview to learn more) samples that we were able to see in action. The expectations are high and here’s what we’re seeing in the real world.
Processing: As you now know, Tegra 3 is has 2X the number of CPU core and 3X the graphics speed of Tegra 2. That said, this does not not always translate into 2X the CPU performance. It just depends on the application. For example, Antutu benchmark seems to reflect this, just look at the scores:
The benchmark seems to use all the cores properly and the result is clear: the peak performance of Tegra 3 is impressive, but it can only be put to use if developers design their software to be multi-core friendly. Also, keep in mind that not every task scales with more cores. For those that don’t scale, NVIDIA has designed Tegra 3 to overclock slightly to handle those cases.
Polygonal graphics: On the graphics side, Tegra 2 had been keeping the fort for a while, but new graphics processors (CPU) from ARM, Qualcomm and TI finally displaced it later in 2011. As Nenamark 2 on Android shows, Tegra 3 takes the crown back – as far as Android is concerned.
I’m saying “as Android is concerned” because the GL Benchmark shows that the iPad scores higher than Tegra 3 in polygonal 3D. The iPad 2 graphics processor, the PowerVR SGX 543MP2 has been out for some time, but when I looked closely at the benchmark, I noticed that the SGX 543MP2 is *really good* at basic rendering such as single-textured triangles and vertex-lit objects. It’s great and the SGX 543MP2 is impressive, but recent games use more advanced shading techniques, so I don’t think that GL Benchmark tells the whole story. In the end, I would really love to see in-game benchmarks on both platforms (or at least a good 3DMark for mobiles). That’s what real users are concerned about.
Battery Life (excellent)
I have used a standard video playback depletion test, which is interesting for two reasons: 1/ it is an activity that one may have in a real-world situation (international flight) 2/ I can expect a slightly superior battery life for low-intensity tasks like email, book reading, etc… Note the tablet should be using the “companion” core during these tasks (yes, 1080p video playback is considered to be a low-intensity task for Tegra 3, thanks to dedicated video hardware). At this point, the display should be the primary battery drainage in the system.
The result (10hrs of video): In power savings mode, and after 7hrs of perfect 720p video playback, I still had 30% of battery life to spare. And because battery depletion tends to be linear, that would translate to about 10hrs of video playback.
From a battery-life standpoint, Gaming would be the most expensive activity because there’s a potential for all 4 cores and the GPU to be running at full speed. However, each game has its own characteristics, and it’s hard to predict. I’ll try to run more tests and provide you with some case by case data, but that will take more time, so please be patient. My best guess at this point is that the battery life could go down to 6 hours with an intensive game.
Keyboard dock battery (awesome): now, picture this: with the Keyboard dock extension, you can multiply the battery life by almost 2X. Plus, the keyboard dock can be used as a stand in a plane or on a table – there’s no need to buy a case to serve as one. I fly a lot, and I love the idea.
To put it simply, the ASUS Transformer Prime is easily the best Android tablet and is possibly the best tablet, period. It depends mainly on your own taste and usage model. By itself, the Transformer Prime is a superbly designed and powerful tablet with an excellent display, application processor and overall user experience. However, with the optional laptop dock, the Prime turns itself into an ultra-mobile productivity machine that can play HD video for 18hrs – try that with a laptop. This means that Asus customers won’t have to worry about battery life anymore.
Now, it is really up to you to decide if Android 3.2 has the apps that you need to get things done. I think that most productivity and entertainment tasks are covered (email, web, popular book/video/radio apps…). If after doing your homework, you decide that Android works, then the ASUS Transformer Prime will provide a world-class Android experience. According to Asus, the Transformer Prime is expected to be available on the week of December 19.
There are too many possible usage models than I can cover in this review, but if you have a question, leave a comment (scroll down) and I’ll be happy to answer as soon as I can. If you found this review useful, share it, like it, Google+ it. We’re here to help