The Best Android Device on Earth... for now...

Back in August, I finally got my hands on the Asus Eee Pad Transformer (the TF01, as it is commonly abbreviated). It was my first android tablet, and it was a very powerful machine. IT boasted Android 3.0,  or “Honeycomb”, which was the first iteration of Android for tablets. I got a lot of work done with the tablet. Development, design, and execution of my day-job duties was made easier when I was away from my Windows PC. One of the greatest parts of the tablet was the keyboard dock itself, which turned an otherwise ordinary Android form factor into a killer device with little competition.

Since the TF01 was released, it has been universally acclaimed by tech advocates and journalists alike. Since then, other popular tablets have gotten their own half-hearted keyboard attachments, mostly via bluetooth. The iPad, for example, has so many different “folio” accessories, you’d think they had keyboard envy. The bottom line: the tablet + keyboard dock experiment has worked, and ASUS followed up with an even better device: the Transformer Prime/

Hardware:

The Prime has improved on so many aspects of the TF01, its hard to choose where to begin. The device itself is thinner (only 8.3 mm thick!) and lighter (1.29 lbs) and has ditched the plastic casing for a beautiful spun aluminum design. Unfortunately, the metal finish sacrifices the enjoyable texture patter the TF01 had on the back. I preferred the texture, as it was good for your grip of the thing, but all in all, the metal feels stronger than the plastic of the TF01. The thinness of the device really plays to the strength of the metal design. This thing feels like it will resist stress from use.

Out with the old...

The rear camera is still 8 megapixels this time around, but now has an LED flash for better photo taking. It can record video in full 1080p HD, and has a fantastic video editing studio loaded on board. As far as I can tell, this software is ASUS in design, so you probably won’t be seeing it on the Galaxy Tab or Xyboard anytime soon unless you look in the modding community.

The screen itself is a gorgeous IPS display, with an incredible level of brightness and still can produce deep blacks for crystal clear images and stunning video. There is also a toggle for increased brightness for outdoor use. Normally any backlit device is near impossible to see outside, mostly due to reflection from the glass, but with the IPS toggle on, this device performs admirably in direct sunlight. It’s no substitute for an e-ink display, which still takes the crown in outdoor viewing, but it does the job better than any other tablet I’ve seen, as even beats phones and laptops. I can see this screen tech becoming popular among outdoor workers, such as contractors. Look for it to pop up in toughbooks and toughpads soon enough.

One rough spot: The Speaker. Singular. Sure, it boasts stereo sound, and damn good sound, but it is positioned on only one side of the device. Not sure what the design thought was there, but I suspect it has something to do with keeping good sound on either landscape and portrait orientation. I’d prefer two separate housings, but the sound output from the one side has been certified for Dolby and THX sound, so my audiophile side is still content.

Project Kal-el - Tegra 3

Aside from exterior cosmetic improvements, the Prime boasts one other very important addition: Kal-El. Named after Superman, Kal-El was the code name for the new generation of Nvidea’s Tegra series of CPU/GPUs, officially called Tegra 3. Sporting 4 full cores and a fifth “companion” core, the chip is currently the most powerful mobile processor in the world. The primary 4 cores can run at 1.3 GHz each, but that’s at stock levels. I’ve heard rumblings of these things being overclocked to 2+ GHz safely. They fly… and it shows. The TF01 was not sluggish… it boasted a Tegra 2 Dual-Core chip that still is quite powerful, but if the TF01 is a sprinter, the Prime is a jet traveling at sonic speeds. I have not experience a single slowdown, crash, error, or graphical hiccup since I opened the device.

The Tegra also doubles as a graphical processor with high levels of power. It can easily run graphics on par with modern game consoles, and Nvidea has preloaded the device with game samplers showcasing just that. I can’t wait to get more gaming done on this tablet… when I have time. Other hardware includes the normal stuff: Bluetooth, GPS (albeit not very good thanks to the metal body), and various sensors and gyroscopes for motion response.

Gaming on Kal-El is damn amazing. Couple that with HDMI output and you have a real winner.

Software:

The Prime shipped with Android 3.0 “Honeycomb”, which disappointed most users. Google has been showcasing Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich” (ICS) for a few months prior to the Prime’s launch, and most hoped it would be shipping with it. Lucky for me, 4.0 was finally released as an update for the Prime the day before mine arrived in the mail. I was on honeycomb for 30 seconds during the first boot and instantly got the prompt to update, so I can’t really attest to how well 3.0 ran, but 4.0 runs smooth as silk.

Android 4.0 - Ice Cream Sandwich. Delicious.

The Prime is officially the first tablet to run Google’s latest OS. So far, it is a huge improvement over the 3.0 experience I had with the TF01, which, admittedly, wasn’t that bad in the first place. Every quirk I recall from 3.0 has been smoothed over or developed out of 4.0, and many new UI features and tricks have been added in their place. Navigation is easier, thanks mostly to the changes to the App menu. Widgets, bookmarks, and apps have all been consolidated on the same menu now, rather than each having their own. Unlike 3.0, you can now access all three categories of items from the same launch button, rather than 3 different ones and a myriad of other launcher shortcuts.

Unlike most other cell phone/tablet manufacturers, ASUS has added very little to what can be considered “pure” android. They have a few of their own cloud tools pre-loaded, but they are not blocked from being removed, so its easy to rid yourself of them. One piece of software that they include with each unit is called Splashtop, which I really love. Simply put: Its a remote desktop app. I can access my Windows PC on my tablet over the internet (or local LAN) with incredible speed. Virtually no lag, and there is an upcoming update that will allow the PC to offload data to the Tegra, allowing full gameplay virtualization. This was demonstrated last week at CES 2012 in Las Vegas, with a user playing Skyrim on the Prime, which was running on a pc on an external network. Unreal. I can’t wait for the update to get pushed out so I can try Windows apps and games on my Prime.

Keyboard Dock:

The Keyboard dock for this Prime is an improvement over the dock for the TF01. Unfortunately, the hardware design leaves them incapable of being cross-compatible, although they use the same pin connection for docking and charging. It is roughly half the thickness of the original dock, clocking in around a centimeter at the thickest point. it adds an additional 18 hours of battery life to the tablet (it recharges the tablet, rather than simply drain the dock) and It sports an SD card slot, a charging port, and a single USB 2.0 port. The thin design must have been behind the omission of a second USB port, which the original dock had, but one is still a plus for connecting things like gamepads, external hard drives, keyboards, mice, and just about any other USB device you can think of. It supports all of these out of the box, near flawlessly. (I even tested it with my Sidewinder X8 and to my surprise, it worked just as well on windows despite not having the Sidewinder software). It even charged my phone. Neat.

The keyboard dock with all features listed

The keys are “chicklet” in design and are very comfortable and responsive. Almost all system shortcuts are here, allowing you to quickly adjust volume, brightness, and playback of media. Toggles for wifi and bluetooth are there too. The touchpad is, much like the previous model, good enough, consisting of right and left click as well as multitouch gestures.. Its not the most useful touchpad I’ve ever seen, but they did take an Apple approach by making the pad itself a big button, with sensors for right and left clicking. I actually like this change, as the separate click button approach on the previous dock was not that good. That being said, I just tap on the touchpad anyway, so its not a big deal.

Final Thoughts:

Throughout my day job I get to test a plethora of hardware of all kinds. Servers and bridges, audio encoders and mixers, video endpoints and rendering farms, computers of all shapes and sizes. Every category has a wide range of variance and power. Right now, the tablet market is erupting from its infancy into the dominant section of demand in the market.

It's a great looking piece of hardware, which can't always be said for ASUS products.

Sitting on my desk tomorrow will be two iPads, a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, and a TF01. I have to be familiar with all of them when testing web/rich media content. None of these devices have been a joy to use on the level the Prime has. Sure, it’s predecessor laid the foundation, but the beefed up hardware in the Prime coupled with the unrivaled superiority of Android 4.0 is currently impossible to top. Everything works, it’s all fast, and the device itself is top notch. The Galaxy Tab 10.1 might be the only unit close to it at the moment, but for the price, I’d go with ASUS every time.

Lucky for us, there are so many options available, as well as a monster list of upcoming devices that all look to be quite interesting. Choice is good, and the Prime is one hell of a choice.

 

 

 

-Jimmy “I got the “Amethyst Grey model, which I think actually has a purple look to it, which I really love. It’s Different.” the G.

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This post has a Shenanaganary rating of:

“WHAT? AN UPDATED VERSION RELEASED AT CES? IT HAS A BETTER SCREEN AND A PLASTIC BACKING? Eh. I’ll keep the metal one.”