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Tuesday December 6, 2011 3:30 pm

Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime review

Posted by Andru Edwards Categories: Google, Handhelds, Product Reviews

Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime

The Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime feels like the first laptop-class Android tablet, with its quad-core 1.4GHz processor, clever add-on keyboard dock, and its support for USB storage and console gamepads. This is easily the most impressive Android tablet ever. But with such startling specs, it's outstripping the weak app selection available for Google's Android Honeycomb OS. Although there are a few standout apps for the platform, the lack of a thriving Android tablet app community makes the Transformer Prime a less sure choice than it should be. Read on for our full review of the Transformer Prime to see if it's worth your attention (or money.)

Physical Description and Battery Life
The 1.3-pound Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime ($499 for 32GB, $599 for 64GB) is a very long, narrow tablet at 10.4 by 7.1 inches, but it's very slim at 0.3 inches. It comes in silver or purple. There's a power/dock connector on the bottom, a MicroUSB slot and MicroSD card slot on the left, a standard 3.5-mm headset jack on the right and a somewhat annoyingly recessed power button on top. The tablet connects to the Web using Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n, and it also has Bluetooth.

Turn the tablet on to experience a slightly altered version of Google Android Honeycomb (3.2), with some custom widgets, slightly altered icons, and some exciting new settings when you tap on the lower left corner of the screen. One of the settings boosts the sharp 1280-by-800 IPS LCD into an extra-bright 600 nit mode, which takes the screen from slightly dimmer than the Apple iPad 2's ($499) to somewhat brighter, albeit at the cost of battery life.

But why are you buying this tablet without the $149 keyboard dock? The dock turns the Prime into a netbook, adding a six-row keyboard, whose keys are  94 percent as wide as standard laptop keys, and a trackpad below that. The keyboard's top row is all function keys, and there's a separate menu button; many Android features are mapped to keys so you won't always need to touch the screen, although you'll still have to reach forward for things like scrolling Web pages. The keys are comfortable to type on, but the trackpad button is extremely stiff.

Almost as importantly as the keyboard, the dock adds an extra battery and a full-sized USB port so you can plug in flash drives, hard drives, or gaming controllers.

Tegra 3's added power doesn't mean shorter battery life. It should mean longer battery life in many cases. In our standard test, with screen brightness turned to max, processor speed at normal, playing a video file until the tablet fails, we got a very respectable 7 hours 38 minutes of playback, almost exactly the life of the iPad 2.

With screen brightness at 50 percent and the power profile set to "balanced," Asus and Nvidia claim 10 hours of video playback. Plugging in the dock, which adds its extra battery, adds another 5-6 hours of life. The Transformer Prime is truly an all-day device.

Transformer Prime Dock

This is the fastest, most powerful tablet we've ever tested. And yes, that includes the iPad 2. The secret ingredient is Nvidia's five-core Tegra 3 chipset, including four cores which work together at up to 1.4GHz each and a "companion core" which runs alone and sips power during idle moments.

You won't see the blinding speed when you're poking around the main UI or some of Google's apps, as they're occasionally nonresponsive, although screen transitions are a bit more fluid than on other Android tablets. But in an app that's programmed well for this tablet (or in our benchmarks), the power comes out.

The Prime has three Performance modes that you can set in the status bar. Power Saving mode caps the processor cores at between 600MHz and 1GHz depending on usage, caps video frame rates at 35 fps and lowers the screen brightness, all to save power. Balanced mode caps the quad-core processor at 1.2GHz per core. Normal mode goes all out.

In Normal mode, the Prime scored a breathtaking 10,619 on the Antutu system benchmark, roughly doubling the score of even fast devices like the HTC Jetstream ($549), with its 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm processor. Much faster RAM and CPU scores made the difference; the tablet was on par with other recent devices for database access and SD I/O. The processor had less effect on Sunspider and Browsermark browsing benchmarks, although the scores of 17ms at Sunspider and 98324 at Browsermark were among the best we've seen on a tablet. Switching the modes down to Balanced, and then Power Saving had the expected effect. First I lost about 10 percent of the speed, and then half.

This is a spectacular tablet for gaming. The boat game Riptide GP has more realistic water effects than on the iPad; I also played Zen Pinball and Big Top THD, both with rich, gorgeous, well-lit graphics. Adding the dock lets you plug in real gaming controllers, although it also forces you to play in landscape mode. Playing Riptide with a PlayStation 3 SixAxis controller was the best time I've had playing a game on a mobile device, ever. It's much more responsive than tilting the screen. Zen Pinball is also much more playable with real buttons, though I would have liked to be able to play it in portrait mode. (Asus says the tablet also supports some Bluetooth controllers; but we didn't test those.) Touch screens just aren't the natural interface for many games. A good game controller can make all the difference.

Adobe's new PS Touch, an Android version of Photoshop, also showcases the tablet's raw power. The app lets you perform complex, multilayered transformations on images. Combine it with Autodesk's Sketchbook Pro, get a stylus, and you have a terrific tablet for artists. The quad-core processor greatly speeds up PS Touch: A filter that makes a photo look like an acrylic painting took 1.4 seconds, as opposed to 5.3 on the dual-core Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1($499.99).

I did run into some bugs during testing. The Market app stalled out a lot. The Browsermark benchmark sometimes crashed the browser. Occasionally while typing in office suites, the cursor jumped around for no apparent reason. When I plugged a USB stick into the dock too quickly after docking the tablet, the tablet wouldn't recognize USB memory until after a cold boot. Scrubbing through a 7.46GB MKV video file made the video player quit at one point; a reboot solved that, too. 

There's only one perplexing sore point: It takes at least twice as long to cold boot this tablet than any other I've tested. The Prime takes about a minute to boot; the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1and Apple iPad 2 take about 30 seconds.

Apps, Such As They Are
This is the first tablet review I've actually written on the tablet. That says a lot, but it doesn't say enough.

The Transformer Prime runs Android 3.2, just like most other Android tablets nowadays. An upgrade to Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" is coming soon, Asus pledges. It comes with all the typical Google apps, plus some custom widgets and 8GB of cloud storage from Asus.

The problem is, as always, finding apps that take advantage of the Prime's hardware is much, much harder than it should be. The vast majority of the apps in Google's and Amazon's app stores are designed to work well on small, cheap smartphones, not to show off what a quad-core tablet can do. Google steadfastly refuses to force developers to include the "Max API" flag, an existing tag which could segregate the low-power, low-res phone apps away from tablet users. Nvidia has improved the situation a bit with its Tegra Zone, a free alternative app store which spotlights games designed for its Tegra 2 and 3 devices.

For office work, you have the choice of a few suites; I tried DocumentsToGo and OfficeSuite Pro. They're functional but quite basic. The keyboard dock works with them to enable popular keyboard shortcuts, though, so you can shift-select and then hit control-X to cut text, for instance. And you'll have to post your document online; as with all Android devices, there's no built-in support for printers.

The Android interface also doesn't have a quick way to easily flip between several windows. You can say the same about iOS, of course. But I have the Prime next to my Windows 7 netbook right now, and I'm missing the fluidity of being able to have two windows on a screen or to flip between tabs of things without poking the multitasking button at the bottom of the Android interface. The Prime's hardware can do a lot of things at once, but the software doesn't spotlight that.

The Prime has an 8-megapixel camera on its back panel and a 1-megapixel camera on the front. The tablet comes with either 32GB (27GB usable) or 64GB of storage, and supports memory cards up to 64GB in its built-in slot. (Our 64GB SanDisk card worked fine.) You can also plug full-sized USB drives, even hard drives, as long as they're Windows (FAT/NTFS) formatted, into the USB port on the dock.

Photos taken with the 8-megapixel rear camera were generally sharp, but had a distinct red cast in my tests. Outdoors, a bright sky washed out but the foreground was in focus. Low light performance on both cameras was very good, delivering surprisingly well-illuminated pictures.

Videos recorded outdoors were sharp and smooth at 30 frames per second in 1080p resolution for the back camera and VGA for the front camera. The rear video camera took a bit of time to focus indoors, though, and the front camera knocked its frame rate down to 15 frames per second in low light.

Obviously, the Prime plays any video format you can think of at resolutions up to 1080p. Lip sync was perfect over both wired and Bluetooth headphones, and outputting to a Samsung TV over HDMI was no problem. The speakers are unusually loud and clear, and streaming high-def YouTube videos looked better than on any other tablet I've ever seen.

Of course the Prime is better than other 10-inch Android tablets. It's faster, offers more performance options and has that awesome dock accessory. The real question is, should you get this tablet rather than an iPad (which is the same price, without the dock) or a Windows 7 laptop?

The Prime beats the iPad and even some laptops on specs. It's the finest Honeycomb tablet available. But its failings are Honeycomb's. After seven months, Tegra Zone has 25 great games. iOS and Windows 7 each have hundreds, if not thousands. QuickOffice is a fine office suite, but it's no Microsoft Office. I could go on.

It's absolutely possibly to create a great ecosystem out of nowhere. Apple did it on the iPad. Google has failed to do so with Honeycomb. This problem holds back Asus, Acer, Samsung, LG, Huawei, and, well, every Android tablet vendor.

So if you're considering the Prime, just make sure it does what you need. I can't recommend it the same way I would the iPad 2, assuming that there's an app available for whatever. If you're a Droid through and through, you'll revel in the power here. For Web surfing with Flash, for playing Nvidia's Tegra Zone games, or for drawing in Sketchbook and PS Touch, the Prime is the ultimate experience right now.If you're considering this tablet, you first need to go to market.android.com and make sure the apps you want aren't just there, and that they're optimized for tablets. Until Google can offer a broad array of easily discoverable tablet apps, tablets like the Prime will get good reviews, but won't our wholehearted endorsement, or our Editors' Choice.

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