The netbook is dead, but the cheap laptop lives on, with Asus attempting to find a middle ground with its Transformer style of tablet hybrid and a sub-$500 price point.
Hybrid laptop tablets have never really been made for people on a budget, but the Asus Transformer TF103C hopes to change this, throwing enough tech into a tablet and keeping a keyboard nearby.
The tablet is going to be the most important part here, and for this machine, Asus has provided a 10.1 inch touchscreen display with all of the technology inside this section.
The screen itself runs a resolution of 1280×800, displaying a pixel clarity of 149 pixels per inch, which isn’t anywhere near Retina-class, but will be enough for most people.
Beyond the screen, look for an Intel chip under the hood, with the Atom Z3745 quad-core processor clocked at 1.33GHz and paired with 1GB of memory, below the 2GB sweet spot Android tends to prefer.
Storage is set to 16GB in our review model, and there’s room to move with a microSD slot on the top left edge of the touchscreen.
Connections are relatively standard on this model, with 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, Miracast, GPS, with a microUSB port to charge from and a proprietary dock connector found on the very bottom.
A headphone jack can also be found here, but the rest of the multimedia is catered for with cameras, and there’s a 2 megapixel rear camera with a 0.3 megapixel front-facing camera.
There are only a few buttons of which to speak of here, with the power button up top on the left side, the volume rocker on the left edge, and Android’s on-screen soft buttons for back, home, and multi-tasking sitting at the very bottom of the display in a black bar.
Like most tablet hybrids, all the bits and pieces you’d normally need to think about are in the tablet, but there’s a second piece to this puzzle as well.
That piece is the keyboard dock, which is a staple in the Asus Transformer range, and in this model, you’ll find a keyboard, trackpad mouse, and full-size USB port working with the tablet.
No other ports can be found here, unfortunately, but the keyboard does support several function buttons, including keys for media playback, searching, taking screenshots, and turning wireless on and off.
The battery in the tablet (screen section) is rated for up to 9.5 hours of battery life, and there is no other battery in the keyboard section.
Can an Android hybrid tablet be made for a budget?
That’s the question being asked with the Asus Transformer TF103C, a new lower priced entry model Transformer tablet looking to get in under where the older TF300 and TF201 models sit, offering similar design and functionality but with different technology.
We need to note that the TF103C is totally different from the Windows T100 made by Asus, which has a similar name and design — it even sports a similar processor — but differs by way of running Windows 8 instead of Android.
Move past that, though, and you’ll find the 10 inch Android-powered TF103C ready for use, encasing a decent 64-bit system-on-a-chip processor from Intel, and a nice screen ready for you to use.
Switch it on and the screen comes to life, which you’ll pretty much expect. To its credit, Asus has provided an excellent screen here, with solid viewing angles and excellent colour. The brightness is strong, and we’d be surprised if anyone really struggled with this display, even if its pixel per inch number isn’t as high as it could be.
In the hands, the tablet is comfortable to hold, but very plasticky, thanks to the reliance on plastic, which is used in the body.
We’ll talk performance later, because it’s both good and bad, but we’re very pleased to see Asus using Android 4.4 “KitKat” here, the most recent iteration of the Android operating system.
Even better is the overlay Asus is using, which is clean, relies on a flat design, and is very bright and colourful.
If you’ve played with Android before — especially some of the other devices running KitKat — you’ll see some familiar elements, such as the app menu, albeit with a few extra tabs at the bottom, and a different drop down menu with flat icons and shortcuts to tools you might want access to.
All up, it’s an excellent interface, and offers a slightly lighter shade of what Google is trying to offer, which also matches the widgets Asus has packed in for checking the time and weather on the Transformer Pad.
Moving on from the look of the TF103C, you have the performance, and unfortunately, that’s where the tablet gets a little hit and miss.
Despite grabbing some impressive benchmarks, the system performance struggled, with a few tabs open in Chrome running alongside a few apps seeming to break the back of the TF103C.
We’re not kidding when we say that, as around four internet browser tabs slowed this budget Transformer to a crawl, with clicks not registered, flicks on the screen to move up and down a web page, and a general sluggishness as we tried to multitask.
Even when you close several apps and run the tablet without a lot going on at the time — because Android multi-tasking makes that a cinch — you may find a reasonable amount of lag and slowdowns as you perform actions on the tablet, with a pause of a second or two or three as the tablet waits to perform what you asked of it.
That’s not a positive experience for us, and we think much of the blame lies in the lack of memory for the tablet, which sits at a piddling 1GB for the entire device, well below the Android sweet spot of 2GB.
That low-end spec setting isn’t great, but neither is the terrible selection of cameras, with a useless 2 megapixel camera on the rear, a camera your smartphone could easily beat and a feature that doesn’t bother us terribly (because seriously, why would you need to take pictures on a tablet?), but the 0.3 megapixel shooter on the front is a little weak.
That’s 640×480, and a shooting size we thought we were well and truly over. Seriously.
We get that this is a Transformer for a budget, but even the lower priced 7 inch MeMO Pads produced by Asus have better front-facing cameras, rated at 1.2 megapixels last year and 2 megapixel this year.
Also not helped on this tablet is the lack of a battery in the keyboard dock, which might not seem like a big deal, except that previously, Transformer computers from Asus have normally featured a second battery to keep the tablet section charged, providing even more life out of a hybrid.
But here on the TF103C, there is no extra battery, and that’s not good, especially if you’re keen to get more than 7 or 8 hours, which seems to be the rough feeling we had from our time playing with, reviewing, and typing our review of the machine on.
Typing on the keyboard is also a hit and miss affair. For the most part, it’s quite comfortable, if not a little too soft, but the layout of the right shift key, which can be a pet peeve of ours, is a touch frustrating, especially if you’re reliant on typing it with your right hand, which is something the small bunch of lefties in the world are likely to do (this writer included).
As such, this keyboard places a rather small right shift key next to the arrows, specifically the up arrow, making it likely you’ll accidentally hit the up key for a while until you manage to memorise this placement.
As far as budget tablet options go, people have quite a few. Seven and ten inch bodies alike have been out for a while, and so it’s not as if it’s hard to find something for a price point, but packaged with a physical keyboard, well that’s a different story altogether.
But while the Asus Transformer does manage to provide the combo for a price point, it’s not the best you can get, not by a long shot.
Given the $429 price point, there are probably better tablets you could find without the keyboard, and we’d probably look at these, factoring an extra hundred or so for a decent set of keys.
If this is a must-hit price, fine, but once again, we’d probably see if anything else fits the bill, because with less expensive and better performing Chromebooks out there, as well as more capable tablets without keyboards, we’ve probably choose those instead.