With the second iteration of its Transformer series, Taiwanese company Asus finds the middle ground between tablet and laptop in a way unmatched by other companies. Is this the perfect hybrid?
Encased in a rose gold-finish in spun aluminium, the Asus Transformer Prime is but a shadow of its former self. The brother to 2011’s Transformer TF101, the new model is thinner, lighter, more powerful, and features a stronger battery.
Designed in two sections, the Transformer Prime resembles a netbook, but one that can be broken into two components. At the hinge is a release switch that operates to separate the screen section from the keyboard.
Like the first version of the Transformer, the screen is a 10.1 inch multi-touchscreen with 1280 x 800 high definition resolution covered in Corning’s scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass.
The panel is a high quality IPS screen – like that in the iPad 2 – although Asus has improved it considerably by making it a “Super IPS+” screen, a brighter model with wide viewing angles that has been designed to work better in sunlight. Switching to this mode will reduce battery life, however.
Two cameras are included here in the screen: a rear 8 megapixel camera with 1080p Full HD video capture and LED flash, and a front-facing 1.2 megapixel camera – useful for video conferencing.
New to the machine is the Nvidia Tegra 3, a quad-core processor featuring more speed and enhanced graphics. Google’s latest version of Android – 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich – is included here, making it more up to date than any other Android-equipped tablet currently available.
Connectivity is strong in the screen section, with Asus providing a micro HDMI port, 3.5mm headphone jack, and microSD slot – useful for expanding the memory beyond the 32 or 64GB provided.
Wireless is pretty straightforward, with 802.11b/g/n and Bluetooth 2.1 provided. There is no option for wired Ethernet, nor is there a built-in SIM card slot for 3G.
More connectivity options are provided with the included keyboard dock, an accessory that was an optional purchase in the previous Transformer product. Here in the Prime keyboard dock, you’ll find a island-key QWERTY keyboard, small trackpad mouse, SD card slot, USB port, and an extra battery capable of boosting the life of the Prime an extra six hours.
The follow-up to the excellent Transformer TF101, the Prime takes much of its design inspiration from Asus’s own recently launched ZenBook range. In the ZenBook, the computer is encased in an ultra-thin aluminium shell that is as sturdy as it is pretty.
While the Transformer Prime is nice on paper, it’s even more spectacular in the flesh. The rose-gold metallic look is very attractive, and displays a lovely, luxe-like sheen. It’s also very svelte.
It’s also quite thin. By itself, the tablet screen section manages a thickness of 8.3mm, thinner than that of the iPad 2. Paired with the keyboard section, it expands to around 19mm at its thickest point, making it thinner than many a notebook, and thinner than our Belkin keyboard case-equipped iPad 2.
In a way, we’re reminded of the new Ultrabooks coming to market, with their slim designs and metal enclosures. In fact, we’re expecting to see the thin notebooks accommodate a touchscreen this year, meaning the Transformer Prime can be interpreted as the forerunner of a new generation of computers.
So what we really have in the Prime is a laptop with a removable touchscreen. This is easily removed using a hinge on the latch; just push the latch and pull up on the screen section – no need to power off or perform a restart either. It’s a smooth and simple mechanism, and one that makes the Transformer a compelling option for tablet buyers who don’t want to miss out on a proper keyboard.
Typing on the Prime’s keyboard is a very positive experience, with an excellent keyboard provided here. It’s a completely different experience to the one found on the Asus ZenBook, where the keyboard required such heavy, definite keystrokes for letters to register. The Prime responds accurately to soft and firm keystrokes, both types registering with a satisfying click.
When it’s not docked, the tablet offers a touchscreen virtual keyboard with Swype-like finger tracing spelling. This works accurately too, albeit without the feedback of a proper tactile keyboard.
The dock’s touchpad mouse, however, isn’t the greatest. The thin rectangle works as a single button, albeit one without a lot of feedback. We’d have preferred no mouse, the entire touchscreen being, for all intents and purposes, one giant mouse. It’s a good thing, then, that Asus has provided a dedicated function key to switch the trackpad off.
Unlike most other Android tablets, the Prime is equipped with the latest version of Android 4.0. Like how the OS appeared on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, the menus are more organised, the text is clearer, and there is a permanent shortcut to the shop in the main apps menu. You also get five widget-ready homescreens, and switching apps off is as easy as flicking them out of the list with your finger.
Doing this and switching between apps shows how speedy the new Tegra 3 processor can be, and you can always download games designed to take advantage of new chip by using the “TegraZone” app found on the Transformer Prime.
We’re a big fan of the connectivity options in the Prime. A microSD slot in the tablet section and an SD card slot in the dock allows you to upgrade the basic memory pretty easily. Reading and uploading photos is also made easier with Prime, especially since you don’t have to purchase any extra accessories to read SD cards.
The battery on the Transformer Prime is top notch, too. We easily managed around three days of periodic use between surfing the web, playing a few games, writing this review, and checking the mail. Like on the first Transformer, the battery in the keyboard dock will recharge the battery in the screen once it’s plugged in. This keeps the main section – the tablet – charged at all times. In fact, we’d go out on a limb and say that this is one computer we’d trust on an overseas flight, providing one of the most impressive batteries.
Asus has done some excellent work with the Transformer Prime, and there’s really little to complain about. In fact, our only major complaints stem from performance and the slippery metal at the base of the Prime.
Despite the quad-core processor inside, the Transformer Prime does lag in performance from time to time. We noticed it mostly when browsing the web and waiting for the screen to kick into action. Most of the time, the Prime kicks along without any problems, but you may have to wait for the tablet to catch up to you occasionally when surfing the web or heading back to the home screens.
And then there’s the slippery issue of the bottom of the Prime, or rather, the base where the screen and hinge are.
Along the bottom of the Transformer Prime, Asus has been kind enough to provide rubber feet, but these don’t actually do anything when the touchscreen section is locked into the dock. At this point, the hinge creates an elevated back and the lack of rubberised protection on this can cause the Transformer to slip and slide easily across a hard surface.
Asus did attempt to provide some thin rubber feet here, but they are by no means strong enough, and if you try to force the screen into the keyboard dock on a slippery table, it can go sliding across the surface and onto the floor. Likewise, pointing and touching the screen when docked can do the exact same thing.
In the Transformer Prime, Asus has managed to perfect what it created the first time around. By adopting a similar body to the ZenBook, keeping build materials strong, and refining its unique design approach, Asus has delivered the ideal tablet computing solution.