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We have now had several tablets in the house here at PhoneDog and the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer is one of the cheapest and most well-rounded of them all. Still in an unproven market, the tablet world has yet to see a serious competitor under the $500 mark until the Transformer. It is available in two different versions: the 16GB model for $400 or 32GB for $500.

Although it comes with a smaller price tag than what we're used to seeing, the Transformer is no joke. It is a WiFi-only tablet that comes equipped with a 1GHz Tegra 2 dual-core processor, 10.1-inch IPS display, 16 or 32GB of memory, and an optional keyboard dock ($150) that sets this bad boy's battery life off the charts. Is the Transformer enough for people to being taking Android seriously in the tablet market? Is this form factor something we can expect to see more of?

Design & Features

Autobots, roll out! (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

When I ordered the Transformer, I honestly expected a poor to low quality product. I had skimmed some other reviews just to see some initial thoughts on build quality and if the device was even worth buying. When it came in the mail, I ripped open the box to a device with remarkably high build quality. Surprisingly, the Transformer is made of high quality materials, has awesome specifications, and can easily hang with its more expensive counterparts.

The Transformer is big. At 10.7-inches wide by 6.7-inches tall, it is both wider and taller than the Motorola XOOM and it looks plain silly in portrait mode. The face of the device is fitted with a 10.1 IPS (1280 by 800 pixel resolution) display that is covered by Gorilla Glass, a 1.3-megapixel resolution camera for video chatting, and a light sensor. Along the bronze metal band around the edge of the device, you will find a 3.5mm headphone jack, a mini HDMI out port, a speaker, and a (working) microSD card slot on the right. The bottom edge holds the proprietary ASUS charging port and two holes that are used to securely latch onto the keyboard dock. On the left edge of the device are the volume rocker, power button, and another speaker. Alone on the back of the device is the 5-megapixel shooter. The back is also made of a brown texturized plastic that allows for good grip and a solid feel.

The keyboard dock is made primarily out of the same materials as the Transformer. The top half (the side with the actual keyboard) is made of metal and colored to match the bronze strip around the edge of the tablet. The keys are raised and separated, making it easy to navigate without looking and very easy to get accustomed to – which is necessary, because it's a considerable bit smaller than your average keyboard. The bottom half of the keyboard is covered by the same material as the backside of the tablet, and it has four rubber feet on each corner to keep it from sliding. The right edge of the dock holds one USB port for external storage and a full SD card slot to easily share those pictures directly from your camera. The left edge has the charging port (same proprietary port that the tablet uses to charge) and another USB port.

When the two devices are attached, the Transformer looks very similar to any other ASUS netbook, open or closed. The only thing that truly gives it away is the large, abnormal hinge, the touchscreen, and the fact that it runs Honeycomb. The tablet by itself is fairly thin and light. It is almost 13mm thin and it weighs roughly 24oz. Paired with the keyboard, it is twice as thick and heavy. If you are worried about size and weight, the Transformer and its keyboard dock will put this bad boy around the size and weight of a netbook. Other than that, the design, look, and feel of this device is just plain sweet.

Usability & Performance

Powering the ASUS Transformer on for the first time did take a little time. It was a slow and painful process as all of my applications started downloading right away and everything was trying to sync at once. Typically, this process always temporarily slows a device down, but it was a bit worse with the Transformer. It usually only lasts a few minutes. Maybe five at most. But this time around it was roughly 10 or more. It could have been my home Internet, which has a tendency to get bogged down at times. After the process finished, the Transformer's performance was buttery smooth.

Honeycomb comes in an almost stock form on the Transformer. ASUS has added a few widgets and applications of their own. And they have obviously made some changes to the device to accommodate for the keyboard attachment. Other than that, you can expect a stock Honeycomb experience, and a rather smooth one at that. The Transformer is still on Android version 3.0 (it will be updated to 3.1 in early June) and is plagued by some force closing in the browser app and other applications that haven't been optimized. Aside from the occasional force close though, I have had very few problems out of Honeycomb.

I was surprised when I downloaded and launched a few different applications. A lot of the applications that were not yet optimized for Honeycomb when I tested the XOOM just three months ago are now updated to properly display on a tablet. The application support isn't quite where it needs to be just yet, but it's definitely coming around. Also worth noting is that it is extremely hard to distinguish whether an application is tablet-optimized in Android Market. Hopefully the pending update will fix this.

One of the more impressive aspects of the Transformer is its bright and crisp display. I've never been much of a display buff. I know some people complain of the checkerboard effect, washed out displays, and so on and so forth. Generally, as long as the display is halfway decent, I'm pretty happy. But the display on the Transformer is surprisingly very nice, especially compared to the XOOM's. I took my mother's XOOM, my iPad, and the Transformer into a dark room and compared the displays. The iPad's display had the most saturation, the XOOM's was completely washed out and made the purple background appear blue. The Transformer's IPS display was the most crisp and clear, something I wouldn't have expected out of the cheaper tablet.

The Transformer comes in both 16GB and 32GB versions. Being the memory hog that I am, I couldn't deal with only 16GB. I splurged and bought the larger version and popped a 16GB microSD card into the working slot. This is something that really puts Motorola to shame, whose XOOM came to market as an unfinished product with a nonworking microSD card slot. The slot on the Transformer works almost flawlessly, and if you purchase the keyboard dock along with the tablet, you have even more space for external memory. Just as an example, I plugged my 500GB external hard drive, an 8GB SD card, 16GB flash drive, and a 16GB microSD card into my Transformer and dock. That's right, I had a total of 572GB of storage space available on my Transformer at once. Not to mention, I had my entire music library available in Google's Music Beta, so my music wasn't hogging any of that precious memory. This is a little on the ridiculous side, but it should serve as a testament to this tablet's versatility.

Since the speakers are on each side of the tablet, they do provide a good sense of stereo. And with their placement, if you are holding the tablet in landscape with both hands, you can direct the sound towards you with the palms of your hands. That said, it's just as easy to cover them. Even at their loudest setting, the speakers are pretty quiet, especially in comparison to the Dolby speaker on my ThunderBolt or even the iPad's speaker.

The high point of this tablet is easily battery life. Something that could definitely use some improving is standby time as the tablet drains drastically overnight. In comparison to my iPad, which can go weeks without me touching it and barely draining whatsoever, the Transformer drained from about 70 percent to 35 percent during the night. It does seem sporadic, too. But while in use, the tablet has shown nothing but respectable battery life. ASUS rates the tablet to get roughly 9.5 hours of use and that's about what you will get out of it. Even though it drains fairly slowly, its charge time is pretty quick. Just based on some rough math and estimation, the Transformer will charge from completely dead to 100 percent in just over two hours.

If you use the keyboard dock, battery life is absolutely outstanding. The keyboard dock will power the tablet until it reaches 10 percent battery left. At that point, the tablet will switch to its own battery power and the keyboard will continue to power itself. The keyboard is rated at 6 hours of use and I consistently got 8 and a half hours out of it before it would hit the 10 percent threshold. One day last week, I took the Transformer off of charge at 11 am. At 3:30 am (yes, 16 and a half hours later) and after roughly 14 and a half hours of moderate to heavy use, the battery level was still at an outstanding 42 percent and the keyboard's battery was somewhere above 3 percent as indicated by the LED notifier. If you are looking for a tablet to use heavily all day and want to make it through the day, this is the way to go.

Text input has been a weak point for tablets thus far. The software keyboards on both Android tablets and the iPad are decent, but you either have to hold the tablet with one hand and peck with one finger or lay the tablet flat on a table and type flat, which makes it hard to see what you're typing. There are also some Bluetooth keyboard solutions for tablets. But the keyboard dock for the Transformer is tightly integrated with the Android experience. For instance, the entire top row of keys are dedicated to Android functions like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth toggle, brightness and volume adjustment, a settings and a browser key, music controls, a screen capture key, and a back and a lock key. There are also dedicated home, search, and menu keys. On top of all of that, the keyboard dock has a multi-touch touchpad and click button. When you dock the Transformer, it enters netbook mode and a cursor will appear on the screen. Using two fingers on the touchpad, you can scroll up and down or pan left and right (scroll between home screens). Needless to say, it gives a more complete feel than just using a Bluetooth attachment.

That said, there are some areas where the keyboard dock could definitely use some touching up. For instance, hotkey commands (Ctrl+A to select all text, Ctrl+C to copy all text, etc.) only work in some applications. Holding control and the backspace key, which I use religiously on my laptop, does absolutely nothing. Alt and the backspace key will delete an entire row of text that cannot simply be undone. And some of the function keys on the top row have inexplicably quit working once or twice. The only way to get them to work again is to reboot the tablet. Luckily, all of these things could eventually be fixed in a keyboard firmware update (I received one without a changelog on the second night I had the tablet).

Considering they have been primarily media consumption devices to date, tablets have not been something I can legitimately work from. Call me crazy, but I have always wanted to use a tablet for work instead of my laptop or desktop. And while I can't do everything from the tablet, I have done most of my PhoneDog work from the Transformer for the past several days. I have typed all of my articles using the keyboard dock. Quite honestly, I now prefer it. It's much easier to stop and go, and to pack it up with me if I need to work while I'm out. It's also great for the occasional round of Pew Pew 2 or game of Gun Bros.

Unfortunately, the pair of cameras on the Transformer are somewhat disappointing. The front shooter is rated at 1.3-megapixels and the rear at 5-megapixels. The front camera is obviously only meant to do video chatting, which I found it to be decent for, nothing more. The rear camera is sufficient at taking quick snapshots, but beware of the fuzzy, washed out pictures it will take. Again, video quality is decent, nothing more. I couldn't honestly see myself wanting to take pictures or videos with a 10-inch device anyway. They're nice to have but I wouldn't choose camera quality as my deciding factor for any tablet at this point.

Conclusion

Despite being truly affordable, the Transformer can throw a serious punch; it comes with everything its more expensive counterparts have and more. It is cheaper than the Motorola XOOM and has an arguably better display and more versatility, all for up to $200 less (topping out at $50 more paired with a keyboard and nearly twice the battery). It's good to finally see a serious Android tablet at a truly competitive price.

It's also nice to see that Android as a tablet platform is coming around. I noticed a lot less bugs and glitches in the Transformer's software. They were still present, but less noticeable. The application support is also growing quickly, though it's extremely hard to tell what is and isn't supported by tablets in the Market. Nonetheless, I have enjoyed every minute with my Transformer and love it when someone asks me what kind of netbook I'm carrying around.

Wrap-Up

What's Good: Fairly priced with an optional keyboard dock; exceptional battery life; versatile; bright and crisp display; ample memory and external storage space; Tegra 2 processor makes for little to no lag.

What's Bad: Bigger than other tablets with same size display; Honeycomb is still buggy; speakers and cameras are lackluster; backordered nearly everywhere; still lacking widespread tablet-optimized application support.

The Verdict: For the price, the Transformer cannot be beat. If you are seeking a tablet for both fun and to get some work done, the Transformer with its keyboard companion is the tablet for you. However, if you need an Internet connection while in a pinch, you might have to consider another tablet as this one only comes in a Wi-Fi model.


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