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Review: Asus Transformer TF-101

tl;dr: Awesome!

I wanted to give my review after at least a week to settle in and integrate into my daily ‘flow’.

Why the Asus Transformer?

I’ve looked at more tablets than I can remember, teetering between the Motorola Xoom, Apple iPad2, Notion Ink Adam, and the Transformer.  All of these seemed like great devices and had their own pros; however, the Transformer sold me on a few of its flashy innovations:

  • Asus seems dedicated to constant updates. They’ve already pushed out Android Honeycomb 3.1 OTA and it updated like a champ.
  • The docking station/keyboard is brilliant and really bridges the gap between netbook and tablet and adds incredible battery life.
  • The mix of hardware performance for an incredible price point (499$US for the 32GB unit and 149$US for the keyboard/docking station at Amazon.com).
  • Flash support. Yes, I’m looking at you iPad2.

Photo of the Transformer... and swanky placemat backdrop.

 

How has the Transformer changed things?

I’ve noticed it’s changed things in the oddest of ways. I haven’t opened my personal laptop since I got the Transformer (it looks big and powerful, but it’s just old and … well, old).

Around the house, I’ve found myself using the Transformer in place of my EVO. I use it in the kitchen to look up recipes, check for coupons, make note of my groceries in Mighty Shopper, and listen to music. Other times, like for this post, for simple word processing, web browsing, and email. More functionality and less squinting.

Work Computer Size ComparisonAt work, I’ve used Polaris Office for note taking, presentations (via the HDMI out), web browsing and research as I wander around the office with folks, and email. The remote desktop client (2X Client) allows me to remote into servers, my office desktop, and client machines for diagnostic work.

With Android 3.1, the web browser engine finally supports NTLM/Windows authentication so I can log into our corporate web sites (I hope this is coming to the Gingerbread builds soon).

I still have my phone with me through all this.. the Transformer hasn’t replaced the portability and features of my phone, but augmented what I can do without an actual desktop computer.

 

The Hardware

You can read the unit’s specifications, so I won’t drive into them too much. There are a few things to mention.

The bulk

Overall, the unit (and keyboard doc) are quite light compared to a normal 14" laptop.  The tablet itself is very comfortable to carry around (long days here at work, so I’ve been pacing around while researching on the web).

The keyboard dock

Image of the the keyboard dock.I was a bit worried that the keyboard dock would be uncomfortable to use; however, that’s not the case.  The keys are well spaced apart (once you get used to the ‘special’ keys at the top–I keep accidently locking the unit when I hit backspace) and the monitor can tilt back far enough for easy reading.

It’s important to note that the keyboard dock’s additional battery life is due to the dock charging the main unit while it’s docked.  This is advantageous.  Wander around and run the battery down a bit on the tablet, then dock and let the keyboard charge things up, detach, and you have a fully charged tablet again.

The POWER!

It is quite disappointing that the Transformer has a unique USB cable; however, even more so that it’s only about a meter long.  This hassle is aggravated by the fact you cannot charge the unit via USB while it’s on, so if you need a charge AND need to use it, you’re trapped a meter from your electrical connection or extension cord.

Thankfully, with the 14-16 hours of battery life, charging isn’t a central focus of the day (unlike my EVO which is dead by the time I get to work).

The video output

Less of a big deal and more of a ‘oh’ moment when digging for cables.  My EVO and a few other video devices all use micro HDMI so I had to pickup a 1.3a mini HDMI cable for the Transformer.

The screen

I love the screen. It’s a bit hard to see in high light (it’s not a Kindle for outdoor reading); however, the fingerprints are a bit out of control. I plan on getting a screen protector which, I hope, will help.

The camera

The camera is only a 5MP (compared to the 8MP in my EVO) and takes 4:3 photos rather than wide screen. That aside, it’s quite a good camera for general ‘here I am!’ sorts of photos–like lounging on the hammock in the back yard on a peaceful evening.

Example Transformer camera image--my back yard.

The lack of right click

I understand… I really do. The Android device doesn’t have a context for ‘right-click’; however, I dream of the day when it does so that the remote desktop clients have right-click.

Keeping it safe

I picked up a Belkin 10" Netbook Sleeve when ordering and highly recommend it as a carry case for the Transformer.  The unit, whether you’re just carrying the tablet or the tablet and keyboard dock, fit very well into the sleeve and the zips/material feel and look good.

 

The Software

Out of the box, the Transformer walks you through a simple configuration–much like my EVO (or any Android phone). Setting up email, syncing contacts, and such worked just fine. I was impressed that the unit also synced my Google bookmarks. That’s an added bonus.

The basics are included:

  • Email (Enterprise, Gmail, etc.) – The layout and flow of both mail applications is the same and works VERY well on landscape mode.
  • Calendaring – nice, clean "Outlook-esque" layout.
  • Contacts – standard Android contacts client.
  • Polaris Office – bundled Office client for DOC, XLS, and PPT. Works quite well (and what I used for this post). It can also read/write to Google Docs, Dropbox, and a few other cloud services. At this time, I’m getting 400 errors trying to save BACK to Google Docs; however, from the forums, it appears that it is a Google API issue.
  • MyReader – Simple eBook/pdf reader akin to Aikido.
  • MyNet – network-based HD streaming client. Detects my PlayOn devices and streams perfectly.
  • MyCloud – a subscription-based, unlimited storage system for music and files. Transformer includes a free 1 year subscription. I haven’t dug into this much as I have LiveSync and DropBox.

In addition to the boxed software, there are a few applications that I’d recommend (and seem to work quite well with the Transformer and Honeycomb):

  • Dolphin Browser HD – Bit cleaner interface for web browsing and plugin modules (3.1 addresses some rendering issues though).

    .

  • Amazon Kindle Reader – Great for reading Kindle books on the run (and without your Kindle). The update for Android 3.1 works even better!
  • Pandora – Great and solid music client.
  • Grooveshark – Formatting is a bit off, but works fantastic to query and stream your favorite tunes.
  • Google Reader – Great tablet support for full-screen reading.
  • imo Chat beta – Best IM client I’ve found for any type of Android device.
  • Plume – best Twitter client that takes advantage of the notifications and wide screen layout.
  • DropBox – the Android DropBox client is pretty stellar.
  • PrintBot – a free (and for cheap) application to print to network devices over WIFI. Works great and, hopefully, future versions will allow for multiple printers.
    NOTE: Similar to the Gingerbread break, Netflix is defunct on Honeycomb as well. I had hopes (dreams) that 3.1 would fix it, but alas it doesn’t seem so. Netflix is adamant that a new version is in the works. I hope so. It was great to have mobile movies on my cell phone and the Transformer seems ideal

Upgrading to Android Honeycomb 3.1

honeycomb_3-1-580x309On 10 June 2011, Asus released Android Honeycomb 3.1 for the Transformer. The official version is v8.4.4.5 (the SKUs are separate by locale). 

There are two options:

I’m impatient, so I opted for the manual method.  The process was quite simple:

  1. Download the 8.4.4.5 zip file from the internet.
  2. On a microSD card create an \asus\update directory and copy the ZIP file into that directory.
  3. Insert the microSD card into the Transformer. You should see a notification that an update is available.
  4. The device will reboot a few times and then be good to go.

There are a few highlights to 3.1 (detailed by the release notes) that I really dig:

  1. The browser (and any browsers relying on it’s webkit) now supports NTLM/Windows Authentication. AWESOME for work!
  2. (Most) widgets are now resizable. I’ve come across a few that won’t resize.
  3. Speed! 3.1 generally feels faster.  Multitasking across a dozen apps with notifications flying and music playing doesn’t seem to bother it.

Summary

With the tablet upgraded to 3.1, the applications that I like, and features that keep impressing me, I think the Transformer will continue to be a great fit. The keyboard matches my dire need to rapidly input information (take notes, respond to emails) and the portability matches my recent need to roam free of wires and surf the web. 

The Transformer is a fantastic bridge between the smallest of laptops and the largest of cell phones and, unfortunately, is what I’d hoped the Google Chromebook would have been.  Don’t get me wrong, I like my Chromebook–it was free and I like free–but the Android-based Transformer can actually DO the things I need to do in my day-to-day life.