The original Asus Eee Pad Transformer broke new ground, blurring the line between tablet and notebook PC. The Transformer Prime builds on the original concept with a 1.3GHz quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor that makes it the fastest tablet to be released in the UK. Power is useless if not wielded properly, however, and in the tablet world that means it must be wrapped in an impossibly svelte casing and paired with a joyously slick operating system. It’s clear from first glance that Asus knows the rules – the Transformer Prime is like the offspring of a rock star and a supermodel. Its all-metal back and sturdy construction make it feel instantly like a premium product.
The thing that really grabs your attention is just how thin and light the Transformer Prime is. At 8.3mm it knocks 0.5mm off the iPad 2’s already slender hips. All excess weight has also been removed, making the Prime 15g lighter than the Apple’s tablet at 586g. In design terms, the screen side of the tablet is nothing to shout about, but you probably weren’t expecting any surprises. The 10.1-inch screen has a featureless black bezel that hides a camera for video calling and provides ample handling room around the edge of the touchscreen.
So far that’s just half the story, as aside from the powerful new processor, the other headline feature is the keyboard dock. It’s one that could capture the imagination of buyers who are looking for a one-size-fits-all solution, or netbook users looking for something sexier. In the UK the Transformer Prime is only available as a bundle with the keyboard. It’s likely that Asus will separate the two fairly soon, but we don’t know why you’d want to get one without the other when it adds such versatility. The two halves slot together surprisingly easily – there’s no need to carefully line up the tablet port with the docking slot. A satisfying click rewards the manoeuvre, and there is never any doubt that the two are firmly connected. Separating requires a slide of the spring catch and the two ease apart.
It’s worth noting that with the 537g keyboard attached the Prime instantly becomes almost twice as heavy, though it’s still by no means a burden, compared to a laptop, when slipped into a bag. The keys are nicely separated and typing is easy. Top-row shortcut buttons are an extremely handy addition, giving quick access to everything from screen lock and volume to setting and media controls. There are no complex buttons or options on the Transformer Prime.
For prolific typists, the full-size L -shaped return key will also be a draw. The trackpad is the only vaguely weak link on the keyboard. While it’s perfectly usable, it does require some compensation for its skittish tendencies, and we had to make a conscious effort to avoid it with our palms when typing. When not in typing mode, its multi-touch support makes two-fingered scrolling of web pages and swiping between home screens a breeze. The Transformer Prime’s 10.1-inch touchscreen uses Super IPS+ display technology, which is extremely bright. Using it outdoors, even in sunlight, isn’t a problem, and the screen contents are visible from all angles, making it a great entertainer. The picture produced by its 1,280×800-pixel resolution is crisp and bursting with colour too.
Battery life on test
The Transformer Prime, through a combination of a decent battery and clever use of its Tegra 3 processor, manages to keep going for an incredibly long time. Asus quotes 12 hours for the tablet only, and a tireless 18 hours when hooked up to the keyboard dock, which contains its own separate battery.
During our test, we achieved results within an hour of the figures quoted by Asus, which is a good result. Some welcome common sense has been applied to charging, too. When plugged in together, the tablet charges fully before the keyboard gets its turn. Likewise, when running off the battery, the keyboard sacrifices its power reserves first, meaning that after almost six hours’ use you’ll still have a fully charged tablet to unhook and take away. It’s well-considered touches like these that make the Transformer Prime such an attractive prospect, though the proprietary charging port would have been better as a traditional MicroUSB port for practical reasons.
Storage and inputs
One significant benefit of the Transformer Prime’s two-piece approach is its much-improved connectivity options – not that the tablet itself is lacking when compared to its peers. There’s a 3.5mm headphone socket, charging port, MicroSD card slot and MicroHDMI output for sending video to a larger screen. There’s already 32GB or 64GB of storage on board, but if you have stacks of apps, music and movies you can add up to 32GB of additional memory using a MicroSD card. The keyboard sports one USB 2.0 port and an SD card reader. This makes transferring photos from a digital camera very straightforward and allows the use of USB drives, console game controllers and mice. Versatility straight out of the box is definitely the Prime’s trump card. For a tablet, the Transformer Prime is also a very capable snapper. On its back sits an 8-megapixel camera with LED flash that takes respectable photos. Reproducing accurate colours and managing to avoid too much softness creeping in, it’s on a par with many top-end smartphones. It will also shoot 1080p video to a reasonable standard. Screen-side, there’s a standard 1.3-megapixel camera for video chat.
Android 4.0 and Tegra 3
The Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich update brings a level of polish that Honeycomb never quite achieved, and it runs without a single hesitation on the Tegra 3 processor. There are three buttons along the bottom of the screen – back, home and a third that fires up the active apps bar on the left side of the screen. Switching between apps is near instantaneous, and having a big stack of them all running at once doesn’t faze the Prime in the slightest. Web browsing is similarly snappy. In addition to Ice Cream Sandwich’s built-in features, Asus has added a smattering of its own, including an own-brand battery-level widget for both tablet and dock. To make the most of the keyboard, the Polaris Office app is also on board, ready to open Microsoft Office documents. Where the original Transformer with Honeycomb stuttered, the Transformer Prime with Ice Cream Sandwich doesn’t miss a beat. Even with multiple apps (including games and video) running at the same time, it responds instantly. HD video isn’t chewed through so much as swallowed whole, and the game demos we played on the Transformer Prime really gave an idea of the possibilities of the tablet. First-person shooter action in Shadowgun was smooth and responsive, with in-game water features rendered beautifully. Offering opportunities for work and play, Asus has come up with a tablet that will appeal to all.
The Transformer Prime is a supremely powerful, versatile and well-built Android tablet. It also marks the first time that people won’t ask you why you didn’t get an iPad instead – because the reasons are obvious.