THE FIRST AND SECOND Transformers movies were abominations, and Hasbro has sued Asus for violating its Transformers trademark, but there’s no denying that Asus’s Eee Pad Transformer Prime improves on the original Transformer tablet in nearly every conceivable fashion.
Asus’s latest tablet—we’ll just call it the Prime—loses the awkward build of its predecessor in favor of a smaller, lighter, and more stylish aluminum-backed chassis. It’s actually thinner than the iPad 2—probably as thin as it could be considering it’s outfitted with a combo headphone/mic-in jack, a Micro HDMI port, a MicroSD card slot, and a USB/charge/dock port. A matching keyboard dock (a $150 option) adds full-size USB and SD card interfaces and up to 10 hours of additional battery life. The dock provides many helpful keyboard shortcuts, and its keyboard action and trackpad mouse response improve over the original.
She’s a beaut: The Transformer Prime comes in either Amethyst Gray (pictured) or Champagne, in capacities of 32GB ($500) or 64GB ($600).
Displays have been a consistent high point in Asus’s Eee Pad series, including the Eee Pad Slider, and the Prime includes a Super IPS+ display with Gorilla Glass. The screen is highly reflective and smudge-prone, but it looks absolutely beautiful and offers very wide viewing angles. HD video, whether streaming or running off internal memory, exhibited sumptuous detail and color. A new Super IPS+ brightness mode significantly boosts the Prime’s brightness level—at the expense of battery life, of course—but the tablet remains difficult to use in bright sunlight. It’s an improvement, but there’s only so much a manufacturer can do with LCD technology on this score.
Most of the hype surrounding the Prime has focused on the new Nvidia Tegra 3 CPU, a quad-core chip with a fifth “companion core” to handle simple tasks that don’t require much power. Asus programmed the Prime with three performance modes to balance performance and power consumption. Normal mode runs a single core at its maximum clock speed of 1.4GHz, or two, three, or four cores at 1.3GHz each. Balanced mode throttles the CPU down to 1.2GHz per core, and Power Saving mode runs the cores at between 600MHz and 1GHz each, depending on how many are running. We kept mostly to Normal mode, natch, and the differences were noticeable.
Detached from the dock, the stand-alone Transformer Prime rivals any other tablet for design and performance.
There aren’t many use cases or benchmark tests that show off the CPU’s full power; certainly none that reach the 5x gains over the Tegra 2 that Nvidia has promised. Tegra 3–optimized games such as Shadowgun, Riptide, Sprinkle, and Glowball, on the other hand, are endowed with astounding next-generation lighting, water, and motion effects. And thanks to the addition of USB pairing, we played them using a wireless gamepad. These were only demos, however; with any luck, the full games will be available by the time you read this. In any event, we look forward to seeing what else developers can do with the Tegra 3’s horsepower. There’s potential for this Honeycomb tablet to become a formidable portable game console.
Asus has also enhanced the UI overlying stock Honeycomb, with features such as a much-improved notifications/settings pop-up menu that provides many more helpful shortcuts than the other Eee Pads. In fact, web browsing is just about the only area without huge performance gains; the CPU speeds up some rendering tasks, but that’s about it. The stock browser also still occasionally exhibits frustrating nonresponsiveness to touches. The advertised battery life of about eight hours held up in our tests: The tablet lasted seven hours and 42 minutes looping a 720p video in Normal CPU mode with brightness and volume set at 50 percent.
All told, the Eee Pad Transformer Prime stands out as the most impressive Android tablet to date. The only thing holding it back is an update to Android 4 Ice Cream Sandwich, which Asus says is forthcoming. With a promising new OS on the way and a price tag equal to a 16GB iPad 2, the Prime could herald the rise of the real Android tablet market.
Eee Pad Transformer Prime TF201
Huge gains in CPU and graphics performance; fantastic display; top-notch industrial design; excellent keyboard/expansion dock.
Browser performance still feels last-generation; very little Tegra 3–optimized software at this point.
Android Honeycomb 3.2.1 (upgradeable to 4)
1.3GHz quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 w/1GB RAM
10.1-inch Super IPS+ LED backlit, 1280x800 (WXGA)
32GB internal; 8GB Asus Webstorage; Micro SD expandable
8MP rear with auto-focus and LED flash; 1.2MP front
Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.1, Micro HDMI, USB 2.0 (proprietary cable)