When it launched the original Eee Pad Transformer TF101 last spring, ASUS was the first and only vendor to offer a 10-inch tablet with a keyboard attachment that turned the device into a clamshell-style Android notebook. The Eee Pad Transformer Prime TF201 achieves an even bigger first, as it is the first tablet powered by Nvidia's quad-core Tegra 3 CPU. However, the $499 Transformer Prime is more than just a performance leader; with a slim design, super-bright IPS screen, sharp camera, and comfy keyboard dock, it's now the Android tablet to beat.
One of the best-looking tablets we've tested, the Eee Pad Transformer Prime has a brushed-aluminum Amethyst Gray back with a shiny, circular gray pattern and a silver ASUS logo that reminded us of the ASUS Zenbook UX31 Ultrabook. The front of the device has an unremarkable, but pleasant, glossy black bezel.
The thin rounded sides hold a fair selection of ports and buttons. The smallest power button we've ever seen on a tablet sits inconspicuously on the upper-left surface. In practice, we found it difficult to locate the button, but paradoxically, it was far too easy to accidentally press it when holding the device upside down and leaning it on a table or lap.
The left side holds a volume rocker, microHDMI port, and a microSD card slot. The right side has only a 3.5mm audio jack while the bottom contains a proprietary docking port that connects either to the optional keyboard dock or to the included USB cable, which can either charge the Transformer Prime or sync it to your PC. We wish the tablet had a full-size USB port and SD card reader like the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet and the Toshiba Thrive, but that's the price you pay for epic thinness.
At 10.4 x 7.11 x 0.3 inches and 1.3 pounds, the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime is one of the thinnest and lightest 10-inch tablets on the market, out-slimming mainstream competitors such as the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet (1.6 pounds, 0.6 inches thick), the Sony Tablet S (0.8 inches, 1.3 pounds), and the Acer Iconia Tab A500 (0.5 inches thick, 1.7 pounds). The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 (9.7 x 6.7 x 0.3 inches, 1.2 pounds) has a thinner bezel and is 0.1 pounds lighter.
Display and Audio
The Transformer Prime's 10.1-inch, 1280 x 800 display is the brightest panel on the market today, thanks to Super IPS+ technology that allows it to achieve extremely wide viewing angles, even when used outdoors. In order to conserve power, the notebook supports two display modes: Standard IPS Mode and Super IPS+ mode. In Standard IPS mode, the Transformer Prime maxes out at an extremely bright 380 nits, but when you enable Super IPS+ mode, that number jumps to an eye-burning 600 nits.
Whether we were viewing photos, surfing the web, or streaming movies on Netflix, the Prime's screen provided vibrant, colorful images that were as sharp and rich as any we'd seen. Viewing angles were strong too: The trailers for Iron Man 2 and Tron Legacy remained colorful from 180 degrees to the left or right. The colors only washed out slightly when we tipped the tablet too far back.
When compared to the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1's screen--our previous favorite--the Eee Pad Transformer Prime's display was a lot brighter, though colors seemed a little less vibrant. At full brightness, the Galaxy Tab's screen averaged 350 lux, a bit less than the 359 lux provided by the Prime in Standard IPS mode and miles behind the 571 lux which ASUS' tablet scored in Super IPS+ mode.
Unfortunately, Super IPS+ mode still doesn't make the Transformer Prime's display viewable in direct sunlight. When we tried looking at the screen in the afternoon sun, we could barely make out anything on the screen except for our reflection and some thumbprints. However, when we moved into a half-shaded area, the Prime's screen in Super IPS+ mode was much easier to read than that of the Eee Pad Slider, which does not have Super IPS+ capability.
Unfortunately, the Prime's audio prowess is no match for its display quality. The single speaker produced sound that was fairly accurate, but flat and quiet even at maximum volume. Whether we were listening to a high-pitched Weezer song on Slacker or Patrice Rushen's "Forget Me Nots" on Rhapsody, sound was blissfully free from tinniness and loud enough that we could hear the lyrics as long as we didn't walk more than a couple of feet away from the device.
However, when we tried streaming Netflix videos, we could hardly make out the dialog, even at maximum volume. Even worse, the speaker grille sits on the lower-right side of the back, right where your hand might cover it as you hold the device.
The Transformer Prime's virtual keyboard offering is nothing to tap home about. In addition to the stock Android 3.1 keyboard, the Prime comes with the ASUS virtual keyboard, which looks almost identical but has an optional trace feature that lets you form words by drawing lines between letters.
Unfortunately, we found the trace process inaccurate and annoying. When we tried to trace "Avram," the keyboard typed "Scam"--though Swype users may prefer it. ASUS' keyboard also supports optional haptic feedback, but the feedback is not adjustable and is too faint for our tastes. Considering how wide both keyboards are in landscape mode, thumb typing is impossible. We wish the system came with a split keyboard option for easier typing with two hands.
The $150 dock is not only the best tablet keyboard attachment we've tested; it's downright sexy. The 10.3 x 7.1 x 0.4-inch, 1.2-pound dock has an attractive brushed-metal surface that matches the gorgeous Amethyst Gray color of the tablet's back. The brown keys provide a great deal of tactile feedback, while the matte touchpad makes navigating the user interface a breeze, even though it does not support multitouch gestures.
Though we wish the right Shift key were larger, we really appreciated the presence of dedicated Home, Menu, Back, and Search keys that allowed us to perform these functions without touching the screen. The palm rest was pleasantly cool against our hands, though we wish it were just a little longer so our wrists wouldn't hang off the edge.
Snapping the Transformer Prime into its dock was as simple as positioning the bottom of the tablet against the top of the dock and snapping it in. Unlike with the original Transformer, we were usually able to connect the Prime on our first try, without using much force. Once inserted, the Prime remained firmly in place, with no threat of popping out, until we slid the lock mechanism open to release it. When we folded the docked tablet closed, it looked just like a tiny netbook and, at 2.5 pounds, weighed less than even the slimmest Eee PCs.
When connected, the dock provides the Transformer Prime with a lot more than just a keyboard; it also includes a full-size SD card reader and a standard USB port you can use to attach external storage devices, mice, or even wireless game controllers. The dock also contains a 22-watt hour battery that, according to ASUS, promises an additional 50- to 60-percent battery life. You can charge both the keyboard and the tablet together by attaching the charge cable to the dock.
Though ASUS promises to upgrade the Transformer Prime to the new Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich sometime in 2012, the tablet currently comes pre-loaded with Android 3.2 Honeycomb. As with the original Transformer TF101 and the Eee Pad Slider, ASUS has made only minimal tweaks to Google's OS by mildly customizing the Home, Back, and Menu button icons and setting a tree-filled landscape as the default wallpaper.
ASUS has also included an optional live wallpaper that shows ice cubes floating in water (their size decreases as the battery drains). The quick settings menu on the lower right also has a few options you won't find everywhere, including a brightness slider with a Super IPS+ toggle button next to it and icons for changing the device's power mode.
Like other Honeycomb tablets, the Prime has five home screens for storing your shortcuts and widgets. By default, the center home screen has a weather and time widget that shows your current location, the time, and temperature. The left home screen has a widget called MyZine, which shows the newest picture in your gallery, along with links to your email, calendar, books, music, and last-visited website.
Those unfamiliar with Google's Honeycomb tablet OS will appreciate the ability to see and switch between a complete list of open applications by tapping the layers button in the lower-left corner of the screen, something you can't do on earlier versions of Android. They will also love the dual-paned views that appear in Google's built-in email and Gmail apps when the tablet is in landscape mode.
Unlike any other tablet we've seen before, the Eee Pad Transformer Prime has three different power modes: Balanced, Normal, and Power Saving. These modes, which you can change through the quick settings menu, control the maximum clockspeed of the CPU in order to prioritize either battery life or performance.
In Normal mode, all four of the Tegra 3 CPU's cores can operate at their maximum speed of 1.3 GHz, while in Balanced mode the cores are capped at 1.2 GHz. Power Saving mode caps the cores at 600 MHz when all four are active, 700 MHz when three are active, and 1 GHz when one or two are active. It also caps the frame rate at 35 fps and lowers the display power. For more information about Nvidia's Tegra 3 processor, check out our guide.
ASUS says that most users will see the best combination of performance and battery life from Balanced mode. However, Normal mode will give gamers an extra boost, and Power Saving mode should be good enough for watching movies or surfing the web on long trips. On our tests, Power Saving mode seemed more than good enough for everyday use, but the performance of some applications--such as the panoramic photo app PhotoTaf--was slower.
As the first tablet with a quad core processor, the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime lives up to the hype. Whether we were playing demanding games such as Riptide, streaming videos, shooting panoramic images, or just surfing the web, the Prime's Tegra 3 CPU provided the best performance we've seen on a slate. As with every other Android tablet we've used, we noticed occasional moments of slowness in opening a menu or launching an app, but there were fewer of those moments than on other devices.
The Transformer Prime took only 10.5 seconds to stitch 11 photos into a 360-degree panoramic image using Photaf Lite, which is about 50 percent faster than the dual-core Eee Pad Slider's time of 15.78. When we turned the Prime to Power Saving mode, that time slowed to 18.9 seconds.
The Tegra 3 CPU's superior performance showed in most of the synthetic benchmarks we ran. On Linpack, which measures overall CPU performance, the Transformer Prime returned record-setting scores of 47.36 in single-thread mode and 70.27 in multi-thread mode. Those numbers compare very favorably to the 36.8/63.3 score turned in by the Tegra 2-powered Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet and the 28.9/58.3 offered by the Sony Tablet S.
On the Android benchmark known only as "Benchmark," the Transformer Prime returned a record-breaking score of 4,096.7, 50 percent higher than the 2,623.9 category average and much faster than the ThinkPad Tablet's 3089.3, the Sony Tablet S' 3193.8, and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1's 3,158.72.
Graphics and Gaming
Strangely, there were a couple of synthetic graphics benchmarks which did not benefit from the Transformer Prime's Tegra 3 CPU. For example, the tablet returned a respectable score of 8,050 on An3DBench, which is well above the 7,117 category average and the 7,526 turned in by the Galaxy Tab 10.1, but oddly lower than the 8,579 turned in by the original Eee Pad Transformer TF101.
On FPS2D, the Transformer Prime's rate of 58 fps was actually a little lower than the 61.4 fps category average and the 68 fps provided by the original Transformer. We can only surmise that these benchmarks were not programmed with quad-core processing in mind.
In real-world testing, the Transformer Prime provided an amazingly smooth gaming experience with more visual effects than we found on Tegra 2-based tablets such as the Galaxy Tab 10.1. Whether we were shooting up a construction site in Shadowgun or slashing zombies in the western game Bladeslinger, images were sharp and detailed.
When we tried playing Glowball, a demo from Nvidia that lets you roll a ball around a graphically rich environment, our ball rolled around quickly as the screen displayed amazing effects such as reflections, billowing cloth, and shadows. When we copied the glowball game over to the Galaxy Tab 10.1, that tablet's older Tegra 2 CPU couldn't properly render the lighting effects, making a giant clown's head in the game too dark to see and the ball so slow we couldn't control it accurately. When we turned off all special effects, the ball was a little quicker, but the image was completely flat and texture-less.
When we played the jetski racing game Riptide on the Prime, we were treated to a beautiful reflective effect on the water and animated splashes as we landed from jumps. On the Galaxy Tab 10.1, motion was smooth, but the image was not as sharp, the water was not reflective, and there were no slashes.
Web Surfing and Rendering
Unfortunately, these faster synthetic benchmarks did not add up to faster web page downloads in our real-world tests. When we tried loading three popular websites (Laptopmag.com, Nytimes.com, and ESPN.com) on both the Transformer Prime and the Eee Pad Slider, the Transformer took an average of 14.9 seconds to load each page to the Slider's 11.3 seconds. We can only guess that these times were different due to changing speeds on our network as we tested one device after the other. But either way, it looks like you'd need to view an interactive web app, rather than a static web page, to see the benefit of the faster processor.
The rear 8-megapixel camera on the Prime has an f2.4 aperture and LED flash for improved low-light capability and sharper images. On our tests, outdoor images were some of the best we've seen from a tablet, with reasonable color quality in shady outdoor photos and sharp detail on objects indoors.
Images of a flower bed taken in the late afternoon were vibrant and sharp, though the oranges and pinks on the petals didn't pop as much as we'd like. Photos of a skyscraper showed lots of detail, as did a shot of a can of Diet Coke taken at our desk.
The back-facing camera on the Prime can also shoot video in 1080p, a big step up from the Transformer TF101 and other Android tablets that only shoot in 720p. A video of moving cars was smooth and detailed, though not as sharp as we would have wanted.
The 1.2-MP front-facing camera captured our face passably, though it did nothing to compensate for the low light in our living room. As with every other tablet, Gtalk video chat was frustrating because even the Prime's quad-core CPU can't stop that program from transmitting and receiving incredibly blocky images that move at a snail's pace.
Software and Services
ASUS bundles the Transformer Prime with a suite of useful productivity and security apps. Polaris Office allows you to open and edit spreadsheets, Word files, and PowerPoint presentations. App Backup makes reserve copies of your applications, as its name suggests.
An amazing feature for parents who want to let their kids use the tablet, AppLocker allows you to lock apps so that users must enter a password to launch them. Using the program, we were able to lock the Kindle app so that another user could not get into it and read our books.
However, our favorite pre-loaded app is SuperNote, a colorful note-taking app that let us paint or take handwritten notes with our fingers. Though we wish this app supported OCR to convert our letters to ASCII text and that the Transformer Prime supported an active stylus like the ThinkPad tablet, taking notes in SuperNote was a lot of fun because we were able to draw large letters in the middle of the screen and then watch as they shrank down and lined up perfectly with the notepad lines.
MyCloud allows you to sync content from your PC or Mac to cloud and then access it from your tablet. It also allows remote access to your desktop PC and the ability to stream content from ASUS' @Vibe media service. @vibe music is ASUS' music store, and My Books is its eReader and newspaper/magazine store. In testing, we found that flipping through pages of Alice in Wonderland was actually a bit slow, and our touches weren't always recognized. When we browsed an issue of the New York Post, images were sharp, but hard to read because they were nothing more than photographs of the newsprint.
ASUS includes 8GB of free online storage space. You can access this account using the pre-loaded WebStorage app.
ASUS claims that the Eee Pad Transformer can last more than 10 hours when playing video and more than 15 hours when the dock is attached. In anecdotal testing, we found that the device lasted nearly 8 hours of continuous intense use. On the LAPTOP Battery Test (Web surfing via Wi-Fi), the tablet lasted 7 hours and 11 minutes in Balanced mode and the screen in IPS, which is about 20 minutes longer than the category average; that time dropped to 5:42 when we turned on the Super IPS feature. With the dock attached, the Transformer lasted 10:43 in Balanced mode.
Configurations and Accessories
The Eee Pad Transformer Prime comes in either 32 or 64GB versions for $499 or $599, respectively, in your choice of Amethyst Gray or Champagne colors. The keyboard dock costs an additional $150.
The $499 Eee Pad Transformer Prime is not only the fastest tablet we've tested, but also one of the best-looking, most functional, and--because of its AppLocker--the most family-friendly. We were wowed by its brilliant IPS display, razor-thin design, and remarkably comfortable keyboard dock. Users looking for a large choice of apps may still prefer the iPad 2, and those who need a tablet for business/note-taking may prefer the ThinkPad Tablet with its pen and security features. However, if you're looking for the most powerful, portable 10-inch Android tablet on the market, look no further.