A few months after the success of the EeePad Transformer, Asus is back with the EeePad Transformer Prime, which looks set on push the envelope in all domains. The screen, the processor, the design and soon the operating system have all been improved on the Prime. The overall concept is however unchanged: what we’re getting is the missing link with a keyboard dock equipped with an additional battery and connectors.
First of all, this is the first machine to run on the new NVIDIA Tegra 3 processor (codename Kal-El). A quad-core clocked at 1.5 GHz, it also has a fifth core (Companion Core) clocked at 500 MHz designed for simple tasks that don’t require too much processing power. 1 GB of RAM and 32 GB internal storage are added to the mix. Asus has preferred to start its Prime range at 32 GB rather than 16 GB at the same time as keeping the price down to the level of the smallest capacity (16 GB) first Transformer at launch.
The connectors on the new tablet are identical to those on the first: a 40 pin proprietary port for the keyboard dock connection, file transfer and charging via a USB port or USB charger, a micro-HDMI out, a microSD slot to increase storage capacity by up to an additional 32 GB and finally a 3.5 mm headphones jack.
The screen comes with an IPS+ panel that can switch to Super IPS+ mode when you’re using it outside. This new generation panel gives improved contrast along with impressive IPS+ mode brightness.
The optional keyboard – though automatically sold on some markets (it looks as if the UK is included in this group) as a bundle - is equipped with a back-up battery that in theory gives you an extra six hours. Remember that the first keyboard dock doubled the Transformer’s battery life, but here the basic tablet battery lasts longer, taking overall battery life up to a theoretical 18 hours compared to 16 hours on the first tablet.
There’s also a USB port (compatible with external storage in the NTFS format), another proprietary port and an SD/SDHC card reader.
Our test model was running Android in its Honeycomb 3.2 version but in the course of the month of January 2012 Asus will be offering a big update and moving the tablet over to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. We’ll be retesting the Prime then to check out what changes 4.0 brings.
The Asus EeePad Transformer Prime and keyboard bundle is on sale in the UK in its 32 GB wi-fi only version at £499.
Design & Handling
Here Asus is bringing us a tablet that's slimmer than the iPad 2 and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, with the Prime measuring just 8.3 mm compared to closer to 8.5 mm for the other two. The brushed aluminium coating catches the eye from the off. When the keyboard dock is joined to the tablet, it looks very much like an very high-end netbook.
Note that Asus has stayed true to the tradition of ignoring common sense in the placement of the speaker. Here it’s on the back under the right hand. Another issue we have with the hardware is that the screen border is still too wide. There’s no cover for the connectors but they’re very well built into the chassis.
The keyboard (see inset for more details) is made from the same material as the tablet with an aluminium coating and a touchpad and keys taken straight from the very good Asus netbooks. As on the first Transformer, the keyboard comes with dedicated Android keys to return to the home page and launch the browser or the camera or to turn off the touchpad.
The hinge is still a bit stiff and you have to hold the machine in both hands to get it open. The attachment is solid all the same and it's easy to forget that there are two separate parts.
At 586 grammes (against 630g for the iPad 2, 547g for the Galaxy Tab 10.1 and 680g for the EeePad Transformer), the Transformer Prime is light for its size. The weight doubles when you add the keyboard dock though it's less than the first Transformer.
Owners of the first Transformer bundle should note that the products are not inter-compatible, so don’t go forcing the connection!
The first thing we have to say is that the average contrast on this new panel is better than any other tablet product we’ve tested up till now, with 1224:1 in standard IPS mode and 1138:1 in Super IPS+.
Note that you can go from one mode to the other via the shortcut window at the bottom right of the screen and even set the level of brightness there without having to go into the machine settings. This may seem pretty logical but represents an innovation for tablets.
Contrast is a good deal better than the iPad 2 or the Acer Iconia Tab A500 and the RIM BlackBerry PlayBook, which were up until now top of the class for contrast ratios. This average contrast is also a lot better than the 814:1 reading we got for the EeePad Transformer.
Colour accuracy however leaves something to be desired. The average deltaE in standard mode is 7.6 and in Super IPS+ it's 6.8, which is a lot worse than the PlayBook and its remarkable score of 4 (colour accuracy scores should be as close to 0 as possible, with 3 constituting an excellent score).
Colour temperature is however on the warm side and the Prime scores an almost perfectly flat curve here with 5467K and 5411K for the standard and Super IPS modes respectively. There’s none of the tendency towards red or blue here that you often see on competitor models.
As with the Transformer, the IPS supplied here gives wide viewing angles with a marked loss of contrast as of around 75°, however users obviously don’t tend to use tablets by looking at them from the side and you’ll find it easy enough to use the Prime in a group.
Ghosting times are however a bit higher than on the iPad 2, which also uses an IPS panel, with average ghosting of 23 ms (compared to 17 ms with the Apple). Asus however improves the impression of fluidity by adding a black frame every three frames and this then reduces ghosting.
We’ll conclude this section on the screen with a word on the Super IPS+ mode which facilitates outside use as never seen before on a tablet. All this goes to make this the best screen we’ve seen up until now on a tablet. Note that prolonged usage of the Super IPS_ mode can seriously reduce battery life.
Interface & Navigation
[UPDATE 28/02/2012] When you start the tablet up, it’s not immediately obvious that the EeePad Transformer Prime on Android 4 (4.0.3 to be precise) is running on a new OS. The interface still maintains a very ‘Transformer’ style, which is quite different from the minimal graphics seen in the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. However, if you look a bit closer, you can see that some of the Android icons have changed slightly. The camera icon, for example, is now an actual camera rather than a shutter-release button.
The onscreen interface for the photo and video camera has been updated too, with a wheel of ultra-simplified settings and a new Panorama mode accessible directly at the bottom of the screen. The Panorama mode works just like in Sony NEX cameras—you move the tablet from one point to the next of the panoramic scene you want to capture. The result, however, isn’t particularly impressive.
The application menu is now found in the widgets tab, and a long press on one of the homescreens no longer allows you to change the background image. It’s out with the sci-fi style animations and in with a more practical, more sensible and more minimalist approach.
Android now seems more simple, and it also feels like there’s not much difference between mobile and tablet versions of the OS (apart from the widgets, of course). The only notable difference between the two (which is more beneficial to Android 4 mobiles than tablets) is in the full-screen mode, as the image never quite uses all of the screen in this tablet. In other words, you’ll still find vaguely transparent horizontal bars around the image when viewing ‘full screen’ on a tablet, which is a bit disappointing.
The general graphics and typeface used in the OS have had a bit of a make-over, and the previously rather confusing Settings menu has been tidied up. A package of Google services has been added offering access to all of the American giant’s tools, from social networking to practical applications. Most notably, Google+ and Chat+ have made an appearance, which will no doubt help boost the popularity of Mountain View’s home-grown social network.
Aesthetic changes are all very well and good, but what everyone really wants to know is whether the updated OS will finally make an Android tablet smooth and fluid. Well, you can rest assured that it definitely does. Gone are the glitches when you open up the multitasking window and the slight slow-downs as you swipe from one homescreen to another. The updated Transformer Prime is very responsive and very pleasant to use, and the Nvidia Tegra 3 processor seems at ease in a sleeker environment that’s been purged of the minor annoyances that were holding it back. Obviously, the Nvidia chip plays a major role in ensuring this seamless operation, giving a result that’s much more impressive than Honeycomb. However, we’ll be interested to see how the OS works on a less powerful product.
There are no stability issues with the multitasking bar, even with 10 apps open and running. Plus, with Android 4, you can thankfully now shut down apps by sliding their icons over to the right of the screen.
The Ice Cream Sandwich update doesn’t seem to have any impact on battery life, with the tablet alone lasting for an average of 10 hours 30 minutes while the tablet and keyboard combo holds out for 16 hours. Note, however, that the Super IPS+ screen mode will wear the battery down more quickly.
On top of Android, you also get some custom applications added by Asus. Apart from MyCloud, MyLibrary and MyNet, which are already known to us and which were present on the first Transformer, you also get SuperNote here, a very nice complement for making notes on the fly. The finger is recognised as a sort of stylus and the user can not down whatever they like. Prime puts the text in lines without however having a handwriting recognition feature, so you will have to be able to read your own handwriting! Both the on-screen or physical keyboard can be used here.
SuperNote is actually full of clever little extras, such as the addition of a photo on the fly (that you have taken there and then or loaded from the gallery) with a few retouching options, the insertion of a voice note or a drawing, a choice in the thickness and colour of lines drawn and so on. SuperNote isn’t necessarily out there on its own when it comes to such features (also found on the Samsung Galaxy Note, or even the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet, both of which come with a stylus), but gives the sort of quality and pertinence likely to appeal to students and professionals. Notes can be shared either in jpeg format or as the text content of a mail.
For more advanced document editing, Polaris Office is included in the tablet and is a pleasure to use with the physical keyboard.
The NVIDIA Tegra 3 adds to the experience. The main attraction of this new chip comes with the Companion Core, the additional 500 MHz core. As it takes care of the basic tasks, it allows the 1.5 GHz quad-core monster to remain inactive for more of the time, which improves energy economy.
If the mood takes you however and you wish to wake the beast, you can do so via the direct access icons at the bottom right of the screen which allow you to give orders straight to the Tegra 3.
The leaf represents eco mode (priority to the Companion Core), a dial standard usage and a flame keeps the quad-core running continuously.
Let’s nevertheless come back to Android 3.2 briefly as, even with the 1.5 GHz quad-core that equips this machine, it’s still showing itself to be a bit capricious in places. There are slight pauses when you move between desktops or active apps in multitasking mode, which shows that the OS doesn’t work like iOS. This comes down to the fact that Android programming has historically been written around applications and the management of these applications rather than the user experience. There’s little chance that this will change drastically with Android 4.0.
Nevertheless, compared to all the other Android 3.x tablets on the market, the Prime is incontestably the one that runs best with everything responding almost instantaneously apart from these few hesitations
Internet browsing isn’t yet as fast as traditional Windows or Mac mobile products, but it isn’t far off. The 1280 x 800 pixel resolution allied to the 10.1-inch screen make for a clear, sharp display. The IPS panel offers stable playback in both portrait and landscape mode. The Tegra 3 chip shows its power when dealing with Flash-rich pages, unlike certain other tablets.
When it comes to media support, you can see that NVIDIA has learned from past errors, particularly with respect to video. In the past too many users complained that they couldn't play HD videos at 1080p. This has been resolved with the Prime as the Tegra 3 can at last decode 1080p up to High Profile (above 20 mbps). It handled everything we threw at it, even MKV H.264 1080p 90 mbps files! To make sure, we advise you to download a third-party player, such as DICE (a paid app but which covers all the bases and is compatible with the hardware decoding of the chip) from Android Market to make sure you can display all formats.
Only ‘very High Profile’ files pose a problem for this tablet, notably if you’re navigating within a video, but even then you'll only notice some slight jumpiness with no further consequences. Overall, everything seems pretty fluid. The Transformer Prime can thus metamorphose into a media player using its micro-HDMI out, even if we prefer the Galaxy Tab when it comes to flexibility in file handling.
Moving onto gaming, the Prime is even more impressive than with HD videos! A demo such as ShadowGun is entirely transformed! The additional effects (particles, waves), enriched graphics and textures make it a whole new game. Another example is with Riptide, the jet ski racing game. Here the handling of aquatic effects or speed blur is excellent. Tegrazone, the games download platform for Tegra chips, ensures an impressive flow of titles.
The Transformer Prime can also turn into a games console using its micro-HDMI out coupled with a USB or wireless Bluetooth joystick, turning it into a competitor to the Xbox 360 or the PS3 for games that cost five times less. Thanks to the HDMI 1.4 moreover, the video out has a 3D mode (side-by-side) allowing you to display Tegra games in 3D (YouTube 3D videos too!) if you have a 3D TV. What choice!
Now to the camera. The main camera sensor has 8 Megapixels. Of course the utility of having such a camera on a 10.1-inch tablet is relative but all the same, this sensor is in another class altogether to the other tablets on the market. Shots are slightly dull, but with a high level of detail at the centre of the image. The flash causes burn and holding the tablet stable is another story altogether. In any case, if you only have your Prime with you, go ahead and use it. It’s got what it takes.
Asus has proudly announced that its Transformer Prime can give 12 hours battery life and up to 18 hours with the keyboard dock. In practice, we didn’t achieve this but the Prime nevertheless gave almost 10h25 for mixed usage (Internet, mailing, gaming, video, editing).
The only tablet that is at all comparable is the iPad 2. Once equipped with its keyboard dock however, the Prime manages just under 16H30. You can also charge the tablet using the dock.
When using the tablet purely for video playback, the battery lifespan hardly changes and the tablet takes around 3 hours to charge back up.
The tablet also has a power monitoring app, which displays the battery life levels of both the tablet and the keyboard and an animated image in the shortcuts (bottom right of the screen) allows you to monitor the transfer of energy from the keyboard to the tablet.
- A top IPS+ screen, good even outdoors
- Fast Tegra 3 quad-core processor / Android 4 ICS OS smooth and fluid
- Nice design, very slimline, good use of aluminium
- Keyboard dock an improvement on the first one
- Good battery life / Video decoding
- Poor speaker sound
- Keyboard could still be improved / Tablet not available without the dock
- Proprietary connector for charging and connecting the dock…
- No dedicated media player
If you don’t want to go for an iPad and you’re looking towards Android, the EeePad Transformer Prime is THE top product out there right now. Sure, you have to get the keyboard with it, but this takes the tablet into another world—that of the hybrid device able to handle tasks across the board. It has a powerful processor, a super-smooth OS, an incredible battery life and an excellent screen. What’s not to like?!