Initial impressions: ASUS Transformer (TF-101)

I recently purchased an ASUS Transformer tablet thingamajig to replace my Macbook Pro.

While I’ve only had it for 3 days, I’m very pleased with it so far! As such, I thought I’d post a bit of a run-down on my experience with it so far…

 

Price & Specs

  • Model: TF-101-1B180A
  • Price: $649 ex GST (inc. keyboard dock)
  • Hard drive: 32GB SSD
  • CPU: NVIDIA® Tegra™ 2 1.0GHz dual-core
  • RAM: 1GB DDR2-667
  • Subsystems: Compass, Gyroscope, GPS, Bluetooth, WiFi 802.11b/g/n
  • OS: Android Honeycomb
  • Battery: 9.5 hours in the tablet on its own + an additional 6.5 hours in the keyboard dock (the keyboard dock charges the tablet); so 16 hours all up
  • Screen: 10.1″ LED Backlight WXGA (1280×800) ultra-wide 178⁰ viewing angle
  • Cameras: 1.2 M Pixel Front Camera + 5 M Pixel Rear Camera
  • Ports: 2x USB 2.0 ports, SD card reader, MicroSD card reader, mini HDMI, 2x Audio Jack (Headphone/Mic-In)
  • Weight: 680 grams
  • Sound: 3D stereo with SRS

 

Immediate unboxing impression

My first impression when opening the box was how thin the unit was… especially considering the number of ports on it (no additional adapter purchases required – something that The Fruit Company usually makes you fork out extra money for). I also really like the colour (a mocha / coffee brown) and raised metallic texture of the casing – almost a tiny checkerplate design.

 

Booting it up…

Booting it up for the first time didn’t take long – probably 30 seconds featuring an ASUS logo then an Eee-pad logo. Subsequent restarts are much faster; probably 10-15 seconds from a “cold” start and 1 second from opening the lid (or pressing the power button on the side of the tablet) when it’s in sleep mode. That said, if you “close the lid” (when docked) or tap the power button, it moves into a semi-dormant state where it doesn’t use much power, but it still checks your emails, Facebook, Twitter etc as per whatever schedule you have setup.

 

The Honeycomb interface

Google has done tonnes of work since Gingerbread & their older [primarily] phone-based OS’s… Honeycomb is amazing and very flexible. It all “makes sense” – you can just get in and use it; it’s very intuitive and very fast on the Transformer with no lag whatsoever. Transitions and effects are smooth.

 

Transforming the Transformer

Transforming the Transformer from “netbook” (ie: docking it with the keyboard dock) to tablet and back again is fast. You can do it anytime and the OS seamlessly switches from on-screen keyboard to physical keyboard mode – even if you’re in the middle of typing something into a text box on, say, a website. You can also force the Transformer to revert to the on-screen keyboard while docked, if you prefer this. One small issue – when I switched the OS language to “English – UK”, a few keyboard symbols didn’t appear correctly on screen. For example, SHIFT + 2 on the keyboard is meant to insert an (@) symbol – but instead, it inserts a double-quote (“). Switching the language back to “English – USA”, however, corrected the problem.

 

Apps

Most of the apps that come with the ASUS Transformer are great – the web browser is quick, intuitive & easy to use and it supports pinch-to-zoom both on the screen or using the dock’s built-in trackpad. As alluded to above, multi-touch is also supported on the trackpad – so you can pinch to zoom on the touchpad, too (it acts like a mouse with a “pointer”, plus left & right click via a physical button just below the trackpad). You can find virtually any app for any task in the Android Market – so there’s plenty to choose from with stacks of free ones, too. I use the same Gmail account on both my tablet & phone (both run Android, although my phone runs Froyo) so apps purchased on my phone are available for installation on my tablet, too – and appear in the market as such.

Two of the supplied apps need a little work, though. While the Email application is awesome with a clean, crisp and slick interface, it doesn’t support Exchange servers that use custom port numbers (normal Exchange servers are fine, though)… I had to download a 3rd-party application (free) to connect to the Exchange server at work, as we use a non-standard Exchange port number. ASUS’s camera application is fairly simple too – no self-timer and basic options means it’s a thumbs down from me, but you can download better ones, so no problem. Apps that aren’t optimised for tablets, or for Google Honeycomb, still run fine – a few of them just appear a little “wide” sometimes (ie: long “OK” buttons, etc).

The widgets on the desktop are awesome, too… plenty of positioning & resizing options, heaps of room (over 5 screens – swipe left/right to access), plus a swag of fun “live wallpapers” like a virtual fish tank, lightning & several Matrix-inspired wallpapers (to name but a few) – all free, of course.

As for some of the apps I’ve downloaded, a few force themselves into portrait mode (this stems from application programmers & designers not supporting landscape mode) – meaning that when you’ve docked the tablet with the keyboard, you have to tilt your head 90 degrees to use the application. I figure that when presented with this problem, most application developers would simply say “So what? …turn the tablet 90 degrees and use it that way…” but when you’re docking with a keyboard, it’s a bit annoying to have to undock it just to use an application. However, I think this will improve over time as application developers come to realise that a device such as the Transformer exists (I think it’s the first Android Honeycomb tablet to have a keyboard dock that works in this way).

One such application that works like this is TeamViewer – the connection/setup screens operate in forced-portrait mode, but once you connect to an actual computer (to control it remotely), TeamViewer runs in landscape mode again. No biggie. 🙂

 

Battery

The battery is amazing… huge points for the Transformer here! To recount the story: I unboxed the Transformer. I charged it for 3 hours. I used my Transformer virtually all day & night on Tuesday and, by the end of day 2, it was down to a mere 96%! On Day 3, it was obvious that the “dock” was empty (and had stopped charging the tablet – which is how it works), as the tablet’s battery fell from 80% to 70% within the space of about 3 hours of use, but still… very impressive.

The concept of having the keyboard dock charge the tablet (while it’s sitting in the dock) is an excellent one. It means that whenever you undock the tablet and use it on its own, it ‘s battery will be as full as it can be. I let it drop to 50% late in the day before recharging it again from the wall. It took just three hours for it to reach 100% (nb. I have read that charging off the wall is much, much faster than via USB).

 

Keyboard

I have fat fingers, so it took a few hours to get used to the keyboard. The keys themselves are a good size & are well spaced (with ~3mm of space between keys). I think it’s more the actual positioning differences between various keyboard that I use, that took a few hours to get used to; but this happens to me all the time. Work PC, Home PC, Macbook, Transformer – all of the keyboards are slightly different so it takes a few keystrokes to get your mind into the right frame for that keyboard. No biggie, though.

The keyboard features the usual buttons such as shift & caps lock – plus menu & home buttons, as well as buttons for volume up/down/mute, WiFi on/off, etc. Great to use, even on my lap in a bumpy bus on the way to work 😛

 

Out & about

The ASUS Transformer I bought is WiFi only (a 3G model is meant to be out later this year), but I can still surf the web out & about (eg. on the bus) by creating a WiFi hotspot on my HTC Desire smartphone (also running Android).

Setting up the hotspot takes less than 5 seconds, as I just click once to launch the hotspot app and once more to activate it. The Transformer then connects to the new network automatically in under 5 seconds and I’m off surfing the web as if nothing has changed. I prefer this to having 3G in the device, because it means I only have one mobile phone plan with one download quota to manage (oh, and longer battery life in the tablet).

 

But… does it replace my Macbook Pro?

I realise the specs of a Macbook Pro are much higher than that of this tablet, but allow me to clarify by saying that I only use my Macbook Pro for the following tasks…

  • Checking email & surfing the web
  • Facebook / Twitter
  • Watching movies & videos from a USB stick, or streaming them from my 8TB NAS
  • Streaming TV shows from ABC iView
  • Writing the occasional blog using WordPress
  • Remote into my desktop machine to check on various things

So… does it do all of the above?

  • Checking emails and surfing the web… this is a breeze – in fact, it’s probably better / easier because you can pinch to zoom & touch the screen to interact with it (which my Macbook Pro doesn’t do).
  • Facebook / Twitter… are also a treat to use, particularly given some of the nice, free, apps available that are optimise for tablets and, especially, the Google Honeycomb OS.
  • Watching movies & videos from a USB stick… works perfectly with no issues, including 1080p files.
  • Streaming movies & videos from my NAS… took some time to get working. I tried 8 or 9 different video players, but few supported media on network drives. The ones that did, would only play certain types of media – so it was very hit and miss to start off with. Then I’d run through 5 or 6 different “file manager” apps to find one that would connect to a network drive – again, some would connect to network drives but when you tried to play a movie, would say “file unsupported”… others would attempt to “download” the file to the local drive prior to playing it, as opposed to just streaming it. Then, others wouldn’t let you select what program to open media files with. After a number of hours, I eventually found a combination of apps that worked – “ES File Explorer” lets you map network drives and select what program to open media [or any, for that matter] files with. I then found that “Moboplayer” can play virtually all type of multimedia, including .MKV files.  So, between these two programs, I have my solution – ES File Explorer lets you select the program to play movies with and Moboplayer streams them off the network drive. It’s a bit hit and miss at the moment (for example, Moboplayer doesn’t resume when you multitask – eg: check Facebook or Twitter – it just stops & closes, forcing you to click on the movie file in ES File Explorer to start it again) but all is not lost, because VLC for Android is coming soon (I can’t wait)!
  • Streaming TV from ABC iView... works very well because Android supports Flash (sux to be you, iPad users :P). It just works… all natively through the browser, too!
  • Writing the occasional blog using WordPress… is a bit tricky at the moment. WordPress thinks that the webkit browser (based on the Safari enging) that comes with Android is an “old” version (it might be?) and doesn’t let you do too much with it. There is a WordPress app for Android, but it’s not yet optimised for tablets, so the interface is a bit “stretched” (refer to earlier point). The good news, however, is that you can get Firefox for Android, so I think I’ll give that a try. As I use Firefox at home & work on my desktop machines (including my Macbook Pro), so it’s not drama to switch.
  • Remote into my desktop machine to check on various things… works fine on the local LAN. When I take my Macbook Pro interstate, I often connect it to a Hamachi VPN so that I can securely remote into my home machine & check emails. The downside is that Hamachi doesn’t have an Android app as yet (you can apparently get it to work, but you need to root your device and run it ‘manually’ in a command-line mode). I don’t see this as an issue going forward, however, because the Transformer handles my IMAP email accounts so well anyway. Since this is all I needed Hamachi for whilst travelling interstate, not having it is not an issue because I can do everything I need using the build-in email client anyway.

 

In summary…

I’ve only had my ASUS Transformer for 3 days but I love it! It has successfully replaced my Macbook Pro (which is why I bought it in the first place) and although there are a few minor issues with some of the apps (as explained), these will only get better with time as they become tablet-optimised and programs like VLC for Android are released to take away some of the current to-ing and fro-ing involved with streaming video playback at the moment. As I said, local video playback is fine, though – and 1080p videos on the device look amazing.

I give the device itself a 9/10 given my usage to date & my requirements. The OS is also fantastic, but is let down a little by some of the applications… this is not Google’s fault, however, so 9/10 for the OS too. And, of course, the only reason I’m not giving it a 10 is because I need some room to move when the next Transformer comes out! 😛

The ASUS Transformer is an amazing concept that works really well for me. I love the ability to just undock it on the fly and keep working using the on-screen tools, only to come back after a hard days work to rest it in the dock and have it charge itself up or to take notes during a meeting without getting sore fingers for using the on-screen keyboard all of the time. Well worth a play if you ever see one, and well worth every cent if you have similar requirements to me when it comes to tablet computing & portable computing on the go.

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