Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime TF201 Review: A Breakthrough Performer
At a Glance
The stylish Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime TF201 delivers both high performance and high value, a rare combination in the world of Android tablets. It uses Nvidia's Tegra 3 processor, which powers the tablet to several performance firsts and delivered terrific image graphics rendering in games optimized for the new processor. Given its promised future upgrade to Android 4.0.1 Ice Cream Sandwich and its next-gen technology, not to mention its appealing price--$499 for the 32GB model and $599 for 64GB (prices as of 11/30/2011)--the Transformer Prime represents one of the best tablet values today.
The first thing that will catch your eye about the Transformer Prime is its svelte design. It measures 10.35 by 7.12 by 0.33 inches, and weighs 1.29 pounds. That's a net reduction in size and weight from the original Eee Pad Transformer TF101, which measured 10.7 by 6.9 by 0.5 inches, and weighed 1.4 pounds. The TF201 also ranks as among the thinnest and lightest tablets on sale to date: Only Apple's iPad 2 (0.3 inches deep and 1.33 pounds) and Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1 (0.34 inches and 1.24 pounds) best it today.
Unlike its plastic-enclosed predecessor, the Transformer Prime has an aluminum backplane (in “Amethyst Gray” or “Champagne Gold”), with a matching plastic bezel bridging the edges between the back and surface. The overall look is elegant and the design solid, a combination that's far preferable to the comparatively klunky or plasticky designs we've seen from other Android tablets this year.
In spite of its shallow depth, Asus manages to fit in several ports, a feat that neither Apple nor Samsung accomplished in their aforementioned models. The docking port runs along the tablet's horizontal length, and along the left side are both a microHDMI port and a microSD card slot. At the top of the left side is the volume rocker; this is a smart, and uncommon, placement for volume controls, given the likelihood that you'll need to adjust volume while watching video and holding the tablet in landscape mode. The combination 3.5mm audio jack (for microphone input) and audio-out sits on the right edge of the tablet (or bottom, if held in portrait mode). The power button is at the top left edge in landscape mode, or along the top right edge in portrait mode, and it has a handy, tiny dot that glows red while the tablet is charging.
A final noteworthy point about the Transformer Prime's design is its ability to pair with the Transformer Prime Keyboard Dock. Like the original Transformer (which remains in Asus' lineup at a reduced price) the Transformer Prime pairs with a keyboard docking base that effectively turns the tablet into a compact, easy-to-tote package that adds just 0.41 inches in depth and 1.18 pounds to the tablet. The dock is also made of aluminum, and has a terrific build quality. Typing on it felt solid and natural; and the clickpad-style multitouch-gesture-capable touchpad makes a worthwhile alternative to using an external Bluetooth tablet keyboard (typically, such keyboards do not include a pointing device). Even better: This $149 option includes a USB 2.0 port, an SDHC card reader, and an additional battery for up to a claimed 18 hours of battery life.
Performance and Display
As the first tablet with Nvidia's 1.3-GHz quad-core Tegra 3 processor, the Transformer Prime was primed to make a performance splash. And it did, almost literally, in our objective and subjective tests. We needed to look no further than the Tegra 3-optimized game Riptide GP, which makes the splash of water droplets look realistic on the tablet's display, to know that we were looking at the next generation of Android tablets.
This is not to say that we saw dramatic improvements in every aspect of tablet handling. But the Transformer Prime reset the bar on many of the PCWorld Labs' tests.
At the heart of the Tegra 3 processor is Nvidia's Variable Symmetric Multiprocessing technology, which optimizes the platform's quad-core Cortex A9 CPU performance, switching the processing load to a lower-powered fifth Cortex A9 CPU core for less demanding tasks that don't require processing oomph. All that happens seamlessly in the background.
For those who want to be more proactive in managing the Transformer Prime's performance, Asus also provides three system performance modes, lifted from the company's laptop settings. This is the first tablet I've seen with such modes, and they do make a tangible difference in some aspects of performance. The normal mode optimizes for maximum processing performance; the balanced mode optimizes for a more middle-of-the-road experience capped at 1.2GHz performance; and the power savings mode uses up to 1GHz performance to optimize battery life. These adjustments resulted in very different usage experiences. Interestingly, the normal mode felt noticeably zippier, and the different levels did impact some of our performance results, but in less CPU-intensive examples, the differences were negligible.
The most significant result in our gaming performance tests: The Transformer Prime logged 53 frames per second, the highest frame rate we've seen on the GLBenchmark 2.0.3 Egypt test with no antialiasing. This result topped the Apple iPad 2's previous record of 46 fps, and it just crushed the Android masses we've tested, which averaged 18 fps and topped out at 34 fps (for the 7-inch Acer Iconia Tab A100). The results on the GLBenchmark Pro test were similarly decisive, at least in the Prime's victory over other Android tablets. Here, the Prime tied the iPad with 58 fps, ahead of the Iconia Tab A100 at 49 fps, and the trio of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, the Sony Tablet S, and the Toshiba Thrive, which were all tied at 40 fps.
Graphics in some games appear awesome. Riptide GP has water that ripples with surprising realism, and the droplets that splash stun. According to Nvidia, the game's developer takes advantage of the Tegra 3's additional pixel- and texture-processing capabilities on the GPU for that water effect, using the quad-core CPU to do real-time physics calculations of how the waves interact with the Jet Skis.
The Glowball demo on our test tablet was equally impressive. The reflectivity and light refraction in the Sea Floor level drew gasps. And while Bladeslinger's title character occasionally moved stiffly, the level of detail and dimensionality to the images impressed. The most conclusive example of the Transformer Prime's gaming prowess came when I compared the preloaded ShadowGun tech demo on the Prime, optimized for Tegra 3, with the standard version of ShadowGun on an iPad 2. The difference in the gaming experience was visceral, and drew oohs and aahs from colleagues who gathered to see what the fuss was about. The water and smoke effects stunned, flags flapped more naturally, and the detail in the floor was obvious even to the casual observer.
And since Nvidia has added support for popular game controllers, including those from the Sony PlayStation 3, Microsoft Xbox, Nintendo Wii, and even USB gamepads, the Transformer Prime appears to be a leading contender for those chasing the ultimate Android gaming experience. The trick will be in getting the software to catch up to the hardware: Currently only three games—Riptide, Zen Pinball, and Sprinkle—are Tegra 3-optimized; a fourth, the shipping version of the Tegra 3-optimized ShadowGun, should be available shortly.
One performance metric where the Transformer Prime disappointed was in file transfer speeds. Compared with Android 3.x tablets and the iPad 2, the Prime was one of the slowest models we've tested at writing to the tablet, lagging all but the Sony Tablet S. Transferring data off the tablet, on the other had, was more competitive.
Another disappointment was audio. Through the awkwardly positioned monoaural speaker, music sounded muddied. My test tracks were missing the highs and lows, and at times sounded as if they were coming through in an echo chamber, even though the speaker itself was not blocked by my hand (which could happen easily, given the speaker's position at the rear edge).
Display and Image Capture
By contrast, the Transformer Prime exceeded expectations with its 1280-by-800-pixel display. The Prime is the first tablet in the PCWorld Labs with a SuperIPS+ display, which adds brightness to make the tablet more usable outdoors. When enabled, the SuperIPS+ mode increases brightness to 600 nits, up from the standard mode's maximum of 380 nits. Indoors, the effect is minimal. But outside, in bright sunlight, this makes a big difference. I still wouldn't recommend using the tablet for reading outside, but you at least now have a fighting chance at seeing the camera controls and what you're focusing on, or looking at the map you've called up to figure out to get somewhere. The wide viewing angle preserves colors, and makes the Prime perfect for sharing the screen with a small group, be it for business presentations or sharing a video.
Images looked good, too, with better colors and sharper images than on the original Transformer. That said, I observed that our test tablet appeared to have a warmer color temperature than its predecessor, which caused a yellowish cast that made some whites appear more off-white, and made skin tones appear jaundiced. Asus believes this may have been a flaw in our test unit; I'll update this text after observing the same content on a second unit.
Our test unit at times appeared to have difficulty automatically rendering high-resolution images. This resulted in images that appeared slightly fuzzy until I forced the image to render properly by tapping on it, or pinching and zooming. I've seen similar glitches on other tablets, and the Prime's offense was less obvious than those. Neither Asus nor Nvidia had an answer as to why I observed this, which leaves me to wonder whether it could be something in Android 3.2.1.
As much as I found to like in the display overall, there's still room for improvement in hardware and software. The air gap between the Gorilla Glass surface and the LCD beneath is still noticeable, though it's smaller and less glarey than on the original Transformer. The oleophobic coating on the screen didn't do much to mitigate fingerprints smudges. And text rendering in e-reader apps was still noticeably weak. Text rendering on Android tablets and the iPad as a whole remains an issue; perceived quality is very heavily dependent on the software, on which fonts you're using, and on how smoothly that font is rendered. Sadly, the display doesn't up the pixels per inch, unlike the display for the T-Mobile Springboard or the upcoming Toshiba Thrive 7-inch.
The rear-facing camera carries the best specs we've seen yet--8 megapixels--but a more pedestrian 1.2 megapixels for the front-facing camera. The rear camera has a flash and a wide-aperture f2.4 lens for shooting in low-light situations. But don't toss your dedicated point-and-shoot just yet; some casual test images looked good, far better than those on other tablets, but they were still were noisy, even in bright daylight, and lost detail and sharpness at full resolution.
Asus' Software Touches
Beyond the obvious boost in CPU performance and gaming, the benefits of the quad-core Tegra 3 wasn't apparent in all activities. Touchscreen swiping was smoother, for example, but in general, navigation, multitasking, and in-app experiences didn't feel dramatically faster.
Granted, many everyday tasks may not require the extra power of four cores. But it's also likely that none of the software involved was optimized for the Tegra 3, unlike the games were that Nvidia preloaded onto Asus' demo tablets. I'll be interested to watch the Prime's performance evolve over time, and see what happens once the over-the-air update for Android 4.0.1 Ice Cream Sandwich comes along in early 2012, and once more apps get optimized for a multicore mobile universe.
Asus has made a handful of useful customizations to the stock Android Honeycomb interface. As on its predecessor, the Transformer Prime's trio of core navigation buttons—back, home, and recently accessed apps—get a facelift, with darker, clearer definition than on stock Android. Recently accessed apps gain an “x” alongside the app thumbnail, for easily shutting down an app. Best of all, Asus redesigned the pop-up settings menu to add controls for brightness and SuperIPS+, the rotation lock, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, audio muting, sync (for use with the Asus PC sync app), and the built-in GPS.
New in this version of Android is a slick three-dimensional Google Videos app for easily shopping for, and viewing, video rentals from Google Market, and your personal videos, too. Asus also includes some useful apps, such as Netflix; Polaris Office, for editing and creating Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents; several for accessing Asus' cloud services and DLNA streaming; and SuperNote, for taking notes with finger input.
E-reading fans will appreciate Asus' MyLibrary, which finds and indexes e-books on your tablet—including ones stored locally in closed formats, like those from Amazon's Kindle store. Asus sells books via its own service; for periodicals, you can shop at the preloaded Press Reader and Zinio.
The Asus Transformer Prime makes a visual statement, in both its brilliant design and its inner power. The docking station option makes it a superb choice for power users who want a tablet that converts into a productivity workhorse. Our full rating is pending until our testing is complete, but this tablet is shaping up as one of the top contenders you can buy today. We'll update this review with full testing results when available. The Transformer Prime ships through online retailers December 12, and will be in stores December 19. No word yet as to the availability of an expected 3G version.
Editors' Note: Android continues to suffer far behind Apple in tablet app selection and optimization, but those who know what they're looking for, or who want a mobile entertainment experience that's less driven by apps than it is by what you can do with the tablet, Android tablets can be a good choice. See where tablets rank on PCWorld's Top 10 Tablets chart.