Innovative design makes the Asus Eee Pad Transformer TF101 tablet stand out.
In addition to introducing these adjustments, Asus provides a small selection of its own Android widgets to use in customising the front face to dictate how you access your data. For example, you can get a large, friendly weather update; or choose My Zine widgets that present your photos, weather, and recently accessed web, music, and book content in a fresh way. The approach is similar to - but not as far reaching as - Acer's handling of its Iconia Tab A500, where widgets appear as additional app icons primarily to create a sense of categorised folder hierarchy for your apps (Android 3.0 doesn't have folders, as Apple's iOS does). Asus's approach isn't as far-reaching as Samsung's TouchWiz interface on the 7in Android 2.2 Galaxy Tab or HTC's Sense UI overlay planned for its 7in Flyer. According to Asus, by omitting an extra overlay, the company can respond faster to OS updates as they come available from Google.
Asus also provides a couple of custom wallpapers, including the interactive MyWater wallpaper that reacts to the motions of the built-in gyroscope, and shows the battery level by changing the water level in the wallpaper. Fun touches, to be sure, but detrimental to battery life.
In use, the Transformer felt about as zippy (and as sluggish) as I've come to expect from the current crop of Tegra 2 tablets, depending on the activity. Its camera was actually slightly faster on the trigger than the ones on other Android 3.01 tablets I've used - but still slow. This version of Android has image and text rendering issues, too, as its predecessors did. Images aren't rendered sharply and with good detail in the Android Gallery, and text appears to be insufficiently antialiased. Android 3.01 hasn't yet received a major update; one can only hope that these issues and others will be fixed in the future.
The Transformer comes preloaded with useful software. Some apps are unique to Asus: Asus's MyNet DLNA media sharing app; MyCloud for accessing Asus's Webstorage (2GB free for one year) or for connecting remotely to your desktop via the Splashtop-powered MyDesktop; MyLibrary for accessing newspaper, .Epub, and PDF book content. Also on board: Infraware's Polaris Office 3.0 for viewing and editing (and saving as Office 2003 files) Microsoft Office documents, spreadsheets, and presentations; Layar; Fuze Meeting; and a file manager (which, like ones I've seen on other tablets, confusingly interprets the internal memory as a mounted SD Card). To get Adobe Flash 10.2, you'll have to download it on your own.
For the desktop, Asus provides downloadable utilities to complete the Transformer: PC Sync and Asus Webstorage.
The Keyboard Docking Station: How it works
The Transformer gets its name, of course, from its companion piece, the Mobile Docking Station. And Asus got this critical part of the equation right. The Mobile Docking Station transforms the Transformer into a netbook-like clamshell that weighs roughly 1.3kg when combined (the docking station itself weighs 640g). The bottom surface is composed of textured brown plastic, matching the design of the Transformer tablet itself. The two parts fit together seamlessly and easily, unlike keyboards that are of separate sizes and designs from the tablet (as is true of Bluetooth keyboards for the iPad 2); and the solution is far more integrated and elegant than even the best designed iPad cases I've seen that include a keyboard.
The two pieces are of matching size, and when you attach the tablet to the hinged dock, the dock flips across the front of the tablet, just as if the combination were any other clamshell laptop. I didn't have any trouble aligning the tablet and snapping it into position; a slider lock beneath the tablet conveniently locks it into place.
When assembled as one, the Transformer and the Mobile Docking Station look smart and act clever: The touchscreen is fully operational while plugged in, save for access to the on-screen keyboard; but in addition, some key buttons - including Android back/exit and home buttons, and media playback and volume buttons - are integrated into the keyboard. The island-style keys on the 92 percent of full-size keyboard are distinct and easy to press, and they made accurate touch-typing a breeze. For its part, the silky touchpad supports easy mouse control in the Android environment.
The docking station has two USB 2.0 ports, each tucked behind a flap door, and one SDHC card slot. The ports flaps give the dock a smooth look along the edges, and they felt sturdily made, but they strike me as being an annoying impediment nonetheless.
The dock handled the various SD Cards and flash drives I plugged in, and the USB port can accommodate input devices such as an external mouse. However, Android 3.01 seemed to get confused easily when I repeatedly attached and detached USB drives - especially if I unplugged the drive without properly unmounting the media first.
When I plugged in a USB drive, the Android OS took a few moments to mount the media. Upon recognising the item, the OS displayed a USB drive icon in the status bar tray at the right. You tap the icon to pop up a tab confirming that external storage has been recognised. At the tab's right are two, more subtle, features: a folder icon that takes you directly to the USB drive's contents via the included file manager; and an obtusely designed icon for unmounting the drive without having to dig into the Settings/Storage menu.
That the folder icon jumps you directly into the file manager is a good thing; otherwise, you have to hunt around in the file manager for the USB drive (which is buried under the Removable directory within the root directory). Finding the USB drives manually was an inefficient experience, given Android's plethora of files and folders. And yet, as rough as that part of the presentation was, the Transformer deserves props for allowing users to access and manipulate files on the tablet.
Here's a real-world productivity example. I could pop in a USB flash drive, open a Word .docx in the Polaris Office 3.0 software, edit the document, and then save it with a new name directly to the directory of my choice on the flash drive or in the tablet. Having resaved the document to the tablet, I opened the Gmail app and attached the newly edited file to an outbound e-mail message. The operation was nifty, convenient, and not doable in the same way with any other tablet shipping today.
A few times when I pulled the tablet out of its nest, it popped up one of Android's infamous "Force Close" errors. On other occasions, the mouse pointer stopped working and I had to unplug and reattach the tablet to get it to resume. And now and then I had to try multiple times to succeed in using the mouse pointer to select something. Another oddity: Using page up and down on a Web page sometimes caused it to navigate among HTML fields, instead of scrolling the whole page as I expected.
Still, these strike me as software glitches that Asus could fix in future firmware updates. For a first salvo, the experience was smoother than I expected, and the innovative design is a huge step beyond other dock setups I've seen. I loved being able to tap away fast email messages, navigate the tablet while it stood upright, and even alternate between keyboard, touchscreen, and touchpad navigation.
By marrying the two components of the combination device, you'll get extra battery life (which Asus estimates will increase by about 72 percent over the battery life for the tablet alone). Plus, if you need to grab the Transformer and its Mobile Docking Station on the run - as when I did when passing through airport security - you can do so with one hand, a convenience for mobile professionals.
In spite of my minor complaints about its design, this tablet is worthy of consideration. Asus's aggressive pricing, coupled with its above-average display, make the Transformer a serious contender. Even if you factor in the extra cost of the docking station, the costs are offset by that module's expandability and functionality. The big question, as with all early-round Honeycomb tablets, relates to the unknowns of Android 3.x's evolution and its thus-far slow-to-grow app environment. If neither of those issues is a deterrent, the Transformer + Mobile Docking Station could be a winning combination of productivity tool and entertainment demon.