The 10.1-inch Asus Transformer Pad TF300 aims to reshape the tablet market by delivering top-tier performance at a value price. The device largely succeeds in this mission, delivering performance that's on a par with its pricier Transformer Prime sibling. However, the Transformer Pad had to make some compromises in its components and display to achieve its goal. And more worrying than those compromises--which include a slightly heavier weight and different materials than what's found on the premium Prime--were the frequent glitches I seemed to encounter, with no rhyme or reason, while using this Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) tablet. Visit Group test: what's the best tablet PC?
The Transformer Pad is the new value Android tablet in Asus's lineup. The Transformer Prime, which was released last December and was the first tablet with Nvidia's Tegra 3 processor, remains at the top of the pyramid, for now (Asus has already announced high-definition, 1920-by-1280-resolution 10.1-inch models, coming later this spring/summer season.) See also: iPad review.
Transformer Pad: What You Get
Given their shared heritage, it's only natural to wonder how the Transformer Pad stacks up to the Transformer Prime, which is currently our top pick among Android tablets (only Apple's third-generation iPad and its iPad 2 rank higher). The answer is simple: They have a lot of shared DNA, but the two tablets are not identical.
Both run on the Tegra 3 processor and come with 1GB of RAM; both offer 32GB of storage in addition to a microSD card slot; both have an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera (but no flash on the Transformer Pad, unlike the Prime) and a 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera; and both have a keyboard dock accessory that transforms the tablet into a compact, netbook-like clamshell. The Transformer Pad comes with Bluetooth 3.0, and it adds Wi-Fi Direct support so wireless devices can directly connect with one another.
Those similar processing specs--the Transformer Pad has a slightly slower clock speed, 1.2GHz to the Prime's 1.3GHz--powered the Transformer Pad to performance results comparable with those of the Transformer Prime. This means that the Transformer Pad ranks among our top-performing tablets. We saw a few minor differences between the two in our testing, but nothing that should affect a buying decision. In a preliminary battery test, the Transformer Pad's battery lasted 7 hours, 7 minutes--same as the battery on the the Transformer Prime.
The displays are different, too. Both are 1280-by-800-resolution IPS panels, but the Prime has a Super IPS+ display with 600 nits of brightness, while the Transformer Pad maxes out at 350 nits. That brightness edge makes the Prime better suited to those who need to use the tablet outside in sunlight. (For more on display specs, see "Digital Displays Explained.")
I also noticed some other, subtle differences between the two tablets' displays. Neither model did better than average in our image testing suite, and the Transformer Pad actually bested the Prime at displaying an image of a website, and of an athlete's hand grips. Of the two, the Transformer Pad has a slightly larger air gap between the touchscreen glass and the LCD beneath; this created a little bit more glare, but it wasn't as distracting as on some competing tablet models. Images overall didn't have as much contrast and detail as on the Prime, though the Prime's display also seemed to be too bright overall.
The Transformer Pad comes with stereo speakers (side-by-side in a single speaker outlet at the back right of the tablet). I found the audio output passable, but unimpressive. Although both models have Asus's SonicMaster audio technology, the Transformer Pad lacks the Prime's subwoofer—which would explain why I preferred the Transformer Prime's audio output. Audio on the Transformer Pad sounded thin and echoey by comparison.
The Transformer Pad measures 7.11 by 10.35 by 0.38 inches, and weighs 1.39 pounds. That makes it a shade thicker than the Prime (by 0.6 inch), and 0.11 pound heavier; but it is also 0.5 pound lighter than the new iPad. I found the Transformer Pad's size and weight to be an improvement over Asus's previous low-cost tablet, the Eee Pad Transformer TF101 (0.2-inch thicker, and 1.49 pounds). But the Transformer Pad is still heavy enough that I wouldn't suggest it for lengthy one-handed reading sessions.
Unlike the aluminum-clad Prime, the Transformer Pad has a body made of plastic, with a concentric circle design on the back. While I could feel a bit of give in this plastic back, it was still firm enough to be far superior to the ample flex in the original Transformer TF101. I also liked the feel of the volume rocker and power buttons; I found them easier to press than those on the Transformer Prime.
The Transformer Pad comes in blue, white, and red. The blue version, shipping first, will be available this week, while the red and white versions will follow in June, according to Asus.
One of the big hooks of Asus's Transformer series is that the company's tablets can use the docking port to connect to the optional $149 Mobile Dock. The Mobile Dock, redesigned to match the Transformer Pad tablet, provides a highly portable option for productivity fiends to supplement their tablet with a keyboard, multitouch trackpad, USB 2.0 port, and SD card slot, plus an additional battery. The dock adds another 1.2 pounds to the overall weight of the tablet, but it's still an appealing option if you crave the tactile feel that only a physical keyboard can provide.
For the most part, I really like the design of the new Mobile Dock. The keys have a bit more flex than I'd like, though, with the keyboard dipping when I touch-typed my way through emails and documents. I did appreciate the dock's new touchpad design, which has a single, easy-to-press mouse-like button. Unfortunately, the dock didn't always seem to work smoothly; the pointer often ended up moving easily when I had not intended it to jump location, an effect I had not experienced with other Asus tablet/dock combinations.
Asus outfits the Transformer Pad with a selection of preinstalled software and several welcome Android customizations, such as redesigned menu buttons and a redesigned settings pop-up that brings frequently used settings to the forefront. Asus also provides its own software, such as Asus WebStorage (with 8GB of free storage), MyLibrary ebook reader, MyNet (for streaming media from a PC to the tablet), and MyCloud (for wireless desktop access), as well as third-party software like Polaris Office 2.0 and SuperNote 1.5 for annotating and drawing.
While using the Transformer Pad, I did experience a few oddities and glitches. Occasionally, I saw a flicker in the display's edge, and had to do a cold reboot of the tablet to regain control of it. I also had apps freeze on me several times. The tablet ships with Android 4.0.3, and Asus says that it will release a firmware update in the near future (no date specified) to support Hulu. Whether this update will fix the random wonkiness I experienced remains to be seen.