Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime: The Rolls-Royce of Android tablets

With its quad-core CPU and keyboard dock, the Transformer Prime tablet is truly in a league of its own. But all that power comes at a cost.

Watch out, Android tablets: There's a new king in town.

Asus' Eee Pad Transformer Prime is set to shake up the world of mobile computing. The device -- expected to launch in the U.S. sometime during the week of December 19, according to Asus -- marks the first time quad-core technology has made its way into a touch-based tablet. But raw processing power isn't the only thing that puts this tablet in a league of its own.

The Transformer Prime manages to pull off the rare feat of combining power and style: It's sleek and sexy, yet also jam-packed with robust functionality. And it's armed with a secret weapon: Asus' optional keyboard dock, a slim attachment that instantly turns the tablet into a full-fledged laptop computer. The tablet itself costs $499 for a 32GB model and $599 for a 64GB model; the dock is sold separately for $149.

On paper, this thing has it all. So how does it perform in the real world? I spent several days putting it to the test to find out.

Body and display

First, the surface-level stuff: As I mentioned, Asus's new tablet is no slouch in the looks department. The Transformer Prime features a 10.1-in. display guarded by a gorgeous metallic-spun back, available in "Amethyst Gray" or "Champagne Gold" color schemes. Both designs look classy and -- yes -- expensive.

The tablet is thinner than any other on the market today, with a depth of just 8.3mm. It's light, too, weighing in at a waif-like 1.29 lb. In the big picture, of course, we're talking fingernail-sized differences from one tablet to another -- the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is 8.6mm thick and 1.25 lb., while the iPad 2 is 8.8mm thick and 1.33 lb. - but all comparisons aside, the Prime looks fantastic and feels great to hold.

Despite its slight frame, the Transformer Prime doesn't seem the least bit delicate; on the contrary, it has a solid and sturdy feel. The screen uses Corning Gorilla Glass, which protects it from nicks and scratches. Coupled with the tough outer casing, the Prime is a lightweight tablet with heavyweight-quality materials.

Speaking of the screen, the Transformer Prime features a 1280 x 800 Super IPS+ display that rivals any other tablet display I've seen. Images are crisp and clear; colors are rich and brilliant. The screen includes an outdoor viewing mode that, according to Asus, boosts brightness up to a level 1.5 times higher than any competing tablet; with this mode activated, I found the Prime perfectly easy to view even in bright sunlight.

The Asus Transformer Prime has a microSD slot, a micro-HDMI port and a volume rocker along its left side; a power button on the far left of its top edge; and a 3.5mm headphone jack along its right side. The bottom of the tablet holds a 40-pin connector port for charging along with two connectors for attaching the tablet to Asus's keyboard dock.

There is one speaker on the back of the unit along the right edge. While other tablets offer a two-speaker stereo approach, I found the Prime's overall sound quality to be surprisingly good; music sounded full and was free from the tinny effect that frequently plagues tablet speakers. At full volume, songs were almost too loud for a single-room environment. This was a welcome change from other tablets, where the volume can never seem to get high enough.

The dock

You can't talk about the Transformer Prime without discussing its killer feature: the keyboard dock. The dock matches the tablet's metallic-spun look (available in either color scheme) as well as its slim and light profile.

The Transformer Prime tablet snaps into the dock effortlessly, forming what looks and acts like a single-piece PC. The display -- the tablet itself -- swings up and down like a laptop lid. When closed, it creates a sleek-looking unit that could easily be mistaken for a high-end notebook.

I found the dock's keyboard and built-in trackpad to be quite pleasant to use. The keyboard isn't full-sized, which can take a bit of getting used to, but its keys are large enough and spaced out enough that the adjustment isn't terribly difficult. The trackpad is fantastic: It has a metallic feel and delivers spot-on accuracy. A standard mouse pointer appears on-screen anytime you touch the trackpad; you can right- or left-click by firmly pressing on the pad's bottom or quickly right-click by simply tapping anywhere on its surface.

In addition to the inherent productivity advantages, the Transformer Prime's dock gives you a full-sized USB 2.0 port, a full-sized SD card slot, and a second battery that tacks an extra six hours onto your tablet's life.

The quad-core advantage

The Transformer Prime's real distinguishing factor, of course, is what's under its hood: Nvidia's new Tegra 3 quad-core processor. Nvidia says the new chip provides up to five times the performance of its dual-core predecessor, the Tegra 2, which powers many of the current high-end Android tablets. Its Nvidia 12-core GeForce graphics processing unit is also said to be three times as fast as the previous model's.

Pair that CPU with 1GB of RAM, and you have a system with more speed potential than any other tablet we've seen. The Prime just feels fast, and its power shows in plenty of places. Swiping through home screens is incredibly snappy, with nary a stutter or hiccup. Three-dimensional graphics fly by with more consistent fluidity than I've seen on any dual-core tablet device.

The most noticeable differences, though, come with resource-intensive tasks -- things like video-editing and graphic-heavy games. You can really see the power shine through in apps like Riptide GP, a jet ski racing game that's been optimized for Tegra 3. The game has higher frame rates and more realistic effects than its dual-core counterpart; water "splashes" up on your screen as you speed through channels, and a motion blur effect makes you feel like you're really zooming when you crank your engine to the max.

Nvidia has worked with other game developers to take similar advantage of the new chip's quad-core configuration. Add in the ability to connect a standard wireless game controller -- PS3, Xbox, Wii, Logitech, and other models are supported -- not to mention the ability to connect the device to an HDTV via the Prime's HDMI out-port, and you can see how this tablet could really open up some interesting new possibilities for gamers.

Gaming aside, Flash video is a night-and-day difference with the Transformer Prime's quad-core CPU. While a dual-core device does just fine with lower-quality Flash playback, when you stream 1080p, you tend to get choppy and unsatisfactory results. On the Prime, even the highest quality high-def Flash clip plays smoothly and flawlessly. The same goes for non-Flash-based HD video.

Other theoretical benefits of the quad-core technology were not as immediately apparent to me during my tests of the Transformer Prime. Web-page loading and scrolling were hit and miss; at times, the Prime was slighter faster than a dual-core tablet, but more often than not, it struck me as roughly comparable. That said, as more developers start updating their apps to take advantage of the multiple core configuration, we should start seeing more and more instances where the quad-core difference is significant.

(For more on the value of quad-core, see my in-depth analysis: Asus Transformer Prime: Does quad-core really matter?)

Tegra 3 and battery life

One area where the quad-core advantage is undeniable is in the tablet's battery life. Paradoxical as it may sound, a quad-core processor actually runs at a lower frequency and uses less power than a dual-core equivalent. That's because the quad-core system spreads out the workload and uses only the minimum amount of processing power needed at any given time. Nvidia's Tegra 3 setup actually has a fifth companion core, too, allowing it to manage high- and low-frequency tasks with an unprecedented level of efficiency.

The end result: Your tablet lasts a long time without needing a recharge. Asus quotes the Transformer Prime as getting 12 hours of battery life -- 18 hours if it's attached to the keyboard dock -- and that's with continuous 720p video playback. In reality, most of us aren't going to be playing 720p videos for 12 hours straight, so we can expect to squeeze even more hours out of this device.

In my experience, the Transformer Prime didn't disappoint. Over three straight days of moderate to heavy usage -- and without bothering to power down the tablet at night -- I didn't have to plug it in a single time.

The cameras

The Transformer Prime's primary camera blows away pretty much everything else on the tablet market right now. The rear-facing cam is 8 megapixels with LED flash and 1080p high-def video recording. It features an F2.4 aperture and a back-illuminated CMOS sensor. As you'd expect, this thing takes sharp-looking photos and professional-quality videos. Other high-end tablets don't even come close.

On its front, the Prime has a 1.2-megapixel camera for video chat. You can use Google's cross-platform Google Talk service for free face-to-face connections with anyone signed in on a phone, tablet or PC (Google Talk is the same chat service used in Gmail, Google+ and other Google products). You can also opt to install Skype, of course, or any other third-party video chat utility.

The software

Asus's Transformer Prime ships with a modified version of Android 3.2.1), though Asus promises an upgrade to Android 4.0 -- Ice Cream Sandwich -- soon. Already, Nvidia has released a video showing an early demo of Ice Cream Sandwich running on the Prime, and Asus has repeatedly reaffirmed its commitment to getting the updated software rolled out in a timely fashion.

In the meantime, Asus has worked hard to fill in some of the gaps and put its own touches onto the platform. The company has made a handful of aesthetical changes to the OS, such as a custom set of navigation icons in the lower-left corner of the screen, and has added a series of attractive home screen widgets that you can choose to use if you wish.

Asus has also made functional modifications, some of which bring Ice Cream Sandwich-level features to mind. The multitasking tool on the Prime, for example, has options to remove individual apps from the multitasking list -- something ICS natively provides. (Asus's system is a bit less elegant than Google's -- it uses a small "x" for the command instead of a swipe-based gesture -- but until the official upgrade arrives, it's considerably better than nothing.) The Prime also has an option to capture screenshots directly on the tablet, which pre-ICS versions of Android have not allowed.

With the new Transformer tablet, Asus introduces its own version of the status panel that appears when you tap the clock area in the lower-right corner of the screen. Asus seems to have been striving to make the panel more useful, but unfortunately, it missed the mark on this one: The company crammed so many options into such a small space that my eyes just don't know where to look. The end effect is cluttered and overwhelming, and I'd gladly take the stock Android status panel over this messy (and oddly purple-colored) alternative. Thankfully, Asus provides an option in the system settings to make that switch.

Another slightly disappointing OS-level tweak: As it's done with past tablets, Asus opted to add its own virtual keyboard onto the Prime. I found the Asus keyboard to be below par in terms of both accuracy and overall ease of typing; I'd take the stock Honeycomb keyboard (and certainly the stock Ice Cream Sandwich keyboard) over it any day. Luckily, this choice is easy to make as well: You can switch to the stock Android keyboard with a couple of quick taps, or you can head to the Android Market to snag a third-party replacement like SwiftKey Tablet X.

Beyond the core OS modifications, Asus has squeezed quite a few supplementary programs into the Prime's native environment. Some of them are meant to enhance basic system functionality, like a File Manager app (which is fine, but you'd be better off downloading a full-featured alternative like Astro instead). Others are third-party selections that are preloaded by default, such as Polaris Office, SuperNote, Zinio and Amazon Kindle. These could potentially be useful to some people, but the fact that they're baked into the OS and impossible to remove makes them seem more like bloatware than benefits.

Bottom line

In a sea of sometimes indistinguishable tablets, Asus has managed to create a unique product that stands out from the pack. The Transformer Prime is sleek and attractive, with a powerful new processor that provides top-of-the-line performance and opens up new tablet computing possibilities. With the optional dock accessory, the Transformer Prime has the potential to act as a full-fledged laptop replacement, adding even more value to an already exciting product.

At a Glance

Eee Pad Transformer Prime

Asustek

Retail price: $499 (32GB), $599 (64GB), $149 for optional keyboard dock

Pros: Stellar performance; sleek design; excellent battery life; great display; high-quality cameras; PC-like transformation potential

Cons: Expensive, especially with dock accessory; many apps still don't take advantage of quad-core technology; bloatware baked into operating system

But all of that goodness comes at a cost; the Transformer Prime is a top-shelf tablet at top-shelf price. Put into perspective, it isn't that bad: You can get a 32GB Transformer Prime tablet for $499 -- just $50 more than you'd pay for a 16GB Galaxy Tab 10.1. For that extra 50 bucks, you're getting twice the processing power, twice the internal storage and significantly better battery life. You're also getting native support for microSD and micro-HDMI connections -- and you aren't even sacrificing a thin and sexy form.

(The 32GB Transformer Prime is also the same price as the 16GB iPad 2. However, comparing those products is like comparing apples and oranges: They're two drastically different types of platforms, and the decision ultimately comes down to your own personal preference.)

Of course, if you want the full Transformer Prime tablet-keyboard package, you're looking at a minimum investment of $650 -- no small chunk of change. Because of this, I suspect the Prime will appeal primarily to power users, gamers and people who just enjoy having top-of-the-line, cutting-edge technology. The Transformer Prime is like the Rolls-Royce of Android tablets: It's incredibly impressive and packed with power, but that level of luxury isn't something everyone needs.

JR Raphael is a contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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