The burning question with the Asus Eee Pad Transformer prime release, as with any tablet, is this: is it better than the Apple iPad 2?
The immediate follow-up question is usually a bit less thrilling: can it beat the reigning champion of Android tablets, the super-slim and light Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1?
We'll explore both questions in depth, but for those whole don't like to wait around for the punch line, we'll say that the super-thin and light Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime might just be the best tablet ever made.
But first, the basics - in the UK, the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime will go on sale in January 2012. There's only going to be one version over here, which is a 32GB SKU bundled with the keyboard,a charger, cleaning cloth, USB cable and earbuds.
This bundle will cost you £499, which is £70 more than the 16GB tablet-keyboard bundle that theoriginal Eee Pad Transformer came in when it launched earlier in 2011.
The most important spec on the new Transformer is the Nvidia Tegra 3 processor. Everything amazing about the Prime tablet rests on this quad-core, 1.3GHz chip.
HD videos play smoother (and longer, with up to 12 hours of battery use for video) than ever before. Games suddenly look fluid and dynamic, with water ripple effects, smoke, fog and explosions that mimic what you'd normally find in a PC game.
The super-crisp IPS display, which is similar to the one used on the iPad 2, is refreshingly easy on the eyes even in outdoor locations or with incandescent bulbs blazing around you.
The rear 8MP camera is a wonder of engineering. In several tests, HD videos recorded at 1080p looked smooth and clear, unlike the grainier results from the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. Even the 1.2MP front-facing camera worked well for video chats, without the typical fuzziness of other tablets.
The Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime also includes a free intuitive Asus webstorage app for offloading your files, and you can pop in a microSD card in a left-side slot up to 32GB each.
All of the typical connection options are here: Wi-Fi 802.11n, Bluetooth 2.1, a 3.5mm headphone jack on the right and a micro HDMI port (also on the left) for connecting to an HD TV.
The 263 x 180.8 x 8.3mm tablet is wider than the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, although the screen, at 1280 x 800p resolution and 10.1 inches, is the same size.
At 586g, the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime is lighter than the iPad 2 but a touch heavier than the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, although nobody will notice a few grams.
It's also the thinnest tablet on the market today, bar none.
The 25Wh lithium-polymer battery lasts for about nine hours on a charge for normal use. Asus claims a battery life of 12 hours if you watch mostly videos, because of the way the Tegra 3 manages power.
The tablet comes running Android 3.2 Honeycomb, but Asus says it's compatible with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, if you wish to upgrade when the update becomes available next year.
Features and interface
We said up front that we will answer questions about whether the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime beats the Apple iPad 2 and the leading Android tablet, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. Truth be told, some of the factors that will help you decide between the three similar tablets are subtle, yet important.
Let's start with the hardware design. All three tablets look remarkably similar. An untrained eye wouldn't know the difference between them.
Turn the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime over on its back, and there's a silver back cover that looks much more durable than the white plastic back of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and grey back of the iPad 2. The front IPS screen, made with Gorilla Glass, is also durable and sharp.
There's a proprietary charge port below the main horizontal screen on the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime. This is the same port you use to pop the device into the laptop dock.
There are two extra ports that secure the tablet to the dock, and when housed that way, the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime works reliably as a touchscreen laptop.
The dock isn't ideal for long typing sessions, and matches the quality of other lapdocks such as the one for the Motorola Atrix 2. In other words, they are functional and provide a mouse pad, quick access function keys, a USB port and an SD memory card slot. But otherwise it doesn't match the responsive typing of a regular full notebook computer.
Some of the port covers on the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime's dock are a bit hard to remove. For example, the one that covers the USB port might require some prying loose with a knife.
Overall, the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime is easy to handle. It's wider than the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, so is easier to grip, with a slightly wider bezel. But it seems a bit less portable for that reason as well.
The back is metallic and durable, but not exactly scratch or smudge-resistant, as we found out. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 has a bit more of a pick-up and go feel to it only because the Asus is wider and felt just a hair wider and longer.
Asus packed some choice extras onto the Eee Pad Transformer Prime, but generally stuck to the basic Android 3.2 Honeycomb user interface. In fact, there are just a few extra widgets for quickly reading your emails, seeing the weather forecast and controlling music tracks.
There's a goofy app called MyZine that automatically adds your photos into a magazine-like layout, but it has a limited purpose and might be the first one you drag to the trash.
There are no extra app widgets like there are on the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet for adding favorites to an app wheel or an app launcher. Frankly, these additions offer a nebulous value beyond the stock operating system.
Asus used a slightly modified treatment for the bottom row of icons. There's a back button, a home button and a pop-up multitasking button that shows you open apps and enables you to switch between them. Here you can also click a small X that shuts down any open app to save memory.
There's not too much more to say about the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime's interface, because Asus kept things simple. There are no extra tools for storing apps like there is on the Toshiba AT100 (known as the Toshiba Thrive in the US), but some of those enhancements don't really add to the value anyway. The simple core Android OS makes the Prime easy to use.
Market and apps
Android Market and Apps
The Android Market included on the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime has been upgraded with a new interface that is surpassingly easy to use. Following the lead of the well-designed HP TouchPad app store, there are panels with rich photos that draw your eye and make you want to purchase more apps. The new look also mimics the Windows Phone 7 look, in that it is image-centric to draw the eye.
Of course, once you drill into the Market a bit you will realise that this glossy magazine-like front-end interface is just icing on the old cake - the Market works about the same as always. You can rent movies and television shows through the Market as you can on other recent tablets.
Where Asus scores extra points is with the included apps. It has quite outdone itself for this model.
First, there's a MyLibrary app for ebooks, magazines and newspapers. Then not quite as extensive as the Amazon Kindle Store (OK, far less extensive), the Asus @Vibe store, which is really just a portal to Versent Books, lets you buy major bestsellers such as John Grisham's The Litigators.
Pricing is suspiciously the same as most Amazon Kindle store bestsellers. Some books were noticeably missing, including the latest Michael Lewis book called Boomerang, which is featured prominently in the Kindle store.
Asus @Vibe Music is a welcome addition. With functionally similar to the Google Music app, this music app works like Last.fm in that you can search for an artist and play their songs.
Each "station" lets you play random songs by that artist. The @Vibe store also lets you play songs you have purchased from the Asusvibe.com store, as long as you have used a supported Asus laptop or netbook.
Asus MyCloud is a handy cloud storage portal similar to Dropbox. You can use 2GB of storage for free, or pay about US$9 for three months of unlimited storage. Keep in mind, though, that the service limits file size to 500MB per file for the free account.
Also, while the app lets you offload files to the cloud, you can also access files on one computer that is sharing files through the service.
The Asus MyNet app works exactly like the Samsung Allshare service, in that you can set up a connection to and from another computer on the same router network to share music, photos and videos. We tested the app with a Sony all-in-one desktop PC and could easily share files between the tablet and the desktop computer.
The Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime we tested also came pre-loaded with a wide selection of pre-release Tegra 3 games, including BladeSlinger, ShadowGun and Davinci THD. These titles will be available through an app portal called the TegraZone, and generally cost about the same as normal Android games.
One important point to make about gaming on the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime is that the games look astounding - the best we have seen on any tablet. ShadowGun in particular uses water effects that look ultra-realistic for a portable device (although nothing like, say, Battlefield 3 on a console).
The most interesting comparison we discovered was between the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime playing the same game, Riptide. On the Prime, the water effects were much more convincing, with waves flowing back and forth and whitecaps that change as you drive your jet ski.
At the same time, the Apple iPad 2 may not play games as smoothly, but there is a much wider selection of games, and many are arguably more in-depth. For example, the gameplay for Infinity Blade II on the iPad 2 is far more advanced, with magic ring power-ups, duel-wielding options and collectible gems.
Many of the games on the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime are more like visual effects demos, with limited gameplay value.
The 1280 x 800 resolution, 10.1-inch screen on the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime is sharp and easy to read.
We had no complaints reading an entire ebook on the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime and browsing dozens of websites. Finger swipes and presses registered accurately, and typing was fast and responsive.
Asus chose to use a Super IPS display for the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime, and there are pros and cons with this.
The Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime is not as bright, colourful, or crisp as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, so if you plan to watch movies and view photos routinely, the Samsung is the better tablet.
In comparing the exact same videos and photos on both devices, the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime has a slightly dull and washed out look. The Apple iPad 2 looks marginally better than the Prime (they both use IPS displays) but not as vivid as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1.
Clearly, Asus decided to make functionality a higher priority than superior colour reproduction.
The Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime works better than the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 in a variety of lighting conditions. There's even a super-bright outdoor mode that makes the display easier to read.
There is much less glare on the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime than the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, which means the screen works better, for reading emails and books and for browsing the web.
Unlike some recent tablets, the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime doesn't use haptic feedback for the keyboard or for any parts of the touchscreen. Presumably this is a trade-off with the IPS screen tech that makes it easier to view the tablet from an angle or to view the screen in bright sunlight or by a lamp.
It didn't hamper the experience of using the tablet, though some users might find that haptic feedback on other tablets gives you a tactile sense that the tablet has registered your finger press.
One surprise is that the screen uses an oleophobic fingerprint-resistant coating. Even more surprising is that it actually works. The chemical agent reduced grime and finger print build-up. We found that movie-watching was more enjoyable when there wasn't a thin residue coating parts of the screen.
The Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime is one of the most user-friendly tablets we've tested, and matches up easily with the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and Apple iPad 2 in terms of portability, user interface and media playback.
Between the three tablets, the only major difference is that the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime is just a little wider and longer, even though the screens are all the same size. That's not a negative pronouncement, and in fact means the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime is a bit easier to grasp for long web browsing sessions or for watching movies.
The original Asus Eee Pad Transformer felt bulky, overly thick and designed from a bygone age of Windows slates.
Asus skipped any dramatic interface enhancements and sticks to the basic Android 3.2.1 Honeycomb user interface. That means three buttons for navigating back, home, and to a pop-up app list on the lower left.
The newly designed pop-up menu on the lower left (which shows a taskbar for time, app downloads and open apps) is a pleasant departure, though. You can quickly see the Wi-Fi network you are using, your battery level and access settings.
There are three icons you can use to set the power level - eco mode, balanced and performance. You can also enable screen rotation, check Wi-Fi level and enable Bluetooth connections. There's an option for setting the brightness level, or using auto, and enabling the outdoor brightness.
Otherwise, this pop-up then shows notifications about recent downloads, schedule reminders and email alerts. You can also view Gmail chat messages here. In general, the new design for this pop-up works remarkably well for controlling basic functions on the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime. The pop-up is well-designed as well.
One gripe, though, has to do with accessories. Sure, there is a lapdock included as a bundle for the UK version. However, the Apple iPad 2 offers many more choices for docking stations, covers, cases and even microphones you plug into the 30-pin connector.
The original Asus Eee Pad Transformer didn't become iconic in the sense that hardware accessory companies started making add-on devices for it. The Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime may catch on, but we doubt it will develop the widespread third-party support that the iPad 2 enjoys, or even come close.
For battery life, the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime lasted about nine hours on a charge. We noticed that, when playing HD videos, the tablet lasted even longer than that, due to how the Tegra 3 manages power.
Our first experience with media files was a bit of a letdown. We download the movie Conanthrough the Android Market and were greeted by an error message. Asus said it must be a Google problem, but the same file and same Android version on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 worked fine.
Otherwise, all of our media tests were blazingly fast, smooth and played without any problems. One of the most impressive tests was for the Battleship trailer, which used a high frame rate, looked colourful and clear, and played in full 1080p resolution. Every video we tested played smooth and fast.
Music playback on the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime also worked reliably and sound quality was excellent.
Like most tablets, the speaker on the Prime isn't exactly state-of-the-art quality, and is only serviceable in a pinch when you absolutely can't use headphones. Yes that is just the one speaker, instead of the two speakers we saw on the side of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1.
That said, the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime is just a bit louder than both the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and the Apple iPad 2 when we cranked up the volume, even if the sound quality wasn't that great and sounded a bit distorted at times.
No tablet on the market has really exceptional sound, though, and the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime is in the same league.
Photos we took with the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime looked clear and colourful.
In a few cases, the colours weren't as vivid as those taken with the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, but they were always sharper than the somewhat blurry images we took with the Apple iPad 2. All three tablets were used for the same photo comparisons below.
Asus doesn't offer any extended features for taking photos on the Eee Pad Transformer Prime, but you can change basic settings such as white balance and choose from a few scene modes including Indoors or Night.
None of the settings really add to the value of the camera or compete with a more powerful smartphone or digital camera. Photos, like the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime's screen, tended to look a bit washed out but still useable.
The Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime has a much faster shutter release than the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. However, the focus wasn't always as reliable. The Samsung tablet tends to focus slowly, but the results are sharper Asus.
One initial complaint when shooting video with the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime was that, when we recorded a 1080p video with the tablet, we noticed a few stuttering problems during recording. But playback of this file was smooth and didn't have any stuttering.
Asus recommended we try again without any apps running in the background, and the test recording didn't stutter at all when doing this, with smooth-as-butter playback.
Recorded videos also looked super-crisp, which is an important finding compared to the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, which tends to film grainy and almost unusable videos.
As it stands, no tablet is ideal for shooting photos or recording video, because you can't hold the device in a way that makes it easy to capture stills or video - there is often a shaky-cam look no matter how you hold them. The Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime is no different, although the somewhat more rigid design and wider bezel makes it a hair easier to grip.
In one case, while shooting a video, the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime suddenly went in and out of focus sporadically, trying to focus on the subject. The problem never happened again, though.
Is there any reason not to rush right out and get the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime when it starts shipping in January?
Not really.The Prime is an outstanding Android 3.2 tablet.
It is also the first tablet to use the Nvidia Tegra 3 processor for faster gaming, better movie playback, and long battery life.
The Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime is light and thin, with a durable design that will withstand a few spills, and even a drop or two. The device uses an understated slim design with a metallic back cover that seems durable.
The included Asus first-party apps add to the value: they enable you to store files in the cloud, buy music and books, and stream content from a desktop or laptop computer on the same network.
The two major reasons we would avoid this model are relatively minor.
One is that the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 does have a brighter, more colourful screen. Games and movies tend to pop off the screen in a more vivid way than they do on the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime. This is a trade-off though, because the Prime is also easier to view in direct light or from a side angle.
The other reason to delay an impulse purchase has to do with apps. Asus does include quite a few compelling first-party apps, and they make the device more enticing.
That's all well and good, but the Apple iPad 2 is still a better choice if you prefer quality apps that offer unique features. For example, many of the games on the iPad are superior to the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime in terms of gameplay options and variety.
More than any other spec, we liked the Tegra 3 processor on this tablet. It's fast and nimble, pumping new life into apps we've used for the past nine months and speeding up the operating system overall. HD movies played smooth and fast, without the typical stuttering (for the most part) of other tablets.
The Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime is one light and thin tablet. In fact, it's the thinnest tablet available. Any thinner and we'd start wondering about durability.
Battery life was good, at about nine hours, and video playback lasts up to 12 hours.
Games were visually superior to every other tablet. Smoke and water effects looked convincing, and frame rates were exceptionally high. Most apps ran faster than we've seen on any other Android tablet, without any stuttering, memory pauses, or crashes of any kind.
The lapdock, which is included in a bundle for the UK and sold separately in the US, is a smart addition. It turns the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime into a notebook for typing longer documents in a pinch, and has a built-in mouse pad and USB port.
We're fans of the IPS display tech, because it means getting more use out of tablets in a variety of lighting conditions and at a side viewing angle, but the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime's screen is still just slightly less colourful than the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1.
To test this theory, we asked various people in the office to give us their first response to the same photo on both tablets, and everyone said they preferred the Samsung's screen.
There's also still a lingering question about apps compared to those available for the iPad 2. We just can't get around the fact that the iPad has superior apps - one called Djay that works like a real DJ turntable, the Apple first-party apps such as GarageBand and Keynote, games such as Infinity Blade II that offer deeper gameplay and so on.
Asus can't do too much about this problem, but if you want to have the best apps for a tablet, the iPad 2 is a better choice.
Of course, the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime won't attract nearly as many third-party hardware companies to make add-ons for the device, even if Asus does offer a handy lapdock accessory. That's not a ding against the Transformer per se, but a praise for how popular the iPad has become.
Camera and video quality were good, but we ran into a few snags here and there. The resulting photos were usually sharp and focused, but not as colourful as those taken with the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1.
There's a nagging sense with the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime that holds us back from declaring a sweeping victory compared to the Apple iPad 2 and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1.
Overall, when you consider the specs, we know the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime is the better tablet. For hardcore tech enthusiasts, this is the tablet you want, because it has the latest next-gen processor and supports true HD movie recording and playback.
For the masses, and just for the overall top spot in the tablet market, the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime can't compete with the iPad 2 for app selection and quality.
And we have to give the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 the nod for a superior screen. That's hugely important: the screen is what you look at all day.
The Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime is faster than any tablet, and matches the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and the Apple iPad 2 for size and weight.
But we can't quite declare the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime the winner overall. The iPad 2 still has that honour.
For Android tablets, we'll say that the faster, lighter Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime ties with the excellent-screened Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1.