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Tablets

Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime TF201 review

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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 powered the tablet to several performance firsts and delivered terrific image graphics rendering in games optimised 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, the Transformer Prime represents one of the best tablet values today.

Design

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. It also ranks this as among the thinnest and lightest tablets on sale to date: Only Apple's iPad 2 and Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1 best it today.

Unlike its plastic-enclosed predecessor, the Transformer Prime has a brushed 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 narrow depth, Asus managed to fit 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 you'll need to adjust volume while watching video and holding the tablet in the landscape model.

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. It has a handy tiny dot that glows red while the tablet is charging.

The 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 inclusion of a clickpad-style multitouch gesture-capable touchpad makes this a worthwhile alternative to using an external Bluetooth tablet keyboard (typically, those do not include a pointing device). Even better, this option includes an additional battery for up to a claimed 18 hours of battery life, a USB 2.0 port and an SDHC card reader.

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, quite literally, in our objective and subjective tests. We needed to look no further than the Tegra 3-optimised game Riptide GP, which makes the splash of water droplets look realistic on the tablet's display, to know we were looking at the next generation of Android tablets.

This is not to say we saw dramatic improvements in every aspect of handling the tablet. But the Transformer Prime reset the bar on many of our tests.

At the heart of Tegra 3 is Nvidia's Variable Symmetric Multiprocessing technology, which optimises the platform's quad-core Cortex A9 CPU performance, and switches the processing load to a lower-powered fifth Cortex A9 CPU core for less demanding tasks that don't require the processing oomph. All of this happens seamlessly in the background.

For those who want to be more proactive about managing the Transformer Prime's performance, Asus also provides three system performance modes, lifted from their 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 optimises for maximum processing performance, balanced mode optimises for a more middle-of-the-road experience capped at 1.2GHz performance and power savings mode uses up to 1GHz of single or dual-core optimises for 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: The Prime logged 53 frames per second, the highest frames rate we've seen on the GLBenchmark 2.0.3 Egypt test with no anti-aliasing. 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 iPad with 58 fps, ahead of Iconia Tab A100 at 49 fps, and the trio of Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, Sony Tablet S, Toshiba Thrive, each 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 Tegra 3's additional pixel and texture processing capabilities on the GPU for that water effect, uses the quad-core CPUs to do real time physics calculation to calculate how the waves interact with the jetskis.

The Glowball demo on our test tablet was equally as 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, optimised for Tegra 3, with the standard ShadowGun on the Apple iPad 2. The difference in the gaming experience was visceral, and drew oohs and ahs 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 obvious even to the casual observer.

Add in that Nvidia has added support for popular game controllers, including those from the Sony PlayStation 3, Microsoft Xbox, Nintendo Wii and even USB gamepads, and the Transformer Prime looks primed 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 optimised, and the shipping version of ShadowGun should be available shortly.

In our SunSpider 0.9.1 JavaScript Benchmark, the Prime leapt to the head of the class, taking just 1.8 seconds to complete the test, 0.1 second ahead of the Acer Iconia Tab A500, and 0.2 seconds better than the iPad 2. We had some conflicting results in our page load tests, however, and are looking into what may have caused this, and will update later with the full results.

One performance metric that the Transformer Prime disappointed was in its file transfer speeds. Among the Android 3.x tablets and 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 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 its position at the rear edge.



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