Asus Transformer Pad
10th Jan 2014 | 17:00
Can Asus' next Transformer Pad iteration still cut it?
Anyone who is familiar with Asus' products will be familiar with the Transformer concept. The new Asus Transfomer Pad is here to challenge the dominance of the iPad Air, as well as the Sony Xperia Tablet Z and Google Nexus 10.
The key to the popularity of the Asus Transformer Pad series has been the keyboard docking station, and that's present here too - allowing it to double up as a mini-netbook.
Microsoft has taken massive strides in this area with the Surface 2 coming with an extra keyboard case, so Asus really needs to up its game if it wants to keep up with the big boys.
Taking a look at the new Transformer Pad you'd struggle to see anything different between it and its brethren. At 263 x 180.8 x 8.9mm it is only 0.4mm deeper than the Transformer Pad Infinity.
It is 13g lighter, however, weighing in at only 585g. Adding the keyboard dock takes the Transformer Pad to 1155g, although it doesn't feel significantly heavy when popped into a bag.
Asus' device is significantly larger than the iPad, although the Transformer Pad comes with a 10.1-inch screen, making it 0.4 inches bigger.
A 2560 x 1600 WXVGA screen is higher resolution than both the Transformer Pad Infinity and the iPad Air, even dwarfing the Retina Display's 264ppi at 299ppi.
Behind that screen sits a 1.9GHz quad-core NVIDIA Tegra 4 processor (the Tegra 3 is in the Infinity) backed up with 2GB of RAM, as well as 32 or 64GB of internal storage. Asus also offers 5GB of cloud storage for life.
Asus has also equipped the Transformer Pad with the same impressive battery that has come with all Transformer Pads. The 31Wh power pack in the tablet provides up to 13 hours of use, with the 16Wh dock providing a further four hours.
Other key specs include the 5MP rear camera so you can show everyone that you're photographing something, 1.2MP front sensor, microSD support up to 128GB and a micro HDMI port.
The keyboard dock also provides further support with a USB 3.0 port and a full sized SD card slot.
To make use of all that hardware, the Asus Transformer Pad comes with Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, although Asus has pushed out an update to Android 4.3.
Looking at the undocked tablet, there is nothing that particularly stands out. The thick black bezel and large screen are reminiscent of almost every tablet I've seen. The front camera sits at the top of landscape mode, making it easier to make video calls when docked.
On the back of the aluminium chassis is the power/lock button and the volume rocker, as well as the 5MP camera, while a microSD slot, 3.5mm headphone jack and micro HDMI port sit on the left hand side, leaving the right completely bare. The base holds the charger port, as well as slots for the keyboard dock to lock into.
When the Asus Transformer Pad is docked, the tablet becomes an Android netbook. The SD slot and USB 3.0 port sit on the right, leaving the dock charging port on the left. Asus has created a really good dock, and although it feels small it doesn't feel cramped. The dock also comes with a trackpad, meaning you don't have to keep tapping the screen.
Every button that you could hope for is there, including buttons to control various connectivity options, brightness, media controls and a screenshot key. Android's home button occupies the space where the Windows/Command button is usually found.
Overall, Asus has taken what has kept the Transformer Pad series so good, and improved it. The screen is bright and the resolution leaves nothing wanting.
The Asus Transformer Pad comes equipped with Android 4.2 Jelly Bean out of the box, although there is an update available to 4.3.
As with all previous Transformer iterations, Asus has left Google's OS pretty much untouched. This might be seen as a good thing, but I would liked to of seen a little more customisation.
Without the dock, the Transformer Pad feels like another generic Android tablet, albeit running smoothly with the 1.9GHz quad-core Tegra 4 CPU underneath it.
This means that it functions in the same way as every Android tablet, with the multiple home screens being able to be populated with folders, apps and widgets.
There are a few proprietary widgets on the Asus Transformer Pad, including battery, email, weather and task manager. Apps and widgets can be dragged and dropped out of the app drawer, and onto one of up to seven home screens.
Creating folders is incredibly easy, aping the iOS method of dragging and dropping apps onto one another. This is a brilliant feature, especially when you compare it to Samsung's manual creation method which feels far more convoluted.
Working with it as a netbook, however, these home screens feel a little redundant, more applicable to an undocked slate. The dock certainly makes manoeuvring the Transformer Pad easy, with the touchpad being sensitive as well as supporting multi-touch gestures to move between screens.
Android's notifications bar swipes downward into a narrow area down the centre of the screen. Quick settings make an appearance, allowing quick toggles of Wi-Fi, battery optimisation, a reading mode, instant dictionary, Bluetooth and GPS.
Wi-Fi settings, audio settings and a Miracast wireless display can also be accessed, alongside the main settings button and a brightness toggle.
This is an area that confused me greatly. On full brightness the screen is usable inside but is incredibly difficult to use when out and about, leading me to leave the screen up to maximum all the time. Auto-brightness mode didn't help, as the screen got slowly darker and darker.
With Microsoft now making deep inroads into the tablet market with the Surface 2 and Windows 8.1, it is quickly becoming clear that Android is not the right OS for productivity.
This is remedied to an extent, but the inability to snap apps side by side in the same way as Windows 8 or on Samsung's TouchWiz UI is sorely missed. With the notifications bar at the top, persistent on-screen buttons for home, back and multi-tasking are sat at the bottom.
The bottom left also holds a small triangular button for access to 'floating' apps, such as a calculator or dictionary. When selected, these appear over any app you have running so there is no need to open an app separately.
Messaging and keyboard
When it comes to messaging, the Asus Transfomer Pad comes into its own. The on-screen keyboard is easy to use, although it fades in comparison to the keyboard dock.
The wide range of Bluetooth keyboards that are available online is testament to the fact that people increasingly want a physical input to type out their missives.
For those that want to use their tablets as a communication tool, adding the keyboard makes typing a lot easier, although the small size can make things a little difficult.
Having a full-sized keyboard would be great, but would heavily detract from the unified feel that the existing dock provides. A Bluetooth keyboard would work well, but this would similarly affect portability.
The compromise is a keyboard dock that feels small, and means that you will have to accept that you will hit the wrong key a few times. This will change over time, as I found that the more I used the keyboard, the more accurate I got.
It may be small but it's fully featured. Every key that you could wish for is on the dock, including the full qwerty keypad, shift and caps lock keys, and all the numbers across the top.
Messaging is covered with the Gmail and Email apps, and there is no surprise to which Asus wants you to use.
The Email app not only sits on the home screen dock, but is also built to include Google's email accounts. Multiple accounts are catered for, with the ability to view each one separately or in a combined view.
For those that use their Google account as their primary email, the Gmail app is a far better choice. It includes the ability to file away under both the Social and Promotion inbox, as well as having the same labels features that are so popular on desktop version.
Gmail also allows the Transformer Pad to receive mail via push, whereas the email app can refresh itself no more than every 15 minutes.
As with nigh on every Jelly Bean device, the Asus Transformer Pad includes both Chrome and a native browser. This leads me to again point out that which browser you use is entirely down to your personal choice.
The big bonus with the Transformer Pad is that high-res screen, which helps keep everything clean and tidy. As I pointed out earlier though, this is not so useful when out and about as the screen isn't bright enough to see in the great outdoors.
When it comes to choosing the browser, there is pretty much nothing in it. Asus hasn't provided the same level of customisation that I've seen on other devices, with the native browser very much appearing as Chrome with a different colour scheme.
Chrome does a far better job of managing your online lifestyle between devices, allowing for a far more seamless transition between desktop and mobile, although this point is almost rendered moot with the dual purpose of the Transformer Pad.
Bookmarks are managed well in both cases, pulling them all in from the Google account that you have signed into. The native browser is a little more attractive as it pulls in little thumbnails once you've visited them. Chrome makes it feel more like a folder.
It is also a little easier to access them in the native browser, tapping the star icon. In Chrome you have to go via the menu. There is a bookmarks page at the bottom of the new tab screen, though.
The biggest difference I found between the browsers is that the native will reflow text, to a certain level. This means that you can pinch and zoom in, and the Transformer Pad will adjust it so it all fits on the screen.
Double tapping on Chrome has the same effect, although the extent of reflow is much narrower, and it won't pinch and reflow.
You can also quick access the Asus app by tapping on the right button on the dock, although I didn't find myself pushing the button very often.
NVIDIA's quad-core CPU coupled with 2GB RAM keeps everything running relatively smoothly, there wasn't anything that I found to be a hindrance. If anything, the biggest problem was the lack of brightness in the screen, meaning that it was hard to use the Transformer Pad out and about.
Wi-Fi is supported to 802.11 a/b/g/n, with Bluetooth also supported to the 3.0 standard. The Transformer Pad doesn't support 3G or 4G LTE, so maybe the screen won't prove to be a hindrance to many after all.
Media and apps
With such an awesome screen resolution, you might feel that the Asus Transformer Pad has been geared rather heavily towards playing media. The support for 128GB microSD card and a micro HDMI port only help to confirm this.
That seems to be where the Transformer Pad stops, however. Asus seems to have other ideas, with the keyboard dock being the biggest clue that the Transformer Pad was definitely geared up to be more of a productivity device.
I wonder if Asus has missed a trick here, because the portability of the Transformer Pad makes it ideal for sitting on the commute, watching a HD movie. The superb battery life will cope with any journey too.
The lack of a dedicated music or video player means that you will have to search the Google Play Store to find a third party offering or instead rely upon Google's standard Play offerings.
Being Android, Play Music and Play Movies apps both come installed. I've always seen these as a way for Google to push its own download and streaming services, but both apps double up as media players.
Browsing Play Music is simple and easy, with large album artwork to make selecting the right music easy. Music plays, with the controls appearing at the bottom of the screen.
One of the bigger advantages of the keyboard dock comes into play while playing music and browsing the Transformer Pad. Dedicated media keys allow you to play/pause and skip music tracks without having to load the music app, much like on a real laptop.
The Play Movies app is very similar, allowing you to browse via thumbnails. The media playback controls are hidden, allowing a full screen view. Tapping the screen allows manual searching of the video, and play/pause.
Fortunately, a Gallery app does come preinstalled, bringing up large tiles of photographs from the Transformer Pad, as well as from varying cloud services that you have set up. Google+'s photo app also comes installed, so you can connect with all the photos you've uploaded to its servers.
Asus has populated the Transformer Pad with a variety of apps in order to make the most out of the keyboard dock.
Bundling in Polaris Office and Super Note mean that creation and editing of various documents is easy, but with the dock that becomes easier than ever.
For those unfamiliar with Polaris Office (which should be few as it has made its way to pretty much every Android device), it is a very well equipped office app, allowing for the creation and editing of Word, PowerPoint and Excel documents.
The smaller screen size can seem a little bit of an issue, but those used to using tiny netbooks will feel right at home. The lack of need for an on-screen keyboard also helps make things easier.
A file manager makes it a lot easier to keep track of things, acting in the same way that windows files do on Windows PCs. This is a godsend when connecting up a USB stick via the port on the keyboard dock.
Asus' calendar app is also well handled, providing a pleasing experience when it comes to managing your daily life. There is little to add on top of any standard calendar app, but the larger screen and icons (such as a slice of cake to signal a birthday) only add to the functionality.
For those that believe that Asus has provided enough, the Play Store is now almost as heavily populated as the iOS App Store. A whole raft of different apps can be downloaded and moved to your SD card, meaning you don't have to rely upon Asus or Google.
The Play Store comes with a large number of games that can be downloaded, separated by category. Each category comes with a 'top list' showing the best paid, free, new paid, new free and highest grossing apps.
Being a Tegra 4 device though means that the Asus Transformer Pad has access to the Tegra Zone, an app store that filters out games that are better suited to be run on NVIDIA's CPUs.
These are generally higher quality, showing off the graphical capabilities that the Transformer Pad offers. For those just looking for a quick Angry Birds fix, the Play Store is a better bet, but for those looking to sink their teeth into more console-like (previous gen, not PS4 or Xbox One) graphics would be better off in the Tegra Zone.
The Asus Transformer Pad comes equipped with two cameras, a 5MP sensor on the rear and a 1.2MP sensor on the front.
Of the two, the second is a lot more interesting as it should be the one that gets a lot more use. Its positioning is perfect for making video calls whilst the tablet is docked. I can't get why it isn't the default positioning for front cameras, as it makes video chatting a lot easier.
For taking photographs, the front sensor feels a little lacking despite the 1,200,000 pixels that sensor contains. This is highlighted when using the inbuilt mirror app, an app that turns on the front camera but doesn't allow for photography.
I'd never recommend the rear sensor on a tablet for any kind of photography, merely because holding one up seems very clunky and the massive screen not only draws a lot of attention, but blocks the views of others at a concert or show. I don't imagine many using the rear sensor for that though, as the image quality is less than stellar.
Asus don't add a whole lot of extras onto the camera app that I haven't seen before. The typical white balance and exposure levels can be adjusted, and sepia, negative, and black and white filters can be applied.
More interesting are the camera modes, allowing for HDR, portrait, night, all smiles and panorama photography. It also allows for removal of objects and creation of GIFs. The first of those takes five photos and then removes an object that it detects moving.
In my tests, the Transformer Pad wasn't able to discover the right image in the same way that Zoe on the HTC One did.
I can't say I was too disheartened by this though, because I don't see the Transformer Pad ever replacing a compact camera or smartphone. It was designed to view media, not create it.
Battery life and connectivity
Battery life is an area that becomes extremely subjective due to the variety of usage situations that we all find ourselves in. Thankfully the Transformer Pad lives up to precedent that its older brothers have set.
Normally I talk of batteries in terms of mAh, but Asus prefers to talk in Wh. The 31Wh battery that sits behind the tablet section has a quoted length of up to 13 hours, with the dock providing 16Whs, meaning a further four hours of use.
I haven't seen anything that would detract from Asus' claims of such impressive battery life, as the Transformer Pad was easily able to last a full day's use.
Under lighter demand, the Transformer Pad battery life was seemingly endless. It allowed me to browse the latest deals in the evening, and type on the move for a couple of days.
Throughout the review process, I was very pleased to say that there wasn't a single time that I felt worried that I didn't have a charger near by. This relief was a little greater than normal as Asus hasn't given the Transformer Pad a microUSB port for charging.
Unfortunately though, you will have to be in front of a TV in order to browse the web, or at least within range of a router, as the Transformer Pad comes without any mobile connectivity options. With an increasing variety of 3G- and 4G-enabled slates on the market, Asus might well have shot itself in the foot.
Even some of the Google Chromebooks come shipping with a SIM port, which makes sense given their cloud based OS. This is solved to an extent by using your smartphone as a mobile hotspot, but this is a less than ideal compromise.
Elsewhere, the Transformer Pad comes with the standard connectivity options that you could expect from an Android tablet. GPS is supported, as is HDMI out via a micro HDMI port.
As Asus' tablet comes with a proprietary USB cable, microUSB isn't supported, thus no MHL support. Wi-Fi is supported to 802.11 a/b/g/n standard. The inclusion of Bluetooth 3.0 is a tiny bit disappointing given that the technology is now at 4.0, so smart Bluetooth features are missing.
Miracast is supported, meaning you can connect wirelessly to a supported display to show off the presentation that you perfected in Polaris Office. The dock also provides the ability to connect up to a USB memory stick, as it comes with a USB 3.0 port. A full sized SD card slot is also available.
Hands on gallery
The Asus Transformer Pad is launching into a world that is very different from the one that its transforming predecessor did. The likes of the iPad Air, Xperia Tablet Z and Microsoft Surface 2 have all stolen portions of the tablet spotlight.
Being an iterative update, this is the fifth version of the half-tablet-half-netbook device, Asus has taken the best of previous versions and tweaked them to make them better.
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The addition of a dedicated keyboard dock was always going to be something I'd like. It comes packing four hours extra battery life, full SD card slot, USB port and a fully equipped keyboard. The trackpad is also really easy to use, and saves constantly prodding at the screen.
Asus has taken a look at the screen and given that another boost. I really liked the Full HD screen that sat on the face of the Transformer Pad Infinity, so adding extra pixels was always going to help.
Battery life is another area that the Transformer Pad excels in, not least because it comes with the ability to add a further four hours with the dock connected. 17 hours of use meant that I easily went through three days of light web browsing and document creation.
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It seems odd to say that I disliked the software that came bundled on a device, but it seems that Android is holding the Transformer Pad back. It doesn't come with the same capabilities for productivity that Windows 8.1 provides, and the lack of customisation from Asus does nothing to remedy the situation.
The Transformer Pad also seems heavy, especially after using the iPad Air. At 585g undocked, it is 132g heavier than the iPad (that's another 30%). This meant that it was a lot less comfortable for using one handed, or without the support of a table or cushion.
The cameras are also particularly poor. I won't knock the rear sensor too much because if you use the Transformer Pad to take photos in place of a compact camera or smartphone there is something wrong. The 1.2MP unit sat on the front seems particularly poor though, despite matching some mid-range smartphones.
For those looking at a dual-purpose device, something that can be used on the morning commute to watch movies and play games with an easy switch to the creation of a word processing document for work, there is little that the Transformer Pad can do wrong.
At least, that was a few years ago. The sheer power that is inside the iPad Air, with its 64-bit A7 chip, means that it runs exceptionally smoothly and the base model matches the Transformer Pad for price. The Microsoft Surface 2, and touch-enabled netbooks and laptops, also give the Transformer Pad a lot of competition.
As an Android tablet, there is little that the Asus Transformer Pad can do wrong, but the competition from the Nexus 10 and Sony Xperia Tablet Z is extremely fierce - and that isn't a battle I can see the Transformer winning.