The horde of Honeycomb-based tablets announced at CES arrived in Spring, followed quickly by the Android 3.1 update. With so many similar models available now, what makes one of these tablets different or better than the others? And can any of them beat the current tablet standard, the Apple iPad 2 (4.5 stars, $499)? The Wi-Fi-only Asus Eee Pad Transformer TF101, a 10.1-inch tablet powered by the beefy Nvidia Tegra 2 processor, attempts to separate itself from a crowded Honeycomb tablet field with its low price, some user interface tweaks, and a cool accessory—an optional keyboard dock that converts the tablet into a virtual netbook. Does the Eee Pad standout as a unique Honeycomb tablet? In a word: No. But it does standout as an inexpensive option that isn’t missing any key features, and it’s definitely one of the best Android tablets out there.
At $399 for the 16GB model and $499 for the 32GB version, the Wi-Fi-only Eee Pad Transformer is aggressively priced. Compared with the iPad 2, which fetches $499 (16GB), $599 (32GB), and $699 (64GB), the Transformer is a downright bargain. The 32GB, Wi-Fi only Motorola Xoom (3.5 stars), like the iPad, is $599, while the Acer Iconia Tab A500 ($449, 3.5 stars), which is 16GB and Wi-Fi-only, goes for $449. So, for now, the Eee Pad is the cheapest Honeycomb tablet you’ll find. It’s also the least-expensive tablet that can come close to competing with the iPad 2 in terms of overall experience.
Design & File Support
Measuring 6.9 by 10.7 by 0.6 inches (HWD), the 1.5 pound Transformer looks, well, a whole lot like just about every other tablet we’ve seen. With built-in speakers flanking the screen on either side, a 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera and a 5-megapixel rear-facing camera, the tablet’s primary difference, visually, is its dark gray/metallic coloring—slightly different than the standard black plastic look. The back panel features an interesting etched, geometric pattern, and of course, the Asus logo. In terms of screen size, its 10.1-inch, 1280-by-800 pixel multitouch screen most-closely resembles the Motorola Xoom’s, which has identical screen specs. The Transformer integrates an accelerometer and gyroscope, uses the dual-core Nvidia Tegra 2 1GHz processor, and supports 802.11n wireless signals, as well as Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR.
The right-hand panel houses a mini-HDMI output (a cable is not included), a micro-SD slot, and a 3.5-mm headphone jack. The left panel has a Power button and Volume controls, and the lower panel houses the proprietary connection for cable sync and dock connection (along with two slots to stabilize the tablet when docked). A USB sync cable and charger are included, but like other tablets, you won’t find earbuds.
Also not included, though instrumental in the marketing of the Transformer, is the full QWERTY keyboard dock, which, for $149, turns the tablet into a streamlined netbook. It even folds up like a laptop when connected. The sync cable side-connects so you can charge, or even sync files from your computer, while you type. Check out our full review of the Asus Eee Pad Transformer TF101 Docking Station ($149, 4 stars) for more details, but the bottom line is: The Transformer-and-dock combo is only $50 more expensive than the Xoom, which is a good deal.
Video Review :
Google’s tablet operating system, Honeycomb (Android 3.0, which was recently updated to 3.1) varies only slightly from tablet to tablet. So slightly, in fact, that we cover the ins and outs of the OS in our dedicated Honeycomb review. In short, the operating system is solid—it gets the little things, like multitasking and e-mail and calendar notifications, right. It’s a bit clunkier than Apple’s iOS and the BlackBerry Tablet OS when it comes to overall layout and organization. Sometimes, its highly customizable appearance gets in the way of simplicity and ease-of-use. It’s not a nightmare, it’s just full of unnecessary visual flourishes and organization options that actually make the tablet less organized. For example, there are plenty of ways to organize your apps—but why not just have them all in one place, and make that the start-up screen, as Apple and RIM have done? In Honeycomb, swiping to the left or right of the home screen shows you more home screens, many of them likely empty if you haven’t filled them up with apps you can already access by just tapping the Apps icon. There’s no way to get rid of the blank screens—you can only fill them up or deal with them. You won’t see cumbersome user interface issues like this on the RIM BlackBerry PlayBook ($499, 3 stars) or the iPad.
Interface quibbles aside, Android’s main issue is its app store, the Android Market, which is still growing, but slowly. The browser offers a quality Internet experience, and the Android 3.1 update brings full support for Adobe Flash (rather than beta support, which had some issues). In other words, Honeycomb is getting there, but it has some issues out of the gate. If e-mail push notifications and calendar updates are your bread-and-butter, however, Honeycomb is the clear winner.
It’s also worth briefly noting what Android 3.1 brings to the table. Aside from full Flash support, there’s enhanced multitasking—you’re no longer limited to five apps open at a time. In 3.1, you can have upwards of 20 apps open at once, all viewable as thumbnails via the multitasking icon. Resizable widgets are also supported now, but it’s up to the app developer to enable this feature for each app. There is now support for a USB keyboard and mouse (mouse support is another feature the iPad does not have), and there are some new useful apps…but they are all from Google. Google Music uses cloud storage to help you manage your library, and there are new Google Video and Movie Studio Apps. These are great, but third parties really need to develop excellent apps for Honeycomb soon—Google can’t do it all.
The Transformer’s version of Honeycomb is the first customization we have seen, but it is so barely customized, it seems insignificant. Instead of a still image for the wallpaper, the Transformer uses an animated image of an ice cube floating in water that adjusts, amusingly, depending on the angle at which you are holding the tablet. The keyboard behaves slightly differently than the other Honeycomb keyboards—and not to its advantage. In my tests, predictive text often guessed the wrong thing when I was searching for apps in the Market, and it can get annoying quickly. I typed “Advanced Task Killer” with a single typo at the end of the first word, for example, and it assumed I was looking for “Neanderthal Killer.” It generally ignores what you specifically type and defaults to selecting a more-popular search result, so if you press enter before re-selecting what you typed instead of what it suggests, you’ll be headed to a result that isn’t likely what you were looking for. The buttons on the lower left panel are in the same order and have the same basic icons as on other Honeycomb tablets. This is straight-up Honeycomb as we know it.
Performance & Speed
The front-facing 1.2-megapixel camera is on par with just about every other tablet in this category save the iPad 2, which has far lower-quality cameras than anything we’ve seen on a Honeycomb tablet. Video chats run more smoothly on the Transformer than they do on the G-Slate, but that has nothing to do with the Camera app or the Talk app—in both cases, the tablets use the same apps. The placement of the G-Slate’s lens is far off in the right-hand corner, which makes looking at the screen and appearing as if you are looking at your chat partner kind of tricky. Thankfully, although the Transformer’s lens is slightly off-center, it is still central enough that your video chat-mates won’t think you are too cool to look at them.
The rear-facing 5-megapixel camera captures 720p video and utilizes the same Camera app that all other Honeycomb tablets use. In it, you’ll find shooting modes, color effects, and auto-white balance settings that go a bit deeper than the iPad’s camera app does. Throw in the fact that the iPad’s rear-facing camera offers less than 1-megapixel resolution, and it’s hard to recommend the iPad, from a camera angle, over any Honeycomb tablet, the Transformer included. That said, none of cameras on these tablets can be seen as a legitimate replacement for a dedicated point-and-shoot camera. The only real standout in the Honeycomb crew is the G-Slate, which has stereoscopic lenses for shooting video in 3D. It’s doesn’t look that great, but it’s fun. Otherwise, there’s not a huge difference from one Honeycomb tablet camera to the next. One note: Unlike the Xoom or the G-Slate, the Transformer lacks an LED flash, which means your shooting is limited to well-lit subjects.
If you had to boil down the argument for why the iPad 2 is superior to other current tablets to one word, the word would most likely be “apps.” Specifically, the Apple App Store is chock full of apps designed for the iPad, as well as apps meant for the iPhone, but which function on the iPad without a hitch—and can be doubled in size to fill more of the screen, if you don’t mind the loss in resolution of the images. The Android Market is an entirely different story. To say that there are thousands or even hundreds of well-designed apps for Honeycomb tablets would be a distortion of the truth. There are plenty of tablet apps on the Market, but they suffer from one major flaw: most of them were designed pre-Honeycomb. They look horrible on any Honeycomb tablet screen, because they were designed for a mobile phone OS—every version of Android prior to Honeycomb, that is—and not a tablet OS. The selection is growing: The USA Today app is a clean, simple, and useful example of what Android developers can accomplish and how the future might look for the Market. But when the most compelling apps available for your Google operating system are created by Google (the Google Earth app is a blast to fool around with), that says a lot about the depth of selection, or lack thereof, in your app store. Here’s hoping that the new wave of Honeycomb tablets drives more developers to create more promising options.
Preloaded apps on the Transformer include: Polaris Office (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint), Layar, MyNet (a DLNA-based streaming app), MyCloud, ASUS Sync, ASUS Webstorage, Google Books, MyLibrary, and the standard music, video, photo apps and widgets that ship with Honeycomb devices. MyCloud is a “cloud-based” storage app that will be available via firmware updates in May—it uses Asus Webstorage to access your content, and the first year is free, then Asus Webstorage charges a $4.99 monthly fee. The preloaded Google Talk, the video chat app that syncs with your Gmail account (required in order to set up a Honeycomb tablet), is a more open approach to video chat than Apple’s FaceTime, which is limited to Apple devices only. Talk will work on any device with a web camera and access to a Google account—so, just about any computer and every Honeycomb device. This means you can chat on your tablet with friends regardless of what they’re using on their end, as long as you both are chatting via a Google account.
Music, Video, & Photos
Music, Video, and Photo storage, too, is pretty similar on Honeycomb devices, across the board, though some manufacturers try to add a little extra user experience to the standard Music and Gallery apps. Of course, the new Google Music beta app adds a new wrinkle with cloud storage. Unlike Apple’s new cloud storage, however, there’s no “matching” service; you actually have to upload your tunes. My least favorite thing about Honeycomb’s file storage has to do with where video files can be accessed on your tablet. If you connect the Transformer to your PC and drag some videos in the folder labeled “Movies,” you might reasonably expect a “Movies” folder or app to appear somewhere on your tablet when you are disconnected from the computer. Unfortunately, Google instead lumps your videos in with your photos in an app called “Gallery.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with this concept, but it could be more obvious, and there’s no reason to confuse people loading files on to the tablet with folders that appear on your computer as “Music” and “Pictures” when that same structure is not mirrored on the device itself. Regardless, it’s a one time annoyance once you’ve located your video files, and if you are reading this, then I have saved you the misery of ever looking anywhere but in the Gallery app for your video collection.
File support for the Transformer includes AAC, AAC+, MP3, OGG, MIDI for audio, H.263, H.264, MPEG4 for video, and JPEG, BMP, GIF, and PNG for photos.
Video does look stunning on the high-resolution screen, and the mini-HDMI port allows for HD playback of videos on a television, as well as mirroring the tablet on a TV, which can be fun for video chatting or gaming. Angry Birds Rio looked excellent on a test HDTV, and we never had any issues loading or viewing any apps, photos, or videos.
Audio files are served up with little flair, but easy, intuitive navigation within the Music menu. Cover art can be scrolled through with finger swipes, and while it may not look as graceful as Apple’s CoverFlow, Apple didn’t even put CoverFlow on the iPad, so Google at least gets credit for trying. The Settings menu offers no user adjustable EQ, the built-in speakers sound like, well, built-in speakers (not powerful and no bass response) and there are no included earphones, so this, along with most tablets, isn’t exactly a device being marketed with the music lover in mind.
Battery Life & Conclusion
Asus rates the battery life for the Eee Pad Transformer at roughly 9 hours and 15 minutes for mixed use on a full charge. Our own test, which consists of playing a video at high volume, non-stop, while Wi-Fi is on, garnered 6 hours and 12 minutes of battery life.
In such a crowded emerging tablet field, it’s hard to recommend one Honeycomb tablet over another. If you are attracted to the keyboard dock accessory and sold on Honeycomb as your platform, the price is definitely right, as the Transformer is the cheapest tablet with Android 3.1 (or 3.0, for that matter) right now. If you’re looking for more than a Wi-Fi-only model, the T-Mobile G-Slate (by LG) is a very small notch ahead of the Honeycomb competition because it’s the first tablet to integrate 4G wireless—and it also has a goofy-but-fun 3D camcorder. But you’ll notice these tablets all rate similarly, and that’s because the primary element here is the operating system. If you want the best tablet you can buy, go with an iPad.
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