The perfect hybrid? ASUS Transformer Prime review

We can’t stress enough how amazing this tablet is. As a standalone tablet it’s neck and neck with the Toshiba AT200 as the best Android tablet launched so far in 2012. But docked with a keyboard it also successfully demonstrates the hybrid concept that many believe is the next stage in the evolution of not just tablets but computing.

The Transformer Prime comes with a keyboard/trackpad dock that hooks up to the tablet and turns the whole thing into a tiny super slim laptop. It succeeds because the keyboard doesn’t look like an afterthought but turns the whole unit into something that looks like a tiny MacBook Air.

Already the Transformer Prime has been nicknamed the Ultra-tablet in reference to the super-slim Ultrabooks that are now encroaching on traditional fat laptops. In reality ASUS may have just worked out the modern-day version of the netbook but it’s not hard to see the concept spreading to Ultrabooks and eventually proving lethal for all one-piece laptops with a screen size of 13in or smaller.

Remove the keyboard and the Transformer Prime becomes the most iPad-like of all the tablets on the market. It’s made of an all-alloy body whose edges have that familiar iPad-like contour that tapers up to the glass screen. Close your eyes and it feels like you’re handling an iPad with that same solid alloy and glass feel. ASUS has also gone a little bit further giving the Transformer tablet a stunning champagne gold finish finishing it in brushed aluminium reminiscent of the finish on the company’s UX Ultrabooks.

Inside the Transformer Prime tablet is the first from a major maker to run Android 4.0 and thankfully ASUS has not overpowered the new OS with its own interface (which makers do to differentiate their models). There are a couple of tweaks but overall it delivers the vanilla Android 4.0 advantages you want from the platform.

The tablet is also the first in the market with the quad-core Tegra 3 chip which helps it smash the performance of any 2011 tablet. The Tegra 3 uses all four of its cores only when absolutely necessary and switches to a 5th low-power core whenever it can to save battery life. The upshot is that when you combine this extra power with Android 4.0 everything happens on the Transformer’s 10.1in 1280 x 800 capacitive screen with little or no lag –  a big difference to the occasionally stuttering fluidity of previous Honeycomb tablets with Tegra 2 processors.

Graphics particularly those of 3D games look great and scrolling through the various home screens is delightfully smooth with icons and widgets rendered perfectly. It’s the first Android tablet which matches or outperforms the iPad when it comes to speed and smoothness of navigation and graphics rendering.

So that’s just the tablet. But add the keyboard and you get the practicality of an extremely light notebook. A tablet by itself is great for consuming media but add a keyboard and you have a productivity tool on which you can run spreadsheets. The audience for the Transformer Prime will be those who already pack both a tablet (for consuming media and simple tasks) and a laptop (for the work & productivity stuff) into their bags every day.

Unlike the add-on keyboards provided by other tablet makers the Transformer Prime keyboard was designed specifically to work with this tablet so when the two are coupled (the tablet fits into a groove with a connector with two tongues that fit into slots in the tablet and lock it solidly in place) the tablet suddenly looks like the screen of a tiny MacBook Air (the Transformer Prime’s keyboard with dark chiclet keys on a metal background looks far more like the keyboard on a MacBook Air than the keyboards on ASUS’s own UX21E and UX31E Ultrabooks).

Even better the keyboard packs its own battery. When combined with the battery in the tablet it extends the combo’s overall battery dramatically. In the labs we managed to stretch out the battery life to nearly 16 hours. That’s an astonishing two full days’ worth of light use (web surfing and word documents).

We found it straightforward to do productivity work on the tablet using the Polaris Office suite on the device whose word processing spreadsheet and presentation files are Microsoft Office compatible.  

ASUS also provides any buyer of the Transformer Prime with a cloud storage account of 8GB which will back up all your data as well. The unit is sold together with its keyboard and initially comes with Wi-Fi only.

The version on sale in Australia is actually the middle-of-the road Transformer. Announced at CES this year was a model with 1920 x 1080 resolution which means it will have both the power and the resolution to play Full HD videos.

There have been reports of some problems with the Transformer Prime’s GPS but ASUS says it’s addressing them. We didn’t pick up any on our test machine.
Available from ASUS retailing for $799 (Wi-Fi 32GB)
APC rating: 9/10 (Editor’s Choice)