The last Android foray in laptop form factor wasn't well received by us. Which is why we feel so conflicted — the Transformer isn't only a different kettle of fish, it's an entire cauldron.
It starts with an Android tablet. An AU$599 Android 3.1 tablet at that, with a 10.1-inch, 1280x800 IPS screen and a lithe weight of 680g. This is considerably cheaper and lighter than Motorola and Acer's tablets, which come in at 730g each, and AU$840 and AU$799 respectively. The AU$549 iPad 2 is still cheaper and lighter at 613g, but we believe the Transformer will appeal to a different market segment.
The Transformer is a Tegra 2 device, which means dual-core 1GHz processors, some reasonably meaty graphics power, and a graphics chip that happens to have issues playing back certain H.264 profiles. There's a gigabyte of RAM inside, 16GB of storage, it has 2.4GHz wireless, Bluetooth, but here's the rub — no SIM slot. This is a Wi-Fi-only tablet, although we're quite sure plenty of people will be perfectly happy with that.
There's a microSD slot (that works), and weirdly mini HDMI instead of micro, with Asus not supplying a converter cable.
To get anything else, you'll need to upgrade to the AU$799 32GB device, with the add in keyboard dock — sadly, something you can't purchase separately yet. The dock, apart from adding keyboard functions, gives you two full-sized USB ports (behind some of the most annoying flaps we've seen that are quite difficult to open) and a full-sized MMC/SD card reader. Just slip the tablet into the keyboard and you (almost) have a laptop, with the screen locked to the horizontal viewing mode.
Well, perhaps "slip" is an overstatement, with a fair amount of effort required to lock the tablet safely into place in the keyboard, with our tablet almost falling out a few times.
The experience isn't quite there yet for keyboard users either — mainly down to a lack of global shortcuts. Things that are expected regardless of desktop operating system — CTRL + B, CTRL + I, shift + arrows to select — seem to only be active on a per application basis. Also, there's no delete key on the keyboard at all.
There's also no touch-pad software, meaning palm-check doesn't exist — so as you're typing, it's all too common to drape your hand across the touch pad, have the cursor move somewhere else and your words as well. It's quite frustrating.
While the screen is lovely, the audio is weaker than the Xoom, with less oomph and more tinniness. Just like the Xoom, the Transformer won't charge over USB, even though the charging/data cable ends is a USB terminator. You'll need to plug this into a wall adapter that's included to start things ticking over.
The Transformer has a customised Android experience, with little touches like custom home, back and app icons, custom widgets and comes with a bunch of included apps.
These include MyNet (a DLNA media streamer); MyLibrary (an ebook reader with access to the Txtr store); Polaris Office (a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation creator that saves to Microsoft Office formats); a file manager called, funnily enough, File Manager; Amazon's Kindle app; augmented reality app, Layar; the impressive movie-editing app, Android Movie Studio; and MyCloud.
There's also a nifty wallpaper with two ice cubes in water that indicates your current battery charge, although we found that this could impact on system performance if you had a few widgets on the desktop, and the transition between horizontal and vertical orientation isn't the best it could be.
Plugging in a USB storage device worked without a hitch, resulting in a pop up that you can then touch to browse. Unlike Froyo, Honeycomb will happily read NTFS devices, not just FAT32.
A small note for those using the keyboard for any length of time: you'll want to turn off the power-saving option that turns the dock off when the tablet goes to sleep (it's under screen options), otherwise file transfers will be interrupted, and the keyboard won't wake up the tablet, requiring you to press the power button on the screen itself. Likewise, telling the screen not to turn off after 30 seconds will prevent it from dimming when docked into the keyboard after the same length of time during video playback.
Battery life is excellent, and is approximately doubled when the keyboard is attached for close to 10 hours of DVD-quality video playback. Provided the system understands the codec, this could be an excellent travel companion for mid-length flights.
The Eee Pad Transformer is a promise of things to come. Treating Android as a laptop is still a little rough, but we have no doubt this is something Google is beavering away at for Ice Cream Sandwich. Still, it's certainly bearable, and for those who just want a tablet, this is the most compelling Android device yet. Given how fast the tablet market is moving though, we do wonder for how long...