Going from making good motherboards to going head to head with Samsung for Google's affection is a pretty big step for ASUS, but it's one that the company has taken and done very well with. None of its peers have made the same transition, especially not while continuing to thrive in their existing businesses. I don't think anyone can say that ASUS' motherboards have suffered over the past several years as the company has transitioned, much like Apple, into the world of being a mobile computer manufacturer.

ASUS' first Android tablet was a knock out of the park. The original Eee Pad Transformer gave us a glimpse of the future with its keyboard dock while delivering a good Honeycomb experience for $100 less than the competition. As many sacrifices as ASUS had to make to reach its price point, the original Eee Pad remains one of the best Honeycomb tablets on the market. But the show must go on and simply being the cheapest on the block doesn't work anymore, particularly with companies like Amazon redefining what cheap means. It was time for a new flagship and today we have that tablet:

Priced at $499 the Eee Pad Transformer Prime will be available in North America during the week of 12/19.

Tablet Specification Comparison
  ASUS Eee Pad Transformer ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime Apple iPad 2 Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1
Dimensions 271mm x 175mm x 12.95mm 263 x 180.8 x 8.3mm 241.2 x 185.7 x 8.8mm 256.6 x 172.9 x 8.6mm
Display 10.1-inch 1280 x 800 10.1-inch 1280 x 800 Super IPS+ 9.7-inch 1024 x 768 IPS 10.1-inch 1280 x 800 PLS
Weight 675g 586g 601g 565g
Processor 1GHz NVIDIA Tegra 2 (2 x Cortex A9) 1.3GHz NVIDIA Tegra 3 (4 x Cortex A9) 1GHz Apple A5 (2 x Cortex A9) 1GHz NVIDIA Tegra 2 (2 x Cortex A9)
Memory 1GB 1GB 512MB 1GB
Storage 16GB + microSD card 32GB/64GB + microSD slot 16GB 16GB
Pricing $399 $499/$599 $499 $499

Whereas Motorola was first out of the gate with a Tegra 2 based Honeycomb tablet, ASUS is done with playing second fiddle. ASUS is NVIDIA's first and only launch partner for its new quad-core Tegra 3 SoC. The Google OS of choice is still Honeycomb, although I hear the Eee Pad Transformer Prime also happens to be Google's development and validation vehicle for Ice Cream Sandwich on Tegra 3.

The Prime is everything the original Eee Pad Transformer was missing. It's thinner than an iPad 2 or Galaxy Tab and built out of aluminum and glass. Other than minor details like the buttons and connectors, your hands never touch plastic when using the Transformer Prime. Even those plastic buttons look and feel great. The tablet is just beautiful. It echoes the design language of ASUS' Zenbook, but without the disappointment in the panel department. ASUS' latest tablet actually has the best display of any tablet we've reviewed, including those made by Apple and Samsung (more on this later).

The usual suspects are carefully placed around the perimeter of the Transformer Prime. Held in landscape mode the power/lock button is at the top left corner, with the volume rocker perpendicular to and just below it on the left side. Also along the left side is a micro HDMI output for display cloning and a microSD card slot. A standard 1/8" headset jack finds itself on the right side of the tablet, and ASUS' standard dock connector is bottom center. The original Eee Pad had two speaker grills, while the Prime has a single, larger speaker on the back of the device. Audio output is surprisingly full but the tablet doesn't get loud enough to overpower a noisy environment.

ASUS went a little crazy with the rubber stoppers all over the Prime. The dock connector and its two mechanical retention/secure points are plugged with these things, as is the USB port on the optional transformer dock.

Just like last time, the Eee Pad Transformer Prime can be mated to an optional keyboard dock for an extra $149. The dock adds a QWERTY keyboard, trackpad, an SD card reader, USB port and comes with its own 22Wh battery. The dock's battery not only powers itself but it can charge the Prime's battery, almost doubling battery life.

We'll spend the next several pages going through every detail of the new Eee Pad Transformer Prime as well as NVIDIA's Tegra 3 SoC, but on the surface, ASUS has built a formidable tablet. How does it fare under closer scrutiny? Very well it turns out...

A Lesson in How Not to Launch a Product

Of all of the things ASUS has learned from running the PC side of its business it seems that the proper way to launch a brand new platform didn't translate over to its tablet business. I received the Eee Pad Transformer Prime 39 hours ago and the NDA lifted just now. While this is not atypical for many mobile launches, ASUS should know better.

To do a thorough review of any product the minimum time we need to adequately integrate that product into our daily routine and come away with a deep understanding of the product is at least a week. I say that's the minimum amount of time because if you give us more, then we can do even better analysis and spend even more time bug hunting. Most of the players in the mobile space don't really get this, and as a result they are complicit in the disappointing amount of analysis that's done on their hardware. This will change as time goes on, but I honestly expected more from ASUS.

My WiFi is Broken

What's one of the biggest risks when you give reviewers only 39 hours to review a product? If something is wrong with the review sample, there's hardly any time to fix it. This time I drew the short straw and my Transformer Prime review sample arrived with highly questionable WiFi performance. Both range and performance were impacted by whatever plagued my sample. I got less range and much lower performance than the original Eee Pad Transformer regardless of location or wireless access point. How bad? My Prime had difficulty sustaining more than 2Mbps over WiFi. ASUS and NVIDIA both sent me proof that there wasn't something wrong with other samples, and from their data it looks like the WiFi stack in the Prime is at least comparable to the original Transformer. The problem may just be limited to my unit, although I tend to believe that if something goes wrong once, it's bound to go wrong more than once.

Based on the fact that wireless performance improves when docked and upstream speeds are almost normal, if I had to guess I'd say that the receive antenna is either not fully connected or somehow impaired from doing its normal duty. I should have a replacement unit in by tomorrow, but unfortunately that means you won't see any WiFi dependent results here.

ASUS chose Broadcom's BCM4329 for WiFi/Bluetooth duty. Although the controller supports both 2.4GHz and 5GHz operation, the Prime is limited to work on 2.4GHz networks. The rest of the design is pretty standard - you get a single spatial stream at a maximum of 72Mbps. Real world performance, if ASUS/NVIDIA's numbers are to be believed, should top out somewhere in the upper 30Mbps area.

Update: ASUS got us a fixed unit, be sure to check out our follow-up here.

CPU Performance
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  • joe_dude - Thursday, December 01, 2011 - link

    Sorry Anand, but could you clarify what you mean by "getting actual work done"?

    I don't expect the Transformer Prime to be running Photoshop (although Photoshop Touch is available?) or any intense apps. But is it a "good enough" laptop for a general user?
    Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Thursday, December 01, 2011 - link

    Browsing the web is still faster on an MBA/ultrabook, pages load quicker, you can open multiple tabs and load them in the background more effectively - you can switch between tasks quicker (cmd+tab/alt+tab is still infinitely more responsive than what you get with Honeycomb's task switcher). You can get writing done on both, but multitasking and being productive is just easier on a MBA/ultrabook.

    Now both of those comparisons are ~2x the price of the Prime. Compared to a netbook, I'd definitely get the Prime.

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply
  • agt499 - Thursday, December 01, 2011 - link

    Alt-tab was one of many things that impressed with my OG transformer -you don't use the honeycomb task switcher because you just alt-tab with the keyboard!
    I have to say asus really get it on that: I don't know for sure if it's asus or google , but the others that warm by keyboard-loving heart are ctrl-t for a new tab in browser and ctrl-w to close a tab.
    Also re zooming, I can't speak for the prime, but the original will pinch-zoom with the touchpad.

    Thanks for the great review -got to find an excuse to upgrade now!
    (you're still right about an ultrabook but it feels like asus are so close...)
    Reply
  • twotwotwo - Friday, December 02, 2011 - link

    Ahaha -- I managed to use my Transformer all this time lamenting the lack of keyboard-based task switching but without actually trying Alt-Tab, which of course should be the first thing to try. Thank you, agt499. Reply
  • twotwotwo - Thursday, December 01, 2011 - link

    I have an original Transformer that I've used as my work machine a few days, and I also used a netbook as my only machine for six months. Transformer's very much a tablet and not a computer, because of Honeycomb. The bad task switching and other annoyances -- different text-editing shortcuts, lack of a full Docs app, lag editing paragraphs in the browser, etc. -- mean it's fine for the reading/consumption that folks do on tablets (and better for e-mail, chat, some writing or notetaking, and SSH if you do that) but, for me, it's worse than even a netbook at other stuff.

    If you're thinking of it for tablet-y (or mostly tablet-y) uses it's a slam dunk: it's a tablet, great screen, mobile OS, monster battery life even vs. netbooks.

    If you want a computer, you want a computer. Besides netbooks and ultrabooks, there's the Core i3 ULV x121e (and others like it soon, I hope) in the middle.
    Reply
  • joshv - Thursday, December 01, 2011 - link

    Why exactly don't we expect these sorts of machines to be running photoshop? Very complex versions of photoshop ran just fine on single core P6's with a 1024x768 monitor.

    Now we have four GHz+ cores, CPU speed really can't be much of an issue. Screen realestate might be, but that's manageable with alternate layouts.
    Reply
  • metafor - Thursday, December 01, 2011 - link

    I think the biggest limitation with programs like Photoshop on small form-factor devices -- including ultrabooks -- is the display resolution. Now granted, for a lot of simple photo editing, that won't matter -- and in fact, that's what Photoshop Touch is for -- but for more professional level content, the displays may just be too small and low-resolution to get the job done.

    But you're right, the processing power is there nowadays.
    Reply
  • anactoraaron - Thursday, December 01, 2011 - link

    I always assumed it was an x86 issue. Since there's no x86 support in these devices Adobe will not re-write/compile the software - kinda like how it took years to have a native x64 flash player (and not a x86 kinda running in an x64 browser).

    I would think it's simply a matter of laziness/unwillingness (profit margin?) on Adobe's part.
    Reply
  • metafor - Thursday, December 01, 2011 - link

    Photoshop Touch and a suite of other tools is coming to Android within a month or so. Adobe wants to grasp opportunities; but just porting a mouse-and-keyboard application to Android isn't the way to go about it. Reply
  • ctrlbrk - Thursday, December 01, 2011 - link

    Anand, thank you. I have been eyeing this tablet for a long time now.

    I want to know your impressions of how it feels in your hands, weight wise? For bedroom surfing, email, youtube, etc -- but not movie watching -- is the 10.1 too big and too heavy? Is it better to get something like the Galaxy Tab 8.9?
    Reply

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