Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/4358/android-31-on-the-asus-eee-pad-transformer



I was pleasantly surprised by ASUS' Eee Pad Transformer. In a sea of clones, ASUS managed to produce the first Honeycomb tablet that was truly different in more than just styling and software preload. As the first PC maker to build a Honeycomb tablet, ASUS brought some new perspective to the game - which had previously been dominated by players from the smartphone industry.

From a hardware standpoint, the Eee Pad Transformer was nothing new. Its mostly plastic construction helped keep costs down but ASUS managed to get the overall device to feel pretty decent, aside from some creaking. The form factor itself was quite pleasant, the Eee Pad felt good to hold. Internally driven by NVIDIA's Tegra 2 SoC, performance and battery life were similar to other Honeycomb tablets we'd reviewed. Not as good as the iPad 2, but still better than most notebooks/netbooks. ASUS also shopped at the right places for the display panel: its quality and characteristics rivaled those of the iPad 2. In fact our only real complaint about the Eee Pad was that its display was far too glossy. It's not a huge problem indoors but held up against rival Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1 or the iPad 2 and it is distracting.

By avoiding an aluminum chassis, ASUS was able to build and sell the Eee Pad for $399 - making it the cheapest Honeycomb tablet on the market today. Price alone isn't what ASUS was leaning on however. The real selling point of the Eee Pad is its ability to transform into a 10.1-inch netbook via an optional keyboard+battery dock. With a street price of $150 and often available in more affordable bundles, the dock gave us a peak at one potential future of computing. As a standalone tablet the Eee Pad held its own against the competition, but when docked it became virtually indistinguishable from a low end PC. Apps like Polaris Office give you access to read/write Word and Excel documents, while the full keyboard and mouse make typing long emails or even articles so much better. It's not the perfect PC replacement as a number of file types are still not supported (Polaris won't let you so much as view a .pptx file) but it's amazingly competent for an OS with its roots in smartphones. The extra battery life you get from the dock was also much appreciated. As a glorified typewriter, the combination would easily last you on a flight from California to Japan (or LA to Taiwan like I'm on today). The solution has potential, but it also has problems.

I ran into a number of hiccups with the setup in my review of it last month. Some of the issues were of course due to the early nature of Honeycomb, while others were just problems with ASUS' implementation. Just yesterday ASUS gave me a drop of the OTA (over the air) update that's coming to all Eee Pad users on Monday. This update will give the Eee Pad Android 3.1, the long-awaited point release to Honeycomb that is supposed to fix bugs, improve performance and even enable some new functionality. Xoom owners got access to the update earlier this month thanks to it being Google's launch device for Honeycomb, but ASUS isn't far behind.

I haven't had a lot of time with the update but I wanted to go over some of the enhancements and give you Eee Pad users a preview of what's to come on Monday.

Improved 3D Performance

Just as we have different CPU/GPU configurations for notebooks and desktops, in the future I'm expecting to see different SoCs targeted at smartphones and tablets. Today however, the two share a common architecture with most SoCs optimized for the larger portion of the market - smartphones. The current one-size-fits-all approach has consequences for tablets. NVIDIA's Tegra 2 for example is clearly built for smartphones with either a 800 x 480 or 960 x 540 display resolution, however it's used in tablets running at 1280 x 800. With nearly twice as many pixels to render it's not surprising that while the Tegra 2 performs exceptionally well on a smartphone, its 3D performance suffers on a high resolution tablet. It's no different than buying a PC video card - a GPU that performs well on a 1680 x 1050 display may not be able to drive a 2560 x 1440 display.

In our first Honeycomb review I complained that some UI animations and transitions lacked the smoothness that I expected from a fully GPU accelerated UI. Google argued that part of the reason was the display resolution, but it also conceded that there was still room for improvement in drivers. Android 3.1 gives us that improvement.

The performance impact is easily seen in our standard 3D benchmarks. Let's start with GLBenchmark 2.0:

GLBenchmark 2.0 Egypt

The Egypt benchmark saw a 54% increase in performance. I don't doubt that some of this performance improvement was NVIDIA simply optimizing for the benchmark, but a lot of it translates into real world performance improvements as well.

GLBenchmark 2.0 PRO

GLBenchmark PRO doesn't show any increase in performance by comparison, perhaps indicating that we'll see a greater increase in OpenGL ES 2.0 workloads.

We've added two new tests to the suite from Rightware: Taiji and Hover from the BaseMark ES2.0 suite (basically the updated version of 3DMarkMobile):

BaseMark ES2.0 - Taiji

BaseMark ES2.0 - Hover

3D performance improves in both tests by 24% and 10% respectively.

The impact on GPU performance isn't limited to just 3D games, the Honeycomb UI is now noticeably quicker. Everything is snappier, which implies more than just a GPU performance improvement but the other part of that is an improvement in UI frame rate. Swiping between home screens is pretty similar to 3.0.1, but the experience is far more consistent. While 3.0.1 was more likely to chop, 3.1 seems to be more resistant to slowdowns that impact UI speed. Renegade background apps can still ruin the experience - caching songs from Google Music in the background made the Eee Pad extremely slow.

Calling up the app launcher is still not smooth, but boy is it smoother/faster than before. Even details like the circle animation when you unlock the device are smoother on 3.1.

The iPad 2 still does a better overall job of giving the UI thread high priority and keeping the interface running at full frame rate, but Android 3.1 takes a step in the right direction. If you were unhappy with the UI experience on 3.0.1, the experience with 3.1 is a lot better but still not perfect. If you were happy with 3.0.1 however, prepare to be even happier.



The Web Browser

Google made some functional and performance enhancements to the web browser in Android 3.1. Adobe recommends that you have 3.1 installed if you want to run Flash 10.3, although both Android 3.0.1 and 3.1 will let you install the latest version of Flash. I ran several Flash benchmarks to see if there was any performance difference however I couldn't find any - both versions of Android seem to run Flash at the same speed.

Browser compatibility hasn't been significantly improved from what I can tell. Reddit's front page is still far too zoomed out by default and overall HTML5 compatibility hasn't changed:

Google did enable embedded HTML5 video on Android 3.1. In the past if you encountered an embedded HTML5 video it would only play full screen, but now you can play it in inline on a webpage.

The Android browser now supports saving web pages to webarchives. There's a contextual menu option that lets you save any webpage you'd like. The webarchive is stored as a .webarchivexml file in Android's Downloads directory. Chrome won't open the webarchive but you can view it on the device itself.

I didn't have time before boarding my flight to run through our 2011 page loading test, but subjective web browsing seems to be quicker on 3.1 than it was on 3.0.1. Javascript performance is a bit lower, although BrowserMark mostly no change:

SunSpider Javascript Benchmark 0.9

SunSpider Javascript Benchmark 0.9.1

Rightware BrowserMark

The browser gains a scrolling widget on the right side for quickly moving up and down pages:

Scrolling performance seems improved, but it's at the cost of how aggressively the browser renders the web page as you scroll. Both Android and iOS only render to the frame buffer only a portion of what you see on a web page, when you scroll down old data is evicted from memory and what you're scrolling to gets rendered in real time. On iOS this can manifest as a checkerboard pattern if you quickly scroll down a web page. On Android 3.1 this appears as a lot of white blocks that quickly fill in with data. The animation is smooth but the effect feels unfinished as you can see from the video on the previous page.

I didn't notice a huge difference in performance while zooming but I'd say that the browsing experience overall is just faster than it was under 3.0.1.



The Dock Experience

A few minutes after you update the Eee Pad to Android 3.1 you'll get a popup notification telling you that there's a new update available for the transformer dock. Version 209 brings some additional bug fixes to the dock as well as a new power saving mode.

In our launch review I complained that the dock would sometimes forget it was connected and sometimes result in an unexpected reboot. I'm still using the Eee Pad but thus far I haven't run into any of these issues on the new OS/dock firmware combination. In fact, the platform as a whole seems a lot more stable than it was at launch. It's too early to say whether or not it's perfect, but it's at least much improved.

ASUS enhanced the mouse tracking as well. I'm not sure if the mouse just tracks faster or smoother or both but it's a lot more natural now than it was when I first reviewed the tablet.

The keyboard experience is mostly unchanged but it was pretty good to begin with. Hitting Ctrl + L now properly shifts focus to the URL bar in the browser window without typing the letter L. After opening a new tab the focus is already set at the URL/search bar so you can just begin typing to navigate.

Android 3.1 adds support for more USB devices. The dock has two USB ports both of which worked perfectly with external USB keyboards and mice that I plugged in. Google even claims support for gamepads over Bluetooth but I didn't have a chance to try that on the Eee Pad yet.

The dock now properly idles when it's not in use and shuts off completely when the tablet isn't attached. I didn't notice any perceivable wake up time when I started typing. I'll be running the combination through our battery life tests when I return from Computex next week to see if you get better battery life as a result of the new sleep states.



More Enhancements & Final Words

Android 3.1 brings even more than what I've been able to go over here. The recent apps menu now shows more items and is a scrollable list, making multitasking far more capable on the platform.

Tapping the home button will take you back to the last home screen you were on, not the center home screen. Widgets are resizable, another nice addition:

The OS now supports one click importing from digital cameras over USB, making a system like the Eee Pad Transformer even more PC like. What's most impressive about this update is how quickly Google was able to get it out. The Android team is relatively small and to see these sorts of improvements in a couple of months is a very big deal. Adding support for USB keyboards, mice and gamepads is also a hint at the usage models Google wants to enable in the future. The line between tablet and PC is going to get very blurry in the next 3 years.

My only complaint is that despite having a relatively unified launch platform, there's still a staggered rollout for the update. Xoom users got it first, then the Eee Pad owners. The Galaxy Tab and Iconia folks are obviously next on the list. At least this time around we're talking a matter of weeks and not months/years.

For those of you who purchased Eee Pads, keep an eye out for the 3.1 update this Monday. If you're still shopping for a tablet, the 3.1 update does make the Eee Pad more attractive. There are fewer rough edges to worry about and a better overall experience, albeit one that's still imperfect. Recording video seems better than it was last time but it's still not that great. While I'm impressed by the Eee Pad, I'm wondering what a thinner version running Kal-El later this year might be like.

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