Tom Barfield's blog

Personal musings of a young journalist in London

6-month review: Asus EeePad Transformer

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I’ve always loved mobile devices with keyboards. My first smartphone was a Motorola Milestone, and I later upgraded to a HTC Desire Z. The iPad frenzy of 2010 passed me by, as I wondered why people would want a laptop-sized device with no way of inputting more than a few lines of text comfortably (I wouldn’t, for example, write this review on an iPad). Then, in 2011, up popped the EeePad Transfomer:

Front view of the Asus Eee Pad Transformer

A tablet with a keyboard: the Transformer is a handy if slightly odd hybrid device

It looks like exactly what I wanted – a device that could be a tablet when that made sense, and with a functional keyboard when you need to enter more text. Asus have even thought about the concept for more than five seconds and included an extra battery, USB ports and an SD card slot on the keyboard half of the device, making the Transformer a serious value proposition compared with Apple and other Android tablet makers’ less well-endowed offerings.

Right-hand side view of the Asus EeePad Transformer, with SD card and USB slots

The SD card slot and USB ports come in handy more often than you'd think

I was previously schlepping a cheap MSI netbook bought at Argos around, so on first taking it out of the box the Transformer felt like a serious step up. It feels like a well-built piece of kit, with a metal bezel, Gorilla glass front and tread plate-textured plastic backing. The keyboard section is all-metal too, and feels reassuringly solid. Unfortunately, this didn’t quite live up to appearances, as you can see from the photo below.

Left side view of the EeePad Transformer, with buckled power port

Putting the EeePad down too hard can leave your power port looking the worse for wear.

This is the port you plug the power cable into when the tablet is plugged into the dock, and it looks like it’s a structural weak point. This resulted from one too many times placing the tablet down while inside its protective case, inside my shoulder bag. While I probably could have been more careful with it, I’d suggest that this section in particular (around a vital port!) should be better supported – it wouldn’t have buckled unless relatively hollow behind. Fortunately, the port still works, and the damage isn’t too conspicuous.

But on to the most interesting bit of tablet hardware: the screen. The screen on the Transformer is, without a doubt, fantastic. It’s bright, high-enough resolution for what I need it to do and responsive to touch. It’s so handy as a touchscreen device that I usually disable the mousepad even when I’ve got the keyboard plugged in, and just navigate through apps and the web directly on the screen (not as uncomfortable as some people, including Steve Jobs have argued).

The EeePad Transformer during playback of an episode of Homeland

The screen is bright, colourful and boasts pretty good viewing angles - here it's playing back an episode of Homeland.

This has even worked pretty well during extended use, like while live-tweeting day-long conferences – I used the Transformer to tweet all day long at the London Conference on Cyberspace in 2011 and at the far more enjoyable ORGCon 2012. Find a Twitter client that’s happy on a tablet (I like Plume) and the keyboard makes Twitter almost too easy.

I’m not going to go too far down the road of “apps comfortable on a tablet” since enough has been written about the lack of them for Android 3 and 4. Despite several software updates and jumping an OS version, though, the Transformer still has a few flaws. The most irritating is a dialogue box which pops up at random intervals announcing that “android.process.media” has to close, with no response possible but “OK”. Googling and forum surfing has revealed that this is a far from uncommon problem, and none of the suggested fixes have worked for me so far.

The second issue is a tendency to lag unpredictably. Sometimes I’ll be futilely pressing at a button for two or three seconds before getting a response, and there are times when a significant delay occurs when switching apps or jumping back out to the homescreen.

These aren’t uncommon problems with Android devices, and more likely than not a problem endemic to shoehorning the same software onto all manner of different hardware combinations (not unlike the perennial problems with Windows). For what it’s worth, Asus have been very sparing with customisations to the operating system, offering some apps of their own (generally not much cop compared with other options available on the market) and a few widgets which may or may not be to your taste. Other manufacturers could take note of this (I’m looking at you, Motorola) and it’s probably been a factor in the Transformer’s getting the Ice Cream Sandwich update so quickly.

Would I still buy the Transformer, knowing what I know after owning it for 6 months? That depends. It’s very capable for some tasks – tweeting and note-taking using the keyboard, reading the news in bed or on the sofa when detached – that you don’t really need a full-fledged laptop for. It’s got a fantastic screen and the UI is only getting more responsive with updates.

I often found, though, that when working, you miss the quick task-switching, easier copying and pasting (it’s still a pain on a touchscreen) and other productivity must-have that you’d get from a more traditional device. I don’t doubt that future Android versions and the tablets that run them will address this, but for now I’ve gone back to a relatively boring Samsung laptop running Ubuntu. It’s faster and I get more done (I have to suspect for lack of some of the shiny distractions that come with a tablet, as much as anything else).

For play and some specific work tasks, the Transformer is great, but there’s (for now) no getting away from a PC when you really need to Get Things Done.

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Written by Tom Barfield

April 6, 2012 at 11:58 am

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