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As a piece of hardware, the ASUS Transformer TF300T is well-built, reasonably quick, and has a great screen. On the other hand, the keyboard dock that gives the Transformer its name is mediocre to maddening — which makes it a $130 accessory you don’t have to buy. And, unfortunately, Android remains a weak operating system for tablets.
In the end, it is hard to recommend the Transformer when the iPad 2 is just $14 more, and the just-released Nexus 7 is almost $200 less.
Price and features
The ASUS Transformer is $385 on Amazon, which makes it $14 cheaper than an iPad 2. However, the docking station will run you another $130 (versus $80 for the Apple Wireless Keyboard), so if you buy the whole package, you aren’t getting much of a deal. And don’t forget the Nexus 7, which, while smaller at 7″, has the same Tegra 3 processor and rings up at just $199.
Spec-wise, all you need to know is that the TF300T has plenty of go-juice, and plenty of storage (32gb). More importantly, it has a really nice screen. While the pace of development on tablet hardware is frantic, this one is up to date.
The Transformer is running a lightly-customized version of Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), the latest version of Google’s phone and (sort of) tablet operating system. Google did just announce 4.1 (Jelly Bean) to be released soon, and the general consensus seems to be that the Transformer will probably get the update fairly soon after 4.1 is released.
The keyboard dock is the Transformer’s distinguishing feature. The idea is that, when you plug the tablet into the keyboard, you essentially get a netbook. Plus, the keyboard has its own battery, which extends the life of the tablet’s battery by about 4–5 hours. That gives the Transformer a strong 12–13 hours of battery life when docked, and about 8 hours when not docked.
Hardware and design
The ASUS Transformer has a beautiful glass screen and a plastic back textured with a pattern of concentric rings. (If that sounds weird, it isn’t. The back is attractive, not flashy.) The screen is clear and bright, and the viewing angles are very good. The back looks and feels good, although it has a lot of flex. It doesn’t feel cheap, exactly, but it doesn’t feel all that solid, either.
Like most Android tablets, the Transformer has a wider orientation than the iPad. In other words, it is slightly longer and slightly narrower. This has advantages and disadvantages.
On the plus side, the wider screen means a better experience when watching video. You will still get letterboxing, but less of it. On the minus side, there is not much room to see what you are typing when you use the onscreen keyboard. In portrait orientation, on the other hand, it feels too long to me, and the keyboard is good only for thumbs.
In the end, whether you like the widescreen form factor will come down to personal preference. I don’t love it, but I definitely don’t hate it, either.
Port-wise, ASUS throws in a micro-HDMI port and a micro SD slot along with its proprietary connector (seriously, the proprietary connector is the one thing pretty much everyone can agree to hate about iPods, iPads, and iPhones — why would ASUS emulate this?). Everything is oriented to landscape mode, which just makes more sense, since that is how you will probably hold the tablet most of time. It’s also how you plug the tablet into the keyboard dock.
The keyboard dock
The keyboard dock user experience is inconsistent and unfamiliar. For example, you can use the unlock button on the keyboard to lock the tablet and put it to sleep, but not to wake it up. Using the touchpad is confusing — and no, you probably won’t really get used to it.
As for the keyboard dock, I’m not a fan. Tiny, cramped physical keyboards aren’t much better than tiny, cramped onscreen keyboards. In some ways, this one is worse.
As Randall mentioned the other day, the test of a good keyboard is whether you can write a review of that keyboard on it. Trying to type this review on the Transformer was hopeless. So I wrote most of it on my iPad, using the onscreen keyboard or my Apple Wireless Keyboard, depending on location, which is how I do most of my writing.
Also, because the tablet is heavier than the keyboard, the whole things falls over whenever it is docked. You have to physically hold the keyboard down if you don’t want everything to topple over constantly.
The ASUS Transformer does have some ASUS-specific apps that you cannot remove (so much for Android being open). With one exception, the ASUS apps aren’t too intrusive, and you can easily ignore them entirely.
The exception is the keyboard, which is absolutely terrible You will want to switch to the default Android keyboard (or install SwiftKey) right away.
Android on tablets
As an operating system, Android 4.0 is very good on tablets. The user interface mostly makes sense (although I am regularly astonished at the amount of wasted space on the screen), and the default Google apps like Gmail and Google Calendar are much better than their iOS counterparts (if they even exist on iOS).
As an ecosystem — that is, the apps available for Android tablets, and the developer support for Android — Android remains weak and fractured.
For the record, I’m not anti-Android. It is a fantastic phone OS, especially if you are wedded to Gmail and other Google Apps, as I am.
No, it’s just that Android — as an ecosystem — sucks on tablets. That’s because, other than (most of) Google’s native apps and a few notables, like Evernote and Netflix, Android tablet apps are just phone apps stretched to the tablet’s size. Which makes them pretty awful to use. Just check out the side-by-side comparison of Twitter on iOS and Android that I posted last year. They still look the same.
The phone apps work, of course. If you want to use Dropbox or SugarSync to access your files on the go, you can. You just often have to deal with an interface that looks fine on a 4″ screen, but doesn’t look great blown up to 10″. So it works, but it’s not very enjoyable.
That is a problem for Android. Even companies with the resources to put out a tablet-ized version of their app, like Facebook and Twitter, haven’t bothered to do so. Google is still pushing to make Android tablets successful, but it still hasn’t attracted much interest from developers. If that doesn’t turn around soon, Android tablets may just not work out.
Overall, the Transformer is pretty quick. Android sometimes feels non-responsive, and navigation is often hesitant or jerky, but I think that’s down to the operating system, not any lack of muscle on the part of the hardware. When performing tasks that test the hardware, like games or video playback, the Transformer does just fine.
Assuming the Transformer gets upgraded to Android 4.1, I think most of the hiccups in the interface will be fixed, as “Project Butter” is aimed just at the stutters and lags that make using Android a bit jittery.
With 8+ hours of battery life on tap, the Transformer has plenty of juice for a day’s work (or play).
Who should buy the ASUS Transformer TF300T?
Get this if you are dead-set on a 10″ Android tablet, but skip the keyboard dock. But if you are merely in the market for a tablet, consider the iPad 2 or the Nexus 7, instead.
I like the Transformer tablet, I just can’t recommend it. That’s not because there is anything wrong with it, but for similar money, you can do better. The iPad 2 is just $14 more, has a much richer ecosystem behind it, and a smoother, more-responsive operating system. And the Nexus 7 tablet looks to be the ideal size (and price) for an Android tablet, and it’s just $199.
ASUS Transformer TF300T
Reviewed by Sam Glover on .
Summary: The ASUS Transformer TF300T is well-built, reasonably quick, and has a great screen. It just isn’t a great value.
- Price and features: 2
- Hardware and design: 4
- Included software: 4
- Performance: 4
Overall score: 3.5 (out of 5)