The Asus Transformer Prime: the first Android device to ship with a quad-core chip, courtesy of NVIDIA's brand new Tegra 3 (Kal-El) CPU. But there's more of a hook here than power alone - Asus has gone back to the drawing board for the Prime (model number TF201) and revamped the device from nearly head to toe compared to its predecessor, the TF101. It's substantially thinner, lighter, and more attractive than the rather portly 101, while packing a much more powerful CPU, better display, and reportedly better battery life. But can they really improve upon all those aspects without cutting any corners? I've spent a few more days with the TP since posting my initial impressions on Wednesday - enough time to get a solid feel for the ups and downs of the new tablet.
"... Don't act like I neva' toldja'."
Before moving on to the positives and negatives, let's look at the specs once more.
- Price: $499 for 32GB model, $599 for 64GB, and $149 for the dock
- Availability: North American availability is expected to begin the week of 12/19, though that date may change in either direction as possible/needed
- 10.1-inch 1280x800 Super IPS + display with Gorilla Glass
- 1.3GHz quad-core NVIDIA Tegra 3 Processor with 12-core GPU (up to 1.4GHz in single-core mode)
- 1GB RAM
- microSD slot and microHDMI port (with support for 1080p video output) on tablet
- SD card slot and USB port on dock
- 8MP F2.4 rear shooter with 1080p video recording and continuous flash, 1.2MP front camera
- Tablet: 8.3mm thin, 263mm wide, 180.8mm tall, 586g (1.29 lbs)
- Dock: 8 - 10.4mm thin, 263mm wide, 180.8mm tall, 537g (1.18 lbs)
- 12 hour battery life playing 720p video, 18 hours with keyboard dock
- Metallic spun finish
- Two available colors: Amethyst Gray and Champagne Gold
- Android 3.2.1 - will be updated to Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) as soon as possible after release
- Thin and light - roughly the same as the Galaxy Tab 10.1 - which makes it a joy to hold and use for extended periods (especially in comparison to the original Transformer).
- Power... good Lord, the power. Transitions are smooth as can be, browsing never stutters or lags, and games look gorgeous.
- Three different performance modes mean you can sip the juice when doing basic tasks, or crank up the power (and consumption) as needed.
- The screen is very bright and offers better black levels and viewing angles than its predecessor. There's less glare, and coupled with Super IPS+ mode, it's great even in bright light.
- When the tablet is placed appropriately, the speaker offers good quality audio, and can be quite loud. However, it's also once of the biggest facepalms on the tablet - more below.
- With an HDMI cable, HDTV, and controller, the Prime effectively becomes a portable console, and it's awesome.
- Speaking of controllers, the TP natively supports the Wii, PS3, and wired Xbox 360 controllers, in addition to the Logitech F710.
- The dock is as beautiful and sleek as the tablet, and it's functional and well-integrated to boot.
- Bloatware is kept to a minimum, and Asus' included proprietary apps are pleasantly good.
- Some backlight bleeding. Not as bad as the TF101 and not noticeable often, but it's still annoying.
- Only one speaker, placed in what is quite possibly the worst spot imaginable. It's almost as if they sat down and said, "What's the stupidest place to put a speaker?" and then put it there.
- The TF101 dock is not compatible with the TF201 (Prime) and vice-versa. (Personally, I wouldn't want to mix the docks since the 201 dock is slimmer, lighter, and looks different... but some people would rather save a few bucks, which I can certainly relate to.)
- As with the original TF, It's damn near impossible to type on the keyboard without hitting the touchpad. The only real solution is to use the hotkey to turn off the touchpad when you're not using it, and it's unfortunate that the oversight wasn't addressed this time around.
- A few more force closes than normal - possibly because it's brand new hardware.
In A Nutshell: Without a doubt the best Android tablet on the market today. Fast, sleek, light, beautiful... you could throw just about every superlative in the book at the Prime.
You Should Buy If: You're in the market for a new portable computing device - the TP makes few sacrifices and packs a ton of power in an ultra-slim, ultra-light package.
Still with me? Great, let's take a deeper look at the Prime to see what makes it so special.
Design And Build
The TP reeks of quality. With an all-aluminum chassis and a spun pattern on the back, the package is extremely attractive. When I reviewed the Galaxy Tab 8.9 last month, I was thoroughly impressed by the size and appearance, apparently to the point that it mortified a few readers. And you know what? I find the Prime to be even more of a looker - it's slightly thinner and just has a better looking design, resulting in an even sexier package.
More importantly, the design is incredibly sturdy. Picking up the tablet by the corner alone produces no give and feels as sturdy as picking up from the center. The Prime is also extremely well-built; seams (of which there are really only two - one between the back and the side band, and one between the side band and the screen) are so snug that they're difficult to feel with your fingers.
In fact, the only real downfall of the Prime's styling is that the aluminum apparently marks fairly easily. Despite being babied since opening the box, my unit somehow picked up a fairly large scratch across the back. Then again, it's not noticeable at a glance thanks to the design style and it's not enough to even catch a fingernail, so it's realistically not a big deal.
Otherwise, I have only two complaints about the Prime. First, the (sole) speaker is placed on the back of the tablet, meaning that the sound is basically on the other side of a barrier (the screen) and going out the wrong direction (facing the away from you). On top of that, it's placed exactly where your right hand is during use in landscape - absolutely terrible design decisions, presumably because one or two sacrifices had to be made in order to make it so much smaller and more powerful. The second complaint is that there's some backlight bleeding. It's not as bad as it was on the TF101 and it's rarely noticeable, but it's still annoying, and I feel like it shouldn't be happening in 2011.
Hardware, Performance, And Benchmarks
More casual consumers may come to know the TP for its ultra-sleek profile and docking abilities, but it is most anticipated among nerds thanks to the brand new Tegra 3 CPU inside. The quad-core monster brings a ton of new power and features to the table, and reportedly even improves efficiency, and thus battery life.
With that additional power in mind, I ran a suite of benchmarks - Smartbench 2011, Linpack, Quadrant, CF-Bench, and Vellamo - on both the TF201 (TP) and TF101 (original Transformer). In each case, I ran 5 trials, and the average and highest scores are shown in the chart below.
In all benchmarks, higher is better. Quadrant isn't compatible with the TF101. A custom Vellamo benchmark was run. The Prime was in high-performance "Normal" mode during testing.
Unsurprisingly, the Prime scored higher in Smartbench, though not by as much of a margin as might be expected. Surprisingly, in the multi-threaded Linpack test, it scored substantially lower. In Quadrant, which doesn't test multiple cores, scores were good - certainly better than average - but not record breaking. CF-Bench was where the Prime really shined, though, beating the TF101 by a wide margin in every test (more than doubling it in 2 of the three). Finally, in Vellamo (which includes Sunspider), it bested the TF101 by about 21% - though it couldn't run the first 2 tests in the standard benchmark. Instead, we disabled the first 2 and added the 3 "Advanced" tests. One interesting note: even on "Balanced" mode, the Prime tended to score within about 90% of the averages above.
So, at least on paper, when multi-core support is there, the Tegra 3 CPU virtually demolishes the competition. How does that play out in practice? Quite well, actually. Basic system tasks such as swiping between homescreens and opening menus are instantaneous and experience no lag during transitions. Apps are quick to launch and load, and games look absolutely gorgeous. Even using live wallpapers has little-to-no effect on performance.
Another of the features that Asus touts as setting the Prime ahead is the Super IPS+ display, which offers up to 600nits of brightness (as compared to 380 for the TF). According to the company, the extra brightness makes it much easier to read the Prime in direct sunlight... and you know what? It does - big time. In fact, the screen is so bright that if you crank it all the way up, it's already better than most other portable displays even without enabling Super IPS+. Flip the switch and it gets even better. Naturally, the added brightness takes quite a toll on the battery, so don't expect to spend long stints outdoors using your tablet.
The display also offers better black levels and the screen just seems to "pop" more. On top of all that, they have managed to keep glare to an impressive minimum, compared to the competition. Viewing angles are also very impressive - definitely some of the best I've seen, though not quite SAMOLED-good.
While the layout (keys/trackpad) are virtually identical to what was found on the TF101-dock, the design and size are completely different. The 201 dock has just one USB port and an SD card slot, and the keys themselves are thinner and feel slightly rubberized. It's also substantially thinner and lighter, and rather than being a uniform thickness, it's thickest at the back (about 1cm) and tapers off to 8mm at the front.
To put it lightly, gaming on the Prime is pretty damn impressive. The graphics look great, with Glowball standing out the most - the reflections and lighting are truly amazing. Looks aren't the only major feature, though; the Prime natively supports the Wii, PS3, and wired Xbox 360 controllers, as well as the Logitech P710. Coupled with an HDMI cable and HDTV, it forms a great portable console (except, you know... only one controller and one player.)
Battery Life/Performance Modes
NVIDIA claims that the Tegra 3 boasts some of the best battery life in the business, while packing added power. We've already seen that their claims on power are right, but what about the improved battery life? I'm happy to report that their claims seem to hold merit, thanks in part to a fifth core dubbed the "companion core." (For more details on the T3's tech specs, hit up our primer.)
On top of the more efficient processor, Asus has packed in three performance modes: "Normal" mode is effectively high performance, with everything capable of running at full speed as needed (up to 1.4GHz for a single core and 1.3GHz for multi-core). "Balanced" caps the CPU at 1.2GHz, and "Power saver" mode sets the ceiling at 1GHz for single/dual-core modes, 700MHz when three cores are being used, and 600MHz when all four main cores are active. Presumably other tweaks are made as well - in power saver mode, the screen dims and adjusts brightness based on what's displayed on the screen (though that can get just a bit annoying - scrolling up and down quickly on a site with images will visibly brighten/darken the screen).
Unsurprisingly, the performance modes are also pretty effective at controlling battery consumption, and balanced mode seems to handle just about everything thrown at it with only negligible (if any) effect. On balanced mode, expect about 8 hours of reasonable use (browsing, gaming, social networking), or at least 6 hours of heavy use. On normal, perhaps slightly less, and on power saver, quite a bit more thanks to the lower brightness and substantially slower CPU clocks. Also, note that I kept brightness at 40-50% during my testing, which was brighter than necessary. Lower brightness would result in even better battery life.
By now, we've all got a pretty good feel for what to expect with Honeycomb. In a nutshell, things are smooth, beautiful, and pretty well tablet-optimized. As for Asus' modifications, their custom UI additions are sleek, minimalistic, and take no toll on performance.
As for bloat, the company keeps it fairly low: Polaris Office, SuperNote, App Backup, App Locker, Asus Sync, Asus Webstorage, MyCloud, MyLibrary, MyNet and Netflix come preinstalled. Happily, the apps feel well coded and are relatively unobtrusive - and, believe it or not, many are actually useful. For example, using MyCloud, you can remotely connect to Splashtop (a VNC client) without having to pay for the Splashtop app. The company offers 8GB of free cloud storage for the lifetime of the Prime upon registration, as well.
Asus claims the Prime is the first tablet to feature a quality camera, and after using the camera for a bit, I feel safe in saying they're right... technically. Because really, it's not hard to be the best when the competition is all basically crap. Put another way: does the TP have the best camera on a tablet? Yup. Is that saying much? Not really.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the Prime's camera isn't good, because it is. In fact, it's better than most phone cameras. But it doesn't best, say, the Galaxy S II or Amaze 4G by any stretch.
So, to the point: images are good, especially considering they could've slapped another crap-tastic camera on the back and nobody would care since people rarely use tablets for taking pictures. In the Prime's case, shots are fairly sharp, lighting is good in the standard deviation of situations (that is to say, roughly 68% of the time), and colors are generally accurate. When things get too bright or too dark, though, image quality drops (as is normal for cameras of this nature).
There's a lot to take into consideration here. First, we're looking at a lot of all new technology and some impressive capabilities that heretofore haven't been seen. Not only does it pack more power and new features, but it manages to do so in an even smaller package than we're used to, and at a decent price point, to boot. On the one hand, a starting price of $500 seems like a weakness... until you consider that a 32GB Galaxy Tab 10.1 costs $600 despite no longer having the lead in sex appeal, and being blown out of the water on the hardware front. Then again, a lack of a $400 16GB model could put the Prime above what some people can afford, and that's unfortunate, because it's quite the tablet on its own - throw the $150 dock into the equation, and you've got a hell of a device on your hands.