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Last Updated: December 8th, 2011

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.

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"... Don't act like I neva' toldja'."

The Specs

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

The Good

  • 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.

The Bad

  • 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.

Deep Dive

Design And Build

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

Display

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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.

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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.

Dock

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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.

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Gaming

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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.)

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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.)

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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).

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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.

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Software

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.

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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.

Camera

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.

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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).

Conclusion

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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.

Aaron Gingrich
Aaron is a geek who has always had a passion for technology. When not working or writing, he can be found spending time with his family, playing a game, or watching a movie.

  • b00sted

    any chance for a system dump? ^_^

  • http://thefarmerslife.wordpress.com Brian

    So you can turn off the touch pad on the dock. I read another review yesterday that lead me to believe you cannot, and it was quite annoying since it's hard to avoid.

    • MpO

      I have the original Transformer and one of the quick buttons on both docks will enable/disable the touchpad.

  • HarrisonFord

    After viewing pics, it's hard to judge what the two color options would look like in person. How would you describe the "Champagne Gold" color? It looks silver for the most part. Is the gold tint more pronounced in person? And do you like the color?

    • Aaron Gingrich

      I have the Amethyst Gray, not the Champagne Gold. The gray can definitely be pretty purple at times, but I like it.

  • Sakuja

    Damn! Thats one hell of a benchmark..

  • getgood

    I wish these benchmarks would show it against other tablets, and not against phones....

    • Aaron Gingrich

      .... The TF (Transformer) is a tablet. The tablet before the TP (Transformer Prime). Hence why the names are almost the same.

      Did you read the rest of the review? I explain that about 87 times.

  • Mightytalldude

    Cue DaftPunk. Great review.

  • skinien

    Do you need the dock to use the controllers or can you use Bluetooth with the PS3?

    • http://www.AndroidPolice.com Artem Russakovskii

      Bluetooth. You only need USB to do the initial setup. I've asked this specifically, and that's what ASUS told us.

      • http://wave-france.blogspot.com Supercopter

        Then, if you don't plan to buy the Keyboard dock, you won't be able to do the initial setup and won't be able to use a gamepad, right? That's a real issue...

    • joe

      The Transformer Prime is supposed to be able to use wireless controllers natively so no you don't need a dock and can use them immediately

  • Dragonithe

    Any chance it's possible to use the keyboard dock and a mouse to play games like shadowgun?

  • tualiap

    gimmay! gimmay! gimmay!

  • Kindroid

    Asus Transformer Prime: Smarter, Better, Faster, Stronger....and for the foreseeable future....unavailable.

    • http://www.AndroidPolice.com Artem Russakovskii

      Less than 3 weeks is unforeseeable future? Come on.

  • http://nihondroid.blogspot.com Alex

    This is extremely attractive. The only thing is, it becomes less and less so, the longer people have to wait to get one. The Prime won't be the only game in town forever, and it seems they are failing to meet demand in the US already.

    For people who live in places where it isn't even available yet, they might see themselves never even being able to claim that they were the first with such a powerful device, or 4.0 on a tablet.

    If I can't actually buy it........I can't actually buy it.

  • Nick Brouhard

    Now if only my Amazon PreOrder hadn't been canceled... :X

    • Kevin James

      I feel your pain... I took my chances with best buy...

  • Xmtsys5

    I was extremely excited about the prime, until I read your review, and found out there was only 1 speaker. Aside from being a rear facing speaker, what kind of volume comes out of it? My original transformer could get pretty loud.

  • Phreqd

    Excellent review and would love to own one. But I'm priced out of that market.

  • Transformed….Again

    Prime vs iPad3??? Sooo many choices!! By the way, thanks for the review.

  • Charles

    Great review! I can't wait for mine to come. Hopefully Best Buy doesn't cancel my order like Amazon is doing

  • DFT

    Any chance someone with Asia's ear could ask them to justify why he TP is 60% more expensive in the UK than it is in the US? They're flat ignoring my emails. Thanks.

    • ridger

      blame it on your government tax... it always has

      • flemlion

        It's more than tax, it's a bad habit from the distribution channels in Europe in general. If it was just tax, I could order one from amazon.com and pay the import duty and still end up cheaper. But amazon.com (and most other online shops) do not ship here. Guess it would drive their inflated price down too much.

    • DFT

      Well I've done my online research and spoken (on the telephone ...eeesh!) with HMRC and I'll be importing one.

      The import is ZERO import duty rated (confirmed by HMRC as Commodity Code '8471 30 00 00' if any one's interested) so just will just have to pay the 20% VAT and the courier's "show me" charge for having to deal with customs and collect payment.

      Thus I will either have the tablet only for 100GBP cheaper than buying one in the UK or essentially get the keyboard free and save myself 20GBP (which I can use to buy the UK mains adapter).

      BTW, it's not tax - it's manufacturers choosing to rip us off ...pure and simple. 499USD vs 499GBP and 499EUR - how coincidental is that.

  • Charles

    So how much of a system can this be? Does anyone know if ICS will provide something like a webtop experience? When plugged into external monitors can it do different resolutions to match the monitors?

  • Khaled

    why buy costly & bulky/heavy Asus Dock/Keyboard/tab when i could buy Logitech's Latest Android Universal Wireless Keyboard/case/stand + Logitech's Wireless mouse for less

    while Logitech could be used with many brands and not just Asus specific model

    • joe

      The dock also has a battery that essentially doubles the tablet use time

  • nes

    will this be a good replacement for my netbook. this will be my secondary computer for doing school work, but will i be able to rely on this device to create, open and edit word documents properly? also if i create a document on here and save to a usb will it open on my laptop in word documents? would be great if you could answer!

    • marvin

      Yes i have the original transformer, which has all if the same applications and can do that with the reinstalled Polaris office. You can space it to a USB with the dock or just upload it to Google docs if you use that. I use it as a second computer and school and it works
      great for creating word docs and any other stuff that doesn't specifically require a windows computer.

  • James H

    The Asus Transformer Prime sounds pretty good. I'm pretty green when it comes to tablets so forgive me if my question sounds a little naive but can you watch movies and tv on the Asus like on an IPad?
    Jim

    • joe

      Yes. It can play 1080p quality video, it also works with Netflix for instant streaming and has an HDMI input for direct connection to a TV.

  • Brian

    This is the second review I've read in which the reviewer laments the placement of the speaker behind the hand in landscape mode. I'm curious why the tablet can't simply be rotated 180 degrees (as with pretty much every smartphone/tablet available), thus placing the speaker at the top? In other words, are you sure you're not "holding it wrong"?

  • John Blair

    Coming from a TF101 (original Transformer) I was torn at first on getting this. The tf101 was so good, I hated to part with it. But these specs, combined with the slick, ultra thin packaging beckoned to me in a steady, incrementing way that became literally irresistible as a woman to a pubescent teenage boy, lol! Now I have parted with my TF101 (my fingers had to be bent back to get me to release my grip on it) and I am sweating it out like thousands of others with preorders. What did Asus expect? You wow people with previews, create a slick, iPad alternative (or ass-kicker, depending upon your point of view), and get caught short with production? This thing is hotter than Tickle-Me Elmo at Christmas 1997! Once a run starts on a product, all bets are off! Sigh. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  • Steven O’Harra

    Will it play farmville?
    I'd like to get one for my wife but farmville is a must (and several droid users say it doesn't work without tweaking the browser or worse, it doesn't run at all)

    Can you give farmville a try and see if it works?