The ASUS Transformer AiO is undoubtedly one of the most interesting pieces of Android-powered tech that we've seen in the past year or so. As a member of the Transformer family it's made to convert from one device category to another, but unlike the "typical" Transformers that we're used to seeing from ASUS, this one doesn't change from tablet to laptop – it's both a full Windows 8-powered desktop PC and a gigantic Android tablet. The idea in and of itself seems just a bit absurd: an 18.4-inch display that can be undocked to become a tablet? One thing's for sure: this isn't the type of tablet you're going to throw in your backpack and take on-the-go, which is one of the primary uses for tablets. Instead, this monster is going to be used around the house and nothing more.
Given that, the entire concept sounds a bit absurd. Make no mistake, though – this is an extremely well executed piece of hardware, and it made me a believer. I've found myself using the AiO in ways I didn't previously imagine, for both entertainment and productivity purposes. The AiO fits a niche that I feel has its place in the household, especially for families. It's clear that this device was made to be placed in the common areas of the household – the den, great room, or kitchen – somewhere it can benefit everyone.
The hardest thing to swallow with the AiO is its price and the presumed idea that you're paying for a novelty product. This is a camp that, I too was in after seeing the announcement, but as I've already said, spending some time with it has made me a believer. This thing is seriously cool, and the amount of utility is surprisingly vast.
- Processor: 3.1GHz Intel Core i5 (Third generation)
- GPU: NVIDIA GeForce 730m 2GB
- RAM: 8GB
- Storage: 1TB 7200RPM HDD
- Ports: 4x USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0 (basically reserved for the wireless keyboard/mouse dongle), SD card reader, headphone, speaker, DVD writer, Kensington Lock
- OS: Windows 8
- Processor: Quad-core NVIDIA Tegra 3
- RAM: 2GB
- Storage: 32GB
- Battery: 7600mAh
- Ports: miniUSB, microSD, Kensington Lock, headphone jack, charging port (includes separate AC adapter)
- OS: Android 4.2.1 (4.1.1 out of the box)
- Display: 18.4-inch IPS panel at 1920x1280 (120 PPI)
- Camera: 1MP front camera
- Surprisingly utilitarian. I've been completely blown away with the scenarios in which I've found myself using the AiO. From desktop computer to tablet, I've used it for work, watching movies, playing games, streaming music, searching the web, reading/writing emails, and basically everything else that I would normally use a tablet and/or computer for. What surprised me the most is how enjoyable it is to use such a massive screen.
- Extremely well-made and designed. ASUS covered all the bases with the AiO. Everything from switching OSes to docking/undocking the tablet is absolutely seamless. I'm still in awe at the overall design and craftsmanship at work here.
- It's a desktop and a tablet. This seems slightly obvious, but it's really not lackluster at either thing – it excels at being both, and that's a very rare thing to find.
- Lack of hardware upgrade options. Since this is an all-in-one and uses two separate OSes, it's very unlikely that something like a hard drive swap is possible – at least without headache, that is. That's unfortunate given that its HDD is easily the bottleneck of the system on the Windows partition.
- The mouse is poorly designed. With most mice, the optical eye is in the center of the bottom, giving them a very balanced movement. On the AiO's mouse, however, the eye is much closer to the front, which means you have to control movement with more your fingers and less with your wrist (unless you use your entire arm to move a mouse), which can lead to a very frustrating experience.
- The tablet is crazy-heavy. Again, let me point out the obvious. It's 18.4-inches, guys – don't expect a featherweight device. Good thing it has a handle.
- The tablet speakers are on the back. In the past, we've given ASUS a pass for putting the speakers on the back of its tablets because, well, there isn't a lot of room to work with (though Samsung found a way to put some front-facing speakers on the Note 10.1 and Nexus 10). On the AiO, however, there's really no excuse – the speakers should've been on the front. As loud as they may be, the old cup-the-hand-around-the-back trick still makes them sound 10 times better.
Design and Build Quality
Naturally, the first feature of the AiO worth talking about is its unique hardware design. Never before has a desktop device existed with a detachable monitor that turns into a tablet, let alone one that also runs dual operating systems. You may be asking yourself how this works. It's actually pretty straightforward: the dock houses all the components that power the Windows 8 half of the system – the Core i5 CPU, 8GB RAM, 1TB HDD, NVIDIA GeForce 730m, and the like; the monitor/tablet houses all the Android-based components, including the 32GB storage area, 2GB RAM, and Tegra 3 processor. As soon as the monitor is removed from the dock, it activates Android. It's incredibly seamless, and absolutely brilliant. I'll be the first to admit how skeptical I was of this device when it was first announced, so I'll happily admit that I was actually blown away at how incredibly intuitive and well designed the AiO's hardware features and OS switching is.
In order to allow you to continue working in Windows after undocking the monitor/tablet (can I just call it a monitablet from here on out?), Splashtop launches and automatically connects Android to the tablet base when when switching to tablet mode, which is quite fantastic. If you just want to use Android, jumping out of the remote connection is a breeze, and you can easily switch back and forth between Android and Windows using the Mode Switching button on the side of the tablet, and that works regardless of whether you're docked and in Windows mode, running Android in tablet mode, or any combination of the two. Basically, a press of that button almost instantly switching between the two OSes. I'm still surprised at how well it works, and I've had this unit for well over two weeks.
Another nice feature of the AiO's design is that if the display is undocked and running Android, a second monitor can be connected to the base via HDMI, allowing the Windows partition to continue functioning. This really is two devices in one body, and the implementation is nothing short of mind-blowing.
But there's the question: how am I expected to easily remove the massive tabletdisplaythingy? Simple: with the handle on the top – it makes removing the tablet extraordinarily easy, as it just lifts right out. And the dock is heavy enough that it just stays in place while the tablet is being lifted out. In that same respect, replacing the tablet into the stand is quite simple: line it up and put it down. Nothing has to be locked or pinned, and the weight of the tablet is just enough to push it down onto the adapter. These guys thought of everything, and just made it work.
When it comes to build quality, it's exactly what you'd expect from an ASUS product: very well made. As noted above, everything fits together extremely well, and there's virtually no creaking, cracking, or other potentially uncomfortable sounds when moving, rotating, docking, undocking, or the like. The tablet portion can easily be likened to ASUS other products, as it shares very similar design elements: a softly curved back (though it's plastic, not aluminum – probably to save a little on weight) with a nicely-sized bezel – basically, it looks like an oversized Transformer, which works really well. The one exception to the all-plastic back is the kickstand, which is aluminum.
The dock itself can be likened to that of an Apple monitor, as it features on large, aluminum "leg" that the entire unit stands on. As I've already stated, the leg is weighted, which helps keep the dock in place when lifting the tablet in and out of position. Again, this shares very similar design elements with other ASUS products – the piece that houses the dock connector and locking arms is very similar to the curved joint that ASUS uses on the Transformer series' docks. Past that, the rest of the design is pretty standard for an all-in-one.
This is what an 18.4-inch tablet looks like next to the Nexus 7.
On a desktop computer, an 18.4-inch display is likely to be considered "small." In a world where 22, 23, 24, and larger displays are the norm, that's completely understandable. However, I actually found that the display feels much larger than it actually is. To put things into perspective, my workday generally consists of using two different computers: my laptop, which has a 15.6-inch display, and my desktop, which has dual 21.5-inch monitors. During my time with the AiO, I threw my laptop in its bag and put the AiO on my standing desk (which is normally where the laptop is), so I've been switching between it and my desktop for the past couple of weeks. I can honestly say that the AiO's 18.4-inch screen doesn't feel any smaller than my desktop's primary display, which is actually surprising. If your daily-use computer has something larger – like a 24-inch display, for example – you may feel a little cramped on AiO. I personally found the display to be very comfortable, though.
On the Android side of things, we've come to expect lots of pixels per inch and super-sharp displays. If that's what you want from the AiO, I hate to tell you that it's not going to happen. At a meager 120 PPI, you can clearly see pixels in most places, and text just isn't as sharp as I'd like for it to be. Still, for an oversized tablet, I don't find this to make it unusable or even troubling. In fact, most things look fine (or acceptable, at least).
Past that, there really isn't much more to say about the display. It's a pretty typical monitor.
Speakers, Audio Quality, and Keyboard/Mouse
Since the AiO is essentially two devices in one, it has two sets of built-in speakers: one in the dock, and another in the tablet. Both use ASUS' SonicMaster technology, which, in short, makes things sound better in devices with smaller speakers. Here's the official description from ASUS:
ASUS goes beyond just function into indulging all your senses with immersive experiences. Enjoy smooth, rich, and detailed sound in music, movies, voice, and even gaming. Thanks to ASUS development efforts, optimized hardware brings bigger speakers and resonance chambers and precision-tuned software for gorgeous pro-grade audio. It’s no longer notebook sound: this is fully-fledged living room hi-fi.
This speakers in the base only work in Windows, and they sound a bit better than the set in the tablet – though both are expectedly "small" sounding. In other words, don't expect a ton of bass on either count – though both are definitely good enough for listening to music or watching movies/videos and put out some surprisingly rich audio given their small size.
Fortunately, the desktop dock also features an audio-out jack, so you can pair your own speakers with it if the tiny sound is something you just can't deal with.
To paraphrase, I expected pure garbage out of the speakers, but was surprised on both counts. However, don't expect to replace your current desktop speakers with the AiO's built-in offerings.
The keyboard and mouse are a bit of an odd couple here. The keyboard is great – it has chicklet style keys with a good amount of key travel, and it's optimized for both Windows and Android. While it doesn't have adjustable legs, I found that the battery compartment positions the keyboard at a very comfortable and ergonomic position – something that is clutch for anyone who types a lot. Like many other wireless keyboards, it runs off two AAA batteries, which should provide a few months of use under normal circumstances.
The mouse, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. Not only is it one of the most uncomfortable mice I've ever used, but the design isn't very well thought-out. Since the battery bay is at the bottom, the laser eye had to be placed closer to the front of the mouse, which makes for a really awkward experience. With most mice, the eye is found basically in the center, giving them a very balanced feel. You can move with your wrist, arm, or fingers and it basically works the same way. The AiO's mouse, however, basically requires that you use your fingers to do most of the moving, especially when precision is required. Since I basically use my wrist to move mice, this was very frustrating for me. Initially I thought there was just something wrong with the mouse's sensitivity settings – not until I really inspected the device did I realize that the location of the laser was the culprit. Also, I'm not a huge fan of the touch-only (non-physical) scroll wheel, but that's likely just personal preference.
Since the mouse and keyboard work off the same dongle, there really isn't a good solution for replacing either. You could A) replace the mouse, but keep the keyboard (and waste a USB port just for a mouse); B) replace both mouse and keyboard with a different set, and lose the keyboard's built-in Android hotkeys; or C) deal with the crappy mouse. There really is no winning here.
The AiO doesn't have a rear camera (because you'd look like an idiot taking pictures with an 18.4-inch tablet), and its single front-facing camera is a 1MP shooter, so the images essentially look like crap. Understandably, this is meant as a webcam for video chatting and not something to grab some snapshots with. For that, it works fine, but don't expect to create studio-level productions for your budding YouTube channel using nothing more than the AiO's built-in camera.
Ah, storage. This is, by far, the bottleneck of the system on the Windows side of things. The AiO features a 7,200 RPM 1TB HDD, which is split into two partitions (150GB for the OS, 763GB for "data"). By today's standards, the HDD simply cannot keep up with the other hardware in the AiO. The i5 is plenty fast enough to handle almost anything you can throw at it, while the 8GB of high-speed DDR3 RAM keeps things purring along nicely – but they're both left waiting by the HDD. As someone who has SSDs in both of his primary machines, I can attest to how much slower the AiO feels in comparison, despite the fact that it has a third generation processor and faster RAM than my other two computers.
For example, to re-order the images in my Nexus 7 screenshots folder (which contains about 350 images), it takes roughly 10 seconds on the AiO; by comparison, the same action only takes about 2 seconds on both my laptop and desktop. While 8 seconds may not seem like a major difference, this latency affects essentially every function in the system, be it saving files, launching applications, booting Windows, and the like. It would've been ideal had ASUS packed two disks in here – one 128GB SSD for the OS, and a larger HDD for the data partition. Then again, the AiO isn't particularly geared towards someone who wants the fastest PC money can buy – it's clearly a family-oriented machine, a scenario where two-second program launches aren't requisite.
The Android tablet features 32GB of storage, 25 of which is accessible to the user. This should be more than enough, as I don't see anyone needing to fill this massive not-so-handheld with movies and music for local playback. If, for some reason, you do need to load it down, there's a microSD slot that should be able to handle the additional storage. Essentially, I think the tablet's storage partition is absolutely adequate given the device's intended use case.
ASUS rates the AiO for "up to five hours" of battery life. My tests ended up with a slightly shorter four-ish hours, but of course it depends on what you're doing with it. The odds are you won't need to keep the massive screen off its dock for more than four hours or so (I didn't – it was actually a struggle to use it until the battery was low enough to get a good idea of the overall life), so I'd say this is pretty acceptable given that this isn't used like a "normal" tablet.
One cool thing that ASUS did here was include a charging port on the tablet itself, as well as an extra tablet-specific AC adapter in the box. This way, if you do need the device away from the dock for more than four hours, you're able to give it some juice wherever you are (assuming you're a normal human being and will be using the AiO's tablet around the house).
Windows is, well, it's Windows. We're all familiar with it, and most of us use it daily. The AiO features Windows 8, which has seen mixed reviews across the web. Some users love it, others hate it. I happen to fall into the former category, though I rarely, if ever, use don't-call-it-metro mode on a desktop. Even with the AiO's touch-centric nature, I basically stay away from the Win8 Start menu if I can help it. But we're primarily focusing on the Android aspects of the system here, so I'll leave the Windows 8 judgment up to you.
Before we progress to the Android section, however, I will say this: the Windows partition purrs along nicely, save for the HDD lag that I mentioned in the "storage" section above. I used it for my daily work throughout the duration of the review and the only thing I missed was the speed of an SSD. Otherwise, everything about this PC was fast and fluid – perfect for a family PC.
If anyone has Windows-specific questions pertaining to the AiO, feel free to drop them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer.
When it comes to running Android on a massive 18.4-inch tablet, I expected the experience to be downright awful. The fact is, I was wrong. Sure, the tablet is huge and bulky, but you likely won't be taking this one to the can with you (but if you do, I won't judge; to each his own), so that shouldn't really make a huge difference.
What surprised me the most is how incredibly functional Android is with a keyboard and mouse on such a large screen (the desktop's mouse and keyboard work perfectly in Android mode while the unit is on the dock, for those who are curious), along with the possible scenarios in which undocking the tablet could be useful. For example, I can't stand having a TV in the bedroom (I feel like the bedroom is for sleeping and, um, some other stuff – not watching TV), but I do like to lie in bed and watch a movie or show on occasion. Up to this point, I've generally just relied on a 10-inch tablet for that (my wife and I actually watched an entire season of Jericho on my TF300 many months ago). Now, however, I grab the AiO's display, prop it up on the kickstand in bed, and watch away. The larger screen naturally makes for a better viewing experience, and the louder speakers are an added bonus as well. But that's just one scenario. Firing up a MOGA Pro and gaming on the big screen is killer, using the unit in the kitchen while cooking works out really well, and so much more. I honestly find new ways to use the AiO's tablet every day, and it has me falling in love with what Android can do all over again. In a world where every "new" device is some sort of rehash of an existing product, the AiO is incredibly refreshing.
One of my biggest peeves against the AiO was the fact it was running Android 4.1.1 out of the box. For something that's clearly intended to be a family machine, 4.2 is an absolute must. Then, about a week-and-a-half into my time with the AiO, it got the update to 4.2 – almost as if ASUS could sense my furious keystrokes giving them static for not shipping with the latest version of Android. Now the AiO can really be a true family machine – the user accounts in Windows are already a great asset for that, and now that the same can be done with Android, so there's no reason each user can't have a fully customized setup.
Earlier I said that I've been using the AiO for both entertainment and productivity, so I'd like to elaborate on that. As soon as the tablet is removed from the dock, the device seamlessly switches to Android, which in turn fires up Splashtop THD and remotely connects to the dock. So, you've just taken your Windows session from the desk to... wherever you want. Since it's remotely connected to the dock, the keyboard and mouse remain connected and useable in Windows (though they don't work in Android since they're not physically attached to the tablet itself); I actually wrote a large portion of this review using the remote connection.
This button makes magic happen.
At any point – regardless of whether the tablet is docked or not – you can almost-instantly switch between the two OSes using the small blue button on the side of the tablet/monitor. If the device is docked, it'll simply switch from Android to the local Windows partition (and vice versa); if the tablet is off the dock, tapping the button in Android will launch Splashtop and connect remotely to the dock. How seamless the transitions are and how well everything runs is nothing short of magical – a term I don't use lightly. Ever since Steve Jobs used that word to describe the first iPad, it's actually been one of my despised buzzwords; not until now have I felt any device truly lived up to it. And to think I originally thought this was nothing more than a novelty – just goes to show that you should never judge a book by its cover.
I've already touched on performance throughout the review, so you should have a good idea of what the AiO is capable of. The fact is, if you're buying a high-end device, there should be no question of performance – it better do what its (in this case) $1300 price tag would suggest. And with the AiO, if you haven't already figured it out, it does. Aside from the HDD issues I mentioned above, the Windows side performs like a top – it has an index rating of 5.9 out of the box, for those who care – and there's no lag to speak of on the Android side, either. I'm a firm believer that an extra gigabyte of RAM goes a long way on our favorite mobile OS, and that definitely rings true on the AiO.
When ASUS first announced the Transformer AiO, I laughed and quietly made fun of it to myself – possibly making a joke about ASUS building every product that even remotely sounds like a good idea. After spending a couple of weeks with the AiO, however, I'm a believer. A believer that not only is this a good idea, but an absolutely well-executed one. Not once did I have a "it would've been great if they had included something" moment with this device, because ASUS thought of everything. From almost-instant OS switching to an absolutely seamless experience across the board, the AiO really is an all-in-one device.