Elegantly designed with an aluminium chassis and the clean, minimalist Android Ice Cream Sandwich OS, this is the classiest, best built Android tablet around
Email, web and media is all easy to set up and use, and once you load on your email and social accounts, the tablet is your ultimate one-stop hub for anything that happens online
From its quad-core chip to eight-megapixel camera, the Transformer Prime is packed with top of the line specs and comprehensive email, browser and media apps
Though current software isn't stretching the quad-core chip to the limits of what it can handle, multitasking and general program performance is noticeably fast and smooth
With an 11-hour battery life topped up by another 11 hours in the charged up keyboar dock, the Transformer Prime will easily last you the day
Tablets are one tricky device to make, if the recent rash of slates not managing to make a dent in the iPad's stranglehold on the market is to be believed. HTC and Samsung are just two smartphone manufacturers who despite trying a variety of marketing strategies have been unable to make those wily consumers believe that their tablet is just as good as Apple's.
Asus on the other hand, has always been the dark horse of the race. In the PC world, the Taiwanese manufacturer is associated with low cost netbooks but its newest tablet is the world's first quad-core tablet, and the first to launch with Android Ice Cream Sandwich OS. It plugs into its own keyboard with HDMI and USB ports, it's incredibly customisable and it's probably too powerful for what you're going to use it for. The Transformer Prime is basically the opposite of the iPad - but is that what it takes to topple the iThrone?
Samsung may have gotten legal shrift for aping Apple, but it's the Transformer Prime that feels mighty like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. Flip it over though, and you'll start to appreciate its finer build.
Where the Galaxy Tab was built of pedestrian plastic, the Transformer Prime is a high-tech, futuristic looking bit of kit, its back a sleek, concentrically patterned aluminum, and its front a flat expanse of touch-screen edged by a two-centimeter bezel. You'll find this quite perfect for gripping in landscape orientation but its 263x180.8x8.3mm dimensions are such that portrait style feels just a touch unwieldy. Our pictures are of the ‘Amethyst Grey' model, but there's an even swankier looking ‘Champagne Gold' unit.
The Galaxy Tab can link to a Bluetooth keyboard, but Prime bundles a keyboard dock for £499 – a move that while isn't cheap we suspect will be earn it more and more brownie points as tablets take over in the post-PC era.
The volume rocker and miniHDMI port
On the tablet, a miniHDMI port sits on the left side, 3.5mm audio jack on the right, and a wide charging port at the base. That gives us the ability to hook up to an HDTV or monitor, plug in some speakers and slot the tablet into the keyboard, which itself can be charged separately and acts as a docking station.
The keyboard is a matching metal number with a classy brushed effect and nicely weighted chiclet keys. Along with the standard five rows, a top-level function row lets you take screen shots, go directly to the browser, adjust brightness and control the media player.
Alone, the Prime is one of the lighter tablets at 586g, though still out skinnied by the iPad 2 and Galaxy Tab 10.1, but with its keyboard, it weighs in at 1.1kg – heavier than a MacBook Air, but still a reasonable weight for the number of gadgets it could potentially replace (console or laptop, say?).
Now to the good stuff. Even if you have better things to do than squint at spec lists, the Transformer Prime is worthy of more than a little geeking out because it is quantitatively the most powerful tablet being sold, at least at launch.
Nvidia is the company responsible for the Prime's quad-core Tegra 3 1.3GHz chip, which keeps the machine running at a discreet high speed. There is zero lag bouncing from program to program, easily done via the multitasking tab at the base of every screen.
This is a tablet made to browse the web while playing music and keeping that high-definition movie on pause so you can download a better media player. Its rear camera packs an impressive eight-megapixel lens with LED flash and the ability to record in full 1080p HD video. At the front, a two-megapixel lens helps you look good on Skype calls (and artful self portraits). Geo-tagging is of course an option for location-aware budding photographers. While a 10-inch slate may not seem the ideal companion for a photography jaunt, the camera here Prime is surprisingly capable. It's not quite up to the standard of the better smartphone cameras like the Nokia N8 or Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S, but pictures taken in daylight were clear on the tablet screen, though zooming in displayed noise. Clarity wasn't great in lowlight shots, though it's also harder to hold a large device still enough for the shutter to snap the image.
The view from our office as snapped by the Transformer Prime
Night falls in Piccadilly Circus
One surprising omission is 3G; the Prime only comes in Wi-Fi varieties with 32GB or 64GB storage, supported by a microSD slot, bringing up the maximum total memory to 96GB. That's bolstered further by Asus' bundled MyCloud, an free online storage service. You can upload any documents or media files to access from other devices with MyCloud, including your desktop computer.
The Super IPS+ display grants extra brightness and visibility in direct sunlight, while the 1920x1200 resolution is true widescreen and ponies up remarkable clarity. It's made of Corning Gorilla Glass to better resist impact - ours lived in a chaotic handbag then toppled itself off a shelf and is still scratch-free.
The resolution was one of the spec bumps Asus added to its original Prime after it hit the shelves - put them side by side and the naked eye really can't see the difference. But if you've held out till now, well, congratulations, you won't be tossing at night over those lost pixels.
We've known and loved Ice Cream Sandwich since we first saw it on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. Its clean edges and minimalist design exemplifies Android all grown up, and this streamlined navigation is particularly evident on the larger screen of a tablet.
There's a static toolbar that is at the base of every screen - this houses three touch-buttons to go back a step, go Home, or view the Multitasking carousel. You can have up to 16 programs open at once, and jump to the one you want here. In the homescreens, the top right corner houses the All-Programs tab, where you can view apps and widgets. Holding down on one lets you place it on any of the five home screens. Do this judiciously and you'll end up with a setup that lets you navigate the tablet way faster than on the rigidly organised iPad.
The bottom right houses vital stats - time, internet connection, battery status plus any updates from apps running push notifications. Tap and you'll get an expanded view of all this; tap on the one of interest to head into the app.
Finally, the top left of the screen houses Google search and voice actions, which theoretically converts your spoken commands into action. Though it's not built to engage in witty repartee like Siri on iOS 5, its hit rate like Siri does depend on its inputted vocabulary for a set of actions. So it's particularly good for navigation, for example, where Google has built up a great list of place names. At 10.1 inches, it's pretty large to stick on the dashboard, but if you don't mind obscuring your passenger seat view, this could be a good, voice-activated sat nav.
Like most tablets coming out around now, the browser is note-perfect - tabbed browsing, full HTML support, Flash support and settings options that include private browsing and history deletion. The quad-core chip and 1GB of RAM keep it running smoothly on multiple tabs.
As we found in other touch-and-type devices, the combination of swiping to navigate and tapping to write is a divine one along the veins of chocolate and coffee, geeks and shiny things.
Though the Prime's virtual keyboard is excellent, with the full five rows and an uber sensitive interface, the tactile immediacy of a hard keyboard has yet to be bested. And despite its compact size, Asus has worked some Apple magic to produce a under-11-incher that feels spacious and complete; the entry level MacBook Air is one such computer that manages the same. Unfortunately, the trackpad here is over-sensitive, and without any way to dial it down a notch, we often found the cursor flying to unintended text fields and clicking unwanted windows.
Even so, you'll find yourself resorting to it for emails and any typed communication at length. It's just that much more comfortable, and if you're watching a movie, the built-in media control keys are too convenient to pass on.
Speaking of movies, the Transformer Prime like Eee Pads before it only supports a few file formats - H.264/H.263 and MP4 - so those DivX, AVI and MKV codecs that are compressing your HD flicks won't be kosher. You can head to the newly redesigned Android Market for an all-formats player like Mobo of RockPlayer but neither work perfectly, with some movies displaying in half size windows during our testing period. When transferring media, the inner file structure of the Prime has been neatly ordered so you can drag and drop files into premade Movies or Music folders. There's even a file manager app to guide you through poking around those digital archives. If you're just after some media files, shortcuts to picture, camera and music content will help.
Dexter looks divine on the Transformer Prime - after we downloaded MoboPlayer
Video plays smoothly with good viewing angles - you'll be able to watch a movie with a friend or three without anyone losing too much picture quality. The screen can be quite reflective so you'll want to angle it away from light sources.
Preloaded are several HD games that would otherwise cost you a few quid on the Android Market. One of the best to display the Prime's power is Riptide GT, an accelerometer based jetski racing game where you tilt the tablet to take varying tightness of hairpin turns. Other games like Bladeslinger and DaVinci QHD involve swiping at the screen or tapping at virtual controls, but this controller free style of gaming is most immersive when taking advantage of the accelerometer.
Where's my quad-core optimisation?
Graphics themselves depend on the game, and while Nvidia's Tegra Zone publishes games that take advantage of dual-core chips - you can tell by a QHD in the name - we aren't yet seeing software that takes advantage of the quad-core chip here. In time, our pretties, in time.
On first glances, the Transformer Prime may not offer so much more than the similar-looking Galaxy Tab 10.1 – same OS, similar feel, not much differentiation with available apps. But the proof is ‘neath the hood. Asus has produced a remarkable tablet with nearly every spec maxed out – quad-core power for multimedia and gaming, nearly 100GB of possible storage, an eight-megapixel camera with two-megapixel front-facer, and the tablet debut of Android Ice Cream Sandwich.
It's powerfully fast, primed for an incoming deluge of powerful software, and its bundled keyboard bridges the last gap between what tablets and laptops can do. Nope, this ain't no iPad or Galaxy Tab – and that's why you want it.