With the iPad 2 available for less than £400 and full of apps for all occasions, Android needs a hero tablet, and it needs one now. After a few false starts, in the netbook/tablet hybrid Asus Eee Pad Transformer, it's finally found one.
With a 10.1in screen and a healthy bezel around the edge, the slate part is slightly longer and narrower but exactly the same depth as the original iPad. It's well built, too: the retro brown colour may look as if it’s been modelled on a 1970s Casio calculator, but the metal chassis is designed to last. The only weak part is around the back, which is covered with a textured plastic that we imagine will be the first part to show signs of wear.
The tablet transformed
It would be almost foolish to buy the Transformer without the keyboard, though: that's what makes it unique. Attach the two together and it's as comfortable to type on as any netbook with the added advantage of instant start-up and well over a day’s worth of battery life.
The Transformer actually has two power cells, one in the slate and one in the keyboard, and Asus claims a total of 16 hours usage when they’re combined. We got more than 13 hours of heavy use out of it before plugging it in.
The Transformer’s screen matches that of the iPad 2 on colour reproduction but beats it on brightness and resolution. However, Honeycomb, the tablet-specific flavour of Android, is still in its early stages of development and is a little quirkier than iOS. It’s easy to overload a home page with widgets than can cause the Transformer to stutter once in a while.
But it’s the multitasking sidebar which really stands out. Call it up by pressing an on-screen button and up to five recent apps can be restarted instantly in their last state. Switching between them is just as fast as, if not faster than multitasking on a netbook. Unlike iOS, you can’t control which apps are held in the background, but that’s the trade off for the speed at which they're recalled.
It's this, as much as the keyboard, that makes the Transformer a true workhorse with all the convenience of a tablet.
Megatron or Optimus Prime?
There are a few reasons the Transformer won’t supplant the iPad 2 just yet. The biggest weakness is video. The Tegra 2 processor can cope with HD playback, but only a few codecs are supported in the default player (meaning that currently it simply won’t play a lot of video file types), and we couldn't find a third party media app which didn't crash. The rear facing camera, meanwhile, is capable of shooting 720p but the video quality is terrible, even though the stills quality is relatively good.
However, set that against Flash support and add in the extra software that Asus bundles for free, and what you’re left with is something better than an 'iPad beater’. The keyboard does more than give an improved text entry option – it really does transform this from a tablet into a netbook. With all popular memory cards supported, you can use it to create and move documents, not just in the cloud but from one device to another, and the bonus of being able to type properly while surfing the web is not to be underplayed.
You’ve finally got a choice: a valid alternative to Apple’s ubiquitous tablet that won’t leave you feeling like you’ve settled for second best.