As consumers we're usually obsessed with one of two extremes: the biggest bargains or the best of the best. But sometimes it's worth spending time in the middle ground.
Take the Asus Transformer T100 Chi for example.
It’s a 10.1-inch hybrid, and it’ll cost you around S$599. As the hardcore among you will already know, there are plenty of hybrids available for less than that. For instance you can get the Acer Switch 10 for around S$799 these days. The difference could buy you a lot of sweets.
Or, at the other end of the scale, you could get the Microsoft Surface 3: with its Type Cover keyboard, that'd set you back about S$748.
Clearly, the T100 Chi sits squarely in the middle of these extremes but it does so without any lingering sense of compromise. Yes, it’s still a bit small if you're using it to write the sequel to War and Peace, but slick design and a genuinely decent screen mean it’s a cut above most others.
A little touch of class
For me, one of the main draws of the Asus Transformer Book T100 Chi is its design. Maybe that makes me a bit shallow, but I can live with that.
Most of the 10-inch hybrids I’ve looked at over the last couple of years have been pretty low-grade affairs. They’re mostly-plastic things that generally don’t cost a bundle, but don’t feel like they do either.
The Asus Transformer Book T100 Chi is different. First, the screen’s rear and the parts your hands rest on are aluminium, while its edges are diamond-cut to reveal the shiny silvery metal underneath. Even the trackpad is ringed with ‘natural’ silver, making it seem anything but a budget model.
The only body panel not made of aluminium is the bottom, which is plastic. I don’t think it detracts too much, though. The T100 Chi is still very obviously a bit fancier than most in this class.
Looking pretty is one thing, but the higher grade change that really matters here is the screen. The T100 Chi's display is leagues better than that of the older Transformer T100, which really set the entry-level standard for hybrid tablets a couple of years ago.
The biggest spec change is resolution. Where several other lower-cost hybrids have 1366 x 768-pixel screens, this one has a 1920 x 1200 screen, a slightly taller version of standard full HD. Now that we have 5in phones with QHD screens this might not sound like a lot, but it’s enough to make the Asus' screen look very sharp. At least at the sorts of distances you’ll use it from with the keyboard attached.
Colours are also improved since the original T100 too. Where before shades were fairly muted, making the screen look altogether a bit low-energy, here you get the sort of vivid-looking colours more common in dedicated tablets, where screen quality matters more than just about everything else. Are they close to what you’d get from an iPad Air 2? Absolutely not. Colours are better, but not fantastic.
There’s also a stylus included in the box, and it’s no dumb pen either. It’s an active affair, powered by an AAA battery, and gives you 256 pressure levels. That lets you get natural-looking strokes out of drawing apps that support pressure sensitivity. It uses Synaptics tech, the same as that used by the Venue 11 Pro and 8 Pro tablets. It’s not quite the best stylus tech we’ve used, but it’s a neat extra.
The key is the keyboard
Aside from this pen, the Asus Transformer Book T100 Chi's main advantage over a standard tablet is that keyboard.
The screen slots into guide prongs on the base, and is kept in place with pretty strong magnets. There are no click-in clasps and no direct connection between screen and base because the keyboard part uses Bluetooth wireless, not a wired connection.
I have mixed feelings about this choice. On the positive side, it means you can use the keyboard when it’s not plugged into the screen. This can be good if you’re working at home and want to free-up your posture a bit. Sitting hunched over a 10in screen for hours every day is a one-way ticket to knotted shoulders and back pain.
However, it also introduces some of the Asus Transformer Book T100 Chi’s problems. First, it doesn’t respond immediately if you’ve left the keyboard unused for a while: it auto powers-off after a while to save charge, so takes a brief moment to power back on. as a result, you just don’t get the immediacy of a good old hard-wired keyboard. It also needs to be charged separately from the main unit, with its own microUSB socket.
The first Asus Transformer Book T100 Chi unit I used also had real problems with trackpad judder: when you get a bit fancy, there’s more room for things to go wrong.
Still, when working the trackpad looks and feels great. And while it’s dinky there’s just enough space to get by without using it feeling uncomfortable. It has the right texture too, topped with what looks like textured glass, as used by Ultrabooks.
The key issue
The keyboard itself is a similar deal, although I found the slight delay much less noticeable, as the trackpad’s generally what you head to first, isn’t it? Keys are just that bit smaller than what’s ideal, but Asus seems to have put concerted effort into making the action quite definite and crisp.
I wouldn’t use the Asus Transformer Book T100 Chi as an everyday, several-hours-a-day typing tool, but then I’m yet to find a 10in laptop that would fit the bill on that front. Even the 11in MacBook Air feels that bit cramped, and it has full-size keys just like the other MacBooks.
The Asus Transformer Book T100 Chi keyboard is ‘just’ a wireless keyboard, though. It doesn’t offer another battery to boost the tablet section's battery, so you can't use it for a whole holiday without a charge, and it doesn’t offer all that much stabilisation either.
Plus, on a totally flat surface the Chi stays upright. But as soon as you put it on your knees it tips over like a helpless baby. Presumably the base would need to be a fair bit heavier to prevent this happening, but it’s still a tiny bit disappointing. Although not at all surprising: most 10in hybrids topple like this.
But even without an additional ‘main’ battery in the base you’ll get up to 11 hours use off a charge. That is definitely light use, though - my experience using the Asus Transformer Book T100 Chi suggests that you'll get more like eight hours at mid-high screen brightness.
Splitting the Atom
Asus has produced longer-lasting hybrids than this, but the Asus Transformer Book T100 Chi does have a little more grunt than previous-gen early models. It has an Intel Atom Z3775 processor, a quad-core 1.46HGz CPU, and 2GB RAM.
If there was one area which left me a little disappointed, other than the slight niggles around the keyboard and trackpad, it was this. While an updated 64-bit version of the Z3735F is found on a bunch of cheaper hybrids, it’s still not enough to make Windows feel as good as it does with an Intel Core chip.
General performance is fine, and the Asus Transformer Book T100 Chi will handle word processing, HD video and casual games. But it’s not as good as the Intel Core M processors we’re starting to see pop-up in some laptops. Granted, they generally cost a bit more too.
To push the Asus Transformer Book T100 Chi to its limits, I fired up S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky, a game that was seriously challenging back when it came out in 2008, and still looks pretty great today when you crank up the settings. You need to turn off absolutely all the bells and whistles to make the game playable on the T100 Chi, switching off all the neat lighting effects. And even then the frame rate is variable.
All told, its gaming skills aren’t much better than the hybrids you can snag. If you want to play higher-end games, you’ll struggle.
Loss of connection
We imagine not many of you will be expecting real gaming power from the Asus Transformer Book T100 Chi, though. After all, it doesn’t even have a full-size USB port to let you easily connect a mouse.
Connectivity is a little limiting, not helped by the style of that wireless keyboard: being Bluetooth, it can’t provide any sockets. On the screen itself you get a headphone jack, microSD card slot, micro HDMI, microUSB and a microUSB 3.0 socket. This last one looks a bit like a standard microUSB with a conjoined twin, and lets you make use of faster accessories, external hard drives and such.
Overall, there are enough connections - they’re just not the most convenient kind, requiring special cables and adapters to make the most of. As someone who takes and edits photos all the time, I’d have appreciated a full-size USB and SD on the base as some other hybrids provide. But Asus decided to go another way with this one.
Asus has also put slimness ahead of sound quality with the Transformer Book T100 Chi. The tablet may be dead skinny at 7.2mm thick, but I don’t think that helps the stereo speakers, which live on each side. Sound quality isn’t dreadful, but they sound about as thin as the tablet itself. The cameras are no better. You get two of the things, a 5MP camera on the back and a 2MP one on the front, but they’re pretty dreadful.
Asus Transformer Book T100 Chi verdict
While it may sit in the middle of 10in hybrid range on price, the Asus Transformer Book T100 Chi is classier than the average.
Improvements to design, screen quality and keyboard quality make it a neat choice if you don’t mind working on a small screen, with a small keyboard and certainly justify the extra price over the cheapest models.
However, some of the main complaints surrounding this sort of device remain. It’s not powerful as a proper laptop, and you reach its limits far quicker than even on a very low-end, previous-gen Intel Core-series laptop. This isn’t something to use as your main computer.
But if you want a pretty hybrid with a notch of extra style but without spending a lot more, this could well be the one.