Is there any tablet that's hotter than the Transformer Prime right now? (Please, don't say the Kindle Fire.) For weeks we geeks, early adopters and people who love their tech toys have been awaiting this, and none too patiently. Make no mistake: this will be one of the slickest products we test this year and it isn't just because the original Transformer had such an inventive design. The Prime is the first device packing NVIDIA's hot-off-the-presses Tegra 3 SoC, making it the world's first quad-core tablet. This comes with promises of longer-than-ever runtime and blazing performance (five times faster than Tegra 2, to be exact), all wrapped in a package measuring just 8.3mm (0.33 inches) thick -- even skinnier than the iPad 2 or Galaxy Tab 10.1. Throw in specs like a Super IPS+ Gorilla Glass display, eight megapixel rear camera and a confirmed ICS update in the pipe and even we seen-it-all Engadget editors were drooling.

All of which means we dropped just everything when a 32GB Prime showed up on our doorstep earlier this week, and soon enough, you'll have your chance to nab one too. ASUS announced today that the WiFi-only models will be available through online sellers the week of December 19th, and in retail the week after. (No word yet on 3G versions for the US just yet.) It'll start at $499 for the 32GB model -- not bad considering five hundred bucks is the going rate for a high-end tablet with 16GB of storage. From there you can get a 64GB number for $599, while that signature keyboard dock will set you back a further $149. Worth it? Read on to find out.

Transformer Prime review (hardware)

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ASUS

Eee Pad Transformer Prime

Pros

  • Great battery life
  • Thin, light, high-end design
  • Solid performance
  • Good value

Cons

  • Occasional hiccups and stutters
  • Keyboard on dock is less than perfect
Summary

The Transformer Prime is the best Android tablet of the moment, hands down.


Hardware


The Prime looks familiar and no, it's not just because we're looking at a device that's dominated by a 10-inch slab of glass. If you've been following the recent explosion of Ultrabooks as obsessively as you have Ice Cream Sandwich, then you know the second-gen Transformer shares its industrial design with ASUS' line of Zenbooks, which went on sale back in October. Like those skinny laptops, the Prime features a spun metal aluminum lid, this time available in "amethyst gray" and "champagne gold." Sure, there will be some who think these brushed metal digs would look more appropriate on a trendy kitchen appliance, but many of you will appreciate how distinctive this tablet looks -- and how nicely that faint circular pattern masks fingerprints and scuffs. In case it wasn't obvious when we reviewed the UX31, you can count us among the second group. We think it looks great.

If, however, you think the Zenbooks are a little too fashion-forward, the whole spun metal thing manages to look less aggressively industrial in this tablet form. Maybe it's because the Prime comes in a warmer, more inviting gold. Maybe it's just that the Zenbooks have a severe, pancake-flat shape that makes them look painfully futuristic. Whatever it is, the Prime is just as lovely, though something tells us it'll be somewhat less polarizing.

The Prime is every bit as well-made as you'd want your $500 tablet to be.

Moving past aesthetics, there's no denying the Prime is every bit as well-made as you'd want your $500 tablet to be, and we just can't get over how thin and light it is. Oftentimes, we make excuses for metal tablets, such as the 7-inch T-Mobile Springboard and HTC Flyer (hell, let's throw the first-gen iPad in there, too). We're used to saying, "Well, yeah, it's kind of dense, but at least it's well built." In the case of the Prime, though, its 0.33-inch-thick frame makes it a smidge skinnier than the Galaxy Tab 10.1 and, at 586 grams, it's a wee bit lighter, too. Despite that it manages to feel considerably more premium. That's at least partly thanks to that metal construction, which we can't help preferring to the feel of plastic -- at least, that is, when this is both thinner and lighter than something made of the stuff. That's not to say the 10.1 feels flimsy, just that this feels better.

It must be said, though, that it doesn't necessarily feel better in the hand. While the Galaxy Tab 10.1 has gentle, rounded edges that respect your meaty mitts, the Transformer Prime is instead a tapered curve with a somewhat sharp edge. It's the same sort of shape as the iPad 2 and, while it certainly isn't uncomfortable to hold, the terminating edges of this device can cut into the more vulnerable bits of your palms after a long period of use. This does, at least, help the tablet turn into a nice clamshell shape when paired with its dock, the accessory that turns this thing from being a merely very nice tablet into a potential laptop replacement.


As far as ports and other such trappings go, the optional dock naturally steals the show with its full-sized USB 2.0 socket and SD card reader. The selection on the tablet itself is a little light -- but no more or less than most slates. Pick this guy up in landscape mode and you'll find a 1.2 megapixel front-facing camera looking at you, with an eight megapixel, f/2.4 shooter 'round back, coupled with an LED flash.

On that top edge you'll find a lone power / lock button with a wee tiny LED indicator built-in, tucked over in the left corner. Look down on the opposite side and you'll see the proprietary connector that allows the tablet to slide neatly into the dock. This handles all the data exchange with the dock itself and, if you want to get data off the thing, this is how you'll have to do it. There's no standard micro-USB connector here.

There are two other openings on the bottom that serve as receivers for a pair of latches built into the dock. These come plugged up with bits of rubber when you unbox the tablet, so be sure to clear them before your slate has its first curious encounter with the dock. Still holding it in landscape, you've got a 3.5mm headphone jack on the right side, which cuts a rather drastic profile thanks to the heavily tapered edges, while the left edge houses a volume rocker, mini-HDMI socket and -- happy day -- an unoccupied and uncovered microSD slot.

The single tweeter exactly where your palm is likely to go should you be holding it with your right hand.

Rounding things out is a single finely cut speaker grill, sitting on the right side under the back. This of course dismisses any hopes of stereo sound but, more troublingly, places that single tweeter exactly where your palm is likely to go should you be holding it with your right hand. Of course, you can always just flip the tablet over should the dialogue from that episode of SVU you're streaming get a little more muffled than usual, but we'd have preferred the speaker somewhere on the top. Or, even better, facing right at you, as on the new 10.1N. We are happy to report that, when unimpeded, the volume coming out of the lone speaker is actually quite good.

Display


With or without the heroic prefix and mathematical designator it's safe to say this is a very nice panel.

ASUS, apparently jealous of the increasingly lengthy string of designations Samsung is applying to its OLED displays, has crafted what it calls a Super IPS+ LCD for the Transformer Prime. With or without the heroic prefix and mathematical designator it's safe to say this is a very nice panel. What you have here is a 10-inch, 1280 x 800 display that manages a stunning brightness maxing out at 600 nits, handily topping what you'll find on most laptop panels and more than 50 percent higher than your average tablet panel. The luminosity is quite noticeable, and the contrast too, with deep darks and vibrant brights. However, color reproduction seemed a bit flat, with whites tending toward yellow and brighter hues coming up short.

If you're using this tablet indoors you won't need to go anywhere near maximum brightness to get an eyeful, though we won't blame you if you crank it up anyway. Should you want to dial things down, though, ASUS allows you to disable that 600-nit, Super IPS+ mode to extend the battery life. Even when we did that and dialed the brightness down to 50 percent, the display was still quite arresting.

Transformer Prime review (display)

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The viewing angles are also exceptionally wide, which will come in handy if you and a friend decide to prop the tablet up in the dock and watch a movie together. ASUS claims 178-degree visibility and indeed, we were able to make out the screen clearly from severe side angles. From the front, too, the colors stayed strong even as we dipped the screen farther and farther forward -- an area where even high-end displays on MacBooks start to show their limitations. That yellowish hue did start to darken when we took the angles to extremes, but even then we could still follow what was happening onscreen without issue.

The dock


Despite the fact that ASUS calls this the Transformer, out of the box it isn't even a Gobot.

Despite the fact that ASUS calls this the Transformer, out of the box it isn't even a Gobot. To make the thing live up to its name you'll need to spring for the $150 signature accessory: the keyboard dock. Let's start by being clear on one thing: this is not the old dock, rebadged to go with this brand new tablet. It, too, has gone on a diet and, thanks to some slimmer dimensions, it won't be compatible with your first-gen Transformer. (Sorry, early adopters.) The good news is that even with the dock attached, the tablet is thinner and lighter than a netbook (remember those?) and, shockingly, better-built than most were. You can easily stuff the whole thing in your messenger bag with plenty of room left for, well, anything, really.

To connect the tablet to the accessory you simply flip-up the connecting port on the back of the dock and slip in the Transformer. While the thing sadly does not make the iconic Transfoming sound (which sounds like this, of course), it does at least latch securely thanks to those two metal hooks that grab on and won't let go as soon as it's slotted into place. Won't let go, that is, until you slip a release to the left, at which point you can easily lift the thing free.

As soon as the Transformer falls into place something magical starts happening: the battery gets recharged. There is a second battery inside the dock and it nobly sacrifices its own juice so that the tablet can live on. So, plug a nearly dead tablet into a full dock and, after some time, you'll have a full tablet and a dead dock. That means, if nothing else, this is a very handy $150 external battery.

Transformer Prime review (dock)

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But of course it's also a heck of a lot more than that. With this you'll get a full USB 2.0 port and an SD card reader, giving you yet another way to expand the storage. You can use that USB port to plug in an external mouse if you like, but the idea is of course to instead use the little trackpad that's built into what is ostensibly a wrist-rest at the bottom of the keyboard but, thanks to the petite dimensions here, doesn't offer much respite at all.

That trackpad may be small but it is at least reasonably responsive, letting you use gestures for scrolling webpages and even for navigating around the tablet's myriad home screens. (Though if you want to pinch-zoom you'll have to reach up on the display.) In fact if anything it's too responsive, picking up the most subtle of brushes from your fingers as you type, often causing the cursor on your tablet to jump unexpectedly and unwantedly. There's no way to disable the trackpad automatically while you're typing, which is a major annoyance.

Also annoying are the trackpad buttons, built into the bottom. Push in on the left for a primary click and on the right for secondary, but try and click anywhere toward the middle and it just won't move a bit. The button itself seems plenty wide, but only the outer extents can actually be clicked. Thankfully you can simply tap anywhere and just ignore the buttons altogether.

The keyboard itself is passable, but far from good. The island keys are tiny and have a very light touch to them, but we just wish for a bit more room. Everything is cramped but, it must be said, most of the important keys are reasonably generously sized -- except, unfortunately, for the right shift.

One final annoyance: when mounted in the dock, the whole contraption is disconcertingly top-heavy, the Transformer itself weighing considerably more than the lid of your average laptop. This made the thing very prone to tipping over backward. In fact we inadvertently sent ours tumbling off of its perch and toward the floor while writing this very section of the review. Some deft reflexes, honed on years of Samurai Showdown and its ilk, saved our tablet from crashing into the floor, but suffice to say you should always use yours in a secure location.

But the question, of course, is whether you should use this dock at all, and we honestly think that we might. While typing on a keyboard this small is certainly a chore, it sure as heck beats using an on-screen keyboard. And, while we aren't entirely fond of the trackpad, it certainly makes selecting blocks of text much easier than tapping and dragging and tapping again with your fingers on the screen. Oh, and in case you're wondering, the experience is far better here than on Motorola's various lapdocks.

Performance and graphics

Benchmark
ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime
Quadrant 3,023
Linpack 43.35 (single-thread) / 67.05 (multi-thread)
Nenamark 1 60.07
Nenamark 2 46.07
Vellamo 953
SunSpider 0.9.1 1,861

The Prime is something of a curiosity around these parts in that it's the first tablet to ship with NVIDIA's quad-core Tegra 3 SoC. Actually, let's just call it what it is: the first quad-core tablet, period. We've run our usual spate of benchmarks (listed above for your viewing pleasure), and the combined scores are among the highest we've yet seen, handily beating the Galaxy Tab 8.9 and 7.0 Plus we recently tested in most cases.

Suffice to say, all the mundane bits -- swiping through menus, opening apps -- run as briskly as you'd expect on a quad-core slate. The Prime's display is as responsive as it is gorgeous, and we made ourselves at home quickly -- so much so that we found ourselves tapping the screen even when we were plugged into the dock. Make no mistake: the Prime is fast, but we suspect Honeycomb's 3D animations aren't the best way to highlight this, given that dual-core Tegra 2 can stomach these flourishes well enough already.

That said, we were sorry to still see some occasional stutters and hiccups from time to time, instances where the device would hesitate for just a half-second or so before responding. There are three performance modes that are easily selected between in the pop-up settings menu, but even on its highest we couldn't get it to be a consistently smooth operator. They're the kind of stops and starts we've seen on just about every Android device to date and it's a bit of a shame that even four whopping cores running at 1.3GHz can't do away with them.

Battery life

Tablet
Battery Life
ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime with dock 16:34
ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime 10:17
Apple iPad 2 10:26
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 9:55
Apple iPad 9:33
HP TouchPad 8:33
Lenovo IdeaPad K1 8:20
Motorola Xoom 8:20
T-Mobile G-Slate 8:18
Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus 8:09
Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 8:00
Archos 101 7:20
Archos 80 G9 7:06
RIM BlackBerry PlayBook 7:01
Acer Iconia Tab A500 6:55
T-Mobile Springboard (Huawei MediaPad) 6:34
Toshiba Thrive 6:25
Samsung Galaxy Tab 6:09
Velocity Micro Cruz T408 5:10
Acer Iconia Tab A100 4:54

Pity the Engadget editor who had to babysit this thing while it ran unplugged, looping through our battery drain test for hours and hours.

Yes, wow. Pity the Engadget editor who had to babysit this thing while it ran unplugged, looping through our battery drain test for hours and hours. ASUS says the Prime's 22Wh pack should last a maximum of 12 hours without the dock and indeed, it squeezed out an impressive 10 hours and 17 minutes in our battery rundown test, which involves looping a video with the brightness fixed at 50 percent and WiFi on but not connected. That's a scant nine minutes short of what the iPad 2 accomplished in the same test, a difference that could just as well swing the other way should we test these two a second time. This was also running in standard power mode -- upshifting to economy mode likely would have delivered an even more longevous result.

Much of this is thanks to the new Tegra 3 chipset, which is not only fiendishly quick but also freakishly efficient. The chipset is capable of processing each frame that's rendered to the screen and determining the minimum necessary brightness of the backlight to properly display it. The backlight is constantly cycling up and down while the color temperature is dynamically cycled to compensate. The net result: great visuals and killer battery life.

ASUS promises a further six hours of dependability when docked with the keyboard and we're happy to report that figure is right on the mark. We clocked in at 16 hours and 34 minutes when running with the keyboard dock. That's a huge figure.

We should also tell you that the Prime can charge via the bundled AC adapter or over USB. But -- and there is a but -- the dock doesn't yet support USB charging, so if you want to prime yourself for a potential 18 hours of runtime, you had best start out near an outlet.

Software


We wish we could use this as an occasion to walk you through ICS on a tablet but alas, that day isn't upon us just yet. The Prime ships with Android 3.2.1, and you know what that means: Honeycomb, jazzed up ever-so slightly with a few removable widgets, power management profiles and handy settings shortcuts, which you can access by swiping or tapping the clock in the lower-right corner. Those settings, by the by, include Bluetooth, WiFi, IPS / Super IPS+ mode and auto-rotation for the screen. It's quite similar to what Samsung is packing in its TouchWiz'd Galaxy Tabs these days.

Those widgets, meanwhile, are pretty harmless and not particularly exciting, with weather and mail, as well as a larger one that cobbles together weather, calendar, music, Gallery access and a shortcut to the last website you visited. Again, these are easy to dump if you like your homepages a little more pristine, as we typically do.


As for pre-installed apps, the Prime comes with @vibe Music, Amazon Kindle, App Backup, App Locker, Big Top THD, Bladeslinger, Google Books, Davinci THD, File Manager, Glowball, Movie Studio, MyCloud, MyLibrary, MyNet, Netflix, Photaf Lite, Polaris Office, Press Reader, Riptide GPk ShadowGun, SuperNote, WebStorage, yskk, Zen Pinball THD and Zinio. Yes, that's a lot of games, and you'll want to be using them -- if only to show off just how good this thing is at 3D gaming.

And it is good. Very good. ShadowGun is the showcase title here and it runs beautifully. NVIDIA has been promising "PC-class" graphics and, while we wouldn't quite take it that far -- the game lacks some of the visual polish of top-shelf PC shooters -- it is safe to say these are the best graphics we've yet seen on a tablet. The water effects in particular are very good, and more importantly it's a fun little shooter.

Camera

We're usually quick to dismiss the cameras on tablets because, really, other than the odd video chat just because you can we don't ever find ourselves flipping on either front or rear sensor. But, we dutifully did here to test out the Transformer Prime's picture-taking abilities and, it must be said, it does an admirable job with its eight megapixel rear shooter. Its auto-focus sometimes took a bit too long to make up its mind and the resulting pictures occasionally seemed under-saturated, but the camera took more than acceptable looking images even in less than optimal conditions. So, if you really want to lug around a 10-inch camera, you could do a lot worse.

Transformer Prime sample shots

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Wrap-up


The Galaxy Tab 10.1 has had a long run as the top-tier Android tablet in the 10-inch size, but that position has now properly been usurped. The original Transformer was a very good tablet and it successor steps up another notch. The Transformer Prime is thinner and lighter than the rest and, with 32GB of storage available for a dollar under $500, it's a better deal than most of the top-tier contenders.

The dock, however, is a bit of a tougher sell. If you need crazy battery life on the road then it's definitely a good choice, even if you won't be relying on that cramped keyboard too often. In fact, the less you have to use that part the better, but it's still a perfectly usable way to enter URLs and it sure beats the pants off of any virtual, touchscreen text input method.

For the moment the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime is the best Android tablet on the market. All hail the new king.

[Review co-written by Dana Wollman and Tim Stevens]

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