ASUS has worked in its own onscreen keyboard, one that gives you a number row at the top, tweaks button arrangements, and includes single-button input for smiley faces, but that's only an optional extra -- the default Android Honeycomb keyboard is but a couple of taps away. We found the ASUS keyboard most useful when putting in passwords, as we could enter full alphanumeric strings without having to switch between keyboards, though on the whole we found neither option entirely satisfactory. We were never able to feel entirely comfortable or in control with the Transformer's software text input. There's a small delay in responding to your taps -- something that's missing on the iPad, whose virtual keyboard feels an epoch ahead of what we're dealing with here -- which leads to uncertainty as to whether letters have been registered, eventually resulting in an inconsistent and frustrating time for the user.
A lack of responsiveness is also evident throughout the Android UI. Aside from a delay in activating the function you've selected, there are also troubling instances where input isn't registered at all. That leaves the user with no less than three potential scenarios when she doesn't see an immediate response -- she could be looking at lag, an unregistered tap because of software, or an unregistered tap because the physical input was too light. Such uncertainty doesn't build a great user experience and the Transformer, unfortunately, doesn't offer a great user experience. Much of that is, regrettably, down to Honeycomb itself. It's not a finished product yet. It's actually a fair distance away from a finished product. Some apps are done to absolute perfection while a lot of the "glue" bits, the stuff that goes between the apps and basically makes up the OS, is either confused, not responsive enough, or broken in some other way. Let's take these things in turn, starting with the good parts.
Playing back music on the Transformer, or any other Honeycomb tablet, feels like something Marty McFly brought back from the future. It's smooth, seamless, and effortless. Browsing through your music is a three-dimensional tour de awesome. Google Maps is also a flawlessly executed slice of software, one which beautifully harnesses the Tegra 2 chip to deliver an excellent and responsive mapping experience. Gmail, too, is at its very best on Google's own OS, with the expanded resolution truly making it a joy to use. Scrolling in those apps is instantaneous, or close to it, and performance is on a par with the very best, whether you're talking smartphone or tablet software. Google's notification system also merits great praise, as it stuffs all noteworthy events into your bottom-right corner, where subtle popups alert you to things that require attention before dissipating into the ether, to be replaced by unassuming little icons in what amounts to Android's version of the Windows system tray. Customization options for the five homescreens are also comprehensive, and the barely perceptible crosses that denote the grid layout when arranging apps and widgets help to orient the user.
The Recent Apps key is a good point to mark where things start to turn sour with Google's OS. The idea is excellent -- showing a visual overview of open apps, including a text label and their icon -- but why can we only see five apps at a time, why is the list not scrollable, and why can we not kill apps using something like a long press? That button is ubiquitous throughout the OS, but it gives you no app control, you can just look at them them or enter them, nothing more. Another perplexing feature is the coupling at the top left of the screen -- you get a Google search box that will deliver results from both the web and items you have on the Eee Pad, which is sat right next to a voice search that (almost) only ever searches the web. Ergo, a textual search for "Twitter" will bring back the app you've installed on the tablet and
Twitter.com, whereas a voice search would just send you to a Google web search for that term. Further diluting matters is the fact that if you search for "map of London" (or any place) by voice, you'll get sent into the Maps application. Text and voice searches shouldn't be treated differently if they're sitting close enough to smell each other's breath. Integrating Maps into voice search in this peculiar fashion is additionally indicative of a software build that was rushed out before it was truly ready for its time in the spotlight.
The "ugly" to this trifecta of good, bad and unpleasant aspects to Honeycomb's UX is lag. We've already discussed the Transformer's occasional failure to pick up taps, but the pervasive lag that is present in the OS can really drive down the quality of user experience over time. It's not that it's terrible or long, it's that it's present everywhere you go, it's always with you -- or, more accurately, always that little bit behind you. From the very first moment you pick up the tablet and try to unlock it, you notice animations can be as far as an inch behind your finger. Home screen transitions are smooth and fluid for the most part, but screen re-orientation between portrait and landscape modes takes a little bit too long and the actual animation can be stuttery on occasion. On the whole, performance can be described as acceptable, but the Eee Pad hardly feels like a tablet running a dual-core superchip, a critique that can be leveled at the Xoom with equal validity. Ultimately, you shouldn't consider Honeycomb's relative immaturity reason enough to write off the purchase of an Android tablet, but if you do buy one, do yourself a favor and never pick up an iPad 2. The delta in responsiveness between the two is so vast as to make grown geeks weep.
Browser performance on the Transformer keeps to the foregoing trend. It ranks as acceptable, with reliable pinch-to-zoom and scrolling operations, but it does grow a little bemusing when it tries to rearrange pages in order to make the text fit better on screen. Page formats get thrown out of whack and its reorganization of paragraphs tends more toward the awkward than the helpful. Moreover, the iPad 2 comparison must be brought up again, as it seems to us that Apple's doing this right and Google's hardware partners are doing it wrong. The trick employed by the iPad 2 coders is to fill areas of a webpage that the tablet can't yet populate coherently with a checkerboard pattern (the visual equivalent of a "loading..." sign), thereby allowing it to offer its best-in-class smoothness and responsiveness in spite of having to deal with too much content. The Transformer, on the other hand, attempts to give you everything that your demanding swipes ask of it, which inevitably leads to the tablet choking up in trying to resolve so much content on screen, particularly when there are also heavier things to deal with like Flash ads and embedded videos. On a more positive note, playing back those videos was done exceedingly well by the Transformer, something that the iPad 2 likely won't be able to claim for a long, long time. What emerges from that dichotomy, however, is that the Eee Pad, along with the rest of these Android tablets coming out now, are fully capable of matching the smoothness and responsiveness of Apple's slates, it's just a matter of suboptimal software riding atop of them, which is a downer.
We've only reviewed two Honeycomb tablets so far, this one included, but we find ourselves having to repeat a familiar refrain from our Android handset reviews: this is the best Honeycomb tablet yet. The Eee Pad Transformer has a manifestly superior screen to the Xoom, matches it on all key specs, and offers a keyboard dock that's extremely rich on potential added functionality. It's also a little bulkier and, thanks to its proprietary connector, less compatible than the Xoom, but with a price tag that's exactly £100 cheaper, the Transformer can't help but be the clear-cut better choice. Unfortunately, it's hampered by software troubles, some major and some merely niggling, that prevent it from challenging the Apple hegemony at the top of the heap, but for those on a limited budget and a pressing need for a tablet, the Eee Pad is a very compelling option.