on October 21, 2011
I'm a nerd. Let's get that out of the way right now. I grew up using and working with computers, I pursued a career as a computer repair technician and I spend almost every minute of my free time on a computer. I love technology.
But I also live with severe social anxiety disorder (pre-existing condition, not a result of spending too much time with computers. sorry, pseudo-psychologists, no fodder here), which inhibits me in telephone usage. Meaning, I don't have a smartphone. Until six weeks ago, I didn't even know what Android was, because I'd never handled anything that used it. I left the repair industry five years ago, after being "promoted" to a deskside support position for a facility with 2500+ on-site clients, and before the smartphone/tablet boom began. As a result, I was utterly in the dark about things of this nature, so I see a device like this from two perspectives, as an enthusiast and as a neophyte.
Coming from the desktop platform, I initially scoffed at the "meager" 1GB of RAM and 1Ghz CPU speed, the "paltry" 16-32GB of on-board storage and the "tiny" 10.1" LCD. I'd grown accustomed to big numbers attached to my hardware and a big display on my desk... and then I remembered that I used a PDA with a fraction of those specs and a laptop which wasn't much faster or "better", and realized that what I was looking at wasn't merely a phone with a bigger screen, or a scaled down laptop, but the evolution of computing. 20 years ago, I told someone that we'd have devices like these in our hands in the not-too-distant future, but until a few months ago, I just never noticed that we'd already reached that point. The more I read about tablets, the more impressed and intrigued I was, and finally, six weeks ago, I convinced myself to take the plunge.
I think what impresses me most about this tablet is how seamlessly the hardware and software are integrated. There's a layer of abstraction, of separation, in using a "normal" computer. You click a button, press a key, do everything through the proxies of input devices. It's just how most modern OS' work. You use the computer, but you don't interact directly with it, it's a usage distinctly segregated from the machine itself. Android is different. It's fundamentally different, even though it uses the same basic principles in many ways. You interact directly with the tablet, without external devices to slow you down or force you to do things in a specific way, and that interaction is no different from what we, in our modern, high tech society, are trained to do practically from birth. Push buttons and turn pages. It's as simple as that with Android, you're pushing buttons and turning pages. No need to search for your mouse pointer before you click something, no keyboard shortcuts to memorize, nothing to drag your eyes away from the screen, everything is right there, at the tips of your fingers. Using a tablet is an entirely different experience from using a desktop, or even laptop, computer. This is what blows the neophyte in me away, the part of me which is completely unfamiliar with Android and touchscreens (aside from primitive resistive devices, such as POS' and ATMs). It's intuitive and intelligent, and it's... beautiful. The "click" part of the point and click interface has been discarded, simplifying everything in such a manner as to make it seem like it should always have been done like this.
The nerdy part of me is thrilled with Android. I've spent more than my fair share of time tweaking and twisting various iterations of Windows, Apple OS' and desktop versions of Linux to fit my "needs", but none of them ever approached the flexibility and simplicity of Android. I've got a B70 tablet, one of the ones which can't be rooted (yet), but for the first time, I don't feel an overwhelming need to dig into the guts of the OS and change dozens of things just to make it work "correctly". It already does everything that I want it to do, and every time I think of something new, I realize that it's already got that functionality built in or someone else has made it available as a third-party application. Installing a program, an app, is as simple as visiting the Android Market or Amazon Appstore (or downloading a package (a .apk file)), picking what I want and letting it install itself. Minimal prompts to slog through to get to the meat of the matter, no forced reboots, BSODs or kernel panics, no drivers to bother with, apps just install and work. And the look and feel of Android, specifically Honeycomb, is magnificent. It's not the haptic adaptive interface portrayed in Mass Effect or Minority Report, but it is a step in that direction and it's actually enjoyable to use and interact with.
My inner geek is also more than satisfied at how well this OS runs on the hardware. Will it let me play Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Left 4 Dead, Mass Effect or Portal 2? Nope. But that's why I still have a desktop. What I can do is almost everything else that I currently do, or used to do, with my other devices. Video, music, note taking, mileage logs, reading books, catching up on news, weather reports, surfing, e-mail, spreadsheets, planning trips, indulging in amateur astronomy, timer, clock, alarm and even "casual" games and more than I can think of without making a list. The Transformer has replaced my PDA, camera and laptop, and is now my default device for daily computer usage. About the only thing I do with my desktop is watch television (Dscaler and a TV tuner card acting as a pass-through device for a DirecTV box), rip my DVD collection and play "serious" games. Well, and write reviews like this, because I haven't adapted to the on-screen keyboard yet. >.>
Wi-Fi connectivity is excellent. I'm picking up networks all over my block, far outside of the range at which I should be seeing them, and where I do connect, it's stable and usable even at bar. Battery life is at least twice what my laptop could ever achieve. I conducted an impromptu test, running a two hour movie all the way through on a full charge and ended up right at 75%. That was with Wi-Fi on, indicating that I should have 8+ hours of video time if I turn off Wi-Fi. In sleep mode, with Wi-Fi set to turn off when the screen does, it consumes practically no power and can sit for days without being recharged. The screen is brilliant, so much so that I keep it turned down to 25-33% for normal usage and only turn it up when watching videos or showing something to someone with vision problems. Touch response precision is excellent, and it's almost too sensitive (tends to respond to the slightest brush or twitch, but that's as much me as it is the tablet).
Two of the main selling points for me were the GPS functionality and ability to charge via USB. Other than going to work, grocery shopping or trips to the bank, I almost never leave my house, largely due to a fear of getting lost and having to ask someone for help to get home. Having a tablet with fully functional GPS gives me a freedom that I've never had before. I'll be turning 40 next year, and for the first time in my life, I'm actually planning a trip that takes me farther than a few miles away from home. I dug through dozens of reviews before I decided to buy the Transformer, learned that "assisted GPS" was no less functional than "true GPS", and that people had tested the Transformer specifically and found that it worked as well as "true GPS", then tested it myself after I got the tablet. With Wi-Fi turned off, I was still able to track as many as nine GPS satellites. From my bedroom. It works, it works without requiring a 3G/4G cell tower nearby, it works without being connected to the Internet. So, while it is assisted GPS, it's not limited to only working if you meet the right qualifications or jump through the correct sequence of hoops. It works, period.
USB charging was important to me because, if I'm going to use a tablet to enable me to go on long trips and camping expeditions, it had to be possible to charge it without being next to an AC outlet. As with GPS, I spent a lot of time researching which tablets could be charged without a wall wart or other AC source, and it turned out that the Transformer was capable of USB charging. It's only a trickle charge if it's plugged into a USB 2.0 port, and even that only works if it's turned off, but that also means it can be charged via solar panels or car cigarette lighter adapter, and that satisfies my second primary requirement for a tablet. There were other tablets which accepted a charge through USB, but none at this price point, and that was my third specification for the tablet I was going to buy, a reasonable price. The Transformer was the only one which met all three.
It's not all sunshine and roses, of course. The Transformer isn't without its flaws. The location of the power/data port was not well thought out, as it makes it uncomfortable to use while plugged in unless you turn it upside down or use it in portrait mode, and it makes finding (or making) a stand for the tablet a difficult process. The power cord itself is far too short and thin. The built-in microphone is also poorly located (really should be somewhere on the front, rather than on the right side). The mini-HDMI slot and micro-SDHC slot are too similar in size and shape, and both located on the right side, making it very easy for a new user to confuse them (guilty). My Transformer has a a few very small spots of clouding (what others refer to as "light bleed") on the bottom, and it does creak a bit if I give it a squeeze right above the power/data port. Initially, in the first week, I would have also said that the screen not responding to touch and activating while in sleep mode was an oversight or flaw, but I've come to prefer that it doesn't work that way, as it prevents it from constantly turning itself on when stowed for transit or moved, which would impact battery life. The IPS LCD is also prone to "burn-in". It's not permanent (unlike old monochrome CRTs, or the ATM i use at the local grocery store), but it can be disconcerting to see. The default wallpaper selection tool, the Gallery app, is horrid, just awful for setting wallpaper (use Wallpaper Wizardrii, it's free and works a thousand times better). You can't remove the Google Search widget, it's bolted into the home screens, but that's a personal preference, not a flaw. Um... the Water live wallpaper that Asus included doesn't properly register a level surface... and you can't completely get rid of some of the useless or unwanted bloatware apps without rooting. I could probably come up with at least a dozen other minor quibbles, but on the whole, none of the things that I've covered actually impact the performance or usability of the tablet. It's stable, reliable and versatile, and whatever complaints I might have, they're really little more than a list of "things I would've done differently if I were making a tablet".
Some of my dislikes are likely to be addressed in the Android 4.0 update, Ice Cream Sandwich, which has been confirmed to be coming to the Transformer some time in the next few months. It shouldn't be much of a departure from Honeycomb, based on what I've seen thus far, more of a change for phones than tablets, really. I'm rubbing my hands eagerly in anticipation of it, even if it won't be much more than some minor improvements or new apps for tablets.
So that's my six week review. Six of the best weeks of my computer-using life. I've learned a lot, and rediscovered an enthusiasm I haven't had in over a decade. Prices on other tablets have dropped quite a bit in the last month, some offering more features at a slightly lower price than what I paid for my Transformer. I still check, a habit I developed after spending several months shopping around the tablet market, and occasionally, I stop and ask myself if buying this tablet was the right decision. Then I look at what I'm holding in my hand, and that soft smile touches my lips, and I know that this was the only tablet I could have ever purchased. Whatever issues I might have with it, however low prices on other tablets might drop, even if the Transformer Prime (the next version of this tablet) had been released the day after I bought this one, I just can't feel anything but joy for what I have now. It's just that good, and better than anything I expected, wanted or thought I could get.