Walt Mossberg

Solid Keyboard Elevates This Tablet, Though Software Lags

One of the biggest things that deters people from relying on tablets is the lack of a convenient physical keyboard. Now, Taiwan-based Asus is attacking this issue with a new Android-based tablet and accompanying keyboard dock, due on store shelves in the U.S. on Dec. 15.

This 10-inch tablet, called the Eee Pad Transformer Prime, starts at $499, the same price as the market leader, Apple’s iPad 2. But it has twice the memory—32 gigabytes—at that price. The keyboard dock, with an additional battery and added ports, is an optional extra for $149.

The new Asus has another notable feature: It is the first tablet to use a new processor from chip maker Nvidia that has four cores, double what other recent tablets use.

Asus and Nvidia, which developed the product jointly, claim this processor, called the Tegra 3, offers more power when it’s needed, and the flexibility to sip less power when it’s not, for overall better performance and battery life. I expect this same chip to show up in other tablets in coming months.

I’ve been testing the Transformer Prime, and I found it to be the best standard Android tablet I’ve used. In my tests, the Prime had snappy performance, and decent battery life, though less than the iPad’s (more on that later). It is a tad lighter and thinner than the iPad 2 and has a sharp, pleasant screen.

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The Transformer Prime tablet starts at $499. Keyboard dock is an extra $149.

Plus, when the tablet is coupled with the keyboard dock, by nestling it into a hinge, it becomes the screen of what is essentially an Android netbook. When docked, the tablet even folds down over the keyboard like a lid. I found typing on the keyboard to be easy and accurate.

However, as with all other tablets based on Google’s Android platform, its weak point is software. The tablet-oriented Honeycomb version of Android on the Prime isn’t as slick or smooth as the iPad’s operating system, though the Prime’s potent processor makes it more fluid than is typical on such Android devices. And Google’s Android Market offers only a small number of tablet-optimized apps, compared with 140,000 for the iPad.

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The Transformer Prime

In addition, the Prime lacks access to a large, unified ecosystem of music, videos and books, unlike the Apple or Amazon’s Kindle Fire. It does offer Google’s new music store, and a movie-rental service. But, when I tried to rent two movies, neither would play.

The Prime will gain a fresh version of the Android operating system, called Ice Cream Sandwich, early next year, according to Asus. The company says early buyers of the Prime will be able to upgrade for free.

Fans of the iPad will point out that it, too, can work with optional physical keyboards. But Apple doesn’t make one that couples with the iPad 2 the way the Asus docking station mates with its tablet, and the extra battery in the Prime’s keyboard dock can supposedly add up to six hours of unplugged power, a claim I didn’t test. The Prime’s dock also has a USB port and a memory card slot.

The Prime is actually the third try by Asus to mate a tablet with a physical keyboard. An earlier, bulkier version of the Transformer wasn’t embraced by many consumers, and a thick tablet with a cramped slide-out keyboard, called the Slider, also hasn’t been a big hit. But Asus is hoping that the slimmer, lighter Prime and its dock will do the trick.

PTECHjp2

The Transformer Prime, when coupled with the keyboard dock, can fold down like a lid.

The stand-alone tablet is 0.33-inch thick and weighs 1.29 pounds. The dock adds 1.18 pounds and 0.4-inch of thickness. Together, they cost $648, just $49 more than the cheapest 32 GB iPad, but hundreds more than many standard 10-inch Windows netbooks.

The companies are stressing how the processor improves the graphics and speed of games on the tablet, and boast that the Prime can be used with gaming-console controllers. This is good news for tablet gamers, and, in my tests, some sample games the companies provided looked impressive. But I wasn’t blown away with their superiority over iPad games.

To me, the keyboard dock is the big story here. I found it to be a solid companion. Its keys were well spaced despite the unit’s small overall size, and the hinge that holds the tablet as a removable screen was sturdy. Special keys control Android functions such as Home, Back and Search. And there’s a roomy, responsive touch pad.

The screen was responsive and the speakers were good. In my tests, email, Web browsing, and streaming of music and videos worked well over good Wi-Fi connections. But the Prime lacks any cellular connectivity, meaning it is crippled when you’re out of Wi-Fi range. When I tested it at a hotel with slow Wi-Fi, the Prime was notably pokier at streaming the same YouTube video as an iPad 2 using Verizon’s 3G cellular network.

Gauging the battery life on this tablet is a bit complicated. I performed the same battery test I have used for every tablet since the original iPad appeared. In that test, I set the screen brightness to 75%, leave the wireless on and play locally stored videos back to back till the unit dies.

The Transformer Prime lasted just shy of seven hours, compared with slightly more than 10 hours for the iPad 2, a big difference. Still, that seven hours was better than many other full-size Android tablets have achieved in this test.

Asus and Nvidia build in three battery modes, and I tested only the one called Normal. Unfortunately, Nvidia now says that nomenclature is misleading, and that Normal is really meant for only high-performance tasks. So, early next year, when it switches to the next version of Android, it plans to rename Normal as “Performance,” to steer users to a less power-hungry mode called “Balanced.” I can’t say how the Prime’s battery will perform in that scenario with the new OS.

I still believe the iPad 2 is the best overall tablet available. However, if you’re looking for a model using Google’s Android interface and are yearning for a well-designed, easily integrated keyboard solution, or want to play more power-hungry games, the Transformer Prime is a good choice, as long as you can tolerate its software limitations.

Email Walt at mossberg@wsj.com.


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