Katherine Boehret

A PC and Tablet “Brick” for the Price of One

Just because two things work well on their own doesn’t mean they’ll be great together. Think spaghetti and ice cream, or Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez. In the tech world, companies regularly try to combine two or more products into one device. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail.

This week, I reviewed an example of the latter. I tested Asus’s Transformer AiO, a $1,300 PC available April 12 that offers dual functionality in both its software and its hardware. It’s an all-in-one desktop computer with a wireless keyboard and mouse that runs Windows 8 and, with the press of a button, switches to running Google’s Android operating system, Jelly Bean 4.1.

As the Transformer’s name suggests, it also transforms into another device: Pull up on the PC screen to separate it from its stand and it becomes a tablet you can move around the house. It has a handle and a kickstand for propping up on flat surfaces. Like the desktop version, the tablet runs two systems: Windows 8 Remote and Jelly Bean 4.1.

Though this concept sounds smart, it’s laughable in practice. The screen measures a whopping 18.4 inches diagonally and weighs an arm-straining 5.3 pounds. Apple’s iPad screen measures 9.7 inches and weighs 1.4 pounds; Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 2 has a 7-inch screen and weighs 0.8 of a pound. At home, carrying this around and using it on my lap elicited fits of laughter from my husband. When I flipped the tablet into vertical mode, it looked like I was reading from a giant, stone tablet. And in Android mode, the tablet’s battery only lasted five hours.

So where does this Asus Transformer AiO fit in? In tablet mode, I propped it up on my kitchen island to watch a YouTube video while cooking, and though the giant screen took up a lot of space, its display looked sharp and didn’t force me to lean down to the screen as much as I do with my iPad. Some people may prefer making Skype video calls on the front-facing camera of this movable screen rather than using a stationary computer. Families might even gather around this tablet to play a digital coffee-table game. As an all-in-one desktop PC, this Asus works fine.

But as a desktop and a tablet, the dual software systems made me scratch my head. I found myself forgetting about Windows 8 while I used Android and vice versa. I’m willing to bet that most people will stick to one operating system rather than frequently switching back and forth.

image

In either tablet or PC Station mode, above right, the Asus Transformer AiO runs Windows 8 and Jelly Bean 4.1. Left: Pull up on the PC screen to separate the screen from its stand and it becomes a heavy tablet you can move around the house.

In my harsh tablet battery test, where I play a constant loop of video with the screen set to 75 percent brightness and Wi-Fi on to retrieve email in the background, I got almost exactly five hours, which is Asus’s official battery life estimate.

The Android and Windows operating systems each have their own independent storage, so if you save something on one system, it won’t be saved on the other. Asus calls the Transformer’s desktop stand the “PC Station.” The model I tested runs on Intel’s midrange Core i5 processor and offers a one-terabyte hard drive. The tablet runs on Nvidia’s Tegra 3 quad-core processor and comes with 32 gigabytes of storage. I didn’t notice any significant lag in either one of these modes.

The PC Station is loaded with five USB ports, four that use the newer USB 3.0 technology and one that uses USB 2.0, but this USB 2.0 port is designed for a small Bluetooth dongle that corresponds with the included Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. I liked typing on the keyboard’s Chiclet-style keys, and the flat mouse gives clever haptic feedback where a mouse wheel appeared on older models. The PC Station also has speakers, a slot for three types of memory cards and a DVD drive.

The Asus Transformer tablet also has speakers, though I found these weren’t nearly as strong as those built into the PC Station. It, too, has a memory card reader for MicroSD cards, just in case you wanted to offload some photos and didn’t have the tablet in its PC Station stand. It also has a mini USB 2.0 port. The tablet’s front-facing camera worked fine in Android mode; in Windows mode the camera failed, but Asus said this would be fixed before the Transformer is out next month.

I was relieved this 5.3-pound, 18″ x 12″ tablet didn’t have a rear-facing camera. I’d get a bicep workout just from holding this thing up to take a photo, and I can imagine the strange looks I would get from passersby.

The Asus Transformer tablet can’t be discreetly tucked away on the lower shelf of a coffee table; it’s massive. After using it for a little while one night, and then letting it just sit on my lap, I had to move it to the floor five minutes later because it weighed so much.

If you move the tablet too far away from the PC Station and you’re running the Windows operating system, it will automatically switch to Android tablet mode. An Asus spokesman said this shouldn’t be a problem within 30 to 65 feet of the PC Station on most setups.

Asus tried to kill two birds with one stone when it created the Transformer AiO, but wound up building a giant brick. Your best bet is to stick to a traditional PC that does one thing well.

Email Katie at katie.boehret@wsj.com


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