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Latest Asus Hybrid Blends Power, Stamina for Bargain Price

For this week’s review, I test-drove a convertible. Not the kind where I can put the top down and feel the wind blowing through my hair as I drive down the Pacific Coast Highway (I wish!). I’m talking the kind that has often led to frustration after trying to use a machine that aims to be both a laptop and a tablet, and succeeds at being neither. But that doesn’t mean you should dismiss the entire category, and the Asus Transformer Book T100 is a good example of why to consider a convertible.

The T100 features a detachable design that allows you to convert the 10-inch Windows 8.1 tablet into an ultra-portable laptop by attaching the included keyboard. In that sense, it’s not all that different from some of the other hybrids on the market, like the $650 HP Envy x2. And there are still some trade-offs that come with the convertible design. For example, the keyboard is cramped and the touchpad is stiff, so it’s not as comfortable to use as a regular laptop. But there are several things that make the T100 stand out.

For one, the tablet is fast and delivers long battery life that’s almost comparable to the new iPad Air. This is in large part due to Intel’s latest processor, called Bay Trail, which was designed to improve tablet performance and battery life, while keeping prices low. Which brings me to my next point.

The T100 starts at $349 for the 32 gigabyte version (a 64GB model is also available for $399), and includes the keyboard dock and a copy of Microsoft Office Home & Student 2013, which usually goes for $140. That’s a great value, especially when compared to the Microsoft Surface 2, which starts at $449, runs a stripped-down version of Windows 8.1 and doesn’t include a keyboard. Meanwhile, the 32GB iPad Air costs $599.

For these reasons, and despite its flaws, the T100 is worth a look.

Of all various form factors, I’m glad Asus chose to go with the detachable design, since you can remove the keyboard with the press of a button to have a more comfortable tablet experience. There are other devices like the Dell XPS 12 and Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 where the keyboard tucks underneath the machine, but that makes for a bulky tablet.

The T100 tablet measures 10.4 inches wide by 6.7 inches tall and 0.41 inch thick and weighs 1.2 pounds. The weight and thickness is nearly doubled when the keyboard is attached, but it’s still easy to carry in a backpack or larger purse. That said, I didn’t love the slick plastic back, and the machine can be a little top heavy when used as a laptop, though it never toppled over when I placed it on my lap or on a desk.

The T100’s touchscreen measures 10.1 inches and has a resolution of 1,366 by 768 pixels. It’s not the sharpest available, but I still found it clear and bright enough for viewing movies and photos and reading text. There’s a 1.2-megapixel Webcam just above the display, but no rear camera.

The bigger issue is the T100’s keyboard dock. The touchpad is stiff, and the keys are narrow and cramped so the typing experience isn’t all that comfortable. I became more accustomed to it over time, but for the first couple of days, I was constantly fixing typos and overreaching for the backspace button. Still, it’s nice to have the keyboard option included in the price of the tablet, and it came in useful when I had to write longer emails and work on documents like this column.

Most of the T100’s ports are located on the tablet itself (microUSB, micro HDMI, microSD expansion, headphone jack). The dock also offers a USB 3.0 port. But unlike some keyboard docks, the T100’s doesn’t provide extra battery power. That’s not a huge deal since the tablet should have enough power to last a full day.

In my harsh battery test, where I set the screen to 75 percent brightness, turned off all power-saving features and left Wi-Fi on to retrieve email in the background while continuously playing a video, the T100 lasted 11 hours and 15 minutes before going dark. That’s not quite as good as the iPad Air’s 12 hours and 13 minutes, but still impressive.

The T100 ships with Windows 8.1, which is the latest update to Microsoft’s operating system. The new version brings a number of improvements and enhancements, such as the return of the Start button, universal search and better multitasking. But as my colleague Walt Mossberg pointed out in his Fall Laptop Buying Guide, if you found Windows 8’s dual interfaces to be confusing the first time around, you still will with Windows 8.1.

Aside from Microsoft Office Home & Student 2013, which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote but not Outlook, Asus preloads the tablet with a couple of proprietary apps, such as its WebStorage cloud service. There’s also a link to the Windows Store where you’ll find more than 100,000 Windows 8 apps. While Microsoft has grown its app store pretty quickly, it still trails behind Apple, which offers more than 475,000 iPad-optimized apps and a million apps in total.

The T100 felt very responsive during my testing. Apps launched almost instantaneously, and the tablet handled everyday tasks with no problem. Streaming TV shows and movies from services like Netflix was smooth, and the tablet’s stereo speakers pumped out an impressive amount of sound. But the graphics performance was a little jagged when I tried playing the video game Borderlands 2 via Steam.

Overall, the Asus Transformer Book T100 is a capable tablet that can fill in as a productivity device for an affordable price. If you’re in the market for a Windows 8 tablet, the T100 should definitely be on your short list.

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