January 2, 2012 | by Andrew Kameka
Spoiler alert: the ASUS Transformer Prime is the best Android tablet that money can buy. It’s usually considered bad form to give away the conclusion of a review in the opening paragraph, but there’s no use in trying to mask the obvious.
I could tease you for 1000 words and go on about how this device supercharges an already formidable Honeycomb tablet, but we’d eventually reach the same conclusion – the ASUS Transformer Prime is the optimal Android tablet. Yes, that pun was completely intentional. Let’s take a look at the device.
HARDWARE & GAMING
ASUS took everything that was good about the original Transformer tablet and elevated the Prime to be more premium and polished. The latest form-changer is thinner and has an aluminum back with a circular pattern that shines when the light hits it. Available in multiple colors, the aluminum build feels a lot better to touch than the grip texture on the Toshiba Thrive or the plastic posterior of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. The edges are sharper and less round than those other devices, so the Prime doesn’t feel as good when held in portrait. And just like the original Transformer, the Prime benefits from an optional dock that turns the device into an Android-powered pseudo-laptop. (Unfortunately, we were unable to secure a dock for review purposes, so we’ll try to circle back in the future and update this post.)
The Transformer Prime has the distinction of being the first quad-core tablet running NVIDIA Tegra 3. The revamped architecture that we’ve detailed before gives the tablet an extended battery life (12 hours) and better performance thanks to a more efficient way of completing tasks. Best of all, it really advances the gaming capabilities of what’s previously been available in Android. Most impressive were the games that I’ve seen for the first time, namely Bladeslinger. The monsters-meets-Western slash and shoot game is just a preview version, but it’s already stellar in terms of scenery and elementary action.
Comparing existing games helps point out the bump in quality. Riptide GP has been one of my favorite games to play on Tegra 2 devices, but seeing what Tegra 3 is capable of knocked me off my imaginary jet ski. The increased computing power, lighting effects, and graphics rendering makes it possible to have more realistic wave movements and a top speed mode that draws in players. I had my doubts when NVIDIA said that people would notice that big of a difference with how water splashes when they’re busy trying to race in Riptide, but my eyes did pick up on the blur effects and improved rendering. I noticed similar upgrades when comparing how Shadowgun looks on my current tablet and how the explosions and opponents have more details and capabilities on the Prime.
- Solid specs of 1 GB memory, 32 – 64 GB internal storage, and ports for micro HDMI, microSD, and an optional keyboard dock that extends standard battery life from 12 hours to 18 hours. Dock sold separately for $149.
- 10.1-inch Super IPS+ screen with Gorilla Glass and 1280 x 800 resolution. Images look crisp, video playback is great, and there are many modes for customizing brightness. And this baby is bright. The colors look great as long as you don’t turn on Power Saver mode, which reduces color diversity to conserve energy. That Super IPS+ setting will tear through battery like nobody’s business after a while. I wouldn’t recommend reading books outdoors unless you have an outlet nearby.
- Some early reports suggest that there are some GPS bugs that may need to be addressed in a software update.
- Has a locked bootloader, so it’s not as hack-friendly as some other Wi-Fi tablets. A campaign has been started to urge ASUS to unlock it, but be advised that you may have to wait on a workaround before you’re able to load custom ROM’s.
- SonicMaster technology creates crisp sounding audio…on one side. The speaker is placed in a terrible spot, leading to audio being pumped from the right/bottom.
It’s not all fun and games; the Transformer Prime has some twists to Honeycomb to add to your experience with apps. The Prime has a slightly tweaked version of Android 3.2 with promises for an upgrade to 4.0 at an unannounced date. There’s a custom toggle switcher to change between IPS/Super IPS+ modes, change into power savers, and turn on auto-rotate, Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth. Users can revert to the stock app switcher, and there aren’t as many heavy changes that we’ve seen in devices from other manufacturers.
Instead, ASUS focuses on apps and widgets that enhance the software without cutting too deep into Honeycomb. The best of those widgets is MyZine, an almost full-screen pack that shows images from a chosen folder; a browser and music thumbnail; a weather snapshot; and a dashboard showing the number of unread emails, events, and books stored on the device. These aren’t earth-moving features, but they are simple and offer sensible utility.
Pre-installed software includes:
- App Backup – an app that creates backups of the apps installed
- App Locker – a tool to password protect select apps
- File Manager – the name says it all; the app is surprisingly decent
- My Cloud/Vibe/Webstorage – a trio of apps that provide cloud-based storage for your media and documents. It also provides links to Internet radio stations and content stored on your PC/Mac.
- My Library – An e-reading app that is pretty bad. Skip this and just download Aldiko, Google Books, Kindle, Nook, or one of the many other options.
- Polaris Office – A great mobile Microsoft Office suite
- SuperNote – a note-taking app for gestures or keyboard entry
- Zinio – A magazine reading app
The software is overall favorable, but there are definitely noticeable hiccups. In my testing of the Prime over the past two weeks, I’ve experienced multiple instances of excessive lag when switching orientation or slow responses to launch. I’ve experienced the same problem occasionally on the Galaxy Tab 10.1, so this is an issue that Android just can’t seem to shake. One would think that Tegra 3 would add some kind of computing power to stamp out the slow response times once and for all, but that’s simply not the case.
Tablet cameras are typically ”meh” because the use-case for them doesn’t require much. That didn’t stop ASUS from upgrading the Prime to an 8 megapixel camera with LED flash on the rear of the device. The photos and videos captured are of good quality, which is a sign of respect from someone who rates a rear camera as one of the least important things about a tablet. The front-facing camera, which is more likely to be used and thus more important, surprisingly didn’t see much of a boost. It’s still a 1.3 megapixel camera that isn’t as smooth or crisp as the rear lens obviously, but it’s good enough for the occasions when you’ll be video chatting. I had a video chat sitting next to a lamp in a poorly lit room and the other person on the line had no trouble seeing me. Here are a few samples
The opening paragraph already confirmed your suspicions that the ASUS Transformer Prime is the best Android tablet currently on the market. The question is: is it the best for you? At $499 for the 32 GB version and $149 for the dock, you’re close to spending the same amount of money that you would on a laptop. That’s a lot to ask, especially with the original Transformer costing $100 less for the base model, and other Android tablets starting go on sale for less. Yes, the Prime offers a premium experience that surpasses others, but it’s tough to say that paying that premium is worth it.
While the dock may be the main draw of the Transformer Prime, I’d say that the tablet is definitely worth a purchase if you’re tablet hunting. The Prime is the best Android device for gaming, should have a longer shelf life thanks to the Tegra 3 processor, and has a great screen that should fare better than its rivals in most situations. Like any device, there are areas in need of improvement. However, there are fewer things to change – or transform, if you will – in the pursuit of a phenomenal tablet.