ASUS Transformer Pad TF300 review

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It doesn’t feel like a year has passed since we reviewed the original ASUS Transformer and its innovative keyboard dock, but indeed time flies, and quite a bit has happened since then. The company has released the Prime, for starters, followed by two other high-end models. And now, the OG Transformer is going the way of the dodo, as the affordable new Transformer Pad 300 (aka the TF300) takes its place. Though this newest tablet was announced back in February, it’s only just going on sale in the US this week, starting at $ 379 for the 16GB version, and $ 399 for one with 32GB of built-in storage.

In addition to the fact that this replaces a truly memorable product, the TF300 is intriguing because it represents an even better deal for consumers: it borrows some design cues from the higher-end Prime, and also steps up to a similar 8-megapixel camera. Like the Prime, too, it runs an unskinned version of Android 4.0 and packs a quad-core Tegra 3 chip — something you don’t often see in a tablet this price. In short, the main differences between this and the Prime are battery life (10 hours versus 12), and the quality of the display (the 10-inch screen here offers 350 nits of brightness instead of 600). Those all sound like reasonable trade-offs and, frankly, they are. That’s our abridged review, over and done with in just two paragraphs, but meet us past the break if you’re craving a little more detail.

Hardware

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Think of it as a watered-down Prime.

Think of it as a watered-down Prime. Make no mistake: the TF300 shares some overarching design language with the original, so even now that there are several Transformers on the market the lineup still feels cohesive. Even so, with a starting price at $ 379, the company naturally chose to hold back some of the flourishes that make the Prime worth the premium. After all, ASUS needs to give you some reason to splurge on the top-shelf model, right?

For starters, that spun back is now made of plastic, not metal, so although it looks like the Prime and Zenbook line, the build quality isn’t quite as impeccable. Meanwhile, the body itself has widened to .38 inches (9.7mm), up from .33 (8.4mm) on the Prime. As for weight, the TF300 tips the scales at 1.39 pounds, compared with 1.28 for the original. None of that’s saying much, though: even with those dimensions, the TF300 manages to be slimmer than the new Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 and Acer Iconia Tab A200, two similarly priced tablets that measure .41 and .49 inches thick, respectively.

As for weight, the TF300 is heavier than the 1.29-pound Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 and its big brother, the Prime. For what it’s worth, though, it offers roughly the same runtime as the A200, which weighs a fifth of a pound more. We haven’t yet tested the second-gen 10.1, so we can’t yet speak to its battery life, but suffice to say its lighter weight won’t be such a boon if the battery inside can’t last as long as some of its heftier competitors.

So what do all of these stats amount to? A damn good mid-range tablet, we say. No, this isn’t as rock-solid or tantalizing slim as the Prime, but if you were willing to spend $ 500 on a tablet, you would have already, ya know? Compared to the $ 399 Tab 2 10.1 and $ 350 A200, the total package here is slightly more sophisticated, though we’ve also got kind things to say about the muted finish on the 10.1, and the non-slip backing on the A200. Oh, speaking of sophisticated, the tablet we tested had a dark blue backing, and that’s indeed the version you’ll see on sale starting this week. Eventually, it’ll also be available in more playful red and white hues, but you’ll have to wait until June for those to hit shelves.

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Before we move on to how the tablet actually performs, let’s take a short tour around the device, shall we? ‘Round back, of course, you’ll find that 8-megapixel auto-focusing camera, paired with a 1.2-megapixel one on the front. If you’re looking for the power / lock button, you’ll find it on the top landscape edge, leaving it easy to press even when the tablet’s nestled in its keyboard dock. The volume rocker and micro-HDMI socket sit on the upper left side (assuming you’re holding the thing in landscape), with a microSD slot located further down on that left edge. On the right, there’s nothing but the requisite 3.5mm headphone / mic jack. The bottom edge — the one that connects to the optional keyboard dock — is home to three connectors, including the 40-pin charging slot that works with the included AC adapter.

Inside, the device is home to all the usual radios and sensors, including Bluetooth 3.0, a gyroscope, e-compass, aGPS, an ambient light sensor and a G-sensor, with either 16GB or 32GB of internal storage. And no, for those of you who are wondering, we didn’t encounter any problems with WiFi or GPS, like some Prime owners, though these are admittedly the kinds of issues real-world owners might stumble across after an extended honeymoon period.

Display and sound

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Like the Prime that came before it (and pretty much every other 10-inch tablet on the market), this guy has a pixel count of 1280 x 800. The difference, though, is that while the original Prime has a 600-nit Super IPS+ display, the TF300 has a brightness level of 350 nits and is “merely” IPS. (We know, right?!) If you’re working indoors, with the tablet plugged into the keyboard dock, that drop in brightness shouldn’t bother you, though if you’re parked outdoors you might find the viewing angles are narrower than what you’d otherwise get on the Prime. Still, with the brightness pushed to the max (a luxury you can afford, given the robust battery life), you should have little problem glancing at your email on the go or framing shots in the camera app.

Even if you don’t end up buying the dock, it’s simple to follow along with a movie while the tablet’s resting flat on a table (or airplane tray) in front of you. (Keep in mind, though, that the speaker’s located on the back side, which means the tablet’s otherwise loud, balanced audio will sound muffled if you rest the thing face-up.) Really, the main drawback seems to be that this 350-nit panel doesn’t do as good a job as the 600-nit one in countering sun glare.

Performance and graphics
ASUS Transformer Pad TF300 ($ 379) Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 ($ 400) Acer Iconia Tab A200 ($ 350)
Quadrant (v2) 3,695 2,840 2,053
Linpack single-thread (MFLOPS) 41.70 37.1 37.2
Linpack multi-thread (MFLOPS) 89.83 61.3 60.4
NenaMark 1 (fps) 60.3 57.6 45.6
NenaMark 2 (fps) 46.9 30.4 20.4
Vellamo 1,320 978 1,290
SunSpider 9.1 (ms, lower numbers are better) 2,120 2,239 2,251

A quad-core chip isn’t necessarily a shortcut to flawless performance — and neither is Ice Cream Sandwich.

Like the Prime, the TF300 packs 1GB of RAM and a quad-core Tegra 3 processor, though this chip’s clocked at a slightly lower speed (1.2GHz versus 1.3). If you care, the memory type is now DDR3 — an improvement over the OG Transformer. Once again, ASUS has programmed three different power modes (balanced, power saving and performance), and depending on which you choose the chip can be overclocked to 1.3GHz or throttled down to as low as 600MHz (see the table below for a quickie performance comparison). So what do these feeds and speeds translate to, anyhow? Superlative benchmark scores, for starters. Though it doesn’t quite best its big brother (and why would anyone expect it to?), it steamrolled its similarly priced, similarly sized competitors in every benchmark we threw at it.

Notice, too, that the TF300 notches a particularly wide lead in graphics tests like NenaMark. NVIDIA’s put a lot of marketing muscle into demoing games on Tegra 3, and has seen to it that tabs like the TF300 come pre-loaded with a title or two designed to showcase its rendering prowess. Indeed, we noticed nary a hiccup as we fled monkeys in Temple Run, and the screen was also responsive as we swiped up to jump and down to slide under overgrown tree trunks. And if we do say so, that loud speaker allows for some crisp sound effects (that is, until the person next to you on the train stink-eyes you into muting those monkey shrieks).

Still, a quad-core chip isn’t necessarily a shortcut to flawless performance — and neither is Ice Cream Sandwich, for that matter. Particularly when we first started playing with it, we noticed delays as we tapped on apps, and the display didn’t always seem to hear our fingers calling. (For what it’s worth, we never once suffered an app crash.) All this improved quite a bit after we rebooted the device for the first time, but even then we waited patiently through a lag here and there. In particular, web browsing is a bit disappointing: when you zoom in on text or images, you’ll almost always notice some white tiling before everything scales as it should. Even the benchmark scores hint at that: though the TF300 takes the gold medal in SunSpider and Vellamo, it wins by a much narrower margin than it does in other categories.

Power saving

(600MHz-1GHz)

Balanced

(1.2GHz)

Performance

(1.2-1.3GHz)

Quadrant (v2) 2,062 3,695 3,886
Linpack single-thread 38.94 41.70 46.59
Linpack multi-thread 56.61 89.83 87.55
NenaMark 1 34.2 60.3 60.3
NenaMark 2 34.3 46.9 46.9
Vellamo 980 1,320 1,397
SunSpider 9.1 2,815 2,120 2,175

Rest assured that if you settle for that median performance mode you won’t be taking much of a performance hit, if any. Our graphics scores between the balanced and performance modes were similar across the board, which means there’s not that much incentive to switch to the maximum settings, especially if balanced mode holds the promise of longer battery life.

Battery life
Tablet Battery Life
ASUS Transformer Pad TF300 8:29
Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7 12:01
Apple iPad 2 10:26
ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime 10:17
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 9:55
Apple iPad (2012) 9:52 (HSPA) /
9:37 (LTE)
Apple iPad 9:33
Pantech Element 9:00
Motorola Xoom 2 8:57
HP TouchPad 8:33
Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet 8:20
Lenovo IdeaPad K1 8:20
Motorola Xoom 8:20
Acer Iconia Tab A200 8:16
Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus 8:09
Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 8:00
Amazon Kindle Fire 7:42
Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 7:38
Archos 80 G9 7:06
RIM BlackBerry PlayBook 7:01
Acer Iconia Tab A500 6:55
T-Mobile Springboard (Huawei MediaPad) 6:34
Toshiba Thrive 6:25
Samsung Galaxy Tab 6:09
Motorola Xyboard 8.2 5:25
Acer Iconia Tab A100 4:54

According to ASUS, the 22Wh juicepack inside the TF300 can last through up to 10 hours of active use. In our standard rundown test, we managed eight and a half hours of video playback before the tablet finally gave out. Altogether, that’s not as impressive a showing as the Transformer Prime, whose 25Wh battery lasted 10-plus hours in the same test — and that’s despite the fact that the Prime has the overhead of a brighter display. Admittedly, of course, our video playback test is taxing, not least because we fix the brightness at 50 percent. With less intense use (read: more idle time) we eked out closer to 12 hours, and that even included some video playback.

This time around, the dock, too, has a smaller battery than what you’ll get with the Prime (16.5Wh versus 22Wh), which should amount to an extra five hours of runtime. We’ve yet to complete a test with the full dock, but rest assured we’re on it. We’ll update this review once we get a final score.

Dock

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Some things don’t change. This Transformer, like every other we’ve reviewed, works with a keyboard dock that doubles as an extended battery, adding an extra five hours of runtime, in this case. The dock is also home two full-size ports — a USB 2.0 socket and SD slot — giving you two more ways to shuttle files between your tablet and computer. The most important thing to know, though, if you’re new around these parts is that the Transformer doesn’t exactly live up to its name out of the box: the dock is sold separately for $ 150.

For better and worse, the engineering here hasn’t really changed, so if you already own a first-gen Transformer and are wondering if you should upgrade, you can probably get away with skimming this section. For newcomers, though, we’ll say this: the keys are serviceable, but we don’t recommend buying the tablet and dock and expecting them to add up to a laptop replacement. The keys have a flimsy, precarious feel to them, and are at the disadvantage of having been shrunk to accommodate a 10-inch screen. We’ve also found that the speed of word entry is limited by the tablet, so even though your hands might fly across the keyboard, you’ll still notice a slight delay as letters start to appear onscreen. In terms of the typing experience, then, we’d recommend this about as much as we would a netbook: it’s enormously handy for pecking out URLs, web searches and short messages, but we wouldn’t suggest composing your 15-page term paper (or even 4,000-word review) on it.

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The dock is enormously handy for pecking out URLs, but we wouldn’t suggest composing your 15-page term paper on it.

The truth is, though, even a netbook probably has a sturdier keyboard panel than this — not to mention, sounder ergonomics. ASUS hasn’t done anything to remedy the off-kilter weight distribution, so when the tablet is docked it can still tilt backwards if you’re not careful (this is especially true if you’re working with it in your lap). For what it’s worth, the tablet fits into the dock with a reassuring click and the combined setup feels quite durable, even if the underside of the dock is prone to surface scratches.

Ironically, though, we enjoy the dock’s small, multitouch trackpad more than the touchpads on a lot of the laptops we test. Paging up and down or side to side is a no-fuss affair, and the buttons are tactile, if a bit noisy. The pad isn’t quite spacious enough for pinch-to-zoom, however, and indeed the trackpad doesn’t support it; you’ll have to double click to zoom in, or just reach up and perform that gesture on the screen. Once you get over the feeling that you’re “supposed” to use the trackpad for scrolling and zooming, it can actually be quite liberating to mix keyboard, mouse and touchscreen input, depending on what’s convenient.

For first-time buyers, there’s no reason to consider a dock other than this one, the one that was fine-tuned to fit the TF300′s particular dimensions. But folks thinking of retiring their OG Transformers might be curious to see if they can save that $ 150 by slipping their new, state-of-the-art tablet into an older, but still good enough dock. ASUS has an answer ready for you, and we’re afraid it’s not what you want to hear: the TF300 is not backward compatible with the original dock or USB cable. It should go without saying that the new dock isn’t 100 percent simpatico with the Prime or OG Transformer either, since the TF300 dock was designed specifically to cradle the 300.

Software

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Though manufacturers like Samsung and HTC are having a field day customizing Ice Cream Sandwich, ASUS is sticking to a different strategy: loading up its tablets with a stock version of Android 4.0.3, and peppering it with a few extra apps and widgets (all uninstallable, fortunately).

As for those pre-installed apps, the list includes Amazon's Kindle reader; App Backup (along with the separate App Backup & Restore); App Locker for password-protecting applications; a shortcut to get Glowball; ASUS MyCloud, My Library and MyNet; Netflix; Photoshop Express; SuperNote; Temple Run; the Zinio magazine store; and a shortcut to the games section of TegraZone (we were being dead-serious about NVIDIA’s marketing clout, folks). Users also get 8GB of free lifetime ASUS WebStorage, which is a twist over the way ASUS treated the OG Transformer (in that case, customers received unlimited storage, which was only free for the first year).

Camera

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In addition to industrial design, another key way in which the TF300 takes after the Prime is in image quality. Now, the basic Transformer tablet has an8-megapixel, backlit-illuminated CMOS sensor with an f.2.2 lens. That’s not hugely different from the Prime’s 8-megapixel sensor and f/2.4 lens, except the Prime also has an LED flash for lower-light shots. Even so, this makes for a welcome improvement over the 5-megapixel camera included on last year’s model. And though megapixels aren’t everything, it also has the potential to trump the 3-megapixel shooter on the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1, which also doesn’t have a flash. And we’re definitely comfortable saying this is a better deal than the $ 350 Acer Iconia Tab A200, which for a similar price has no rear camera at all, and isn’t even necessarily thinner or lighter for lack of that extra hardware.

For better and worse, the camera performs similarly to the one on the Prime. Here, too, you can tap to focus, and the camera does an admirable (though not necessarily quick) job of honing in on the detail of your choice. We did take some issue with the color rendering: some shades look undersaturated (see those apples in our gallery above), while other shades got lost in translation. Some red begonias, for instance, were actually magenta, if our resulting pictures are to be believed. On the bright side, the flash-less camera holds its own in dim (but not necessarily dark) settings.

This generation of the Transformer also records 1080p video at 30 fps. Fortunately, we experienced none of the dropped frames that we did when we first tested the original: the quality here is relatively light on motion blur, and the audio capture is intelligent enough to catch subtler sounds off camera, like passerby’s conversation. Watch the compilation below, for example: you can hear a stranger off-camera expressing amusement (or horror?) at the a mannequin in a store window — a kind of detail that might have been drowned out by wind noise had we been recording with a lesser device.

Configurations, accessories and the competition

It seems obvious that the TF300′s quad-core chip provides a real advantage in terms of gaming, longevity and overall speed.

The TF300 starts at $ 379 for 16GB of storage, with the 32GB model fetching $ 399. (Side note: why can’t all manufacturers charge just a small premium for doubling the internal storage?) In addition, ASUS is selling some accessories (no, we’re not really counting the namesake dock here): the VersaSleeve (it is what it sounds like), a micro-HDMI-to-VGA dongle, an external USB adapter and a 4-in-1 memory card reader — you know, in case you want an SD reader, but don’t want to buy the $ 150 dock to get it.

Of course, we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. We’re assuming you’re choosing this particular tablet. And in case you couldn’t tell, we’d heartily agree with your decision if you did, though for anyone who’s been holding out for a not-too-expensive Android 4.0 tablet, no reason not to see what else is on the menu. The beautiful thing for anyone shopping right now is that there seems to be an uptick in reasonably priced 10-inch tablets. We’re thinking of the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1, which at $ 499 isn’t quite the top-shelf product the first-gen 10.1 was. Ditto for the $ 350 Acer Iconia Tab A200, one of the first affordable ICS tablets we saw this year. Even the iPad 2 has seen a price cut to $ 400, but we still maintain first-time iPad buyers are best off paying the extra $ 100 for the new iPad, if only to get that crisp Retina display. If an iPad’s your speed, then, you’re probably not seriously considering an Android tablet and likewise, not all shoppers want to be wed to Apple’s ecosystem.

Anyhow, for those of you who prefer Android, you’ve got at least three solid options at the ready. And the truth is, we’ve enjoyed our time with all of them, though the TF300 offers faster performance and longer battery life than either of these two contenders, both of which make do with last year’s dual-core Tegra 2 SoC. For what it’s worth, the Acer Iconia Tab A510 will have Tegra 3 when it ships, but at $ 450 for the 32GB model, it’ll cost fifty bucks more than the 32GB TF300, and will also have lesser camera and display specs. It’s biggest saving grace, though, might be that its battery life is rated for 12 hours, which, if accurate, would trump almost everything else in its size and price range.

Though we’re not normally inclined to make a recommendation based purely on benchmarks, it seems obvious that the TF300′s quad-core chip provides a real advantage in terms of gaming, longevity and overall speed. Factor in the decent camera, slightly more polished design, clean Android experience, nice app selection and the useful dock, and you’ve once again got yourself a good deal.

Wrap-up

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You can let your guard down: though the TF300′s price is fairly low, there really isn’t much of a catch. Even as more mid-range, 10-inch Android tablets start hitting the market, the second-gen Transformer still feels like the best deal, with smooth, Tegra 3-powered gaming, good endurance and an understated design that calls to mind ASUS’ other Transformer, the $ 500 Prime.

Aside from the fact that the battery life isn’t quite as epic as the Prime’s, our most serious complaint has little to do with ASUS, and more with Android: even with a state-of-the-art chip running the latest version of the OS, the tablet occasionally hiccups when launching apps and resizing web pages. There’s no reason for a product with such strong tech credentials to stumble over the mundane stuff. Still, the tablet is eminently usable, and ultimately a pleasure to live with. Moreover, the performance is a clear improvement over what you’ll get from similarly priced 10-inch tabs, many of which run on last year’s dual-core Tegra 2 chip. So if you feel at home in Android and have about $ 400 to spend, this, friends, is the tablet we recommend.