The Asus Transformer Prime was one of my favourite tablets of 2011, offering an excellent screen and a searingly fast quad-core processor. The Transformer Pad TF300 serves up the same chip, a similar screen and that all-important keyboard dock -- for £100 less than the Prime's £500 asking price.
With Apple taking tablet sales left, right and centre, does the TF300 offer enough to tempt you away from the new iPad?
It's available to pre-order now for £400 with delivery dates penned for mid-May.
Design and build quality
If you're at all familiar with the Transformer Prime then the TF300 won't hold too many surprises. It's a 10-inch slate that clips into a keyboard dock to become, essentially, a high-powered Android netbook.
The TF300 isn't intended to be quite as premium as the Prime -- or indeed the more recent Infinity 700 -- so there are a few cutbacks in the design. The tablet itself is around 10mm thick, which isn't as svelte as other tablets on the market, and it's more hefty than the 8.5mm of the Infinity.
Whether you'll ever notice the extra millimetre and a half is debatable, but those of you who crave the slimmest, most sleek gadgets on the market would be better served by the Prime or the Infinity. Apple's new iPad is a similar thickness, so if you can cope with that, then odds are you'll be fine with the TF300.
The TF300 dispenses with the metal back casing seen on the Prime and Infinity. Instead, it offers a plastic shell. It's less elegant than the metal backs, but it still looks pretty nice. The plastic is fairly firm and seems secure against the odd knock or bump. It's also been given the same circular 'spun' textured finish as its metal cousins but it's a much less subtle effect here.
One advantage of the plastic back is that you get a greater choice of colours. The TF300 comes in white, red and a dark bluey-black. We'll only see the blue colour at launch, but the white and red version -- which I think look pretty snazzy -- will be available around June or July. On the down side, the rough texture is prone to picking up dirty marks from things it rubs up against.
The right side of the back houses a 1.5-inch speaker grille slit in place of the basic speaker holes you'd find on the Prime. The speakers produce a surprisingly full sound -- probably edging it over what I heard from the original Prime. Even so, it's hardly room-filling, so if you plan on playing back your bassier tunes then you'll want to use a separate sound system or good headphones. For watching TV shows or YouTube clips though, it'll cope fine.
You get the same ports as featured on the Prime, including a micro-HDMI input, a microSD slot and a volume rocker that sticks out more than on the Prime. A power/sleep button protrudes from the top edge.
The TF300 comes with 32GB of storage, but you can always expand that with the microSD card slot if you need to. I find storing movies and TV shows on these cards particularly handy as I can swap in whatever I fancy, without taking up built-in storage space.
The keyboard dock is identical to the one you'll find on the other Transformers. The only real difference between the keyboard docks is the USB port, which has a cover in this instance. It's primarily made of metal and uses the same isolated keys and attaches to the tablet section using the same clips. It feels better constructed than a lot of plastic wireless keyboards and the fact that they clip together makes it a much more attractive option than simply buying a tablet with a separate keyboard.
In general use it offers a fairly comfortable experience. It's the same size keyboard as you'd generally find on netbooks, so it's just about big enough to bang out lengthy emails without having to squash my hands in like I'm getting the last Pringle from the tube. If you've got enormous bin-lid hands though, you might find yourself hitting the wrong key from time to time.
You're unlikely to want to use this as your first-choice keyboard, if you have a larger laptop or desktop, but you'll get used to it over time.
The one issue I found when using the tablet and dock together like a netbook was that the tablet itself was rather heavy, causing it to tip over if opened much beyond a 100-degree angle. It might not be much of a problem for you, but I frequently found myself having to stand it back up when placing it open on a desk to show someone a video.
The keyboard dock includes an extra battery that feeds the Prime its power when hooked up, meaning that the dock's battery will deplete its reserves before the tablet.
The 10-inch screen packs a resolution of 1,280x800 pixels. That's the same amount as you'd find on the original Prime. It doesn't push the Full HD boundaries like the Infinity, which rocks a 1,920x1,200-pixel resolution. It's also not offering much of a challenge to the new iPad, which boasts a whopping 2,048x1,536-pixel resolution.
Still, I found it to be both sharp and bold, making it well suited for web browsing, watching YouTube clips or playing any of the bizarre games you'll find in the Google Play store.
The Prime had a Super IPS+ (that's marketing jargon for 'really, really bright') display that boosted an already bright screen into something resembling an exploding star -- although it did make reading under harsh lighting slightly easier. The boost mode has been abandoned on the TF300 though, leaving just the regular IPS display. It's still bright, so you won't have to squint awkwardly for hours on end.
Aside from having lower brightness than the Prime, the quality of the display is on a par, with wide viewing angles, a satisfying contrast ratio, and no visible colour tint problems. Don't expect iPad levels of clarity, but it's still excellent compared with most tablets.
The TF300 is running on Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), which is the latest version of Google's Android operating system. It's designed to provide a unified experience on both tablets and smart phones. The original Prime shipped with Android 3.2 Honeycomb, but can now be updated to ICS.
Visually, there's very little difference between Honeycomb and ICS. You still get the multiple home screens to swipe through and plonk down live widgets and apps and there's the same list of apps in the menus. It's an attractive interface and one that's rather easy to get to grips with.
Android is still playing catch-up with Apple's iOS when it comes to app support though. The File Manager gives you easy and organised access to your files. MyNet lets you stream content to DLNA-enabled devices on your network, and MyLibrary is an e-reader for reading and purchasing new books. SuperNote lets you write notes with your fingers and you can draw graphs and take pictures or video right from the interface.
Under the hood you'll find a 1.2GHz Nvidia Tegra 3 quad-core processor. This compares with the Prime's 1.3GHz version. The Tegra 3 is offered on both the Wi-Fi-only and 3G versions, which is noteworthy as the more premium Infinity only has the quad-core chip on the Wi-Fi version.
The Tegra 3 provided an excellent serving of power in the Prime, putting it at the top of the pile in the tablet processing stakes. It's got more competition in the quad-core genre now, but the TF300 still seems to be lightning fast. Swiping through the home screens was immediate and opening menus and apps was free of any lag -- only a hair slower than on the Prime.
I booted up the CF-Bench benchmark test and was given a score of 10,760 -- almost exactly the same as the Prime, showing that the TF300 is at least on a par with its more premium sibling. By comparison, the Samsung Galaxy S2 managed just over 6,000 on the same test. Although it's not a tablet, it's an extremely potent phone, capable of running the most demanding apps, so I'm chuffed at how easily the TF300 beat it.
Apps like the Marvel comics app are beginning to take advantage of the Tegra 3's extra horsepower by offering smoother transitions between panels in digital comics. While not quite matching the iPad's smoothness, with some judder evident, it outperforms the Prime. There's also a bunch of games designed for the Tegra 3 chip, which all look pretty amazing, with crisp graphics and mostly smooth gameplay. There was the odd frame rate drop, but it remained perfectly playable.
Using the Speedtest app to benchmark download rates, the TF300 was consistently quicker -- by about 5Mbps -- than the Prime and was only about 3Mbps behind the iPad.
The TF300's battery lasted about two days, matching the Prime's battery life. Asus claims 10 hours with the standalone battery and 15 hours with the keyboard dock attached. You can pick whether you want the Tegra 3 CPU to operate in normal, balanced or power-saving modes. In the former, the CPU runs at full speed. Balanced mode and power-saving mode curtail the CPU speed by using a fifth lower-powered core to save on battery life -- a useful feature that was also in place on the Prime.
The 1.2-megapixel front camera and 8-megapixel back camera from the Prime are here, minus the LED flash. The front snapper does what you'd expect of it -- it's useful for little more than video chats. The 8-megapixel cam found on the Prime gave some excellent results so the TF300 had a lot to live up to.
Sadly, it failed to impress me like the Prime did. Colours weren't as bold and images were generally less sharp and more noisy. It'll do for taking a quick snap of your cat in an Elizabethan ball-gown costume to share to Twitter, but I wouldn't have wanted to spend much time touching them up in photo-editing apps for artistic purposes.
It captures video at 1080p resolution though, so you can at least record some daft footage of your mates -- although you will look a bit silly holding up a tablet to record them. The video quality was acceptable for a tablet, but you can get better results from an iPad.
The TF300 falls short in a few areas when compared to the Prime. It's not as thin or as sturdy, and there's no rear flash but the screen is bold and vivid and the Tegra 3 still makes it superbly fast.
At £400, it's the same price as a new iPad, but Apple's market leader is showing the way forward, with the Android operating system still streets behind when it comes to the breadth and quality of tablet apps. But if you're not keen on Apple's slab and prefer the tweakability of Android, then the TF300 presents the best value tablet right now.