A first look at the Asus Eee Pad Transformer

The Asus Eee Pad Transformer has become one of the hottest products around, rivalling the early days of the iPad for its unavailability. We get our hands on a retail unit to see if the final product lives up to its hype.

There's no denying that the Transformer is a clever product. Built as a hybrid device, the heart of the unit is a powerful 10-inch tablet powered by an Nvidia Tegra 2 ARM-based processor and running Google's Android 3.1 'Honeycomb.'

The optional keyboard accessory is what makes the device really smart, however: designed to turn the tablet into an Android-powered netbook, the dock adds a full chicklet-style keyboard, multi-touch trackpad, and additional 8-hour battery to the device, along with two USB ports and an SD card reader.

It's the kind of add-on that iPad owners can only dream of: while external keyboard accessories are available for Apple's tablet, they're almost all based on Bluetooth and drain, rather than boost, the device's battery.

The design of the Eee Pad Transformer impressed us enough when we were able to play with a pre-production unit at CeBIT, but does the finished product live up to expectations?

Sadly, it's something of a mixed bag. The first disappointment came when we saw that the docking mechanism - located in the hinge of the keyboard dock - was seemingly unchanged from the pre-production prototype at CeBIT. Rather than the refined design we were promised, it's still a bit clunky with the tablet failing to properly click in to place more often than not.

Once you've got the dock in place, however, things start to look up. As promised, the tablet charges from the dock's integrated battery, boosting the device up to a claimed 16 hour battery life. The keyboard works well, but has a somewhat mushy feel, while the multi-touch trackpad is a dream to use.

The tablet itself is pretty snazzy, too: the high-resolution IPS display has incredible viewing angles, and the brightness can be cranked up to retina-searing levels. Sadly, it's also extremely glossy - thanks largely to an anti-scratch glass covering - which makes it awkward to use outdoors, a problem suffered by many tablets.

Once we'd installed the update to the Android operating system - to take it from version 3.0 to 3.1, a process which took around ten minutes - and upgraded the firmware in the dock - another couple of minutes - we gave the system its first real test.

At first, things seemed great: the tablet was responsive, applications installed without a hitch, and the experience was generally laudable. Unfortunately, it appears that even after the update, Honeycomb isn't without its glitches: during our initial testing, we had one crash that resulted in a reboot, another which caused the browser to become unresponsive, and several errors from various pre-installed applications.

The most troublesome of these was Zinio, an app which allows users to buy digital subscriptions to magazines for reading on the tablet. It's the same company which powers the magazine store on Samsung's well-regarded Galaxy Tab range, but on the Transformer it was rather too keen on popping up application error dialogues for our liking.

Another bug reared its ugly head when we tried to use the microSD slot in the tablet itself, a seemingly handy way to upgrade the storage on the cheap. While it readily accepted the 1GB microSD we had lying around, the Transformer had a tendency to forget it was there. The only way to get it back up and running, we found, was to eject the card and re-insert it again.

The problems appear to extend beyond simple software bugs, however. While review units shipped around the country have been largely fine, our retail unit - purchased from a major web-based shop - looks to have been hastily assembled on a Friday afternoon.

The first issue we discovered was that the plastic on the included proprietary charging cable was cracked, causing one of the retaining lugs to waggle alarmingly. While the cable works now, it doesn't look long for this world. "No problem," we thought, "we'll ask Asus for a replacement."

Alexander Nevenitsa, of the Asus support team, had other ideas, however. "I am afraid that Asus cannot supply a replacement directly to the end user," he told thinq_. "I would advise you to return it back to the place of purchase so it could be replaced."

While the idea of returning an entire tablet to a shop simply because a USB cable is damaged seems ridiculous, Nevenitsa's response raises a far bigger issue: with no spares or replacements available from Asus, anyone who loses or breaks the proprietary charging cable will be left with a completely useless tablet.

We asked Asus directly whether lost or damaged cables would require the purchase of an entirely new Transformer to rectify, but have yet to receive a response. Sadly, we found yet another problem with our retail model: the power light on the keyboard docking station doesn't work, meaning there's no way of telling if the keyboard's internal battery is charged.

Asus has famously been struggling to feed the demand for its Transformer tablet, with the company's marketing manager John Swatton telling us that delays in shipments were due to "a number of additional testing procedures for the Eee Pad Transformer to ensure an unrivalled user-experience." Either we here at thinq_ are the unluckiest gadget buyers in history, or Swatton's claims are inaccurate: to have two major - and obvious - issues in a single randomly-selected retail model shows a shocking lack of quality control at the Asus factory.

So far, Asus hasn't responded to our request for comment on this article. Until its apparent quality issues are resolved, however, we can't in good conscience recommend the Eee Pad Transformer, however slick and impressive it appears to be at first glance.

Now, if you'll excuse us, we've got a tablet to return.

UPDATE 17/06/2011 13:45:

Asus has indicated to thinq_ that it is aware that a non-replaceable USB cable is hardly ideal. "There are plans to release a stand alone power adaptor for the Eee Pad Transformer," customer service representive Vadim Kostyrko explained. "However, we can not provide you with any information on the release date."