Chris Drage finds Android coming of age for schools with the Asus Eee Transformer
Asus Eee TransformerAsus Eee Transformer: threat to PC netbooks?Although the iPad-led tablet revolution has seen unprecedented developments, the problem for schools has been whether to purchase these devices for discrete and specific applications or wait to see what else will emerge as the market develops. Like a device with a detachable keyboard that will extend the tablet to netbook functionality and give better total cost of ownership.

The Asus Eee Transformer does this, and more, and stands out as one of a number of new tablet devices that could ensure that the Windows netbook's days are numbered.

Tablets were initially considered media 'consumption' devices, with the user a passive recipient rather than an active, creative producer. That viewpoint has changed, and the Asus Eee Pad Transformer takes the productivity further by sporting a detachable keyboard with trackpad and docking station. These make it a useful Android tablet for those on the move and a very productive and functional Android-powered netbook when used at a desk.

The Asus Eee Transformer (£379) is an Android (v3.1) tablet. With a keyboard dock it costs £429.  It features a Tegra 250 processor, 10.1-inch screen, 1Gb of Ram memory, and 16Gb (expandable to 32Gb) of on-board storage.

The 10.1inch display sports a decent high-definition resolution of 1280x800 pixels. On the right edge are the 3.5mm headphone jack, mini-HDMI and microSD slots and a speaker grille. Other features include wi-fi, GPS and dual cameras – a 5-megapixel, rear-facing camera and a 1.3 megapixel front-facing one, essential for those video calls.

Other hardware features come in the shape of a three-axis accelerometer and gyroscope. While 3G connectivity was missing on the review machine, it is an option. There's no standard USB socket on the tablet itself, instead there's a proprietary connector that doubles as both power point and USB connector.  

Immediately, you are aware that everything has been kept simple and straightforward. The overall design of the machine and keyboard is ergonomic and very pleasing. It is solid but I am not convinced it would stand up to the DDT (Drage Drop Test – from 70cms, desk height).  

Apart from the difference in price, what sets the Asus Eee Transformer apart from current Android competition like the Acer Iconica Tab W500 or Motorola Xoom?  Simple, the keyboard dock: in this case, no simple keyboard but one which includes an additional battery and docking station – the jewel in the Eee Transformer’s crown.

The keyboard is tailored perfectly to suit the Android 3.1 operating system. As well as the qwerty-style layout, there’s a row of hot keys for locking and unlocking the device, adjusting screen brightness, turning wi-fi on and off and opening the Android settings menu.

Using the keyboard dock can boost battery life to 16 hours

The keyboard dock is where two USB 2.0 ports and an SD card port reside, so if you buy the tablet without the dock, you don't get those features. But the dock is more than just a keyboard and USB port: for schools the major bonus is that it has hidden powers, courtesy of its own battery. The keyboard dock's battery provides an additional six and a half hours of usage which, in practice, means that, when docked, the Eee Transformer can be used for up to 16 hours without the need for a recharge!

Asus EEE Transformer with keyboard dockClever keyboard dock prolongs battery lifeWhat's more, the dock actually passes its charge on to the tablet itself. So when the tablet is not at 100 per cent power, providing the keyboard dock has enough power, it will charge the tablet’s batteries up. If both batteries are fully charged, the device will take power from the keyboard first, meaning the tablet always has as much power as possible for when you need to detach it. Very neat.

The tablet slots into the dock and a small slider on the keyboard dock locks the two together. Once they're attached the device becomes a netbook in every way. As you can with a standard netbook, you can fold the screen on to the keyboard. Add a mouse and a full qwerty keyboard and you have a tiny desktop.

Strangely, the on-screen keyboard is different to the standard Android 3.1 one and it's not particularly pleasant to type with. The major advantage of taking the Android route as opposed to Apple is that you have more choices, so installing a different (more suitable) keyboard is straightforward. You can stick to the touch interface and use gestures on the screen. You can use the track pad and mouse buttons on the dock as you would on a laptop.

The back of the tablet and the keyboard is textured, making it quite easy to hold in your hand despite the total weight of 680g. The tablet’s surrounding black bezel and its mounting make the device almost 20mm wider than it would be without them – not necessarily a disadvantage for younger children and those with a weaker grip as it gives them more space to hold the tablet correctly. At about 13mm in depth, the Eee Pad Transformer is slim but not overly so. Its curved back makes the tablet more comfortable to hold, but unlike the original iPad, doesn't leave it rocking in either direction when laid on a flat surface,.

The screen on the Asus Eee Pad Transformer is an IPS panel, is certainly one of the best tablet screens I’ve seen to date. Its colours are bright, vivid with very good contrast and the wide viewing angle is appreciated. When watching videos, the picture is smooth and sharp while the touch input was extremely responsive.

The most obvious improvement in Android v3.1 is that both the home screens and the interface are more responsive. The transitions between pages just snap into place; scrolling between different home pages or pages of apps is far faster, with the next page appearing immediately rather than after a brief pause. Speeding up the animations for page transitions makes v3.1 feel more responsive.

The overall impression is that Android is growing up fast

Navigation has improved too. The on-screen Home button now takes you the home screen you were on last - press it again if you actually want the main home screen. Probably one of the key new features in Android 3.1 is support for USB hosts and proxy servers – the latter being so important for school users. Web pages load quicker and YouTube video plays in the browser rather than opening the YouTube app.

Altogether the overall impression is that Android is growing up fast. There are still a number of irritations and small bugs but they do not detract from the overall joy of using the Asus Eee Transformer.

The downsides? Android v3.1 Honeycomb-optimised apps are still rather sparse and v3.1 is still a tad buggy. I would also have liked a pair of quality speakers rather than the rather tinny ones provided and a standard USB slot on tablet itself would have been handy.

The Asus Eee Pad Transformer TF101 is what we've been waiting for: the functionality of a netbook combined with the portability, convenience and the pleasure of using an Android tablet. It’s a tablet that can truly replace a netbook or small laptop. With the keyboard disengaged, it's a slim, highly manageable tablet with a great display and touchscreen. When docked the battery will outlast almost any laptop. It gets a full thumbs-up from me. 

Ratings (out of 5)
Fitness for purpose   5
Ease of use               5
Features                   5
Quality                      4
Value for money       4

Asus Eee Transformer TF101
Asus Android tablet device with nVidia Tegra2 1GHz processor, 1Gb of memory, 16Gb of storage, wi-fi and bluetootch, Android 3.0. Also available with keyboard dock which converts device into Android netbook and extends battery life to up to 16 hours.
Online price around  £379 (£329.99 from Amazon). Price with keyboard dock around £430. 

Chris DrageChris Drage, a former teacher, is a consultant and journalist covering learning with ICT. You can contact him by email - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.