Using Android for productivity — typing documents, videoconferencing, building spreadsheets — has traditionally not been a simple task. Good apps can go a long way toward solving that problem, but there's a fundamental input problem with typing on a touchscreen. The Asus Transformer Book TF701T, with its clip-on, battery-toting keyboard and touchpad, and Asus's custom-built Android skin, wants to make the platform a true competitor to Mac OS X, Windows 8, and ChromeOS.
Asus' Transformer has gone through several revisions in the past few years, with incremental tweaks to processing hardware, inputs, outputs, and Android versions. The TF701T is the spiritual successor to the Eee Pad Transformer, its Prime variant, and the original Transformer Pad.
At its core, the Transformer Pad is an Android 4.2 tablet with a 10.1-inch display, and a novel port arrangement that allows it to clip into its keyboard dock. The dock houses an external battery pack, sharing its charge and charging the tablet whenever it's plugged in. The idea is that you use the Transformer Pad as a notebook — with the convenient keyboard and trackpad — whenever you need some serious productivity, and as a standalone tablet whenever you just want to browse the Web or watch a couple of movies. It makes Android possible to use for a workday as well as for leaning back with a few movies, Facebook and emails on the couch of an evening.
The TF701T is quite bulky for a 10-inch tablet when it's locked into the keyboard dock and closed like a laptop would be. The extra battery and I/O ports make the tablet-keyboard combination a little portly at 18.9mm thick and 1135g — an Ultrabookesque notebook like the LG UltraPC is both thinner and lighter, for example. What you do get for this size premium is good build quality — the tablet (585g on its own) in particular is very solid, with a nice spun-metal design on the rear plate that is both sturdy and attractive.
As tablet keyboards go, the Transformer Pad TF701T's is pretty good. There's only a small amount of flex when you're stabbing away at the keyboard on a long email or article, which is an achievement compared to the generally mushy and flexible feel of most iPad docks or the Microsoft Surface family of clip-on keyboard covers. It's a little cramped to type on — of course, it's a keyboard for a 10.1-inch tablet — and the touchpad may be small but it's more than usable, despite feeling less slick than a Windows or Mac laptop's. The keyboard clips into the tablet using a flexible docking connector that seems a little complicated and over-engineered, but didn't break or present any issues in our time road-testing the device.
Scattered across the edges of both the tablet and its keyboard dock are a USB 3.0 input — for connecting a mouse or pulling a few files off a flash drive — and the usual complement of power, headphone jack and microphone input. There's also a Micro HDMI output for connecting your Android tablet to a monitor, or for hooking up a big-screen TV and binge-watching a few movies or TV shows that you've got saved on the Transformer Pad on holiday or a business trip.
The Transformer Pad tablet is where all the brains of the operation reside — there's no computing hardware in the keyboard dock (a la Transformer Book Duet), only a large battery. Running Android 4.2 Jelly Bean on a NVidia Tegra 4 system-on-chip using 2GB of RAM, with a heavily customised bespoke Asus skin and homemade productivity apps, the TF701T has perfectly adequate power and is competitive with other mid-range Android tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition and the Microsoft Surface 2 in terms of outright power.
The screen of the Transformer Pad is simultaneously great and slightly disappointing. The TF701T has a 10.1-inch display with 2560x1600 pixel WQXGA resolution; it's able to display a lot of detail and it's just about as bright and colourful as you could need, but it's also very reflective. The brightness and vibrant colour makes it great to use both indoors and outdoors — although the automatic brightness adjustment moves in steps rather than smoothly — but the reflectivity really gets in the way sometimes. In the picture above, imagine the camera's flash is the sun, and you'll get a better idea of what can happen outdoors.
When it's not flashing the odd reflection in your face, the Transformer Pad's screen is excellent for an Android device. It's a Super IPS display, which means wide viewing angles both vertically and on the horizontal axis — there's only the slightest colour shift and loss of contrast at the extreme horizontal edges, and this is only slightly exaggerated vertically. The high pixel count (300ppi) makes for a lot of detail in appropriately high resolution photos, and smooth edges on the corners of fonts.
Asus's Android laptop doesn't lack for power, packing a Nvidia Tegra 4 system-on-chip, a quad-core processor with 1.9GHz of number-crunching grunt. 2GB of RAM makes for relatively easy app-switching, with no slowdown until you open up half a dozen or more processes (or more than a couple of particularly intensive titles like 3D games). Battery is simply not an issue thanks to the dock's extra cells — we got reasonably close to Asus' claimed 13 hours from the tablet itself (we clocked just over 11 and a half hours), while the dock provides an extra 4 and a half hours of juice, even more than the Asus-rated 4 hours.
With either 32GB or 64GB of storage, there's plenty of space for archiving video, game files or other media, and a 128GB-capable MicroSD slot means you probably won't ever run out of available flash memory. We ran AnTuTu to benchmark the TF701T's performance, and came back with a score of 27,403 — not bad at all, and representative of the tablet's more than capable performance within almost all modern apps and 3D games. Quadrant reported 14,789 — again, competitive without being world-beating.
A complement of software tweaks and bespoke Android apps makes the Transformer Pad TF701T more useful than a garden-variety tablet for everyday working tasks. Like Samsung's Galaxy NotePRO, the TF701T has a Android home screen biased towards business tasks; by default the calendar, a note-taking app, email, tasks and system browser form the eight-app dock's line-up; there are better apps for all of these tasks in the Play Store, but out of the box Asus' machine can handle an average day of business tasks.
The Transformer Book has one inescapable software issue that we ran into several times during our tenure with the device. Android has some significant productivity limitations compared to a Windows or ChromeOS budget tablet. For example - Android just doesn't handle copying, selecting and pasting text very well, even with the advantage of a touchpad and dedicated copy/paste keyboard shortcuts; it's a clunky process that takes at least twice as long as on a proper PC. The single-app processing means that you can't run a video chat and switch over to your word processing app for some quick note-taking, either. These are issues that you learn to work around when you're being productive with an Android tablet, but it's worth considering your potential workflow before you buy.
The TF701T's cameras are also nothing to write home about. The front 2.1-megapixel sensor is not terrible as front-facing cameras go, but it's just nothing special. It'll serve well enough for an impromptu video chat, but not for taking your next Facebook profile photo. What is more surprising is that the rear camera is just as mediocre — there's a lot of image noise and graininess whenever you're trying to take a photo in anything but the best and brightest lighting. We don't really place much stock in the quality of cameras on a tablet, but its competition — namely the iPad Air — does a better job.
In general, the Asus Transformer Pad TF701T is a capable and useful device. The removable keyboard dock provides a much-needed power and typing performance boost, although it does add significant bulk and weight. The tablet doesn't lack for processing power or display quality, but we do have the slightest reservations about Android being an entirely viable candidate for serious everyday business or uni student tasks. If you can live with its minor compromises, the TF701T has the potential to be a versatile and competent tablet.