Hardware review: a full-service tablet

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My first tablet, the HP Touchsmart Tx2, was a laptop that happened to have a touchscreen, exemplifying the pre-iPad tablet. Weighing about five pounds, it had Windows, a 12-inch screen, and a touchscreen, with pen, that could rotate and lie flat.

The Touchsmart Tx2, while not bad, had too many trade-offs to be a good tablet. The iPad was different: 1.5 pounds, small screen, no keyboard. It was the iPhone scaled up, not Windows scaled down.

Fast forward to November of 2013. Enter the Asus Transformer Book T100, the best device you’ve never heard of. It’s features include a Quad-core Intel Atom processor, 2 gigabytes of RAM, 32 or 64 gigabytes of storage, a 10.1-inch 1366*768 IPS (in-plane switching) multi-touch display, a 1.2 megapixel webcam, and a MicroSD slot. The package includes a MicroUSB charger and a keyboard dock that adds a full-sized USB 3.0 port. It retails for $419 ($399 USD).

Did I mention it includes Microsoft Office? We’ll get to that later.

The tablet has an edge-to-edge glass front, webcam at the top and a grey Windows logo beneath. The left edge has a Start button (a home button, really) and volume rocker. The top has the power button. The right edge has the MicroSD slot, the MicroUSB and MicroHDMI ports for power and video out, respectively, and a headphone/microphone jack. The bottom has cut-outs for the docking station, and the back has two speakers.

For $419, there’s a bit of “you get what you pay for” going on. The casing is grey and accumulates fingerprints easily. It’s solid and durable, yet it’s made of plastic, which makes the device light—only 1.2 pounds. The speakers are acceptable, though they can distort at high volume. The touchscreen is sensitive and the resolution is adequate, if not amazing. Connection to the docking station is solid, though sometimes it’s hard to tell if the latches have closed, and the tablet slithers away from the dock by accident. The docking station also weighs 1.2 pounds, but it gives you a keyboard and touchpad, plus a full-sized USB 3.0 port. The keys are bouncy and firm, but small and feel cramped, though not unusable. The touchpad is smooth and responsive, but again, small.

The T100’s combination of a new Intel Atom Z3740 processor, running at 1.33 gigahertz, and its two gigabytes of low-power DDR3 RAM enables excellent battery life: Asus claims 11 hours, with heavy use, I get 9.5 to 10 hours.

Let me be blunt: the operating system will make or break this for you. Windows 8 was panned by critics as being designed for a touchscreen and not a desktop, and it is—but not perfectly. Windows 8 supports Connected Standby, so the T100 powers on and off instantly like any other tablet, and supports background checking of email and events. Because it has a full version of Windows 8, it runs all applicable desktop software, and it includes a copy of Microsoft Office. The performance is fairly good. In Windows 8’s start screen and apps, when watching movies, using Word, or browsing the Web on the desktop or in tablet mode, there’s no lag or slowdown. Windows 8’s tablet apps support multi-tasking, too, so you can stream Netflix on one side of the screen and check your email on the other—again, without any visible lag. You can play desktop games like Civilization 4, and a newer game like Starcraft II will run as well, though you shouldn’t expect optimum responsiveness.

One big problem with this device is its duality. The T100 and Windows 8 attempt to merge two separate worlds. Windows 8 provides a powerful tablet experience, most of the time. Some of the time (such as when browsing files and folders), you’ll want to go to the desktop. However, the desktop isn’t quite suited for touch; display elements are too small, and though the touch keyboard is present, the touch-type experience is unpleasant. The keyboard dock ameliorates this, although of course it doubles the weight. The 32–64 gigabytes (GB) of storage is fine for a tablet, but start installing programs in Windows and you quickly run out of space. With Office, Firefox, my files, and two dozen or so tablet apps, I have 7GB of free space left out of my 32GB.

The T100 is something of an outlier. Not exactly a tablet, not exactly a laptop, and doing neither perfectly. On the other hand, it is only $419, including Microsoft Office, which is, quite frankly, a steal. If you need something to take to class with the portability of a tablet and the power of a laptop, the T100 is an excellent choice.

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