Review: Transformer Prime; best Android tablet yet

The Asus Transformer Prime has several “firsts” for 2012. It’s the first tablet to come with Google’s(s goog) new Android 4.0 software, designed to unify phones and tablets. And it’s the first tablet to run on a quad-core chip from Nvidia(s nvda), dubbed the Tegra 3. So does first equal best? Not in every case, but in this particular instance, I’m comfortable in saying that the $499 Transformer Prime is currently the best large Android tablet you can buy.

Hot hardware

The Transformer Prime with 32 GB of storage is the second iteration of Asus’ popular 10.1-inch tablet which debuted last year. And the reason for the “Transformer” name is due to the optional $150 keyboard dock, but more on that in a minute. The slate itself uses a high-quality IPS display at 1280 x 800 resolution. It’s clear and bright from all angles. There’s also a handy option to bump up the brightness for outdoor use: The screen jumps to 600 nits vs. the iPad 2’s 380 to 400 nits, so it’s nearly 50 percent brighter with this setting.

At 8.6 millimeters thick and 586 grams, the Prime is easy to tote and hold, especially with the large bezel around the display; roughly one inch.There’s a 1.2 megapixel front camera which worked fine in my video chat tests. However, the camera is offset, so I had to tilt the tablet to appear centered in my calls. The rear camera is 8 megapixels (with LED flash) and takes adequate, but not stellar images. Video capture is supported up to 1080p and video looks soft around the edges but still good.

Other ports and buttons include a 3.5 millimeter headphone jack, a single speaker, two microphone ports, up and down volume rocker, microSD card slot and micro HDMI port to connect the device to an HDTV or digital monitor. This last port works well and the tablet is more than capable for displaying high resolution videos or games on a second screen. The power button is very small and can be hard to find; a problem when waking the Prime up from sleep mode. GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth are all standard; there is no version available with mobile broadband.

About that dock: With it, the thin slate connects to a full keyboard and trackpad, morphing the device into an Android-powered notebook of sorts. In addition to the easier input method, the dock adds a full-sized USB port and SD memory card slot. There’s also dedicated Home and Back buttons that support Android. Plus the dock has its own battery, which adds another 6 or so hours of runtime to the Transformer Prime. On its own, the Prime can easily power through a day. I’ve been able to use it as a primary device for a solid 11 hours with juice to spare. So with the dock, this becomes an 18 hour configuration.

On the downside, the dock weighs less than the slate, so the Prime can tip over if not careful. The keyboard isn’t backlit and the trackpad needs improving as well. It often became frustrating to use when not responding the way I had swiped. You can use two fingers to swipe up or down for browsing or navigating home screens, which is handy.

Much improved software

Google’s new Android 4.0 software, or Ice Cream Sandwich, is similar to the prior iteration, but much improved. The user interface is cleaner more consistent than before, but not radically changed in terms of general navigation.

Android widgets are more interactive and Asus even added some of its own to help with battery monitoring, email and task management. Also customized by Asus is the one-touch Settings display, making it easy to enable or turn off radios or use one of three tablet modes: Power Saving, Balanced and Performance mode; each of which throttle the CPU up or down for optimal use.

As mentioned, the CPU is Nvidia’s 1.3 GHz quad-core Tegra 3, which also has a fifth, low-power computing core as well as 12 graphics cores. Overall performance shines with Tegra 3, especially when playing games optimized for the Tegra 3. Here’s a video look at how the Prime handles console quality games along with an Xbox 360 controller, which is supported by the dock’s USB port.

For nearly every task the Prime keeps Android apps moving quickly. But don’t set your expectations too high simply because of the multiple processing cores. The tablet is fast, but not all apps are optimized to tap the full power of a quad-core chip. Given that developers haven’t yet optimized many of their apps for Android tablets in the past year, this could take time. Still, even with today’s apps, the Prime offers the best software experience available today on a Google-powered tablet.

In addition to the core Android 4.0 apps and those in the Android Market, Asus has added some of its own. SuperNote is a simple simple way to capture and ink notes with a finger. MyCloud offers access to cloud storage for media or documents or can be used to remotely connect to a PC or Mac. And Asus partnered with Infraware to include Polaris Office; a productivity suite that really shines with the keyboard dock.

Verdict: A winning combo

If you’re in the market for a large Android tablet, the Transformer Prime is a must-see. At this price, it clearly competes with Apple’s (s aapl) iPad 2, but offers 32 GB of internal storage plus the ability to expand. While the trackpad is lacking on the optional dock, it’s worth the extra cost for both the extra battery life, keyboard input and USB port if you need these features. Essentially, you end up with a netbook-style form factor that runs all day on a charge and can be used as a standalone tablet.

But even on its own, the Transformer Prime is a powerhouse with an experience exceeding its peers thanks to Android 4.0 and the Tegra 3 processor. If I were in the market for a large Android tablet, this device would be atop my list.