Tablets are great, but they’re not good for everything. Ever since I got ahold of the first Android and iPad tablets, it sometimes feels like work to lug out the big laptop for something I could simply do with a handheld touchscreen. After two years of using touchscreens though, I can firmly say that while keyboards are disappearing from phones, there is definitely still a place left for good keyboards in the tablet market. Is the Asus Transformer Infinity one of them? Sort of.
A tablet and a laptop: In one!
When Asus unveiled the first Transformer, it felt like a TV infomercial. A tablet that can become a netbook at any time with 18 hours of battery life! It’s like a dream come true! The best of both worlds! The ultimate device! All that was missing was that crazy ShamWow guy and five easy flex payments of $89.99. Unfortunately, once reality sets in, you realize that using an Android tablet as a laptop is harder than it looks.
The first Transformer was an innovative and cool concept, but a lack of RAM left it underpowered, and Android 3.0 wasn’t entirely ready to take on the tasks of a desktop operating system. Fast forward a year and some change and we have Asus’s fourth stab at the Optimus Prime of tablets, the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity. It’s the third Transformer tablet this year and in many ways the best, but for the Infinity to be a success, you’re going to have to temper your expectations and open your wallet. Transformers never come cheap.
Using it as a tablet
Though the keyboard dock is the entire selling feature of the Transformer series, it has never been included. You must buy it separately for an additional $150. Without the keyboard, there is nothing surprising about the Transformer Pad Infinity, but it is on the cutting edge of most Android tablets.
This guy has all the specs of the highest-end Android devices this year: 10.1-inch Super IPS+ screen with 1920 x 1200 resolution (fantastic screen, gets very bright, 10-finger touch), Google’s Android 4.0 operating system, a 1.6GHz quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor, 32GB or 64GB of internal flash memory for storage, 1GB of DDR3 RAM (Asus says this is faster than the RAM in its previous Pads), Gorilla Glass 2 for screen durability, an 8-megapixel rear camera (better than previous, but not comparable to iPad), a 2-megapixel front camera for video chatting, Bluetooth 3.0, Wi-Fi, and GPS that actually works this time (it was broken on the Transformer Prime).
If you don’t care about hardware specifications, and not all of you do, then you should be happy to know that it has a premium brushed metal feel to it, and comes in champagne gold or slightly purple-ized silver. As far as tablets go, we think the 10.1-inch screen size is a bit large to hold lengthwise, but the Infinity pulls off its size as well as any tablet could hope to. It’s only a third of an inch thick and weighs about 1.3 pounds – about as light and thin as you can hope for.
Outwardly, it has a few weaknesses. Though many Android tablets come with stereo speakers, the Transformer Pad Infinity, like the iPad, has only one rear-facing speaker, which makes a lot of sounds seem distant and muted, especially if you tend to set the tablet on your legs or a soft surface. The power and volume buttons also feel cheap and are difficult to press. For some reason, Asus has placed the volume button all the way to the right of the top side of the tablet when in landscape mode, making it annoyingly difficult to change your volume should you decide to hold the tablet in portrait mode, which you will because it’s so difficult to touch type with a 10.1-inch wide screen. Acer’s custom touch keyboard does have a number row, which is good, but looks rather crummy aside from that good fact. We didn’t care for the Swype-style tracing input either. Luckily, there are other keyboard options in Settings and you did buy a keyboard dock with this, after all.
To compete with the camera on the new iPad, Asus has invested a bit more in its cameras, which is rare in the tablet world. Like most tablets, the 8-megapixel rear camera and 2-megapixel front camera are nothing to write home about. The boost to a fast f2.2 aperture is nice, but we still found indoor shots a bit hit or miss, and low-light shots too dark and grainy. It’s capable of recording full 1080p video as well.
Unlike previous Transformer Pads, this also comes with an LED flash, which adds more flexibility. We had some issues with the camera app locking up or slowing down while focusing, but not consistently. Oddly, with its keyboard dock, the Transformer is one of the least likely tablets to be used as a camera, yet it has one of the more capable cameras. That still isn’t saying much, as the bar has been set fairly low outside the iPad.
Keyboard dock: Trials and tribulations
The Transformer Pad Infinity, might be a great tablet, but who cares? You’re probably buying it for its crazy keyboard dock, right? Right. If you’re hoping for a netbook-level experience, this is almost comparable, but don’t expect this Android tablet to be able to keep up with a real Windows-based laptop. Google and Asus aren’t there yet.
The Transformer Pad Infinity has its own new set of keyboard docks, which also come in purple or gold, so you can mix and match. The tablet slides into the dock well enough, but the locking mechanism for our dock was a bit tight. It took us days to realize that it could lock into place at all, and several days more of in and out action to finally get it to almost want to snap in and lock correctly. Like previous Transformer Pads, the table is supposed to snap into a cradle on the keyboard, which steadies it and holds it in place. A sliding unlock button is supposed to release it. Locking your tablet into place won’t be an easy task, at first, or possibly ever. But half locking it in works well enough under most circumstances.
Though the keyboard has a built-in battery, all of the power is coming from the screen, which you will know because of how top-heavy these Transformer Pads are. The Infinity seems to stay up on its own, unlike the cheaper plastic Pad 300, but a stiff breeze will knock it over. Luckily, when you type, you’re hands naturally hold the tablet down. This leads to another problem.
Though I got used to the cramped keyboard – it’s no worse than any netbook keyboard ever was — I couldn’t seem to get the hang of the mouse touchpad. Granted, it works, but whenever I type, my hands seem to hit the touchpad, changing the location of my curser and generally ruining any and all attempts to type a document. Luckily, there’s a button on the keyboard to shut the touchpad on and off, which I have been constantly toggling ever since. Off to type, on to navigate. It’s a bit annoying. I can only hope that I’m alone in this problem. Pulling the rubber stopper out of the USB slot was also a hellacious challenge, though, to be fair, we’re extremely happy that the Infinity has a full-size USB slot. An SD slot is also included.
Still, as much as I complain, the keyboard works well enough and switching from touch to touchpad was pretty easy once I got the hang of it.
Asus is ready for laptops, but is Android?
Asus has done a remarkable job bundling the Transformer Pad Infinity with usable software that takes advantage of its laptop-like demeanor. Polaris Office works great as a Microsoft Office substitute, and I have enjoyed using SuperNote, and the built in File Manager. Asus’s custom widgets are also slick and informative. The Asus@Vibe app store isn’t as successful and is more confusing than it is useful – stick to Google Play.
Asus is trying hard, but it’s not helped by Google. Though the core Google apps like Gmail and Maps have been updated for tablets, almost nothing else has. Even Google Drive (formerly Google Docs) isn’t formatted at all for a widescreen tablet; it looks terrible. If anything should work on a tablet, it’s Google Drive. Come on, Google.
Developers aren’t biting, either. Despite Google’s promise that Android 4.0 apps would come with much better compatibility between tablets and phones, high-profile new apps like Flipboard and Spotify seem to be phone-only releases and display strictly in the portrait orientation – meaning you have to turn your head sideways to use them with the keyboard dock connected. Some games like Temple Run also require portrait mode, and almost no apps have been built with keyboards or touchpads in mind.
Other apps, like Dropbox, adapt to larger tablet displays, but aren’t optimized to them. Using Dropbox on the Infinity was far more frustrating than on a Windows computer, as was opening documents. It just takes a while for Android to open Word and Excel documents.
The Hulu Plus app is a notable exception. While many apps fail to take advantage of the Infinity’s amazing screen resolution, Hulu Plus looks crisp and is made for a tablet. The Netflix app probably looks the best of any apps I’ve seen. Sadly, this comes at a cost. The app is so slow that it’s almost unusable.
It’s not just apps though. Android itself supports keyboard, mice and touchpads, but it does a shoddy job. Selecting text is a tedious experience and takes forever, as does copying and pasting. And since the OS only does full-screen apps, any attempt at multitasking (possible once you have a keyboard and mouse) likely won’t work.
Though Google has made some improvements to browsing on tablets with Chrome Beta, it is incapable of displaying Flash. To view Adobe Flash video or sites, you need to use the built-in Google Browser, which is fine, but neither it nor Chrome are particularly fast or good at rendering sites. Both browsers display mobile versions of sites by default and don’t have a permanent setting to change this, despite the fact that Android clearly knows we are on a tablet, as evidenced by its interface. Trying to do work on the Web is also difficult. I tried to use WordPress and visit some other complex sites, but found the browser bogging down the entire machine. Android still can’t compete against four-year-old netbooks in this regard.
These have all been problems before today, but none have been as evident as they are when trying to use an Android tablet as a laptop.
The Transformer Pad Infinity’s battery life is great when compared to anything but its predecessors. In real-world use, Asus has found (and we can confirm) that the tablet gets about 8.5 hours of battery life by itself. If you add the keyboard dock, that number jumps to about 13 hours. Previous models have gotten more like 16 to 19 hours of battery. Still, compared to any laptop, Ultrabook, netbook, or other tablet, 13 hours is quite amazing for a battery. For reference, the iPad gets somewhere around 9 hours of battery.
The Asus Transformer Pad Infinity is a great tablet with absolute top-notch specs, a killer high-resolution screen, and despite some difficulties with the locking mechanism and the over-active touchpad, we think it’s awesome to have the opportunity to use Android with an actual keyboard. The main challenge here is expectations. At $500 for the 32GB tablet, $600 for the 64GB tablet, and $150 for the keyboard, Asus has placed itself squarely against Apple’s third iPad ($500), the MacBook Air ($1000) and the new Windows 7-based Ultrabooks, which start at about $650. The Transformer Pad Infinity has a compelling screen and is more flexible than most of these devices, but it can’t match a Windows/OS X device as a laptop, and Android tablet apps still don’t hold a candle to the iPad. This puts the Infinity in an uncomfortable spot. As a tablet, it’s fantastic, but as a hybrid laptablet, it is good for Office documents, but weak on the app and Web side. It’s a tough choice, but if you buy it only expecting a really functional Android tablet, the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity won’t disappoint and is still one of the only Android tablets worth investigating for those interested in productivity.
- Keyboard dock
- 13-hour battery life (with dock)
- Full HD screen
- Top-notch hardware specs
- Hardware feels premium
- Polaris Office works great for docs
- Full-size USB and SD slots
- Android 4.0 lacks good tablet apps
- Web browsing is slow, limited
- Keyboard doesn’t want to dock
- Want to tip forward when keyboard is attached
- Touchpad is hypersensitive
- Expensive, starting at $650