In general, whether you’re talking about PCs, peripherals, TVs or audio, tech usually matures over time. They start out as innovative ideas, often hatched by a bright-eyed, young enthusiast in a garage or dorm room, grow into a business within a cocoon of investor interest, and eventually emerge as a diverse industry, full of competitors playing by an established rulebook.
We admire the Trio’s engineering, but whether we’d actually get one is another matter.
The ASUS Transformer Book Trio is a perfect example of this. Though it qualifies as a PC, it’s quite different when compared with what was on the market just a few years ago. The display, which is also a tablet that docks into the keyboard, runs Android independently of the keyboard, which runs Windows 8.1. You can even attach the dock to a monitor, using it as a desktop while the Android tablet is used on its own.
Confused? We don’t blame you, but there’s some sense to the voodoo Asus has used to make this possible. Everyone knows that Android, not Windows, is the OS you really want on a tablet, and so the Trio provides it. But can two operating systems be made to cooperate smoothly enough to justify the Trio’s $1,499 price?
A match made in heaven?
Asus arguably invented the 2-in-1 with its original Transformer, which was released in 2011 as an Android-only machine. The benefit of the company’s experience is obvious. The hinge connecting the tablet to the keyboard is sturdy, yet simple to use, and releases with the press of a single button. Asus considered balance as an issue when making the inaugural Transformer, meaning that, unlike other competitors, this 2-in-1 doesn’t have a tendency to flip backwards when jostled.
Both portions of the device look and feel sturdy on their own, as well. The keyboard dock is stiff as a board and panel gaps are small, which makes the Trio feel fit to handle rough-and-tumble travel. Materials consist of a silver metal exterior and silver plastic interior, and while both look a bit plain, everything about the device’s construction is thick and sturdy.
That’s also a downside, however, particularly for the tablet. While the device’s 1.5 pound weight doesn’t seem like much on paper, it’s four-tenths of a pound heavier than the new Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 and 50% heavier than the iPad Air. The difference is noticeable at first, and becomes more troublesome the longer you use the tablet. Asus has given the slate large bezels, making it awkward to hold.
Most of the Trio’s ports are on the keyboard dock, and includes two USB 3.0, mini DisplayPort, mini-HDMI, and a combo headphone/microphone jack. Remove the tablet, and you’ll find a MicroSD card slot, a mini-USB port and a headphone jack. However, these options are available only when the tablet is used separately from the keyboard because the latter obstructs them when docked.
Agh! Why did that happen?
By mashing a tablet and a keyboard together, it couldn’t have been easy to fit a decent set of keys on the dock. While the Trio’s keyboard offers reasonably good tactile feel, individual keys are quite small, which leads to frequent typing errors. There are also a few quirks; the power button, for example, is right above the backspace key, and we accidentally put the PC to sleep more than once.
Everyone knows that Android, not Windows, is the OS you really want on a tablet.
Keyboard backlight is absent, which is an obvious deal-breaker for people who work in the dark. The exclusion of this feature is understandable given how much hardware Asus has crammed into the tiny keyboard base, but that doesn’t change the fact that more competitors offer it at this price point.
The real frustration lies with the touchpad. It’s fidgety, sensitive, senses taps and gestures that don’t occur, and is a source of constant frustration. Eventually we gave up entirely, turned if off, and used the touchscreen instead. This worked well enough because the small keyboard dock puts the screen close to the user, but the fact that we switched to it says volumes about the touchpad.
A blaze of glory
We were nearly blinded by the Trio’s incredibly bright display, which blazes at over 360 lux. Though a few laptops, like the Dell XPS 15, are even more brilliant at maximum, the Trio is configured more aggressively. The default setting is almost too bright, particularly in a dark room.
Once we adjusted the backlight, we found the screen to be a pleasure to use. However, we stop short of calling it exceptional. Our tests indicate that the display can handle 96 perecent of the sRGB gamut while managing a contrast ratio of 600:1. Both figures are respectable, but can’t match leaders like the Acer Aspire R7, which boasts a ratio of 780:1.
Black levels are the display’s only noticeable weakness. Dark areas never look dimmer than a hazy gray, which saps movies and games of some depth. However, the Trio is still an acceptable performer in this regard, and only looks sub-par if put up against stand-outs like the Acer Aspire R7.
It’s a good thing that the display is one of the Trio’s redeeming qualities, because the speakers aren’t. Distortion becomes evident even at moderate volume when bass-heavy music is played. Even dialogue, when spoken with a deep voice, can muddy the mid-range and rattle portions of the chassis. Headphones or external speakers are highly recommended.
While the base Trio packs an Intel Core i5 processor, our review unit was equipped with a Core i74500U CPU and 4GB of RAM. This beefy dual-core served up strong benchmark scores; 45.6 GOPs in SiSoft Sandra’s Processor Arithmetic test and 7,995 MIPS in 7-Zip’s de-compression bench.
These numbers rival high performing Ultrabooks, like the Acer Aspire V7, which scored 45.35 GOPs, and the Lenovo ThinkPad E431, which scored 43.16 GOPs. Only the Asus Zenbook UX301, which scored 54.17 GOPs, offers better performance while wielding a dual core processor.
While the Trio’s keyboard offers reasonably good tactile feel, individual keys are quite small, which leads to frequent typing errors.
Intel integrated graphics come standard, and ASUS offers no discrete alternative. This led to a 3DMark Cloud Gate score of 4,379 and a Fire Strike score of 620, both of which are above average numbers. This helps the Trio hang with larger systems like the Acer Aspire R7, which scored 600 in Fire Strike, and the Dell Inspiron 14 7000 Series, which scored 649 in the same test.
To test real-world gaming, we played a couple of League of Legends games, testing the Trio with two 5v5 matches on the Summoner’s Rift map. We found that at medium detail, the Trio put out an average of 66 frames per second, with a minimum of 47 and maximum of 74. Ramping the settings up to very high lowered the average to a still enjoyable 47 frames per second with a minimum of 30 and a maximum of 57. While not a gaming rig, the Trio can handle basic 3D titles.
The Android portion of the Trio, whether used in the dock or as a tablet, runs an Intel Atom Z2560 processor clocked at 1.6 GHz. This is not one of the new Bay Trail quad core processors, though still offered snappy performance and played 3D games like Asphalt 8 and Design Technica. We did, however, notice the occasional framerate dips in 3D games, so don’t count on the Trio playing next year’s latest-and-greatest with ease.
We also ran Peacekeeper on the Trio’s tablet, which serves as both a performance and a battery benchmark. It produced a maximum score of 640, which is better than an original iPad Mini or Google Nexus 10, but significantly behind the iPad Air, which scores as high as 951, or the new Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, which scores 909.
In short, the Trio’s Android tablet can be described as adequately quick. We never felt that it was slow enough to be an annoyance, but it also lacks the buttery smoothness most new Android and iOS tablets provide. On top of that, it’s not a great choice for demanding games.
Portability, with options
The Trio weighs a hefty 3.7 pounds, much of which is due to its dual batteries. Unfortunately, this does not translate into outstanding battery life. In Windows, the Peacekeeper browser benchmark took the Trio down from a full charge in five hours and two minutes, while the Android tablet ran for only four hours and thirty-one minutes.
That’s disappointing given that the Acer Aspire R7, a much larger convertible, lasts five hours and thirty-nine minutes in Peacekeeper. However, the Trio does best the Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro in this area, which managed to stay alive for only three hours and fourteen minutes.
We were nearly blinded by the Trio’s incredibly bright display.
As for the Android tablet, we have little to compare it to because we haven’t tested past Android tablets under the same standards as PCs. With that said, though, less than five hours of endurance seems rather low. After all, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 endured thirteen hours of mixed tasks, which included gaming, web browsing and reading.
It’s worth noting that Asus includes a feature called Smart Charging, which makes it possible to use the battery in the tablet to power the notebook, or vice versa. The user can choose which device should have priority as well, which means you can plan ahead to conserve battery for the tablet or notebook. In total, Asus claims this can make for up to thirteen hours of endurance, though our tests show nine to ten hours is a more realistic figure.
Melding Android and Windows into one device is no easy task. The two operating systems have little in common and, on the Trio, run on entirely different hardware. Getting the two to play nice is no small effort, but Asus has mostly conquered the problem.
You can switch between the two at any time using a function key found in the upper right, and the changeover takes only a few seconds. The device also switches to Android automatically when the tablet is removed from the keyboard dock. However, it does not automatically change back to Windows when you dock it again.
All of this assumes, that both portions of the device are already turned on, which leads to the only source of confusion; if you try to jump from Android to Windows (or vice versa) when either is turned off, you’ll have to watch a boot screen. You can’t switch back until the OS you’re starting has finished booting.
Asus also throws in a software utility called PC Tool which is meant to help the user transfer data between the tablet and the keyboard dock. Unfortunately, we found it to be of limited use. The calendar, for example, can only import from Outlook on the PC side, and while importing or exporting videos and photos from one device to another is is not difficult, it’s not any easier than using a Dropbox account or Google Drive.
While the Windows install doesn’t include many other significant software additions, the story is different for Android. A buffet of apps are included, ranging from Amazon’s Kindle to Zinio’s online newsstand. This does result in a bit of clutter in the apps tray, but otherwise takes little away from the experience, and some of the apps (like the ASUS power saver utility and Supernote) are useful.
The Trio is the result of three years of creative thinking and innovation from Asus, and in some ways it’s an excellent device. Transitioning from Android to Windows is easy, and the hardware paired with each OS is quick enough to provide an enjoyable experience.
Yet there are significant problems. The skittish, unreliable touchpad is the biggest among them, and it can make using Windows a real chore. Weight and thickness are too plentiful for a system of this size. The Android experience, though okay, is not as fast or comfortable as what you’d get from a normal 10-inch tablet. These issues are compounded by the Trio’s $1,499 as-tested MSRP.
All of this means that the Trio is a device we respect more than we like. Asus deserves applause for painlessly pairing Android with Windows, and the company’s experience designing 2-in-1s pays off with a system that, in notebook form, feels barely different from a normal laptop. But the system’s flaws mean that as much as we admire the Trio, it’s tough to recommend it.
- Solid build quality
- Switching between Android and Windows is painless
- Tablet is easy to dock and remove
- Strong CPU performance
- Heavy and bulky for its size
- Battery life is average at best
- Slow storage performance
- Fidgety touchpad
- Not a good value