|Introduction and Specifications|
It sometimes rolls this way. One of the most hotly anticipated product launches of the year and, you guessed it, the prized package drops on your doorstep for testing and evaluation literally hours before the official launch hits. Have we had nearly enough time with this sleek little minx? Absolutely not. But when the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime shows up packing NVIDIA's new Tegra 3 Quad-Core SoC with its perky fifth companion core in tow, you man-up (or woman-up as the case may be), get your geek on and burn some midnight oil.
At least dessert wasn't on the menu. No Ice Cream Sandwiches here just yet, thank God. Android 4.0 on top, with this kind of turn-around, would have been an aneurism in the making, but hey, life is short. Live fast, die young, stay pretty. Nah, I'll pass on that, thanks. Honeycomb 3.2 will do just fine for now and Asus is one of the best in the biz with OTA updates, so we'll take that in stride later.
So, what do we have for you on the pages ahead? This is a PREVIEW of the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime tablet with NVIDIA's Tegra 3 Quad Core low power SoC. We've got a lot of ground to cover and time is short; so we'll cut the chatter. But you've been warned. There's a whole lot of sexy going on here itching to break all the rules (in the test lab) and show you what its got.
First, a quick video preview demo of the machine in action...
How does that look for tablet gaming? Not too shabby at all we'd say. A couple of years ago, NVIDIA boasted about a time when gaming visuals on a tablet would rival console graphics. We'd say the time has finally come but dig in, there's much more to see.
Those of you looking directly at the thinness spec here will notice that Asus nailed it. At .33 inches, it's just a hair thinner than the iPad 2 and weighs slightly less too, but the "less is more" approach stops right there. The panel on the Prime is a Super IPS+ display that Asus specs at 380 nits of brightness in standard mode and 600 nits in Super IPS+ mode. Super IPS+ comes in handy especially in daylight viewing environments. Our test machine is a 32GB of storage variant, but there is a 64GB model as well. Of course, this if the first tablet to hit the market with NVIDIA's quasi-Quad-Core 1.3GHz Tegra 3 SoC under the hood. We say "quasi" because it actually has a fifth "companion core" on board, but more on that later.
Along with all of this bleeding-edge goodness you get an upgraded 8MP rear camera with auto-focus and flash, as well as a front-facing 1.2MP webcam. In terms of battery life, Asus claims 12 hours can be had on the tablet itself and another 6 is in the tank of the keyboard dock, for a total of 18 hours possible available uptime. We're still working on battery life testing, so we'll have to reserve some further qualification on those claims, but in the mean time, let's get a closer look a the skins.
|Eee Pad Transformer Prime Design|
|You'll have to forgive us for all of the "stock" shots here. We generally like to give you an in person feel of devices with our own studio pics. Alas time was not on our side, and Asus had plenty of glam shots at the ready, so we took the easy route.
Eee Pad Transformer Prime - Amethyst Gray
We tested an "Amethyst Gray" Prime that has a brushed aluminum finish that we think looks really sharp. It also resists fingerprints remarkably well, at least on the back of the tablet and optional keyboard dock; the Prime's glossy display is a fingerprint magnet no matter how you look at it. And by the way, the 10.1-inch Super IPS+ display on the Prime is very nice as well. It's beautiful, from its relatively high 1280x800 native resolution, to color reproduction and brightness. It's a slightly warmer display versus the original Transformer, so if you like a cooler display setting, you might notice this. However, once you've seen it running in its 600nit Super IPS+ mode, you'll be spoiled. One small issue we found was that a bit of contrast seems to have been lost between the original Transformer and the Transformer Prime. This is our initial impression but we're getting mixed reports from others on this topic as well. We're still playing with settings and will report more here as we get time with it.
Finally, the display is also specified as 178º viewing angle capable. Saving specsmanship for the side of the box, we'd say it definitely has killer wide-angle viewing performance, as good as any tablet display we've seen yet. Asus appears to have at least matched Apple on the display front, though the Prime has a slighter larger, higher resolution display with better overall brightness.
The Prime's optional keyboard dock offers another synch/charge port, power/battery indicator light, a full-size USB port and a full-size SD card slot. On the tablet itself you get a 2-in-1 audio/mic-in jack, along with a micro-HDMI port and micro- SD card slot. The keyboard itself is a relatively comfortable affair with a standard netbook-style chiclet keyboard. Key travel is a little shallow, but on a device this thin, that's to be expected. The Prime's multitouch capable touchpad is fairly spacious as well.
One other small oversight we found was that there is only one speaker port on the Prime and nothing on the keyboard dock. Sound quality from that one speaker isn't bad actually, considering this is a slate PC, but it does have a distinctly directional output to it, depending on which way you're holding the device.
Ports and control-wise we really like the balance that Asus struck with the Transformer Prime, between thinness and accessibility. You get micro versions of HDMI and SD card slots on the tablet, to keep the profile sleek, but drop it into its dock and you get standard USB connectivity and a full size SD card slot. For only $150 more, you get a lot more functionality and the price seems fair and reasonable. Docking solutions from other manufacturers have sometimes not even close to reasonable, so we'll give props to Asus where they're due here as well.
|Tegra 3 Under The Hood|
There's little question that NVIDIA's new Tegra 3 low power quad-core SoC is one of the most impressive designs on the market today. Formerly known by the code name "Kal-El," at 1.3GHz stock speed, on paper it has significantly more processing resource and horsepower available versus Apple's dual-core A5. As you've probably heard by now, Tegra 3 is actually technically a 5-core processor with four primary execution cores and a 5th Cortex ARM9 companion core for low power light-duty workloads and power management. And if you consider that on-board Tegra 3 NVIDIA also couples a 12 core GPU in with the CPU complex, there are actually six primary processing engines in Tegra 3, though the design is actually far more complex with additional microengines as well.
As you can see, there are dedicated hardware resources on-board Tegra 3 for things like security processing, HD video encode/decode, audio and display outputs. What's perhaps more interesting, however, is that NVIDIA's Tegra 3 employs what the company calls "vSMP" or Variable Symmetric Multiprocessing. In short, Tegra 3 can not only shutdown unused microengines to minimize power consumption but it can also scale core speeds and engage inactive cores on the fly, depending on workloads and application requirements. For light-duty workloads like web browsing, video playback and book reading, only the companion core might be engaged. However kick into heavy multitasking or a gaming workload and all cores can become active up to 1.3GHz. Single and dual-core clock speeds can also boost to 1.4GHz if need be as well.
Here's a quick rundown on what NVIDIA claims Tegra 3 can save in terms of power consumption versus their previous generation Tegra 2 platform.
Source: NVIDIA Corp.
First, let's get our acronyms straight. LP0 stands for the lowest power state of each device. So, on the whole, the lowest power state of Tegra 3 is some 28% lower than the previous gen platform, yet offers a significant performance boost as you'll see in our benchmark numbers coming up. The most dramatic power consumption reduction is in the area of HD video playback, where NVIDIA claims Tegra 3 offers 61% lower power and efficiency versus Tegra 2. On a side note, both Tegra 2 and Tegra 3 are manufactured on TSMC's 40nm process technology, so NVIDIA achieved this efficiency in design and through innovation, rather than a process shrink. Tegra 3 is an impressive processor to say the least. If you'd like read more on vSMP, we'd suggest hitting this NVIDIA white paper.
Let's move on and fire up the Transformer Prime.
|UI Tweaks and Camera Performance|
As we mentioned, the Eee Pad Transformer Prime comes setup currently with Android 3.2. Asus notes that Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) will come to the Prime via an over the air update. For now, Asus has baked a few niceties into Android 3.2 that enhance the experience a bit.
In the lower right corner of the screen is the Asus Quick Setting control panel. This one menu allows you to see status and control a number of functions on the device. Here you can switch to Super IPS+ mode on the display as well as adjust brightness in each mode. You can also set the tablet for Power Saving, Balanced and Normal performance modes in this area, as well as activate or shut down WiFi Bluetooth, speaker control, system synch and automatic screen orientation. Finally, this panel also gives you a view of battery state for both the tablet and keyboard dock, as well as access to the Android settings control panel.
We've also captured the Asus MyZine widget here, which combines multiple views of applications like the weather, web browser, music and image and video gallery apps.
Asus also build a nice UI for storage and file management that gives you access to all sub folders and storage volumes currently attached to the system. You also get quick shortcuts to media apps like the camera, picture gallery and music.
And speaking of the camera, the camera app for the Transformer Prime has been amped up a bit as well, with a myriad of settings and controls available to the user.
In 4:3 mode you get the camera's full 8MP resolution in the shots we took above, though there is also a 16:9 mode with a maximum resolution of 6MP as well. As you can see, there are a lot of other setting (that we didn't get a chance to play with yet) and in general, the camera app is significantly more flexible and powerful versus the original Transformer tablet.
In terms of image quality, you can see for yourself here that indoor shots require a steady hand to keep motion blur in check but with flash enabled, images are crisp and clean (save for the evil glowy-eye dog look of course). Overall, the camera in the Prime is a vast improvement over the original Transformer and images appeared far less grainy than we've seen historically from Asus' first generation Tegra 2 slates.
|Tegra 3 Gaming Screenshot Gallery|
|As we mentioned early, the game demos that NVIDIA installed on our Transformer Prime system offer some of the best visuals we've seen on the tablet to date, rivaling console gaming image quality in some cases. NVIDIA's claims the GPU engine in Tegra 3 delivers almost three times the performance of their previous generation Tegra 2 device. We'll look at the numbers in our benchmarks but the following screen shots from the various Tegra-optimized game demos we ran certainly do impress.
Tegra 3 Optimized - ShadowGun
Tegra 3 Optimized - RipTide
Tegra 3 Optimized - BladeSlinger
Of all the game demos we've played so far on the Prime, the most impressive would have to be ShadowGun. Lighting and reflection effects are impressive in the game's environment and the overall image quality easily competes with modern consoles. Even the edge aliasing in this game engine doesn't offend all that much, though in some areas of these still shots, the capture doesn't do image quality of the in-game action justice.
NVIDIA is always good about pulling together showcases for their new technology and they didn't disappoint this time. If this is a sign of the future of tablet gaming, we have a lot to look forward to in the months ahead. We'd like to see how these game demos would run on Tegra 2 as well but we'll have to revisit that some day down the road. For now, let's light up the benchmark test suite.
|Performance: CPU and Web Browsing|
Test Methodology: In all of our test vehicles for the following benchmarks, we ran each tablet at its performance optimized settings where available, with the exception of the Eee Pad Transformer Prime, which was tested at Normal and Balanced power profile settings. Normal mode on the Prime offers the full performance of its NVIDIA Tegra 3 processor, whereas Balanced mode compromises performance a bit to conserve power, capping the CPU at 1.2GHz max frequency. Beyond that, each tablet was also connected to a wall power source to ensure full performance. Here's a quick spec rundown for each tablet tested.
Unfortunately, the iOS version of Linpack is different enough that we couldn't compare iPad 2 numbers in this test, and still get an apples-to-apples match-up (no pun intended). However, versus the other Tegra 2 slates here, as well as Samsung's Exynos dual-core processor, NVIDIA's Tegra 3 offers almost 2X the performance at the Prime's "Normal" performance mode setting.
GLBenchmark is new to our 3D performance benchmark set. The test suite is an OpenGL ES 2.0 benchmark with a number of performance metrics incorporated in it. We specifically use the Fill Texture Fetch suite to measure raw texture fill rate of a graphics core and the Egypt Off Screen test to measure 3D performance in frames per second. The Off Screen test renders workloads at 1280x720 for all devices, but off-screen, so Vsynch and screen refresh are not limiting performance.
Looking at the texture fill rate numbers, Apple's A5 offers a boatload of bandwidth, over two times that of NVIDIA's Tegra 3 processor. Samsung's Exynos processor holds its own for that matter, in the Galaxy Tab 7 Plus. Regardless, Tegra 3, at least according to GLBenchmark, has roughly three times the texture fill rate of Tegra 2. Conversely, in the Egypt Off Screen test
*Update - 3/9/12: We became aware of an error in calculation for our GLBenchmark Egypt Offscreen results here and have since updated the chart above. As you can see, the iPad 2 boasts a significant performance advantage in this test versus the Tegra 3-powered Transformer Prime.
An3DBench XL is a benchmarking tool based on an Android port of the jPCT 3D engine. The app runs 7 tests in total that look at graphics processor fill rate and complex rendering workloads and scenes.
This is an Android-only benchmark, so unfortunately the iPad 2 couldn't play here. We'll also note that the Emporer's New Clothes test seems to be limited by screen refresh (Vsynch) on the higher-end devices, which is why the bar graph is close to flat on that test. However, looking at the more demanding Flower Power and Magic Island tests, we see some differences. The Flower Power test shows the Galaxy Tab 7 Plus' slight fill rate advantage again, like it did in the GLBenchmark Fill test. On the other hand, our Magic Island numbers show a sizable lead for Tegra 3, where the high polygon count in this test shows a nice performance advantage for NVIDIA's new chip.
|Battery Life Testing|
|In an attempt to quantitatively measure the Transformer Prime's battery life in a controlled benchmark environment, we ran a test in which we set up a webpage with a mix of graphics and text. The page automatically refreshes every three minutes. This is a simple baseline test that measures up time with web browsing. Due to time constraints, we were only able to test one performance mode with the tablet, so we chose its Balanced mode for our measurements. In the future we hope to do more testing in other power modes as well with the Transformer Prime.
For this test, we set the Prime's display to 50% brightness, which is still plenty bright and easy on the eyes. Again, this test was setup in the Balanced performance mode for the tablet. In Power Saver mode, which will offer plenty of performance for simple web browsing, you could expect longer up time.
Not the most impressive result for the Prime here but again, with Power Saver mode kicked in, our results could be dramatically different. Also, remember that the Tegra 3 SoC incorporates a quad-core CPU, so twice as many cores are at play here, though power gating on those cores probably significantly reduces consumption.
We'll have to return to our testing in power consumption and update our results with both Power Saver mode enabled and with the keyboard dock snapped in for a bit more life as well.
|Performance Analysis and Final Thoughts|
Subjectively, this new tablet from Asus and NVIDIA's new Tegra 3 platform together offer a very satisfying tablet experience as well. We can't say that the Transformer Prime felt dramatically faster or smoother than the previous generation Transformer tablet with Tegra 2 while navigating the device's various menus, but there is definitely a sense of more muscle available for better multitasking and more realistic game engines down the road. Not to mention, it is early in the release of this product and optimizations are still to come we are sure, not the least of which will be the Android 4.0 operating system.
In addition, our brief time with some of the Tegra-optimized games that came pre-loaded on our test system, offered us a glimpse of the future in tablet gaming. With impressive game engines like this and tablets driven by the likes of Tegra 3, the future is looking bright in high dynamic range.
Beyond the strong performance of its internal components, the Prime also comes equipped with strong component selection externally as well. Obviously, tablets are mostly display area and as a result, display quality is of primary importance. Here the Transformer Prime is in a class by itself currently with its Super IPS+ mode offering a ton of brightness for outdoor viewing (or indoors if you like things bright). Is it a perfect 10.1-inch panel for tablet? We're still trying to decide. We're not sure if we want the contrast and color balance back from the previous Transformer display, or if the warmer color balance of the Transformer Prime will grow on us. This seems most evident when viewing black text on a white background, when web browsing, for example. There's no question it's a gorgeous display though, one that will rage many a debate of its merits over the iPad 2.
In terms of design aesthetics, the Transformer Prime is drop dead gorgeous in our opinion. It's razor thin at .33 inches and the Amethyst Gray brushed aluminum finish version that we looked at is sleek, sharp and not prone to paw prints, save for the glass display area. With respect to performance, things will only get better as Asus and NVIDIA continue to optimize Tegra 3 with Android. In fact, we're told an OTA update is due on 12/2 and it will include "battery life improvements and a few minor performance tweaks." In the mean time, the Transformer Prime is the first and only quad-core Android tablet on the market right now and as our benchmark metrics showed, it offers impressive gains over the previous generation of devices. NVIDIA's Tegra 3 is off to a great start.
Volume shipments of the Eee Pad Transformer Prime are expected to hit North American retailers the week of 12/19 with pre-order fulfillments being honored first. The Prime could hit just in time for a quick Christmas rush and we think Asus will sell more than a few. Stay tuned to HotHardware in the weeks ahead as we continue our testing of the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime tablet. Remember, this was just a preview. We're just getting warmed up but even at this early stage, we're comfortable handing the Eee Pad Transformer Prime a bit of HH Gold.