|The Asus Transformer Book T100 packs an impressive list of features into a diminutive chassis and companion keyboard dock. After working with system, it's clear that Asus is hoping to capture lightning in a bottle, for the second time in a row.
It's been six years since Asus launched the first Eee PC and kicked off a miniature revolution in mobile computing. Eee PC models weren't fast, they weren't particularly well-featured, and they didn't have the best displays. Even so, these lightweight boxes were the harbingers of the netbook bonanza that kicked off in earnest with the launch of Intel's Atom processor (codename: Silverthorne).
The Transformer Book T100 isn't a netbook but it's impossible to look at the system and not see netbook DNA. Don't be fooled. This is the evolved form -- the fully upgraded Zergling (minus the troublesome lemon juice allergy). It avoids the problems that dogged the launch of early Windows 8 tablets and convertibles last year and presents a far saner, smarter idea of what an inexpensive combination device should look like at this price point.
|The Transformer Book's composite body sits neatly between the light plastic that Samsung typically uses for its own devices and the magnesium alloy Microsoft uses for its own Surface hardware. Microsoft still sets the gold standard for building Windows tablet bodies, but the Asus T100 doesn't feel cheap or fragile and the body isn't overly slick. There were, however, a few odd decisions made on the display. First, there's the nature of the physical "Start" button. On every Windows tablet I've seen to date, including Microsoft's Surface, the physical start button functions just like a keyboard Start button.
The Asus Transformer Book T100 still has an icon in precisely the same place -- but the icon does absolutely nothing when pressed. Instead, the button's functionality has been moved to the right-hand side of the unit, where it fits just below the volume button rocker switch. The problem with the side mounted button is that it's not as easy to hit as the flat button at the bottom. If you've gotten used to hitting the physical windows button, seeing the icon leads to a lot of useless tapping. Personally, I liked the center placement more, but moving it is not a major issue.
Keyboard, Touchpad, and Dock
Docks have always been a sore spot for me. For years, manufacturers treated them as luxury add-ons, with prices ranging from patently absurd (like the original dock for the Atrix 4G) to pricey, but somewhat acceptable ($100-$150 for typical Windows 8 convertible tablets). Given that a dock is typically a keyboard and a USB 3.0 port, the price adder was tough to justify. Thankfully, companies like Asus have realized this -- the Transformer Book's dock is part of the base product and included in the $349 asking price.
The T100's keys are not full sized. The alpha keys are 90% the width of a standard mobile keyboard, but just 74% of the height, which gives them a distinctly rectangular appearance. If you're fat-fingered, and I am, this may throw you off your typing until you adjust to it. While smaller keys are more difficult to type on, the keyboard response is actually excellent, particularly for a mobile device. The degree of key travel is satisfying without feeling mushy or stiff and the travel distance is large enough that you can always tell if you've properly hit a key or not.
The trackpad is small, but well designed. The left and right-click functions are snappy and precise and it offers tap-to-click functionality as well. Equally important is the fact that the trackpad is pretty good at ignoring accidental touches while typing. This simple issue can make using a laptop nearly impossible without a separate mouse, so we're glad to see it dealt with here.
The dock has three primary goals. 1). Balance the weight of the monitor. 2). Securely attach to the monitor. 3). Offer additional ports and in some cases, additional battery capacity. Of these three, the Transformer Book T100 nails the first two. The integrated USB 3.0 port is welcome, to be sure, but that's all the expanded capability you get. There's no internal battery and no expandable storage.
Still, at $350, that's enough to get the job done. The housing and case are strong on all points.
|Cinebench, Lame MT, SunSpider, and 3DMark|
Test Methodology -
We benchmarked the Asus T100 against a set of x86 devices and other tablets. Because a number of products now ship in multiple form factors, the goal is to capture how shipping Bay Trail compares to other lightweight notebooks or tablets rather than against a single form factor or identical configs.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the original netbooks was the huge gap between Atom and conventional x86 CPUs. AMD's Brazos was somewhat better in this regard, but there was still a huge performance delta between a "big-core" x86 processor and the svelte options from AMD or Intel. We've already seen that Kabini can close this gap at relatively high power consumption, so what about Bay Trail?
Cinebench 11.5 shows the Bay Trail CPU nearly doubling Clover Trail's performance in single-threaded tests, and almost tripling it in the multi-threaded variant. It's still slower than the various other options, including desktop variants, but multi-threaded performance in particular is much closer to the older Sandy Bridge CPU.
In our MP3 encoding test, the T100 is again significantly faster than the Clover Trail it replaces, but slips a bit compared to the higher-clocked Intel (Atom Z3770 Bay Trail) and faster AMD cores.
3DMark: Ice Storm
In 3DMark Ice Storm, the Bay Trail device is a middle-of-the-road performer. Updated drivers give it a stronger physics score than we initially saw from the Z3770 reference design from Intel, but its graphics performance is limited by clock speed and comes in behind the higher-clocked version of Intel's Bay Trail (Atom Z3770) design on the whole.
NVIDIA's SHIELD continues to distinguish itself in these tests. That's not particularly surprising either, given that SHEILD has an active cooling system and spends a great deal more of its transistor budget on cutting-edge graphics.
|Browsermark, GLBench, Game Compatibility, Battery Life|
Rightware's Browsermark continues the "Good, not great," theme we've seen from Bay Trail. The gap between Chrome and Internet Explorer is particularly large on this system, even after we retested several times, with reboots between each set of runs. Using IE, the Transformer Book's performance slips towards the rear and is just barely faster than the original Surface. Under Chrome, it's much stronger.
GLBenchmark's off-screen Egypt HD and fill-rate tests come in just behind the reference Z3770 tablet that we tested for Bay Trail's debut. It's interesting to see how fill rate doesn't always correspond to raw performance -- the iPad 4's fill rate is nearly twice SHIELD's, but SHIELD is faster in the actual benchmark.
General performance here is reasonable and in the midrange for tablets in this price range.
Looking At Game Compatibility:
I decided to put the Asus tablet through its paces on some other titles, to see how the system would fare. One of the downsides to Clover Trail was that the tablet was basically useless for anything but the most basic gaming; even old titles like Torchlight couldn't run smoothly. I loaded Torchlight, Orcs Must Die, The Walking Dead and settled in to play -- or at least, tried to.
Intel clearly has some work to do in the game compatibility department. I picked these three basic games for low-end compatibility, simple graphics / gameplay, and general fun that wouldn't require much in the way of graphics horsepower. Of the three, Torchlight crashed repeatedly, only once allowing me into game, and dying promptly thereafter. Troubleshooting was ineffective -- the game simply couldn't run for any length of time.
The Walking Dead, in contrast, could run. While the menus and options settings were extremely slow, once the game had launched, the actual performance fine. The massive rendering errors, however, weren't. Certain camera views rendered perfectly, while others catastrophically failed, resulting in noise, static, and flickering random textures firing across the screen. While the game still ran, it was impossible to respond to anything that occurred on camera.
That leaves Orcs Must Die, which actually ran just fine. I had to drop the resolution to 1024x768 to pick up a playable frame rate, but the game worked, and that's far more than can be said for Clover Trail. By the same token, however, if you really care about gaming -- even low-end gaming -- AMD's Kabini does outperform BT in terms of both driver support and general frame rates. Then again, if you're buying a $350 tablet hybrid, gaming probably isn't at the top of your concerns and the AMD solution will give you less CPU horsepower and likely worse battery life.
Just be advised that for now, Intel still has some issues to work through on the gaming front. Simple games downloaded from the Microsoft store, like Jetpack Joyride, run just fine and anything in the MS Store obviously has been tested with the platform.
Battery life on the Bay Trail system was excellent. I tested the tablet with a high-quality Blu-ray rip of the 2009 movie Star Trek. The film encode was done in MPEG-4 High@L4.0 with a 6.77GB encoded file (7.6MBps overall bit rate). In other words, I picked an image quality and file size that would give the chip a workout.
The result was just over 11 hours worth of battery life -- enough to loop the movie more than five times. No doubt, impressive results.
I hated netbooks.
That might seem an odd way to launch the conclusion of a review, but I think I need to start there to give my fair opinion on the Transformer Book. From the first Eee PC, through NVIDIA's Ion, and right up through Clover Trail, the very best I felt like Intel's Atom offered was "barely useful." Sometimes, as with Clover Trail, it was great to see x86 competing in new form factors or with stellar battery life, but if you ever needed performance, Atom simply couldn't get the job done.
Asus Transformer Book T100 - What the netbook always wanted to be.
Editor's Note: For the uninitiated, Joel has an immense capacity to hate mediocrity in technology.
I hated netbooks -- but the Asus Transformer Book T100 isn't. This is the idealized concept of what a netbook could be when Intel started talking about new mobile device types and MIDs back in 2008. The form factor hadn't been fleshed out (I think only about six people on Earth though MIDs were a good idea), but the idea Intel sold was a low-cost x86 system with all-day battery life that could handle common desktop tasks and scenarios. The T100 is the first x86-based system that delivers on that vision, at every point.
Need a keyboard, USB 3.0 port, and mouse? You've got the dock. In tablet mode, the device feels just as light and quick as an ARM-based device. Previous Atom-based systems never felt "snappy," even in ideal circumstances. The T100, in contrast, feels genuinely quick in lightweight software. It's got all the light-weight and compatibility advantages that Clover Trail promised last year, but with twice the performance.
The T100 isn't perfectly suited to every task. If you want serious horsepower, number crunching or heavy-duty gaming, then this isn't going to be the best system for you. But for everyone who has wanted an x86-compatible system on the cheap ($399 for 64GB variant, includes keyboard dock) with excellent battery life, this is ideal and an optimized OS. This is the low-cost x86 tablet/laptop convertible we've been waiting for all these years and it runs Windows 8.1 with touch, like a dream.