Asus Updates Eee Pad Transformer with Android 3.2, HH Fires It Up

If there's one thing a manufacturer like Asus understands, it's how to service their existing customer base with timely updates for things like firmware and drivers. With their lineage in motherboards, where BIOS updates can be critical for compatibility and performance, a company like Asus knows how to work closely with ecosystem partners in an effort to roll out product updates and enhancements quickly.  And so it's no surprise they're one of the first manufacturers out of the gate with a drop of the latest Android Honeycomb OS version 3.2 for their darling 10.1-inch slate, the Eee Pad Transformer.

Asus Eee Pad Transformer Home Screen - What happened to our cool glass of water?

This Android release offers a few small but key enhancements to the OS including performance optimizations for tablets from all walks of life, not just Tegra 2 platforms like the Eee Pad Transformer.  Here's what the Android Developers release notes have to say about this release...

New user features:

  • Optimizations for a wider range of tablets

    Android 3.2 includes a variety of optimizations across the system to ensure a great user experience on a wider range of tablet devices.

  • Compatibility zoom for fixed-sized apps

    Android 3.2 introduces a new compatibility zoom mode that gives users a new way to view fixed-sized apps on larger devices. The new mode provides a pixel-scaled alternative to the standard UI stretching for apps that are not designed to run on larger screen sizes, such as on tablets. The new mode is accessible to users from a menu icon in the system bar, for apps that need compatibility support.

  • Media sync from SD card

    On devices that support an SD card, users can now load media files directly from the SD card to apps that use them. A system facility makes the files accessible to apps from the system media store.

New developer features:

  • Extended API for managing screens support

    Android 3.2 introduces extensions to the platform's screen support API to give developers additional ways to manage application UI across the range of Android-powered devices. The API includes new resource qualifiers and new manifest attributes that give you more precise control over how your apps are displayed on different sizes, rather than relying on generalized size categories.

    To ensure the best possible display for fixed-sized apps and apps with limited support for various screen sizes, the platform also provides a new zoom compatibility mode that renders the UI on a smaller screen area, then scales it up to fill the space available on the display. For more information about the screen support API and the controls it provides, see the sections below.

This update offers a much-needed feature that Apple initially grappled with for the original iPad.  What to do with all of these applications that were built for smartphones with smaller, lower resolution screens?  Android's new "Compatibility Zoom" mode allows the end user to utilize additional screen real estate on their tablet, though a legacy app may not support it natively. 

An3DBench in Compatibility Zoom Mode

The effect is actually not half bad, though obviously a bit grainy and aliased in spots, depending on the application you're running.  Since it's an interpolated higher resolution rendering of the image, there really isn't much you can do to maintain the fidelity of the original smaller image.  Here we fired up An3DBench, and though the current "XL" version of the app supports tablets and larger screen sizes, this older version of the app was designed for handsets.  Compatibility Zoom kicked in automatically after the first run, though we were prompted with a control screen the first time we started the app.

In the case of An3DBench, zoom to fill screen mode is used but with some applications the option of either stretching or zooming to fill additional screen resolution is supported.

Beyond Android 3.2's updates, Asus added NVIDIA's Tegra Zone app to their software bundle.  Tegra Zone offers users a selection of games that are optimized for NVIDIA's Tegra 2 processor.  Some of the games here are popular cross-platform titles while others are developed to take advantage of the the Tegra platform specifically.  Think of Tegra Zone as an Android Market overlay for gaming with hand-picked top titles suggested to you by NVIDIA.

Performance-wise, the 3.2 update is a bit of a mixed bag, from what we've seen so far.  Graphics performance in some areas has improved but overall performance has mostly remained flat or even dropped off a little in others.

Emperor's New Clothes is a low polygon count cloth simulation test, and as you can see, the 3.2 release lost a bit of ground here versus the Eee Pad's 3.1 score.  However, the high polygon count with alpha blending workload of the Magic Island test shows a marked improvement of almost 40% or so.  NVIDIA apparently is still optimizing performance with Tegra 2, which is good to see.

Finally, in the SunSpider Javascript benchmark we actually lost some ground again with the 3.2 release on the Eee Pad Transformer, to the tune of about 13% or so.  The long and short of our quick look at performance with Android 3.2 is that where we saw drops in performance they seem to be marginal.  However, in cases where we saw gains, the increases are in are more dramatic.

Other Asus Refinements -
Asus also rolled out an update to the Transformer's keyboard dock and trackpad functionality that enables multitouch and multi-gesture capabilities as well.  Essentially all gestures that are available on the display in Android Honeycomb, now work on the touch pad of of the Transformer's keyboard.  Pinch and zoom capability is there but, as we've seen with multitouch trackpad implementations in the past, it's nowhere near as responsive as gestures are on the screen. Still, it's a nice addition to better equip the keyboard dock with functionality that was previously only available when operating the tablet disconnected from the dock.

It's good to see Asus quickly rolling out new iterations of Google's tablet OS.  We're hopeful to see other manufacturers follow suit with the same vigor.  Samsung has already given us a preview of what they have in store with Android 3.2 as well, though they have yet to release it as an OTA update.  Regardless, it appears that, as a tablet OS, Android is continuing to evolve nicely.