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Due to one of those weird “Only in the corporate world” things, I got a bonus because, essentially, someone else didn’t screw up.  Wasn’t for anything great I had done.  So, I’m having that person over for a BBQ this afternoon (which will probably be done by the time I get around to finishing and posting this), and went and spent the money on a new toy. (NOTE: I actually didn’t get around to clicking “publish” for almost two weeks.)

What I got was an eeePad Transformer from ASUS, with the optional keyboard dock and a slip cover for the tablet portion.

So why did I get a Tablet Anyway?

This will say a lot about what I expected to get out of the device. Basically, what I wanted was an eReader, but with a colour screen and a decent browser. And hey, if it could do email and a few other things that would be great too, maybe play some videos. What I absolutely didn’t want was a 3g device. Say what? That’s right. Absolutely did… not… want… But I have a good reason for not wanting 3g in my tablet. I already have it in my phone, and if I’m out and about with my tablet and really need a net connection, I can tether. No need to pay for yet another phone bill.

That’s it. And it’s not much, really, to ask of a device in this day and age. Oh, and it wasn’t going to be an iPad. If there’s one thing that my iPhone taught me, it’s that I will never, ever, buy another Apple device.

And why did I decide on the eeePad Transformer?

A couple of reasons. By the specs, it looked pretty good. For one thing, it has a 10.1″ screen, and that’s a definite plus. I’ve toyed with a few other people’s devices, and the 7″ range of screens seemed just a bit too small. The 10″ range struck me as more functional, if a bit heavier to tote around, with no possibility of slipping it into your pocket. It has a beefy enough dual core processor with a Tegra 2 Chipset for graphics, good storage for a tablet (32Gb), and ASUS has a pretty good reputation for building quality, reliable devices. (Actually, the fact that ASUS makes it almost turned me against it – my personal history with their equipment and motherboards and such has been spotty…. And that’s being kind.)

It’s also a fairly well reviewed device, with CNET and Wired both giving it high marks in the field of Android Tablets. The online reviews from end users were absolutely glowing. At least the ones I could find.

And it comes with a twist, the “transformer” part of the equation, if you get the optional keyboard dock. This is a pretty neat feature in the Tablet market. The keyboard is full(ish) sized, has a number of extra connectivity options (a pair of USB ports and an MMC/SD/SDHC reader), and includes an extra battery bank so that when docked, the tablet draws power from the keyboard, while recharging itself. This greatly extends the life of the device between charges.

First Impressions Out of the Box

My first impressions were very positive. Keep in mind, I hadn’t even laid eyes on a display model when I purchased this, I went strictly by the specs and positive reviews. The few photos I’d seen hadn’t made an impression one way or the other, and I’ve bought enough devices over the years that I’ve learned to view any online product photo with a large dose of salt.

Colouring is a dark, rich bronze, with an aluminum bezel and keyboard tray. The back of the screen and the keyboard is a textured plastic that doesn’t feel cheap at all (really! It’s quite nice). It’s a very smart looking device, that feels like it will hold up well to the urban warfare that I put my portable electronics through. It has a nice, solid feel to it, without being too heavy to carry around. And I’ve tested this last part. I walk home from work most days, about a half an hour, and I’ve carried the device both with and without the keyboard attached. In both cases, it didn’t tire out my arm in the least. It has the effect of walking around with something that weighs in about the same as a large paperback, but is as thin as a Nat Geo magazine.

Even my wife, the household design guru with the BFA in Art and Design, thought it was a very nice looking piece of kit. And that’s higher praise than you might think, as by and large, she “tolerates” my electronic gizmos at best.

Turning it on and using it for the first time…

I was genuinely impressed by the snappy responsiveness of the tablet. The dual core processor in this thing puts the older generation of single core netbooks and smartphones to shame. Flipping between desktop sections and apps is smooth and flawless.

It was a matter of moments to connect to my home WiFi and sync up my Gmail account, and I found myself enjoying exploring the built in apps. It comes with a very good eReader app (which is important, because this was one of the prime reasons I got the thing in the first place), a passable office suite (sadly, it does not include support for ODT documents, which I found odd), the mandatory YouTube app, and a very good navigation app that works well with the built in GPS and compass, and functions well with voice recognition (as well as anything else I’ve played with) and does a stellar job of turn by turn navigation (something I tested in the car on my second day with it).

Some things were a bit more obtuse than they needed to be. It took a few minutes to figure out how to tether to my phone for the net, but I was able to do this within about 10 or 15 minutes without having to resort to googling it. And throwing it into debugging mode so I could transfer files directly from my Linux desktop was a fair bit more complicated than necessary. Really, I shouldn’t have to adjust settings to make that work. But, unlike with an iDevice, at least it’s possible without having to install software on your desktop machine.

In short, within an hour of first turning it on, I had all my basic connectivity working, synced my email and calendar, and was up and surfing the web.

Oh! And Flash! It doesn’t come pre-loaded, but as soon as you launch the browser, it prompts for the install, and I had that working in no time.

Putting it through the paces for a week…

I really wanted to work this thing during the first week, on the off chance that it wasn’t going to cut the mustard and I needed to return it. I wouldn’t call it much of a spoiler to say, right off, that this is definitely not going to get returned.

The eReader/eBook organizer that comes with it is first rate. I’ve already gotten through the first book in The Dark Tower series (which has been on my to-read list for far too long). For reference, I tried a few different options from the Android Market, but none of them were any better than the one that came shipped with it.

The browser, on the other hand, needs some work. Ok, it needs a lot of work. Fortunately, the market has a lot of options in this regard, and I’ve settled on Opera for the moment, after playing around with FireFox for Android a bit as well. (Note: I’va actually change this preference to Firefox, for the simple reason that you can install an add-on to spoof the browser agent, so that websites stop delivering their crappy dumbed down mobile versions. The 10.1″ screen is plenty large enough to work with the full version of virtually all websites.) I haven’t fully committed to any one browser yet, they all seem to have their weaknesses, and haven’t really figured out this whole “tablet” thing yet – they all seem optimized for a much smaller screen. Which brings up another peeve that has nothing to do with the device itself. A lot of the larger websites have developed mobile versions of their sites, and these are decidedly unpleasant on a larger screen, not to mention buggy as hell. Really, I wish they would just show the full version of the site. (See above comment on my solution for this.) The screen on a 10′ tablet can more than accommodate it. Most sites have the option to view the full site, but not all. And none of them seem to remember the choice from one visit to the next. This is no small annoyance because the worst offenders seem to be the sites I visit most often. Overall, it’s workable, but I find the browser to be the low point of the total experience. I suspect this would be the same for any Tablet at the moment, as the problem lies with both the browser, and how websites are serving up content to the browser.

The docking station/keyboard is an absolute dream. It took very little getting used to, and I’m finding it easy to fly through typing with it. I’ve been writing this entire post on the docked keyboard, and am amazed at the low number of missed strokes, and the speed I can type with. Coupled with the touch screen, it’s quite easy to edit surprisingly large documents. Sure, I could use the touchpad on the keyboard, but this seems a little extraneous. It’s much easier to just tap the screen where I want to move the curs0r. I should note that I downloaded and am using a dedicated WordPress app, because (surprise surprise) the web editor and the various browsers I’ve tried really disagreed with each other.

The Android Market seems to be filling out quite well, and I really haven’t come across a “need” that I haven’t been able to fill. And I only see this as getting better over time.

Battery life is stellar. Just running the tablet un-docked, I haven’t come close to being able to drain the battery in a day, and that’s with fairly heavy use. Docked, I could easily get two days with room to spare – and that’s a real killer feature. Effectively, it negates my need or a laptop other than I will still need some of the functionality of a full flavour of Linux in a portable device – but mostly for work related reasons. Even here, I’ll probably be able to ditch the laptop, because I can use VNC and Telnet to connect to a full functioning machine at home or the office. I can’t say enough about the battery. It smokes the longevity of any laptop or netbook on the market, especially when docked.

As far as viewing Flash, I’ve read a lot of negative about Flash on Android, but I haven’t experienced any of those problems. Videos and light flash games run without a problem, and the quality is quite good. I wonder if the problems other people have had stem more from running it on under-powered devices, rather than the platform itself.

Final Thoughts

In a way that very few devices I’ve bought over the years have, this tablet has rapidly integrated itself into my life, both personal and work. I don’t have to think about grabbing it as I head out the door, it just magically appears in my hand. I don’t need to come up with excuses to use it, I just find myself turning to it on a regular basis to accomplish things that I used to do either on my smart phone or my desktop machine or laptop. It doesn’t replace either my phone or my desktop, but it is quickly replacing my laptop. It fills a niche I really didn’t realize needed filling, and has complimented my workflow and recreation time quite nicely. It’s always at hand, and it is small and light enough that it doesn’t weigh me down.

The two “killer” features are the eBook reader and the battery life. These two things alone make the device worthwhile. Yes, the browsing experience needs work, but I have faith – I accept that we’re still in the “early adopter” phase, and some kinks in the software will need to be worked out. The hardware itself is rock solid, and I expect to be able to get a couple of very good years of use out of it. I never expect more than 2 years from a computing device, so anything I get past that will be gravy.

I’m very happy with this purchase, and am glad that an un-expected bonus prompted me to jump into the tablet scene. For portable computing, I can see tablets, whether or not they have optional keyboards, relegating the laptop to irrelevance.

If you’re the type of person who needs to compute and surf on the go, and enjoy a bit of tinkering, then I would highly recommend the eeePad Transformer. The tablet by itself is a stellar device, and if you choose to get the optional keyboard dock, it will give you a flexible platform for on the go.

And it has drawn far more oohs and ahhhs at the office than the few iPads that have turned up, which kinda surprised me. I didn’t buy this for the ego or to be in the “in crowd” – but it draws way more people to my desk than I would have expected. Granted, I work at a dot-com with a heavily techie crowd, but it’s surprising nonetheless.

As a friend of mine commented when I dropped by his place the other day… “Holy crap! The age of the TriCorder has arrived!”

Something to say?

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