Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Asus Transformer TF300 postmortem

Source: http://eee.asus.com/en/transformer-300/features

After dutifully carrying the Transformer TF300 to work and back all this week, I came to the realisation that as much as I love the keyboard dock and it's extra battery, I don't actually have a use for this tablet in my day to day life.

It's not to say that the device isn't bad - the battery life is excellent with or without the keyboard dock, and it's one of the few non-Nexus devices that has been keeping up with the latest updates to the Android operating system (with 4.2.2 rolling out to devices within the following months). It's just that as much as I love Asus and their innovative hardware, the tablet apps are either not there or still quite rough, resulting in a device which has so much untapped potential.

When I initially purchased the TF300, I was really excited about the whole duality of the device - undocked, it's an android tablet running the lauded Tegra 3 CPU and promises of great gaming performance; docked, the device transformed into a touchscreen netbook with a real keyboard, an SD card slot and USB port. It even had microHDMI, for outputting to an external display - I was convinced that this was the mobile, modular computer of my geek dreams.

Unfortunately, there were problems. For a start, until a recent update to the Android Jellybean OS (4.2.1 - the device shipped with 4.1), outputting to an external display only meant mirroring in the exact resolution of the native tablet ie 1280x800. It diminished the benefit of outputting to a larger screen because it would display at the same resolution, just bigger...and at such a low resolution, it's hard to find a modern LCD monitor where that resolution would look good in.

Second, the main differentiator of the transformer TF300 (and the line in general) over the other Tegra 3, 10.1 inch, 32Gb android tablets was the keyboard dock - and it works quite well, with the soft, but usable keys and the trackpad and mouse buttons. What I didn't realise until I actually used it for a little while, was that in docking the tablet to the keyboard, I had turned the transformer into a netbook...which isn't actually the experience that I wanted. Turns out, Android was an OS that really felt better on a Tablet (duh) not as a netbook. In the end, the keyboard kind of became this really overqualified clamshell case for the tablet that needed to be removed to use the Transformer for what I mainly used it for (games and reading comics), which also needed charging. And the SD slot and extra USB port provided by the dock seemed like really handy features at the time of purchase, but I've only used them a handful of times since having owned the device for 6 months.

Finally, my main gripe with this device wasn't with the hardware, but with the apps  - I've already complained about this in a previous post, and as of this date, nothing had changed. Through no fault of Android and Asus (that I could see), it still seems like the Android app store is still considered by app developers as a tier below that of iOS, and overall the quality of the same apps in the iOS ecosystem seem to have had more resources dedicated to them than their Android counterparts - fortunately this seems to be less of a problem with regards to games, at least the ones I've played.

As an aside, it's kind of sad, but I'm seeing the trend in Android tablets flowing the same path that netbooks did - initial explosion of devices, with every manufacturer seemingly churning out waves of near-identical devices, then having the market die off...though in the case of Android tablets, it seems like the devices are evolving back to having smaller screens (7 to 8 inches), instead of the netbooks which went from 7 to 10 inches.

Another parallel between netbooks and tablets that have resulted in the netbook's downfall, and is what is causing Android tablet's to evolve is that these devices worked too much like a regular computer, so much so that people started expecting to use them like computers. Think about it - a netbook was essentially a small laptop - same operating system, same interface, same input methods. When I first started using mine, I thought "wow, this is awesome!", then I started using it to do a lot of what I wanted to do on a "regular" computer - first it was web-surfing with multiple tabs, then viewing and saving my photos, moving stuff from hard drives, sending emails, writing long form blog posts....in the end it could do all those things, but sloooowly, and it made we wonder why I wasn't doing these things on a "real" computer instead.

For the most part, Android escaped from that association for me, since it was sufficiently different: different operating system, different interface, different input methods...until I bought one with a keyboard dock. Unintentionally, I was navigating this touch-optimised UI using a keyboard and trackpad, and it worked ok - I could scroll websites using two finger scrolling, I could type respond to tweets and emails using the keyboard...but I had to prop up the device on my lap or table. When I wanted to move from one part of my flat to another, I found myself holding the device like I used to hold my netbook - ie. one hand underneath the keys, while typing on the keyboard with one hand (if I was trying to respond to someone at the time). You get where this is headed...

The final straw came in the latter half of last week when I wanted to post pictures that I had taken of the full moon. That night, I took a whole bunch of pictures and transferred the SD card from the camera and inserted it into the slot in the keyboard dock. First, I could either view the files as a list with very tiny thumbnails in the file manager, or I could view them as larger thumbnails on the gallery app - ok, no big deal, I'll use the gallery app. I don't know about you, but I take multiple shots of the same subject with my camera, because no matter how great the LCD screen is on the back of your camera, you're never quite sure if that image that looks pin-sharp on the camera display is actually a touch blurry when viewed in a larger format. So I found the picture I wanted...fine. I select the "details" option in the gallery menu to find out the file name, so I know exactly which image I want to upload to Instagram. So I back out of gallery, go to the Instagram app - disregard the fact that Instagram is portrait only on android, and thus I've now got my transformer on it's side, holding the device like a book - it asks me to pick a source, and I choose "file manager" and select the image I want, because I know the file name - my keyboard dock is still attached (because that's how I'm accessing the SD card files), so the transformer is in landscape mode, and so is the file manager app...so let's re-orient the device (with the dock attached, at least this makes more sense). Pick the image I wanted and go back to Instagram...oh yeah, portrait only, right. Let's add a comment...ok, so I'm typing on the keyboard, with my head cocked to the side so I can read what I'm typing. Not the end of the world, but not exactly ideal is it? I thought to myself "maybe twitter would be better" so I abandoned posting the picture and started over.

Click on the twitter app icon, click on the new post option of the twitter app (no silly orientation restrictions here, so I'm not forced to jump through that hoop), and I click the select an existing image icon. Unfortunately, the twitter app didn't give me a choice of source, it simply sent me to the gallery, and granted I could have chosen the image I wanted from the gallery, except that (1) The image I was wanting to post was an image of the moon, so there were quite a few thumbnails that looked the same (white disk with splotches on it, with a black background), (2) there was no image file name to tell the near-identical images apart, and I wasn't actually able to view a larger image, or select the "details" option to actually find out which one image I actually wanted. To give you an idea of what I was looking at, this is a screenshot of the moon pictures that to choose from:


 In the end, I used my MacBook Air...at that point, it was very clear to me that the Transformer was NOT a computer. Suddenly, all the arguments that I had in my head for having an Android tablet, all the less-than-perfect things that I forgave because I had convinced myself that this was more than just a "media consumption device", went out the window and I was left wondering what possible use I could have this for this device. I really wanted to like this device - heck, I bought it didn't I? - but when you have to work so hard to get a device to do something you want, I can't help but feel a bit duped. I didn't buy this device because I wanted a challenge, I bought this device to allow me to do the things I want in a way that doesn't make me angry.

Was it Google's fault that I had such a crappy experience, was it Asus'? I don't think so, not directly anyway - it was I who tried to make the Transformer work in a way that it wasn't intended, to expected this device to behave just like a Windows or Mac PC to behave. But I believe part of what made my brain think that way was because docked, the transformer looked like a 'real' computer, with keyboard and trackpad, and was so computer-like in some aspects, that my expectations changed accordingly. Analogous to having a small hatchback with a tow-bar, by attaching the keyboard dock to the transformer, my expectation for the device changed, and I was suddenly expecting the transformer to be more than what it is - like I had attached a caravan to the back of the hatchback, and was getting upset that I couldn't get the car to a reasonable speed. Take the dock away, and those expectations disappear as well.

In sum, the Transformer TF300 is an interesting device for me - it's differentiating feature makes it stand out from the crowd of other Android tablets, but -for me at least - that same feature simultaneously highlights what it isn't. It straddles the fence between tablet and laptop, but doesn't do well enough as either to make it a compelling device for me.
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