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Asus Transformer Pad TF701T review: A productive Android tablet/keyboard combo
The 10.1-inch Android-based Transformer Pad TF701T has a decent specification, including a quad-core processor, a high-resolution screen and good battery life from its tablet and keyboard batteries. The design could use a refresh though.
Asus came up with a winning formula when it launched its first Transformer back in March 2011, and the company remains committed to the idea of a two-piece Android device that can function as a a standalone tablet or a notebook when docked with a keyboard.
The new Transformer Pad TF701T costs more than some notebooks at £460 (inc. VAT, £383.33 ex. VAT), and to earn its keep it really needs to be able to replace your notebook for everyday computing.
At first glance, the Transformer Pad TF701T looks very similar to previous models, both closed and with the lid open. The differences lie primarily under the surface, with successive Transformers becoming ever more powerful (except for the entry-level TF300T). The Transformer Pad TF701T certainly boasts some excellent features and specifications.
The tablet section has a mostly aluminium back, which forms the lid of the keyboard-docked unit. Its patterning of concentric circles lends it a distinctive appearance in line with earlier models. A plastic bar along the long top edge, which houses the power switch and main camera, ensures that the various antennae (Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and GPS) can function unhampered. There were issues with GPS in 2012's Transformer Prime, caused, at least in part, by the use of metal throughout the tablet section chassis.
The tablet section weighs 585g, while keyboard dock, whose chassis is made from a very solid plastic, adds another 570g, making the total combined weight 1.135kg. It's not hefty in comparison to lighter notebooks, although you're only getting a 10.1-inch screen here.
The screen bezel is a sizeable 2cm all round, and although this can be an advantage in tablet mode, as it gives room to grip the device without accidentally tapping the screen, it looks out of step with modern design standards in notebook mode.
The 10.1-inch IPS screen has a resolution of 2,560 by 1,600 pixels (299ppi) and looks superb. Asus provides a utility called Splendid, which you can use to adjust hue, saturation and colour temperature to your preference. Asus seems to be bundling this utility in all its tablets now, and it's really useful.
The tablet and keyboard sections are held together by a dock mechanism that automatically locks when the tablet is set into a hinged cradle at the top of the keyboard unit. It's easily released by a sliding catch and is beautifully simple yet very secure.
The keyboard is well built, if a little cramped. The keys are light-touch with a reasonable amount of travel, and we were able to type at a good speed. Heavy-handed typists will notice a bit of give in the keyboard.
The trademark for all Transformer keyboards is a series of keys providing access to Android functions. There are seventeen of them above the number row, offering functions including media playback, volume and screen brightness controls to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi toggles, a web browser launch key and a Settings shortcut key. On the space bar row there's a key that takes you to the main home screen and another that opens the in-app menu, through which you can scroll using the quartet of cursor keys in the bottom right corner of the keyboard.
Beneath the keyboard is a small touchpad that supports gestures such as two-finger scrolling and pinch zooming. Left and right buttons are embedded into the bottom of the touchpad. Android isn't designed for mousing, however, and we tended to tap the screen rather than use the touchpad. Doing so reveals an issue that bedevilled earlier Transformer models and remains a problem here: the fairly even weighting of the tablet and keyboard sections means even the slightest prod at the screen causes the whole device to topple backwards. We knocked it off the edge of our desk on more than one occasion before learning to balance prods with a steadying hand on the wrist-rest area. To be fair, this is a design problem inherent to keyboard-docking tablets.
The Transformer Pad TF701T runs Android 4.2 and is based around a quad-core Nvidia Tegra 4 SoC running at 1.9GHz, supported by 2GB of RAM. We found it an exceptional performer in everyday use, even accessing data from USB sticks and drives quickly.
Our review unit had 32GB of internal storage, of which 25GB was free for user access. You also get a fairly paltry 5GB of Asus Webstorage, but with so many other cloud storage offers around this is not really a problem.
Asus has designed the tablet to operate independently of the keyboard dock, and the placement of ports and slots reflects this. The on/off switch is on the tablet section, along with the volume rocker. The tablet also houses a MicroSD card slot and a Micro-HDMI connector, as well as a 3.5mm audio in/out combo port.
The keyboard section has an full-size SD card slot and USB 3.0 port, the latter accommodating not only peripherals such as an external mouse and keyboard but also storage such as USB sticks. Insert a stick and you get an alert on the notifications bar, which in turn lets you open up a file browser. We successfully streamed audio and video from a USB drive and worked with externally stored documents too.
The power connector — annoyingly, a proprietary one — is on the long edge of the tablet that's hidden inside the dock when connected to the keyboard. This is sensible, as there's a secondary power connector on the keyboard section itself. None of the slots are covered and this rather detracts from the TF701T's generally premium feel.
There's a battery in the keyboard dock as well as in the tablet, delivering 4 hours and 13 hours of battery life respectively, according to Asus. In most circumstances this ought to be more than enough for a day's use, and if you find yourself in trouble there's a power-saving mode you can call on. You could even expect to function for a weekend without needing to carry the proprietary-to-USB charge cable.
Asus has skinned Android with a light touch. At the more gimmicky end, a quick-launch utility pops up if you tap and hold the Home key which lets you run a variety of apps simply by sliding your finger towards their icons.
There's also a button at the bottom left of the screen that, when tapped, brings up a tray of resizeable applets you can run on top of whatever you're currently doing. It's a shame there's no note-taker in this suite, but it's a neat idea.
More useful, perhaps, are the additional full-blown Android apps. These include SuperNote, which can accommodate typed and drawn notes, supports handwriting recognition and will synchronise to cloud accounts. It's good enough for report writing or other formal documents, and notes can include embedded photos, sound recordings and video. Polaris Office is also available for more sophisticated tasks.
The Transformer Pad TF701T brings Asus's convertible Android tablet range up to date in terms of specification, while leaving much of the original look-and-feel intact. The keyboard is comfortable to use if you can cope with its small size; support for external storage via USB, SD and MicroSD is welcome; and the dual battery system is clever and user-friendly.
Having said all that, the Transformer design is starting to feel a little tired, and Asus has done nothing to counter the longstanding problem of a top-heavy, easily-tipped tablet section. Many people probably could work with the Transformer Pad TF701T in place of a notebook, and its extra long battery life is a plus point, but it's debatable whether many will actively choose it over a notebook — or even Microsoft's similarly priced Windows RT 8.1-based Surface 2/Type Cover 2 combo, which comes with a bundled copy of Microsoft Office.