DSC01939_wm

Featured Review: Asus Transformer TF103C

April 12, 2015 - Written By David Steele

Introduction

The original Asus Eee Pad Transformer was launched four years ago in March 2011 as a full size (10.1-inch) Android tablet with an optional keyboard dock. In terms of raw specification, the Eee Pad ran Android 3.1 Honeycomb using a dual core Nvidia Tegra 2 processor, 1 GB of memory and a 1,280 by 800 pixel display. However, whilst the hardware was contemporary at the time the real story was the keyboard dock, because this meant that the device could either be used as a 10-inch slate or as an Android netbook. Asus gave the tablet respectable battery life and included a second battery in the keyboard, so when used in netbook mode the tablet had great battery life and was better weighted. As such, it was billed as the perfect tool for mobile warriors; those people who constantly travel and therefore need the most portable of devices.

Over the years, the market for inexpensive netbook-type computers has changed. The Chromebook has largely picked up where the Transformer dropped off. Sure; Asus have refined the Transformer range with newer, higher specification models (following the market trends) but their latest model (announced and released in June 2014) is a decidedly lower end tablet, the TF103C and at the time of writing is priced around and about an entry level Chromebook, at $300 or £200.

To get the price down, Asus have made some compromises but customers still get a full size tablet and that keyboard dock. Compared with a similar priced Chromebook, the Android tablet has a touchscreen and easy access to over a million applications via the Google Play Store.

To put the review into context, the author spent four weeks and 38,000 words with the device as a writing device, replacing a blend of another tablet with a wireless keyboard and a Chromebook. Read on to see if the compromises are worth it.

Specification

The most obvious place where Asus have compromised the TF103C is in the specification, because it uses lower to mid range components. The highlights are below.

  • Quad core, 1.86 GHz, 64-bit Intel Atom Z3745 processor with 1 GB of RAM
  • 16 GB of internal storage with a MicroSD card, supporting an additional 64 GB card
  • 10.1-inch, 1,280 by 800 pixel IPS LCD panel with 149 ppi
  • 2MP rear camera, 0.3MP (VGA) front camera
  • 5,070 mAh battery, claimed battery life of up to 9.5 hours
  • Dual band 802.11 a/b/g/n WiFi, no mobile network module available
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • GPS / GLONASS
  • Optional mechanical keyboard dock (no battery in the keyboard)
  • 257.5mm by 178.4mm by 9.9mm; 550g without the keyboard dock
  • Thickness and weight approximately doubled with the keyboard dock attached

DSC01935_wm

Hardware, Design and Build

The TF103C looks and feels like many similar, lower level full size tablets. It has large bezels and rounded corners, it’s not particularly thin either and whilst in isolation it doesn’t feel bad, compared with more expensive devices, it definitely feels cheap and dated. When comparing the Transformer with say the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5, the Asus looks a couple of generations older. Another point as you can see from the gallery is that the outer plastic shell is almost impossible to keep spotlessly clean and picks up greasy hand prints very, very quickly.

The tablet itself has few controls and ports. As you look at the device, face on, there’s a power / lock key at the top left. On the left hand side and again concentrated in the top corner, there’s the MicroSD card slot and volume keys. At the bottom, there’s a MicroUSB port for recharging. Along the bottom there’s the hinge attachment, which consists of a central proprietary USB port and two additional holes for support. There’s a 3.5mm headphone socket most of the way up the right side.

The keyboard dock is not as heavy as other Transformer docks because it doesn’t have an internal battery, but it’s reasonably well made and has a strong, solid and well made hinge. The keyboard has a full size USB port on the left hand edge close to the top. It’s easily solid enough to use on a lap as one might with a netbook or Chromebook.

The keyboard itself is nearly the full width of the design with a centrally located trackpad. The chiclet-style keys have a reasonable depth and in addition to the standard QWERTY arrangement, there are numerous Android shortcuts including a back button, sleep, WiFi and settings. There are media controls, too, plus a home and search button too. As with any new keyboard, there’s a period of adaption required and the Transformer keyboard is smaller than many, but with a couple of days practice it becomes second nature. It’s also the main point of the Transformer pad. The trackpad works okay; it’s not my preferred way to access Android because of the touchscreen and I often disabled it using the hardware key as I would catch it with my thumbs, but when I used it, it was as accurate and tactile as I could want.

DSC01938_wm

Display

Asus have given the Transformer TF103C a screen with a similar resolution to the original Eee Transformer tablet. The resolution of 1,280 by 800 pixels is decidedly low resolution in these days of HD and QHD panels. If you’re used to a higher resolution panel, and depending on your eyesight, you might find the Transformer annoying as you can make out the pixels. For writing purposes, depending on the font you’re using, this is more or less obvious. To my eyes, I didn’t suffer from it but your mileage will vary.

However, screen resolution is only one part of an Android device screen equation. We’ve brightness and color saturation to consider, too. Here, what the Transformer loses in resolution terms, it starts to claw back in color and brightness terms. By default, the colors look somewhat washed out but Asus’ Splendid application allows the color saturation to be ramped up. It’s no AMOLED but it can be set up to enhance the coloration.

The TF103C does not have an automatic brightness management option, but in use the screen will adjust the brightness depending on what’s showing on the screen. This did sometimes cause an unusual effect where switching applications would increase or decrease screen brightness. There’s also a reading mode, which tones the coloration down and is designed for improving text clarity.

Screenshot_2015-03-21-12-43-41_wm

Sound

Asus have given the Transformer dual stereo speakers, although they’re mounted on the back rather than on the front. Volume wise, the speakers are no BoomSound as whilst they can get reasonably loud, they distort at the higher levels. There’s some clever software trickery too; the Transformer’s audio settings application can switch the sound mode from movie, music, audio, gaming and power saving mode, which adds depth to the speaker output. Overall, the Transformer’s speakers are far better than I believed they would be and the additional controls are handy.

Performance, Memory, Multitasking

The TF103C uses the Intel Atom Z3745 processor, which was a brand new chipset when the Transformer was introduced. The Z3745 is based on Bay Trail architecture and is a 64-bit, quad core processor supporting Intel’s Burst Mode, built on a 22nm die size. Burst Mode means that the processor has in effect two maximum quoted clock speeds of 1.33 GHz and 1.86 GHz. The processor is capable of running continuously at 1.33 GHz but can temporarily boost its clock speed when called to by the operating system. This is software controlled: Asus adjust how this works to take into account any conditions that they see fit, such as temperature, battery level or application running. In my time with the device, the processor’s clock speed was usually raised to 1.86 GHz when the device was under load: in effect, the TF103C has a 1.86 GHz quad core processor.

Because the Transformer runs Android 4.4, which does not support 64-bit code, the Intel Atom is running in 32-bit mode. When or if the Transformer is updated to Android 5.0 Lollipop, we may see this change. The Transformer’s Android installation also does not include the newer generation Android RunTime, which means the TF103 uses the older Dalvik RunTime. Combine with this Android Kit Kat not having the same smooth, flowing animations of Android Lollipop and the device feels relatively choppy. It’s not terrible but moving from a device running Android Lollipop back to Kit Kat and the difference is noticeable.

In performance terms, the Atom Z3745 is a low to mid range 2014 processor. Compared with similar generation ARM peers, the Atom performs relatively well in processing information but is held back by the GPU. For the target customer of the TF103C, this likely does not matter but it’s a point to consider if you’re thinking about the occasional 3D game on the tablet.

In isolation, opening and closing applications is quick. Web pages render quickly and Google Sheets files recalculate as quickly as alternative devices. However, when we start to multitask (and this is something that our Android devices constantly do) and the Asus starts to fall over its own feet. There’s hesitation when switching between heavyweight applications and the Asus quickly closes applications and files. The experience is less smooth than I would like.

Switching from say Google Chrome to Google Docs can cause the device to reload web pages and documents at every switch, which isn’t the best of experiences. Worse, with multiple tabs open, Chrome can run out of memory and grind to a halt. This is an experience I’ve seen on other devices with 1 GB of memory but it happens much sooner on the Transformer. Chrome is an especially greedy application when it comes to memory and the device works better with other browsers.

For gaming, the Transformer ran everything I tried without missing a beat other than it would sometimes take a while to load a level or similar. The clamshell keyboard design doesn’t lend itself to most Android games, but removing the keyboard solves this issue.

My overriding thoughts on the Asus’ performance is that it’s a capable processor held back by only having 1 GB of memory, the operating system and how Asus appear to have tuned the device. This is a big handicap if you’re planning on using the device for writing using Google Docs and posting these articles into the mobile WordPress website via the Google Chrome browser, but a minor software update during my time with the device did improve things.

Screenshot_2015-03-21-13-39-29_wm

WiFi, Bluetooth

The Transformer has 802.11 a/b/h/n WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0. To write more about the Bluetooth connection first and here, the Transformer behaved as I would expect. I was able to stream music to and from wireless speakers, connect to a smartphone for an Internet connection and transfer data via Bluetooth too. When I left Bluetooth on all day, it made a tiny difference to the battery but not material.

For the WiFi, however, although I could get a decent connection with all routers that I tried, I did find that on my home WLAN the connection would sometimes slow to a crawl. This was most obvious when trying to download larger files and transfer speeds would drop to 1 kb/s. The issue occurred at random but happened with multiple websites and services. A reboot successfully restored a higher speed Internet connection, but only happened with the Transformer. This may have been caused by the device running low on memory.

Camera

The Transformer has a rear mounted 2.0MP camera and a front mounted 0.3MP camera. Yes; it can take pictures but the quality of the images is exactly what one would expect from an inexpensive full size tablet with a camera to fill a hole in the specification sheet: pictures are small, poor quality and one feels a bit silly holding a full size tablet up to compose a shot! The front facing camera is fine for low quality video calls via Hangouts and similar but it’s not a tablet designed for the selfie-obsessed amongst us. You’ll not be using the Transformer for photography!

Screenshot_2015-03-11-23-26-14_wm

Battery

There are three aspects of battery life that I’m going to consider. One is battery life when the device is in use, one is when the device is in standby and the third is how quickly the device recharges.

Compared with other Transformer models, the TF103C doesn’t benefit from a battery lodged in the keyboard unit. In other models, not only did this give the keyboard side a little more weight, which helped balance, but it also extended the tablet’s battery life when plugged in. Unfortunately, the TF103C has to make do with the embedded 5,000 mAh onboard battery. And in the context of many similar sized tablets, this is smaller than average. The Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet, for example, has 6,000 mAh of battery capacity whereas the Nexus 10 has 9,000 mAh.

However, the Transformer has a low resolution screen and a reasonably modern, power-sipping processor, plus there’s no cellular modem. It has Bluetooth 4.0, which uses less power than older versions, too. Asus claim is that the tablet can give users over 9 hours of uptime, but of course this very much depends on what you’re doing. Battery life is also subjective, because the life I see from my device may be completely different to anybody else! However, when I am using the keyboard to type into Chrome or Google Docs, I see somewhere around five hours of screen on time. This is lower than Asus’ claims, but using Google Docs for writing is hard on an Android device and the Transformer shows similar life to the 2013 Google Nexus 7 running Android 5.0 Lollipop. Neither is as good as the ARM-based Samsung Chromebook Series 3. When used without the keyboard dock, battery life is a little better but productivity is worse.

Most days I’ll write for between three to five days, so the Transformer as my main device needs a daily recharge – but it has enough juice to go the day, so I am happy with this.

Out of the box the TF103C has indifferent standby (or suspended) battery life assuming that you leave WiFi turned on. Asus’ built-in power management settings may be used to shut down the WiFi when the device is suspended, which can work but it’s more reliable to use the easy WiFi toggle button on the keyboard. The Asus power management tends to disable WiFi after a period of inactivity rather than as soon as the device is locked. Disabling the WiFi halves idle power consumption and there are other tweaks that you can do, covered in the Software section below, to improve matters. Overall with a little management the Transformer shows decent idle battery life.

The tablet comes with a 5.2v, 1.3A charger as standard, which provides a higher voltage than most USB chargers. Recharge time is long when using a normal 5.0v charger, even a 2.0A unit, being over four hours in my experience. The TF103C likes the higher voltage charger; it’s hardly a deal breaker but something to be aware of.

wakelock_control_wm

Software

The Asus Transformer TF103C uses Asus’ Zen UI overlay over Android 4.4 Kit Kat. The skin is reasonably close to stock Android but Asus have bundled in a number of third party applications, many of which have been published into the Google Play Store. The overlay adds more than it detracts from Android, including a capable launcher with some useful features and customization and a great weather widget. During my four weeks with the device, Asus updated many of these applications several times including new animations and similar. The device also received a small software update, which improved memory management.

In use, Zen UI is pleasant to work with. Asus have used their own icon set, which has a colorful, cartoony feel. There are a number of bundled applications such as Supernote, Do It Later and Whats Next. Supernote is a great note taking application and Do It Later is a useful application to help manage time and for scheduling interruptions to be dealt with later. Whats Next is a powerful homescreen widget that shows up and coming activities and events, which I found very handy. Asus also include a number of other cloud-based tools, too, including the ability to easily share information across compatible Asus devices. I couldn’t try most of these as I only have the one Asus product at the time of the review.

Zen UI includes the ability to split the screen and run two applications at the same time. Unfortunately, there are only a limited number of applications that support this mode (as with other manufacturers’ split screen solutions). The sooner Google introduce a standard way of splitting the screen, the better!

Buried under the skin are a number of powerful tools, including the ability to adjust how various applications and services behave on the device. It’s possible to forcibly prevent an application from waking up the device and this in conjunction with the advanced power management screens allows the user to fine tune device battery life. In particular, when looking through Settings, Applications and tapping on one, at the bottom of the screen there’s a section entitled Power management. In here, there are two controls, “Prevent the device from wakening” and “Prevent the device from remaining awake,” which may be used to better manage the device and significantly reduce the idle power consumption.

Through some experimentation and looking at what was using the battery on the tablet, I was able to more than halve the idle power consumption with WiFi on and reduce it to almost nothing with WiFi shut down. This advanced power management feature is something that many people aren’t going to take a look at, but it can be very useful when dealing with the onboard applications that insist on running even though I don’t want them to!

Conclusion

It’s not often that lower to mid range devices are reviewed, as many Android websites tend to stick to the more glamorous models of a range. The Asus Transformer TF103C is not a glamorous model, it has something of a no-nonsense approach. The tablet design is dated and simple but the keyboard feels robust and is usable for longer periods of time. The Zen UI interface has over a thousand claimed improvements to stock Android and it certainly adds to the device.

However, as I’ve written the performance is a bit hit and miss. It runs individual applications very well thanks to the powerful Intel Atom processor. However, switching between heavyweight applications, such as Google Chrome and Google Docs, shows up the limit of 1 GB of RAM. Upgrading the TF103C to 2 GB of RAM will probably make a big difference to how well the tablet runs, but as it stands the Transformer’s eyes are a little bigger than its belly. The screen, speakers, battery life are all acceptable if not outstanding.

It’s most obvious competition comes from the Chromebook family, where for a broadly similar amount of money, you can buy a more Chromebook with a more powerful processor, better battery life and 2 GB of RAM. The Chromebook is a different device but for writing purposes, makes a better case. For emails, some writing, organizing diaries and managing social networks, the Transformer is a reasonable bet especially if you want the keyboard and trackpad – but for an staff writer with a need to switch between the web browser and the document, it is not quite powerful enough.