Sunday, 10 April 2011

Android's Dream - ASUS Eee Pads

This article has also been posted at The Yorker and the VG Resource.

With technology, new hardware is made to compete with old rivals. For example, it’s clear the similarity of the Playstation Move to the Wii Remote is no accident or coincidence. Similarly mobile phones were being influenced by the Blackberry and (later on) the iPhone. And now with the iPad, an era of Tablet Computers has come to public attention. Apple has the advantage of a high-profile and brand name, so other companies need to think of other methods to compete.

ASUS, the fairly prolific laptop and netbook producer, has jumped whole-heartedly into the tablet computer market with two different Eee Pad models, the Eee Slate and the Eee Pad Transformer.

The Eee Slate is the simpler of the two. A 12-inch screen and running Windows 7 Portable, it’s very much a downsized laptop – complete with USB Port and SD card reader. However, the Win7 Portable operating system (OS) isn’t a stunning one. The main reason why the iOS system (that powers both the iPhone and the iPad) is so popular is because of its ease of use, a design specifically to be used out and about. This OS is the ordinary Windows 7 with added touch-screen functionality. It feels slower and clunkier than just using a mouse, and the keyboard program is especially sluggish.

Fortunately, the Eee Pad Transformer deftly avoids these problems. Smaller and more lightweight – with only a 10-inch screen – the most notable feature is that it comes bundled with a detachable keyboard. It’s no larger than the tablet itself, but it’s where all the magic happens. It functions as a charging dock with all the ports and connectors you’d expect from a proper laptop. For someone like me who resents the cramped and unresponsive keyboard approximations that touch screen systems normally offer, this is a godsend.

The OS is the Android 3.0 Honeycomb, the latest of a system ordinarily used for mobile phones. Its design is a cleaner layout, and closer to the look of desktop Macs and PCs. This is bolstered with pre-installed software from ASUS. Software installed by a hardware company is often terrible – existing to slow down your computer and pelt you with advertising (Toshiba does this with their laptop range, and it’s a crime against humanity) but this appears to be a rare exception.

The most interesting app is Waveshare, an online storage program. Offering unlimited storage space for your music, movies and files for no cost in the first year, it’s a great offset for the Transformer’s limited memory (16 or 32GB); but there’s an (at time of writing) unknown monthly charge after that year. Freeloaders like me can use the free Dropbox app for Android as an alternative.

The other aspect of Waveshare is the ability to connect with any computer, monitor or projector that uses DLNA, allowing you to stream your media from your Transformer to the big screen, or through your sound system. Even cooler, you can set up your home computer to have Remote Access with it, so if you leave that presentation back at home, all is not lost. It’s a very decadent (and a little pretentious) approach to modern computing.

In an attempt to one-up the iPad’s weak notepad app, the Transformer comes with its own word processor, spreadsheet and presentation software. It’s incredibly bare bones, so while it’s a very good way to take notes or edit essays on the fly, you won’t want to write your dissertation on this thing. If you use Open Office to do your work, you’ll be sad to find these programs can’t read .odt files. Ouch.

The Eee Pad Transformer performs well as both an Android device and netbook. Considering its £429 price tag, it’s great value for the practical design and useful software, but it’s way beyond the average student budget – especially if you’re already rocking an iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab.

By the time you read this, the ASUS Eee Tablet Transformer should be on sale (£429, £379 without the tablet). The Asus Eee Slate is already on sale online only (£999!).

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