Asus has been a pioneer in the mobile computing space since launching the first netbook in 2007. Netbooks may not be as popular as they once were, but Asus continues to release portable notebooks, tablets, and 2-in-1 devices.
Last year the company launched the Transformer Book T100: an inexpensive Windows tablet that ships with a keyboard dock that lets you use it like a notebook. It’s a surprisingly capable device given its low price tag (it sells for under $399 and you can often find it on sale for far less).
This summer Asus launched an Android tablet with remarkably similar specs. It’s a $299 model called the Asus Transformer Pad TF103C.
It’s the latest in a line of Transformer Pad tablets that get their “transformer” name from the fact that they’re designed to work with optional keyboard docks. But this model is the first to ship standard with a keyboard: it’s not even available without the keyboard.
The Transformer Pad TF103C is also the first 10 inch Android tablet from Asus to feature an Intel Bay Trail processor rather than an ARM-based chip.
The tablet has a list price of $299, although just a month or two after launch some retailers already sell it at lower prices. Asus recently loaned me a demo unit to review.
As I discovered when testing the 8 inch Asus MeMO Pad tablet, Android devices with Intel processors can be quite competitive with models featuring ARM-based chips. Like its smaller sibling, the Asus Transformer Pad TF103C gets decent battery life, scores well on benchmarks and feels zippy when performing every day tasks.
But I found myself having to come up with excuses to use the keyboard. While the nearly identical Asus Transformer Book T100 Windows tablet felt like a machine I could get work done on, the thing I spent the most time using the Android-powered Transformer Book TF103C for was reading digital comic books.
Some folks may find Android to be a perfectly adequate operating system for getting work done, I find it easier to be productive when using a desktop-style operating system such as Windows or Ubuntu. If this tablet becomes popular enough, I suspect someone will eventually figure out how to root it and load Ubuntu or other Linux-based software. For now it’s strictly an Android tablet… with a keyboard… and specs that are nearly identical to those for a Windows tablet that’s been available since late 2013.
The Asus Transformer Pad TF103C is priced as a mid-range tablet, and for the most part it has the specs to match. It features a 10.1 inch, 1280 x 800 pixel IPS multitouch display, 1GB of RAM, and 16GB of storage.
But the tablet’s Intel Atom Z3745 quad-core Bay Trail processor is powerful enough to handle most Android (or Windows) tasks pretty well and the tablet feels pretty zippy most of the time. The chip is also efficient enough to offer decent battery life.
Asus promises up to 9.5 hours of run time from the tablet’s 19Whr battery, which seems a bit generous. But I’ve used the tablet for hours at a time with no problems, and frequently go several days without recharging the battery.
When you do need to charge the tablet, all you need is the small adapter and micro USB cable that come in the box — although the cable is rather short. You might want to pick up a longer cable.
The tablet has a 2MP rear camera and 0.3MP front-facing camera. They’re not particularly good cameras, but it’s nice to have the option to snap a photo if you’ve got no other devices handy, and you can use the front camera for video chats.
Other features include 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS, stereo speakers, a microSDHC card reader, and a headset jack. There’s a micro USB port on the tablet and a single full-sized USB port on the keyboard dock.
One feature the tablet lacks is an ambient light sensor: you’ll have to adjust screen brightness manually.
The keyboard section doesn’t have any other bells and whistles like an extra battery or hard drive. It’s just a keyboard with a USB port. But when it’s attached the tablet really does feel like a notebook.
This isn’t a flimsy case or cover with a built-in Bluetooth keyboard. It’s a nearly full-sized keyboard with island-style keys and a sturdy base. You shouldn’t have any problems typing with this 2-in-1 system on your lap and you need to press a switch to release the tablet from the keyboard dock so you can even hold the keyboard upside down and shake without worrying that the tablet will fall out.
Unfortunately that hinge has limited range: you can’t push the screen all the way back. But the IPS display has good viewing angles, so you should have no problems seeing text, graphics, or videos no matter how the screen is positioned.
The tablet measures 10.1″ x 7.0″ x 0.4″ and weighs about 1.2 pounds. Add the keyboard dock and you’ve got a laptop that measures less than 0.8 inches thick and weighs about 2.4 pounds.
Oh, one more thing… while I haven’t figured out how to root the tablet, I did figure out how to open up the case and peek inside.
Asus ships the Transformer Pad TF103C with Android 4.4 KitKat, but it also features the Asus ZenUI user interface and suite of apps that you’ll find on all of the company’s recent phones and tablets.
That means you should be able to run just about any app designed for the most recent version of Android, and for the most part the user interface should look familiar if you’ve used any other Android device. But there are a few tweaks.
You can sort the apps in the app launcher by all, downloaded, or frequently used, for instance.
When you swipe down from the top of the screen to access the Quick Settings panel you’ll note that it’s got a bright background, large circular icons, and unlike the stock Android 4.4 Quick Settings panel, there’s an options button that lets you choose which settings to display or hide. You can also change the order of the available settings.
Unfortunately there’s no way to disable the green icons that hang out near the top, so if you don’t actually use the camera, calculator, quick memo, or audio wizard apps frequently… tough.
Asus also includes a few of its own apps including a camera app that lets you take “auto-selfies” with the main camera thanks to a face-detection feature that won’t snap a photo until a specified number of people are in the shot, an audio wizard that lets you switch between music, movie, speech, or other modes, and a “What’s Next” app and home screen or lock screen widget for keeping track of appointments.
There’s also an eMusic app and Zinio magazines app which come preloaded… reminding me sadly of the bloatware that you see on many Windows PCs. The difference is that there’s no easy way to uninstall bloatware from an Android device unless you root your phone or tablet.
I’m not sure the ZenUI or pre-loaded apps add a lot of value, but for the most part they don’t detract from the user experience. The tablet has full access to the Google Play Store and had no problem running any of the Android apps I installed.
If you doubled the amount of RAM and storage in the Asus Transformer Book TF103C and replaced Android with Windows, you’d have a Transformer Book T100: a 2-in-1 laptop with a rather cramped keyboard, but which otherwise offers long battery life and the ability to run most desktop apps.
But not everyone wants Windows on their portable devices. While Windows 8.1 has some tablet-friendly apps, its biggest strength is its ability to run full-blown desktop software like Microsoft Office (or LibreOffice), desktop web browsers, business software like Quickbooks, or even PC games that don’t require bleeding-edge hardware.
The Transformer Pad TF103C may have less memory and storage than its Windows counterpart. But what it has is an operating system that was designed from the ground up for touchscreen devices… and an app store with over a million apps and games. There’s a far better chance that you’ll find the touch-friendly, full-screen apps you’re looking for in the Google Play Store than the Windows Store.
When I tried to use the Transformer Pad TF103C for work, I found myself struggling to compose blog posts or edit images using one window at a time when I’m used to having the ability to use multiple apps side-by-side. Mobile browsers also have a nasty habit of reloading websites when you’ve been away from the browser for too long — which makes composing articles for this website using Firefox, Chrome, or Dolphin rather difficult.
I’d use the mobile WordPress app, but its features are quite limited when compared with the web-based WordPress interface.
So I stopped trying to get work done with this tablet and started using it during my leisure time.
After taking advantage of the Marvel Unlimited 99 cent Comic Con sale, that’s mostly involved reading digital comics on the tablet, but I’ve also spent a bit of time testing audio and video playback and taking games for a spin.
I generally prefer 7 inch tablets to 10 inch models for everything except for reading comic books. While smaller tablets are easier to hold in one hand or fit in a pocket, the screens just aren’t really large enough for viewing content designed for graphic novel or comic book pages, which tend to be closer to a 9 or 10 inch tablet in size.
So even though my Google Nexus 7 tablet has a higher resolution, full HD display, the Asus Transformer Pad TF103C does a better job of displaying comics the way they were meant to be displayed.
Unfortunately the Marvel Unlimited app is a bit buggy and crash-prone, but I’m pretty sure that’s Marvel’s fault and not the tablet’s.
Anyway, I’ve spend 2-3 hours at a time reading comics and occasionally watching the battery levels fall. I suspect if I had the stamina to read for 6-7 hours straight I might be able to kill the battery this way, but note that reading comics from Marvel’s subscription service doesn’t just involve keeping the screen on and flipping to the next page. It also involves connecting to Marvel’s servers over WiFi and downloading new issues every time I’ve finished reading 20 pages or so.
You might be able to get closer to the estimated 9.5 hours of battery life Asus promises by looping s 720p video with the screen brightness turned down a bit, while WiFi is on and Gmail updates are downloaded in the background… which is how Asus came up with that figure.
I had few problems streaming online video or playing Android games. That’s not surprising since the Intel Atom Z3745 processor manages to get higher scores in CPU and graphics benchmark tests than the Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro chip that powers my Google Nexus 7 tablet.
On the other hand, the Nexus 7 has 2GB of RAM while the Transformer Pad TF103C has just 1GB. While that doesn’t seem to make much difference while running individual apps, the Transformer Pad can get a little sluggish when you’re running a large number of apps and switching between them. Once an app is up and running, it’s fast. But launching apps and switching between them is… not always as fast.
I did experience one quirk when testing the Netflix app: While videos stream perfectly, if you close the app after only watching video for a moment or two, the display goes a bit wonky and slides to the right a bit. This doesn’t happen if you exit Netflix after watching for more than a few minutes.
While the graphics are all pushed to the right, the touchscreen still thinks everything is centered beneath it — which can make it hard to tap the right items on the screen.
The only way to recover from this error is to reboot the tablet.
Fortunately Netflix is the only app I’ve tested that seems to cause this problem. Hopefully Asus or Netflix will issue an update to prevent this graphics glitch in the future.
Just like the Asus MeMO Pad 8, the Transformer Pad TF103C is a surprisingly speedy tablet and a reasonably low price tag. It just happens to be larger… and it comes with e keyboard.
Whether this tablet is worth buying depends on how much you want a bigger screen and a keyboard. With a list price of $299, access to over a million Android apps, long battery life, and a QWERTY keyboard for tapping out long email messages or documents or for just propping up the tablet while you watch videos, the Transformer Pad TF103C is pretty attractive.
But if you don’t need the keyboard you can find plenty of other 10 inch Android tablets with lower price tags. Some even have higher resolution displays, more built-in storage, or more memory.
Alternately you could buy a nearly identical tablet that happens to run Windows instead of Android for around the same price. The Asus Transformer Book T100 launched in late 2013 with a list price of $399, but there are now several different configurations available and you can often find new or used models with 2GB of RAM, 32GB of storage or more, and Windows 8.1 software for around $300.
I’ve been reasonably impressed with what Asus and Intel have done with their latest Android tablets. And I suppose there’s probably a market for Android tablet keyboards or there wouldn’t be so many Bluetooth keyboards and keyboard cases on the market. For folks who really want a keyboard, the Transformer Pad TF103C keyboard is probably one of the better options around since it really turns the tablet into a notebook… not just a tablet with a keyboard that hangs out near it while you awkwardly try to type on your lap.
But personally if I were going to spend $300 on a 10 inch tablet today I’d probably either opt for the Windows-powered Transformer Book T100 or a keyboard-free model with more RAM.