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ASUS Transformer Prime more than meets the eye - but still no iPad

1) The Transformer Prime is probably nicest Android tablet market. And when you lock it inits keyboard dock it becomes

1) The Transformer Prime is probably the nicest Android tablet on the market. And when you lock it into its keyboard dock it becomes something special: a rock-solid metal-clad subnotebook with 18 hours of battery life.

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Updated: March 23, 2012 2:20PM

I often make snarky and unkind comments about Android tablets. I know. It’s cheap humor.

I can only offer two explanations. First, I am an imperfect vessel for the perfection of the universe. Secondly: come on. Android tablets kind of deserve it, don’t they? No Android tablet can offer a satisfactory answer to the question “Why would anybody want to buy one of these instead of an iPad?” If you buy a full-sized Android tablet you’re shunning the only comprehensive library of slate-optimized apps and the safest, most stable mobile OS in the world. You’re also buying second-generation hardware for the exact same price as a third-generation iPad.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I can go ahead and say that I’m very pleased with the ASUS Transformer Prime. It’s a fine concept. The Prime a 10-inch HD tablet that runs the latest version of Android. Its build quality is right up there and its basic features are in line with the new iPad’s.

(Apart from the display, of course. The Prime sports a 1280x800 screen. It looks great in every operational condition except for bright direct sunlight or close proximity to the new iPad’s 2048-by-1536 Retina screen.)

You also get onboard HDMI-out and a micro SD slot for expanding the device’s onboard storage.

The Prime actually costs $100 less than an iPad: it’s available in 32 and 64 gig flavors for $499 and $599, respectively. Still, $100 doesn’t seem like a lot of extra money to spend for the iPad’s kick-butt display and access to that app library.

So why am I pleased with the Prime, and why do I think it’s potentially a good choice for a specific kind of user?

The $149 mobile docking station that ASUS developed alongside it. The Prime locks firmly into a hinge and the combo opens, closes, operates, and totes exactly like a premium subnotebook computer.

The docking station adds many features to the mix. There’s a keyboard and a multitouch trackpad. They’re decent mobile input devices. I wish they were exceptional ones. The chiclet-style keys can’t provide the comfy positive snap of scissor switches, though I can type on this at a respectable speed. The trackpad buttons are mounted at the edge of the dock, where they’re a bit awkward to use.

You also get a standard USB 2.0 port (compatible with input and storage devices), an SD card slot, and an enormous battery that extends the life of the docked system to a whopping 18 hours.

Its best feature, though, is how well the duo works as an integrated unit. When you lock it into the mobile docking station, it’s not some sort of gimmicky hybrid. You can’t say that about any of the iPad keyboard cases I wrote about last week. Each one of them is an iPad easel with some sort of Bluetooth keyboard in it; the end-result is functional, but clunky.

Nope. The keyboard docking station actually transforms the Transformer. It looks, feels, and travels like a rock-solid subnotebook.

It handles like a notebook, as well. This was my first experience using Android with a trackpad and the experience actually elevated my opinion of Android 4.0. The OS actually makes more sense as a notebook OS, where you’re pushing an onscreen pointer around with a trackpad and using keyboard shortcuts.

I also like the fact that I don’t need to travel with a little sackful of accessory dongles for the Prime, as I do with the iPad. Everything I need is built in. I could head out to the airport for an overnight trip with the Transformer in my bag and nothing else. Thanks to that huge 18-hour battery, I wouldn’t even necessarily need to pack a charger.

Even if we compare the Transformer Prime plus its docking station with an iPad plus a keyboard case, though, the iPad still wins. I could list three or four reasons but the first one is “that library of tablet-optimized apps.” A sensible person feels no need to see the rest.

But to my eye, the Prime does represent a threat to Windows ultrabooks. The $749 combination of the 64 gig Transformer Prime plus docking station makes me wonder if the makers of , 11-inch ultrabooks are barking up the wrong tree.

No desktop operating system excels when it’s crammed down into a tiny screen. Even MacOS seems like a tight fit on the 11-inch MacBook Air. An 11-inch ultrabook is meant to serve a specific kind of user: someone who values portability and long battery life so highly that they’re willing to sacrifice to get them. Further, a small computer is likely to be used as a supplemental computer that only needs to work well for a short list of specific tasks.

Doesn’t it seem wise for such a user to choose a machine that’s been optimized for mobility? This smells like an opportunity for a $750 (meaning: affordable) subcompact that runs an alternative to the big two operating systems.

The Transformer Prime plus its keyboard dock will last twice or even three times as long on battery as any of its direct competitors. It’s also much smaller and lighter. It won’t run Windows, but the Android Marketplace, limited though it may be, is still likely to have all of the apps that this kind of user needs.

If you must have access to Windows, it’s not like you’re out of options, either. A VNC client will let you run Mac and Windows apps by connecting to the desktops at your office. Then there’s the OnLive service, which lets you run the desktop edition of Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer via virtual machines hosted OnLive’s servers. The Onlive Desktop service might not be around this time next year (Microsoft is making icy statements about the terms of OnLive’s license to use Windows and Office). But the point stands that a machine like the Transformer doesn’t need to run a desktop OS to have access to desktop apps. It works even better than VNC, and it doesn’t require you to keep one of your own computers up and running 24/7.

And let’s not overlook the obvious: you can slide a switch, give the screen a firm tug, and have a slate in your hands. You can read books and watch movies on an ultrabook, but it’s not the same experience. Particularly when you’re jammed in a middle seat in Economy Class.

I’m not sure that the Transformer Prime is strong enough to divert anybody from their plans to buy an iPad or even an ultrabook. That’s a shame because ASUS took a solid idea and they executed it extremely well. Overall, it clearly illustrates Google’s fatal short-sighted failure in building Android: where the hell are the apps? The world-class apps that every mobile user needs if they’re ever going to justify spending $499 for a tablet?

If there were just six specific iPad-grade apps in the Android Marketplace, the Transformer Prime would be damned tempting. As-is, a consumer would need to examine his or her needs extremely carefully before picking any Android tablet over any iOS or Windows device.

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