Asus have just released the latest in their Transformer range, and this one’s a bold move. It’s a full x86 tablet/ultraportable, it runs Windows 8.1, it’s got an 11-hour battery life, and it’s $350. Looking for the catch, I got my hands on one.
A brief history lesson
I was an early adopter for netbooks. I’ll admit it; I thought they were going to be enormous. In 2007, I owned Asus’ very first Eee PC, the 701, and it was a thing of beauty at the time – a true go-anywhere commodity computer.
Unfortunately, the processors and graphics chipsets of the time were, to put it bluntly, a bit crap. Still, I stuck with the netbook form factor, and owned four different netbooks from Asus, Acer, and Dell. All of them (bar the very first Eee 701) were built around Intel’s Atom chipset – and, to be honest, they didn’t have the grunt they needed to be even approach viability as an everyday machine. ‘Intel Atom’ became a synonym for ‘good luck getting anything done’.
Fast-forward to today. Intel’s line of CPUs have come a very long way; all you have to do is look at the battery life and performance that mobile platforms are squeezing out of the Haswell i5 and i7 processors to see that.
However, as I discovered, Intel have been quietly de-bollocksing the Atom line too.
Asus’ Transformer line is pretty cool. I owned an Android-based TF300T until it disappeared mysteriously. Gnomes or something. Anyway, the Transformer devices have historically been Android tablets that docked to a keyboard and touchpad to turn them into ultramobile laptops. Sadly, they didn’t turn into trucks and start moaning about the good old days in Cybertron, but you can’t have it all.
Because of the efficiencies afforded by the Android platform, they had long battery life, and I wrote many a blog post on the TF300T. The offerings varied from budget (like the TF300T) to the luxury (such as the Infinity), but they all had Android in common.
The T100 is Asus’ first budget Windows 8.1 hybrid, and it’s cheap. Best Buy carries it for $350 over here. Equipped with a Bay Trail Atom processor, 2Gb of RAM, a 32Gb lump of eMMC storage, and a microSD slot, it’s not exactly going to be rendering Pixar’s latest masterpiece, but that Bay Trail SoC is far more powerful than you might expect. The Atom Z3740 at the heart of the machine is clocked at 1.33GHz, and has onboard graphics on the SoC.
If any other netbook veterans are reading this, alarm bells are ringing at the mention of Atom and onboard graphics. Allow me to muffle them with a quick video.
Whilst some games chew, you just saw Starcraft 2 and World of Warcraft running at the device’s 1366×768 native resolution without any significant slowdown. Of course, this isn’t a device to buy for gaming, but as a performance demo it’s striking.
Sound and vision
Video playback is excellent. YouTube’s 1080p H.264 plays without any issues, and the machine remains responsive when multitasking during playback.
The onboard speakers, too, are surprisingly good. They’re hardly audiophile-grade, but they’re loud without distorting, and the frequency response is inoffensive if a bit tinny.
Web and productivity
As far as the intended use case for the T100 goes, which is a no-frills mobile device – one of the selling points is the inclusion of Microsoft Office – it’s exemplary.
Multitasking with Chrome, Word, and Outlook is extremely responsive, with slowdowns only appearing when lots of swapping is going on. The storage is quick but not SSD-grade, and with just 2Gb of RAM to play with, swapping is inevitable.
The display is a 1366×768 10.1in IPS panel. Nice and bright, very clear, good viewing angles, and works well in either landscape or portrait mode. It’s not a high-DPI display, but to be honest, you wouldn’t expect it to be at this price.
Asus quotes eleven hours for the battery, and they’re not making it up. Laptop Magazine’s standardised test (continuous web browsing, 40% screen brightness, Wi-Fi enabled) clocks at 12h28m. That’s 88 minutes longer than Asus claims in the T100’s marketing material.
The battery charges incredibly slowly, but with twelve hours of battery life between charges, overnight charging isn’t too big a deal. The likely reason for this inexorable trickle is that the tablet’s power comes from a standard micro-USB connector, and the supplied power adapter is your standard 5V@2A tablet rating.
Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11n Wi-Fi are exactly what you’d expect, and they’re what you get. What you might not expect, however, is a mini-HDMI port that talks HDMI 1.4 on the tablet, and a full-speed 5Gbit USB 3.0 port on the keyboard dock.
And here’s the catch. It’s a cheap device with surprising grunt, and corners have been cut on the build. The case is plastic and flexes slightly under strain, the touchpad on the keyboard dock is functional but pretty terrible, and the keys, while crisp, are cramped.
Unlike previous incarnations of the Transformer line, the T100’s keyboard dock does not contain a battery. Transformer devices have always been top-heavy, but the T100 is especially bad because of the lack of weight in the dock.
It’s definitely usable on a flat surface or a surface inclined toward you, but any surface inclined away from you will be a problem. It’s not a critical problem; the palm-rest area is fairly large, and keeping your palms in place stabilises things, but it’s not something that a user really wants to have to think about.
The first thing I did when I got the T100 was fiddle with the bits that I wasn’t meant to. It’s a UEFI-based device with Secure Boot enabled by default, but that’s easy to disable.
However, once I did, I realised something deeply annoying. The Atom processor is a 64-bit device, but Asus’ bootloader will only load 32-bit EFI code. Since I haven’t found a way to chainload 64-bit code from 32-bit code, you’re stuck with a 32-bit operating system.
Ubuntu boots with a bit of hackery to trick the Asus bootloader into thinking it’s Windows, but many of the important bits don’t work, and X only runs in (horribly slow) fbdev at 800×600. Whilst that might just be a matter of time, if you consider Windows 8.1 unacceptable as a long-term operating system, this is not currently the device for you.
I successfully reinstalled Windows (32-bit) from scratch using an ISO and a USB stick, and the drivers and downloads on Asus’ support site are sufficient to get all the devices working as they do on the stock image.
For now, at least, you can forget about 64-bit operating systems, and at least in the short-to-medium term, you can also forget about non-Windows operating systems too, but that’s mainly a hardware support issue since the Atom SoC in the T100 is so new. It remains to be seen if we have another Linux-unfriendly GMA500 on our hands – that all depends on how forthcoming Intel are with specifications.
Making a decision
Right now, the T100 is pretty unique in its little niche of the market. The closest alternative is probably Lenovo’s ‘Miix 10’, which uses a previous-generation Atom and lives at $579, so you’d be paying more for less grunt. The Miix reportedly has a nicer build quality, but that’s the only potential upside.
Do you need the T100? Probably not. It’s a sidecar machine, capable of allowing you both to get stuff done and kill time watching cat videos while you’re commuting to and from the office. It’s unobtrusive, and you’ll definitely feel more comfortable cracking it out on public transport than you would a shiny, humblebragging Mac.
While the T100 is unashamedly plasticky, it’s a cool toy, at a great price, with a battery life that serves its use case perfectly. If you were burned by the netbook dream but loved what the concept had to offer, you may well find the T100 to be quite compelling.