When I saw that the Asus Transformer AiO all-in-one PC came with an 18-inch detachable monitor/tablet I knew I wanted to review it, and I stopped reading anything about it as soon as I sent the request in to the company.
Imagine then, if you will, my genuine bewilderment after assembling this fairly bulky monster on my desk (more on the styling later), powering up and discovering the start screen for Android's Jelly Bean 4.1. On what was clearly a desktop computer. What on Earth was this thing! After futzing around on largest Android homescreen I'd ever seen, a quick check of the quick reference guide pointed me to a small blue button on the side of the monitor that switched me over to a standard Windows 8 desktop operating system. It booted up fairly quickly, and I had the Microsoft box I had expected when I initially plugged this thing in.
This isn't an All-in-one, it's a Two-in-one.
My shock in that first moment was mixed with delight: It opened my mind to the possibilities of having a fully functioning Android platform as my main computing platform, not just for the mobile parts of my life, but everywhere. That said, I have quibbles with a number of features about the AiO, and overall I'm not sure Asus has made a device that will find a hungry market for their strange hybrid.
Asus has built an interesting metaphor for home computing: a base station with fully featured PC software (as well as beefy speakers and drive space) and a big ole movable screen more optimized to the touch experience. The two keys to making that metaphor work – as I found out – lie in getting that software bridging between devices right and in having compelling physical products.
But before we talk too much more about the software's potential, let's talk specs:
The base unit (which powers the Windows part of the two-in-one) I drove comes with an 3.1GHz Intel Core i5-3350P quad core processor (there is a cheaper model with an i3 processor), 8 GBs of DDR3 1600 Mhz memory and a 1 terabyte 3.5" spinning hard drive, an NVIDIA GT 2GB graphics card and built-in dual band wireless LAN (802.11a/b/g/n, 2.4GHz/5GHz). It has a boatload of ports: 4 USB 3.0 hookups, HDMI out, Ethernet port, SD/SDHC/MMC card reader, the usual microphone, headphone stuff, and even a slot-in DVD optical drive.
But wait, the "monitor" is its own standalone tablet computer as well and packs an NVIDIA Tegra 3 quad core processor, 32 GB of SSD storage and 2 GB of ram. The polymer battery claims five hours playing 1080p video and maximum speaker volume, 15 hours playing music, but in my test it barely made it to six hours just playing an animated gif. I'm guessing that's because it takes a lot of juice to power an 18.4 inch long, 11.5 inch high LED backlit capacitive IPS display (1920 pixels by 1080). And it's heavy, more than five pounds (and feels even chunkier than that). It has its own SD card reader, a micro-USB 2.0 port and comes with a 33w port for its own AC charger (separate from the docking port), as well as its own microphone and headphone ports. There's no 3G or 4G wireless option, but really, you're not leaving the house or the office with this bad boy.
I wasn't blown away by the screen quality: While big, the colours seemed washed out, and Android appeared somewhat pixellated on it. 1920 x 1080 is typical of an HDTV resolution, but it's worth remembering while newer iPads are half the size they look way better with that gorgeous 2048 x 1536 pixel density. Couple that with the bulky chassis of the tablet when it's off the base, and the whole thing felt a little cheap, and a little old. It doesn't feel like a big tablet, it feels like a normal sized flatscreen monitor, and that massive kickstand and handle are stark reminders that it's not meant for your lap or for your commute.
Some other strange hardware points from the base unit: It's good that there's a 2.0 port for any older wired keyboards you might want, but it feels weird that the wireless keyboard and mouse Asus shipped with this device needs you to shove a goofy little dongle in that port to work. The keyboard itself was perfect adequate, it was long and had all the keys you might want (I've seen some truly tortured wireless keyboard layouts before). The mouse was maybe a little small and light, but functionally just fine.
About that optical drive: Did you know Windows 8 does not support DVD playback out of the box? It's apparently not cool in this always-on streaming Internet world. Seeing as Asus included a DVD port they decided to installed some of their own crapware for a playback solution, which upon loading immediately suggests you spend another $60 to upgrade to a better version. And trust me, if you want to watch DVDs on this device you'll need something better than what they included. But you know what, Asus? Don't ship hardware that you can't be bothered to provide quality software to support, that feels like the kind of sleazy 1990s business tactic that PC users have learned to loathe.
These niggling issues are far from the only time the AiO is let down by Microsoft's operating system. Remember, Windows 8 has a tablet platform, RT, so why didn't the AiO just ship with that instead of Android? Meagre sales of the Microsoft's own Surface certainly suggests one reason why there's no RT on the AiO. It's my view that RT isn't actually tablet software, just badly made touchscreen laptop software. It's also possible Asus learned the same hard lesson from its previous experience with its other two detachable-monitor hardware ideas, the VivoTab (which came with full Windows 8), and the VivoTab RT (which has the cramped, awful RT version of Windows).
No, I would argue the reason this is a hybrid two-operating system device is simple, if painful: Windows 8 is a slow-moving disaster. Desktop PC sales have been down for several quarters, and look to be going down again in 2013 according to recent numbers from IDC. Windows 8 was supposed to be the tablet-like OS that would save OEM partners like Asus, but many analysts blame Microsoft's flawed software for the market's inability to right the ship. The touchscreen live tiles are still an interesting idea, but the system interface is still confusing and the way users are frequently shunted to the Windows 7 shell that lives inside the OS, in order to perform basic computing and system tasks, is well-documented awkwardness. This is simply not the game-changing OS Microsoft was hoping for when they went all-in on touch as the future of computing.
Whatever Asus's reasons, it makes sense to get Google's library of apps on any tablet you might want to build – both the one's Mountain View makes themselves and the hundreds of thousands third-party stuff in the Play store. Microsoft's app store has not grown quite as robustly after all. But when it comes to other things we consume on digital devices – cloud services, music, books, movies and games – those are areas where Microsoft and Google have competing products. Users of the AiO are likely to have to choose between booting into Android or Windows to enjoy that content. Is it better to rent this movie from Play, or from Xbox? Should I use Microsoft's streaming music, or one of the options on Android? I hate to prejudge user behaviour, but Microsoft may not like the results of a head-to-head competition with Android on the same hardware platform.
I should stop here to say that Asus did answer one of my key questions: How do these two operating systems talk to each other? Let's say I took a photo and enhanced it with an Android app, how do you open that in Windows, or vice versa? Asus created a handy little file transfer protocol accessible as an app and a desktop icon where you can ship files back and forth when the tablet is docked. This isn't as easy as something that auto-syncs, and I wouldn't recommend pushing massive video files this way, but it's certainly faster and more convenient than uploading and downloading via Dropbox or some other cloud service (or, heaven forbid, e-mailing yourself).
It is kind of fun to dock the tablet and access Android with a keyboard and mouse. It makes Angry Birds easier to play, and you still can just reach up and activate stuff on the screen when you want to. As I point out in my video review, attached to this article, there are a couple problems with Android apps: Their tablet apps are not quite best of breed (iOS insistance on iPad versions of aps pays dividends in many cases) and so a lot of the Play software is not optimized for such a large tablet. It's really strange to load up Disney Interactive's Where's My Water game on Android and see it load sideways on the AiO: it doesn't scale to landscape, so while on the base station you'll have to bend your brain a little to play it. And even apps that do scale based on orientation don't always do it very well: When you have a full-screen loading app designed to spread across at most 10 inches, almost doubling the navigable area to 18 inches leaves you with a lot of white space on certain social media apps, the same thing happens to web page designs found on 99 per cent of sites.
As I ran into the myriad form and software issues with the AiO (Windows is no fun, the screen is too heavy, the battery isn't great) I found myself thinking that this is too much of an in-betweener device to splash out $1,299 on it. That said, I happen to think the problems with the AiO are actually opportunities.
Everyone who saw this thing in action was fascinated by it. Make the shape and weight a little more sexy and you would have a really compelling product. Everyone who used it asked the same question: Why couldn't they get one operating system to work on tablet and PC? As I reviewed it I kept thinking there was one company that may be closer to providing a true all-in-one computer than this Google-Microsoft-Asus mash-up: Apple. A 15 inch iPad that docks into a beautifully potent Mac PC, that runs all your apps and media off one login, that makes it easier than Apple currently does to sync docs across all platforms? That could be wonderful.
If I were Google, I would get moving on a better combination of their Chrome desktop OS with Android, because this Transformer AiO provided a glimpse into what could be a winning experience for PC users. And I would tell chairman Eric Schmidt to keep his trap shut, as recent comments by the former CEO suggested the company would keep them separate forever. If I were Microsoft I would look at the AiO as a rebuke: A PC with detachable tablet that looks to another OS for tablet features is a problem for Redmond.
Make no mistake: If you're in the market for a Google tablet or a Windows desktop PC, you will probably end up unhappy if you buy the Transformer AiO. It's an awkward duck, but it could also be a fascinating preview of what's coming up next.
The AiO will be available in Canada as of April 12, at such retailers as Future Shop, Staples and Best Buy.