Depending on how you look at it, the new crop of Intel Bay Trail quad core Atom convertible Windows 8.1 tablets are an amazing value or they're just netbooks with detachable screens. In fact both are true, as we learned with the Asus Transformer Book T100, one of the first Windows 8.1 Bay Trail tablets with detachable keyboard that sells for just $349- $399. For the price you get an IPS display, long battery life, a light tablet and full Windows, not the RT version. Impressive, yes? But this is the natural evolution of the netbook and that means a glossy and cheap looking tablet, less speed than you'd get with an Intel Core CPU and a few niggling QA issues.
The Transformer Book T100 is Asus' most affordable computer to bear the Transformer name. The higher end Asus Transformer Book TX300 shipped earlier this year with an Intel Core i5 or i7 Ivy Bridge CPU and a full HD IPS display. The T300 is the Haswell follow up that should ship soon. Both the T300 and TX300 were premium convertible tablet/Ultrabooks with price tags over $1,000, so the T100 is a breath of affordable air. For $399 you get 64 gigs of internal storage (we don't recommend the $349 configuration that has just 32 gigs, leaving little room for your programs and files). It has the same detachable design with easy release keyboard dock lock and IPS display, albeit at a lower 1366 x 768 resolution. The tablet has dual band WiFi 802.11n, Bluetooth 4.0 and 2 gigs of DDR3 RAM. It runs Windows 8.1 32 bit since the BIOS llimits the platform to 32 bit.
Build Quality and Design
Like most Windows 8 tablets, there are few ports on the 1.2 lb. tablet section. There's a 3.5mm combo audio jack, micro USB charging port, a micro HDMI port and a micro SDXC card slot. The tablet has volume controls on the left side and the power button is up top (when held in landscape mode). The 1.2MP webcam lives above the display. The included keyboard dock has a full size USB 3.0 port and the connector that inserts into the tablet. The design is similar to Asus Transformer Android tablets with a central dock connector and two locator pins that flank it. The tablet locks into the dock securely and a simple release button frees the tablet from the dock. Since this is full Windows, you can use the USB port with any Windows compatible peripheral including printers, 3G/4G LTE USB modems and hard drives.
Here's where the netbook part comes in: this is a very low priced product relative to most convertible Windows tablets so materials, design and features aren't a high point. The back of the tablet is gray glossy plastic that gets grimy with fingerprints in less than 5 minutes. It doesn't look classy but it's sturdy enough. The included 1.2 lb. keyboard dock (yes, it's included!) has a matte gray finish that mimics brushed metal, so there's a finish mismatch between the two halves. The overall look is more Walmart than boutique computer store.
Looks aren't everything, especially if you're looking for value and can't afford those quite expensive higher end Windows convertibles. The tablet and dock feel solid and I wouldn't expect them to fall apart any time soon. The keyboard dock hinge is stiff and robustly designed. You can flex the dock a little if you try, but it's nothing alarming. The tablet's display is mounted flush with no gaps or problems and the volume and power buttons don't rattle.
While everything is put together well enough and things feel sturdy, we do worry about Asus' sometimes notoriously weak quality control. Our tablet's micro SD card slot only read cards one out of every 10 insertions (we tried several cards). Our keyboard dock was defective and while the USB 3.0 port and trackpad worked (err, mostly worked), the keyboard either typed in a hundred equal signs all by itself, or the keys simply stopped entering letters. The trackpad generally worked but sometimes it would stop registering tap to click, which was quite annoying since the trackpad's physical clicker is extremely loud. We noticed our local store's demo model had a few keyboard quirks too--either they got a bad batch or this is a more widespread problem. Since the tablet is just now shipping, we'll await anecdotal stories from other buyers to see how their model fares. We're working on getting a replacement, but inventory is sparse as of this writing.
Deals and Shopping:
Asus Transformer Book T100 Video Review
Hooray! An IPS display on a budget tablet! You don't have to go blind slowly just because you bought an inexpensive tablet. Of course, there are quality levels with IPS displays just as there are with TN panels, and this is a midrange IPS panel. It's sharp enough with particularly good contrast, but brightness is low for a tablet at 210 nits. Since it's a glossy panel with the top layer of glass visibly above the display substrate, glare is an issue and the low brightness doesn't combat it in bright rooms. We saw none of the light bleed that plagued other Asus tablets. Colors are average, which is actually laudable in a budget device. The 1366 x 768 resolution seems well matched to the relatively small 10.1" panel, but we didn't feel that text was beautifully sharp as it is on the IPS full HD Microsoft Surface 2 (Windows RT 8.1, $449). Again, this is a value product, so you won't get full HD displays, backlit keyboards or other high end amenities. Reasonable enough. The display is sharper and has wider viewing angles than many $500 to $700 laptops with TN panels, and that's impressive.
Keyboard and Trackpad
Asus did a wonderful job with the keyboard: key travel is generous for a small and thin product and the keys are roomy... relatively speaking. There's the challenge: a 10.1" machine means a tiny keyboard. That's why Microsoft made their Surface tablets 10.6", it's simply impossible to make a 10.1" keyboard roomy enough for a big American guy with large hands. If you tried early 10.1" netbooks, you know what I mean. Even for my long, slim fingers, it's a bit trying to write an article on the T100's keyboard. It's a good keyboard for occasional typists but not those who write long emails, articles or other pieces.
The small trackpad isn't very good. It's really small and it often loses track of a finger as you're gliding along the trackpad. Asus could likely remedy this with a driver update, though software won't improve the size issue or make the extremely loud clicker quiet. It's loud enough that folks in the library gave me dirty looks (you can hear it in our video review). Fortunately you can turn on tap to click and avoid the noise pollution.
All hail Intel Bay Trail Atom CPUs! Since the first crop of Intel Atom dual core Clover Trail Windows 8 tablets came out last year and early this year, we've all been holding our breath for the faster quad core Bay Trail Z3740. Yes, it's faster--about twice as fast as the outgoing Clover Trail CPU. Graphics performance has improved too, with Intel HD graphics in the Bay Trail-equipped Asus T100 walking circles around the weak GPU in Clover Trail. Intel Core i5 ULV Ultrabook CPUs are still more than 2x faster than Bay Trail, but the latest gen 1.33GHz Atom with Turbo Boost to 1.86GHz is no longer a snail. In daily use the tablet feels responsive, though there are still occasional lags. Interestingly enough, the Surface 2 running Windows RT 8.1 on the NVIDIA Tegra 4 feels faster and doesn't lag. For those who wish only to run Metro apps from the Microsoft Store and MS Office, the Surface 2 offers a faster experience.
But you want to run your legacy Windows programs, that's why you're considering the Asus Transformer Book T100, right? You can install Adobe Photoshop, Visual Studio (performance isn't great for Visual Studio though) and Civ V. This is a full Windows PC so your programs and peripherals will all work here. They won't all run quickly, though the staples of computing life like MS Office (Home and Student 2013 Edition is included too!), email, social networking and photo editing all run smoothly enough. There's 2 gigs of non-upgradable DDR3 RAM, so multitasking is somewhat limited. Heavy duty programs like Visual Studio and Adobe Premiere are sluggish, while Adobe Photoshop CS is quite usable. That's still a vast improvement over last year's dual core Atom tablets where nearly everything was sluggish. Full HD video plays smoothly and some games like Civ V are playable at low resolutions and quality settings (watch our video to see Diablo III in action--it doesn't do well). The tablet scored a decent 9076 on the 3DMark Ice Storm Extreme test.
As with previous generation of Intel Atom tablets, the Asus T100 uses eMMC storage rather than faster SATA SSD drives. Though the storage controller has higher bandwidth to make for faster data transfers, eMMC isn't a very fast flash storage technology. It's fine for Android tablets since Android apps are small compared to legacy Windows programs, but you'll notice software installs and program launches take longer. Windows Metro Live Tile apps are smaller and better optimized for slower hardware and are thus quick and responsive. Windows Store games play fluently.
Windows and its associated programs and Asus' software and recovery partition use up a good deal of storage, so the 64 gig T100 has about 37 gigs free before installing your free copy of MS Office 2013 Home and Student. You can see why we don't recommend the 32 gig model.
Intel Atom CPUs mean never having to hear a fan nor burn your hand. This is a passively cooled CPU and that means no fans. It's a low power and low heat CPU so the back of the tablet gets warm but never hot. The 2 cell, 31 Wh Lithium Ion battery is sealed inside, and with brightness set to 50% and WiFi on, we averaged 8.5 hours of actual use time. The tablet can sleep for days on end with little power drain.
The Transformer Book T100 ships with a compact 2 watt mobile OS tablet style charger rather than a laptop brick charger, so it won't take up much space in your bag. As with Android tablets and the iPad, the charger has a separable USB cable, and it's just 3 feet long (too short!). Happily, you won't need to plug in often given the long battery life. The tablet does take a long time to charge, so we recommend charging it overnight if the battery is mostly depleted. There is no secondary battery in the keyboard dock--that's a high end feature you won't get at this price.
The Asus Transformer Book T100 is the first machine to ship with the Intel Atom Bay Trail platform, and it heralds the advent of affordable Windows 8.1 tablets with touchscreens and convertible designs. To achieve these very low prices, you won't get a premium design computer, nor will the T100 be nearly as fast as the Microsoft Surface Pro 2 or Acer Iconia W700 with Intel Core i5 CPUs. That's fine because not everyone needs that much processing power. If you simply want to use the new Metro apps, get work done using the included MS Office 2013 Home and Student suite, surf the web, send emails and watch videos then the Asus T100 could be your new best friend. With the Lenovo Miix 2, Dell Venue Pro 8 and 11 and other Windows 8.1 Bay Trail tablets coming soon, the Asus Transformer Book T100 will have plenty of competition, but its advantage remains pricing: you won't get a keyboard dock in the box with those tablets at this price. Our only concern is quality control, and we hope that the first few units to hit the shelf are an exception rather than the rule.
Price: $349 for 32 gig model, $399 for 64 gig model