Asus first teased us almost a year ago with the Transformer Book, a 13.3" full HD Zenbook Prime style Ultrabook that transforms, much like the company's Android tablets, into a tablet. In October 2012, they released videos that showed this drool-inducing machine and then... nothing. Until late May 2013. Is it too late for the Transformer Book TX300? We don't think so: it's so far the best Windows embodiment of the transformer design pioneered by Asus and later aped by other manufacturers. At 13.3" with a standard Ultrabook form factor and an Intel Core CPU, it's much more useable as a main machine than 10.1 to 11.6 inch Windows tablets.
Unlike most Windows transformers, the Asus Transformer Book is a notebook that transforms into a tablet, rather than a tablet with an accessory keyboard. The base looks, feels and acts just like any Zenbook Prime Ultrabook: from the backlit island style keyboard to the stylish aluminum casing and good selection of ports. When docked, you'd think it was an Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A, until you peek at the back edge and notice the wrap-over connector that holds the two pieces together.
The Asus Transformer Book TX300 runs on a 1.9GHz Intel Core i7-3517U Ivy Bridge CPU with 4 gigs of RAM and a 128 gig SSD. The difference here is that all these internals live behind the display rather than under the keyboard as with a traditional laptop design. Thus you can use the tablet independent of the keyboard dock. The tablet is very thin at 11mm (0.43") thick. The tablet and dock together weigh a relatively hefty 4.2 lbs, which is 25% heavier than the Zenbook Prime UX31A Touch Ultrabook. It's also thicker at 23.9mm (0.94"). The Transformer Book has single band Qualcomm Atheros WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0 and an HD webcam. We're disappointed that a high-end machine lacks dual band WiFi, but it does offer good range and reception with low power consumption. That said, the 2.4GHz is more prone to interference from Bluetooth and the many 2.4GHz wireless routers in homes, offices and public venues.
When docked, the Transformer Book really shines thanks to its true Ultrabook ergonomics, selection of ports, no-compromise backlit keyboard and something extra: a secondary 500 gig hard drive. It isn't easy living with the small storage space available on 128 and even 256 gig SSDs; so it's heavenly to have a large drive to store all manner of movies, music and other media. If you use the machine to process HD video, storage is no longer an issue. Likewise, installing two games like Civ V and Skyrim won't eat a large percentage of your 128 gig SSD. There's also a secondary battery in the dock, and it powers the two USB 3.0 ports, DisplayPort, Ethernet jack, SD card slot and hard drive. There's an option to turn off the ports and HDD to extend runtimes from 5 to a supposed 8 hours. It's an unusual way to handle secondary battery power, to say the least, but it's certainly better than nothing. We'll get into that further in the Battery section of this review.
The tablet itself is shy of ports, there's micro HDMI, 3.5mm audio, a micro SDXC slot that's accessible even when docked and a charging port. We'd like to see a USB port, but perhaps the tablet is too thin and space constrained to house that port. The dock holds the lion's share of ports: 2 USB 3.0 ports, wired Ethernet, a full size SD card slot and the mini DisplayPort. There's a charging port on the keyboard dock as well, so you can charge both the dock and tablet using the magnetic pogo connector. The tablet weighs 2 pounds, making it as light as the smaller 11.6" Samsung ATIV 700t and Microsoft Surface Pro. The keyboard dock (I really hate to call it that since it's a clone of the Zenbook Ultrabook base and not a flimsy accessory dock) weighs the same, so they're relatively balanced and not too tipsy. The display withstands finger presses when docked without moving or bouncing thanks to the extremely stiff hinge. As with Asus Transformer Android tablet docks, it's actually hard to move that hinge when the tablet isn't inserted.
The tablet's back has the same spiral dark aluminum back as Zenbook Prime models and the keyboard dock has a lighter finish, also in aluminum. It's all very rigid and sturdy and looks like a high quality piece. You can remove the keyboard dock's bottom (lots of readily accessible Torx screws are involved) for access to the secondary battery and slim 2.5" HDD. The tablet? I wouldn't plan on opening that for upgrades, and that's where the important internals live (motherboard, proprietary SSD, wireless card and soldered-on RAM).
Deals and Shopping:
Asus Transformer Book TX300 Video Review
Horsepower and Performance
The Transformer Book TX300 runs on an Intel Core i7-3517U 1.9GHz dual core CPU. That's the same ULV Ultrabook CPU we've seen in countless models rather than the modestly updated 2.0GHz seen in some refreshes. We can only guess that Asus worked so long on engineering the TX300 that they didn't want to delay it further for a minor refresh to the 100 MHz faster Intel Core i7-3537U. Now that fourth generation Intel Haswell CPUs have just started to appear in the Sony Vaio Pro and Duo 13, we wish the TX300 could've offered that. Haswell doesn't improve much on CPU speed (in fact it's sometimes slower in order to conserve power), and graphics speed with the more common Intel HD 4400 graphics isn't much of an improvement, but battery life is improved, and we wouldn't mind that here. On another note, Asus may release a core i5 version with a 320 gig HDD for a lower price, but it's not on the market as of this writing.
The tablet has 4 gigs of DDR3 RAM soldered to the motherboard and Asus seems allergic to offering 8 gigs of RAM on their Ultrabooks. That said, 4 gigs is enough for most users, and unless you use VMs (virtual machines), complex IDEs or spend your days editing full HD video it works fine. I typically run Adobe Photoshop CS6, MS Word 2013, Outlook and two web browsers with several tabs open and haven't exceeded 4 gigs. When I play games, I usually close programs except social networking, email and my web browser and I still don't exceed available RAM (I'm running Left4Dead 2 or The Sims 3 and not BioShock Infinite, which is too tough a title for a 2013 Ultrabook unless you're happy with the lowest settings and resolution options).
The Transformer Book TX300CA has a 128 gig SSD and ours was the SanDisk U100 that's not as fast as the ADATA SSD drive that Asus also uses. Its benchmarks are slower than the ADATA drive, though in practical use, it's hard to tell. The machine has a 500 gig, 5400 RPM conventional spinning hard disk in the keyboard dock, and it's partitioned into D and E drives of equal size (222 gigs). Happily, Asus places the 20 gig recovery partition on the HDD so it doesn't use precious SSD space. Thus the SSD had 90 gigs free out of the box, which is better than the average of 67 gigs for 128 gig Windows 8 SSDs with recovery partitions. Windows 8 sees the 500 gig drive as a hard disk on a USB 3.0 SATA bridge (so it can be safely removed when undocked) and you can install programs there along with movies, music and documents. Obviously it wouldn't be a good idea to undock the tablet while you're playing media on the 500 gig HDD. If you're adventurous, you could upgrade the HDD to a higher capacity drive or an SSD drive. It's the only internal that is readily upgradable on the TX300. That USB 3.0 SATA bridge is an unusual engineering feat that Asus says they worked hard on. It offers very fast speeds and a way to address all the ports and HDD via a single dock connector.
Like recent Asus Zenbook Prime Ultrabooks, the Transformer Book TX300 has a very good keyboard that's quickly become one of my favorites. Key travel is good by Ultrabook standards and the keys are firm and tactile. There's no flex or bounce in the rigid keyboard deck and the adjustable white backlight offers good contrast on the black keys. You'll have to press the Fn key to use multimedia, display and keyboard backlight and sound keys, which is a bit old fashioned. The dedicated Transformer Book key brings up a console where you can set various settings and the usual Asus hotkeys are here for display color balance change (Asus Splendid modes), Power4Gear power plan settings and more.
The large, buttonless Elan trackpad worked well after a driver update. Asus' driver update applet didn't find updates for our notebook, so we resorted to using Asus' website to grab updates (we assume this is because the TX300 is so new). After the update, the trackpad was very reliable and responsive for single finger actions and multi-finger gestures worked well. We disabled the slide-in from the left to switch to the last used app because, as with many Windows 8 laptops, this was too sensitive and we accidentally switched apps with unwanted ease.
The Transformer Book has a full HD 1920 x 1080 IPS glossy touch screen with very wide viewing angles and contrast. Color gamut and saturation are excellent, just as with the Zenbook Prime line. I do admit that I love watching movies on the "huge" screen and I've put away my Kindle Fire HD 8.9" tablet. Likewise, I once felt like I was living large when I used 11.6" full HD Windows tablet displays for this task, but 13.3" has a definite appeal.
The display supports 10 points of multi-touch. Sorry, there's no digital pen option here as there is with the Asus Taichi, Surface Pro, Asus VivoTab TF801C and Samsung ATIV 700T. You can use a capacitive stylus like those sold for iPads, but it's not nearly as precise nor is it pressure sensitive. If you're a digital artist or a hard core note-taker who's used to a digital pen, this isn't the product for you.
IPS displays are prone to light bleed, and Asus is hardly a stranger to this issue. Our retail purchased Transformer Book has some light bleed along the bottom edge and upper right corner that's obvious when booting the machine, but it's not visible when navigating Windows. I spent hours watching streaming 1080p video and it didn't diminish the experience, but if you watch a movie with black bars at top and bottom, you may notice it when display brightness is turned up to 75% or higher. Since the display is quite bright when Windows auto-brightness is disabled, we rarely felt a need to turn up brightness that high. That said, you may notice it if you turn up brightness. Why did we disable Windows 8's auto-brightness feature under General settings in the Charms menu? Because it's geared toward use in very well lit environments and fails miserably in home and softly lit office environments.
No, your TX300 isn't defective: the tablet indeed has Bang & Olufsen ICEpower stereo speakers but they're both on the right side under the vent grille. Asus did that with one of their Transformer Android tablets, and I think it's sort of cheating, don't you? They claim they designed it that way so it would sound equally good when held in portrait mode, but that doesn't fly, because if you happen to hold it speaker end down, it won't sound good, will it? I bet the real reason is that they needed the opposing vent for--you guessed it: ventilation. Now that I've picked on Asus, I will admit that sound quality, by tablet standards, is good. At max volume it's loud enough for me to hear a movie sound track when using exercise equipment. Audio isn't harsh or shrill, even at max volume. Things get even better when the tablet is docked because two properly spaced speakers on the bottom kick in for even louder and fuller audio (both the tablet and dock speakers fire audio). The tablet has a standard 3.5mm combo audio jack (on the tablet itself, where it belongs) and the Transformer Book works with Bluetooth stereo headsets and speakers. Since the machine has single band 2.4GHz WiFi, it can interfere with Bluetooth (also on the 2.4GHz band) when streaming music and videos.
A Day in the Life: How I use the Transformer Book TX300
Different folks have different needs. For me, the Transformer Book works well. In the morning I put in a tablet stand at the breakfast table, just as I used to do with my Nexus 10, and read news using News Bento (a very nice Windows 8 Metro news reader), visit a few websites and check stocks.
I dock it in the keyboard base and take it to the coffeehouse when I can get away from the office. There I catch up on email, respond to YouTube and Disqus comments and write reviews.
At the end of the workday, I place the tablet on my exercise bike's book ledge and watch TV shows and movies on Netflix and Amazon Prime. The 13.3" display with wide color gamut is truly luxurious and it makes Downton Abbey look sublime. The touchscreen works perfectly when exercising and it's easier to clean than a keyboard. If I'm in the mood to read instead, I fire up the Nook or Kindle apps.
At night, it's back to Ultrabook mode and I continue writing reviews in MS Word 2013 (I know, I need to work less). The solid backlit keyboard and good Elan trackpad help make easy work of it. When I do give myself a night off, I play Civ V, a 10 gig game that's installed on the 500 gig HDD so I don't use up precious SSD space. Civ V's touch UI is great, but I still like having the keyboard for advanced commands. Being retro, I sometimes play Rise of Nations 3, which runs fine on the TX300.
So, for those of you who are wondering what you'd do with a 13.3" tablet and Ultrabook in one, there it is. A 13" laptop won't fit on my breakfast table or bike stand; only a tablet will do. But when I need to write or play games, Ultrabook mode is what I need.
In a way, the Transformer Book TX300 has no direct competition at the moment. Yes, there are several transformer style Windows 8 tablet hybrids like the Samsung ATIV Smart PC Pro 700t, HP Envy x2 and the Lenovo ThinkPad Helix. But those are all 11.6" models, and I have a feeling that adoption hasn't been stronger because 13.3" is the sweet spot for an ultraportable. 11.6" displays are cramped and not that fulfilling when watching video or viewing web pages, regardless of display resolution. Compound that with the fact that most transformer Windows 8 machines run on slow Intel Atom CPUs, and you've further narrowed the playing field. The Asus Transformer Book TX300 is the first that has all the creature comforts of the lauded Asus Zenbook Prime Ultrabook line (and more) while also being a tablet. HP will release their Split x2 in August 2013 with a 13.3" display. It will be the closest completion for those of you who want something with an Intel Core CPU and a base that feels like a real notebook. But the HP is more budget oriented at $800, and it will run on third generation Intel Core i3 and i5 CPUs rather than the i7 in the Asus, and it has a 1366 x 768 display.
What about the Lenovo Yoga 13 and Dell XPS 12? They're truly lovely machines, but different. They have permanently attached keyboards, are thicker and are less comfortable to use as tablets. At 3.2 to 3.3 pounds, they're heavy compared to the 2 pound, slim TX300 tablet.
The Transformer Book uses a 65 watt charger with a magnetic connector like Apple's MagSafe charger, and you can plug it into the tablet or the keyboard dock to charge. The tablet has a 5,000 mAh battery that's sealed inside and the dock has a 3,120 mAh battery that's also sealed inside. The battery arrangement is confusing because it doesn't work like other devices on the market. The secondary battery in the dock doesn't appear in Windows power management. It supplies power to the ports, keyboard, trackpad and HDD, and can supply power to the tablet, or main battery, if you enable "tablet mode" in Transformer Book settings (just press the dedicated key to launch that app). When the tablet is at 30% or lower charge, the secondary battery can charge the main battery when tablet mode is enabled, thus extending the tablet's 5 hour runtime to a theoretical max of 8 hours. Asus states that the dock will charge the tablet when the device is sleeping or turned off. However, we noticed that even with the TX300 on and in use, the charge stayed at 30% even when we used it for an hour in tablet mode.
Battery life for the tablet is quoted at 5 hours, and we managed that when using the tablet for primarily business use including MS Word, web browsing, email and social networking. Whether you use just the tablet portion or the tablet plus base in notebook mode, the runtimes are the same. When we streamed Netflix and Amazon Instant Video (using Flash Player rather than the piggish new Silverlight option), we managed 4.5 hours with brightness set at 60%. That's OK but not stellar. We forgive Asus and the Transformer Book since it's a Core i7 machine, and not a low power Atom or even a slightly more power-friendly Intel Core i5 CPU. But once again, we'd love to see what Intel fourth generation Haswell CPUs could do here since they improve runtimes. With the dock in tablet mode, we managed a seemingly forever charge at 30% that didn't drop for more than an hour. But it's pretty clear that the dock battery is mainly intended to power the many ports, HDD, keyboard and trackpad on the base rather than seriously extend runtimes.
The Asus Transformer Book TX300 is the best Windows 8 transformer to date. Granted, at $1,499 for the high end model we tested, it should be great. The IPS display is simply stunning and the machine is quite fast. It has the excellent build quality and style we've come to expect from a Zenbook premium model and it's extremely rigid and sturdy yet slim and elegant. The Transformer Book works equally as well as a tablet and laptop and the backlit keyboard is a pleasure to use. Battery life is just passable at 5 hours and the odd secondary battery doesn't work in a very useful way to extend runtimes (the tablet has to be below 30% charge and you have to turn the feature on). At 4.2 lbs. combined, the Transformer Book 13" model is relatively heavy by Ultrabook standards. Still, Asus got enough right here that we have no problem recommending the Transformer Book TX300.
Price: $1,499 for Intel Core i7 model with 500 gig HDD and 5MP rear webcam