Android has something of a reputation for not being the most productive of operating systems. There are over a million applications available via the official Google Play Store and many of these may be used for productivity purposes, depending on the hardware that the application runs on. However, Android is a powerful and flexible platform and can become a genuinely useful productivity tool. However, for many people this requires the device becoming a better typing machine. Regular readers will know I have used an Apple wireless keyboard for some time, but there are occasions when an Android notebook would be handy. And so let me introduce the latest in Asus' line of convertible Android tablets, which comes with a detachable hardware keyboard. This is a review of the Asus Transformer TF103C.
Here, Asus is selling the Transformer TF103C based on the detachable keyboard and hinge rather than the tablet hardware, which is decidedly lower to mid-range hardware in a dated chassis. This particular Transformer appears to be aimed squarely at Chromebooks, offering a different blend of features and functionality for a price of around $300.
Under the skin the TF103C is based around a quad core Intel Atom processor paired up with 1 GB of memory, similar to the processor found in the HP Stream 7. There's a 1,280 by 800 pixel, 10.1-inch IPS screen, a 5,070 mAh battery (with claimed battery life of up to 9.5 hours) and front and rear cameras. You also find dual band WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0 but no cellular modem. The tablet has 16 GB of internal memory plus a MicroSD card slot.
In terms of build quality and design, the tablet is uninvolving and unimaginative; it looks like most similar tablets from the last five years or so. It's not particularly thin nor light, it has large bezels and rounded corners and the soft touch plastic is a fingerprint magnet. The detachable keyboard approximately doubles the thickness of the tablet but the TF103C has a definite utilitarian feel about it. The MicroSD card slot and MicroUSB port make it's easy to live with day by day.
Of course, most of the point of the TF103C is the keyboard. It's a chiclet-style design with reasonable depth and many additional shortcuts over the QWERTY-style layout, such as a back button, sleep, WiFi toggle, brightness, volume and other media controls. Under the keyboard, there's a centrally-positioned trackpad. The hinge is metal and feels especially durable: when the device is docked with the keyboard, it is easily stable enough to be used on the lap. Asus' designers haven't skimped on the keyboard and with a little bit of practice – as in perhaps a day – the keyboard is easy and fast to use. It's a sturdy enough platform such that it may be used on a lap without collapsing, something the separate device and keyboard usually cannot match. The trackpad is a little harder to get used to, however, but thankfully it may be disabled using the hardware button.
The 10.1-inch, 1,280 by 800 pixel screen feels decidedly low resolution compared with something such as the Google Nexus 10 tablet. Whilst it's a lower resolution than some alternatives, it has decent viewing angles, brightness, color saturation and touch sensitivity. Sadly, there is no automatic brightness control but the keyboard brightness controls help here. There are stereo speakers on the back complete with some Asus software trickery designed to fill out the sound depending on what is being listened to – including music, gaming and movies. These speakers do distort at higher volumes but sound much better than I was expecting.
The Intel Atom Z3745 processor under the TF103C's skin performs well running Android 4.4 Kit Kat. The Atom processor is based on Intel's Bay Trail architecture and is a 64-bit, quad core processor supporting Burst Mode, built on a 22nm die size – the maximum clock speed is anywhere from 1.33 GHz to 1.86 GHz depending on software control, taking into account temperature, battery and application. It's a respectable processor: opening and closing applications is quick, the Google Chrome browser renders pages quickly and Google Docs or Sheets files are fast to open and recalculate. Compared with a tablet running Android Lollipop, the Transformer feels relatively choppy; it's not terrible but it is noticeable.
Where things start to struggle is when multitasking and switching between running applications, especially to and from Google Chrome. The device has to reload web pages and documents at every switch and this takes several seconds. Google Chrome can run out of memory with multiple tabs open and grind to a halt. Admittedly, the Chrome browser is especially greedy when it comes to RAM and this experience happens with other 1 GB (or less) RAM devices. As such, the Atom processor is overworked because it is constantly having to load and unload applications from RAM. Doubling the memory would almost certainly dramatically improve the user experience.
The TF103C comes with WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0, but there isn't even the option to include a modem. Bluetooth worked absolutely fine, making no obvious difference to the battery, but the WiFi connection was occasionally troublesome on my home WLAN whereby the connection would sometimes slow to a crawl. Rebooting the Transformer would solve the issue but it would return at random.
I wasn't able to see Asus' battery life claim when I used the Transformer for writing using Google Docs. The TF103C's low resolution screen and modern efficient processor are beneficial for battery life but unfortunately I was only able to see a little way over five hours of screen on time when used with the keyboard rather than the nine hours of claimed battery life. The keyboard USB connection increases power consumption and writing with Google Docs is hard on the device, too. However, most days I spent between three to five hours writing so the TF103C can get me through a day. Standby battery life was weak until I manually disabled WiFi; there's a software setting to do this but it not always shut the WiFi down when the device was sleeping.
Writing of the software setting, I'll mention that the Asus Transformer uses Asus' Zen UI overlay over Android 4.4 Kit Kat. The skin is reasonably close to stock Android but Asus have bundled in a number of third party applications, many of which have been published into the Google Play Store. The overlay adds more than it detracts from Android, including a capable launcher with some useful features and customization and a great weather widget. During my four weeks with the device, Asus updated many of these applications several times including new animations and similar. The device also received a small software update during my time with it, which improved memory management.
Zen UI includes a number of bundled applications such as Supernote, Do It Later and Whats Next. Supernote is a great note taking application and Do It Later is a useful application to help manage time and for scheduling interruptions to be dealt with later. Whats Next is a powerful homescreen widget that shows up and coming activities and events, which I found very handy. Asus also include a number of other cloud-based tools, too, including the ability to easily share information across compatible Asus devices. I couldn't try most of these as I only have the one Asus product at the time of the review. Furthermore, Zen UI includes the ability to split the screen and run two applications at the same time but unfortunately, there are only a limited number of applications that support this mode (as with other manufacturers' split screen solutions). The sooner Google introduce a standard way of splitting the screen, the better!
Zen UI includes a number of power user tools such as the ability to adjust how various applications and services behave on the device. You can forcibly prevent an application from waking the device and means it's possible to fine tune device battery life, with a little patience. Through some experimentation and looking at what was using the battery on the tablet, I was able to more than halve the idle power consumption with WiFi on and reduce it to almost nothing with WiFi shut down.
In conclusion, the $300 Asus Transformer TF103C is not a glamorous model, it has something of a no-nonsense approach. The tablet design is dated and simple, but the tablet's real strength is in the keyboard, which feels robust and is usable for longer periods of time. Also, Zen UI adds more than it detracts to stock Android. Unfortunately, weaknesses include the hit and miss performance of the tablet; switching to a lighter browser solves many of the issues I was experiencing. In other respects, the screen, speakers, battery life are all acceptable if not outstanding.
How does the Asus Transformer stack up against the Chromebook platform? Android is a more flexible platform and it's easier to add third party applications, plus you can ditch the keyboard and use the TF103C as a slate. Against this, Chromebooks offer a more robust productivity experience if you switch between the Chrome browser tabs. I'd say that the Chromebook is a better product for a narrower range of duties and the Transformer tablet can better perform different duties.