A common knock on tablets, from the Apple iPad (4.5 stars, $499) on down, has been that they’re designed for consumption, not creation. The line of reasoning goes something like this: Tablets are great for watching videos and basic Web browsing, but they’re not as efficient for work as a keyboard-and-mouse combination. Asus’ response, it seems, was to give buyers of the Asus Eee Pad Transformer TF101 ($399, 3.5 stars) the best of both worlds. The Asus Eee Pad Transformer TF101 Docking Station ($149 list) snaps onto the bottom of the Transformer, and turns the tablet into a netbook, complete with mouse, keyboard, USB slots, card reader, and more. It’s a useful accessory that distinguishes the Transformer from other Honeycomb tablets, but the keyboard is small and takes some getting used to, and going back and forth between touch-screen and traditional inputs can be awkward.
Now to the software glitches that keep me from giving this five stars. There are times I’ve had the keybaord stop responding and have had to remove the transformer and put it back in to get it back on. Also it inadvertantly disables wifi even though my finger was nowhere near that key. Others are having this issue to, and disabling the trackpad seems to reduce the frequency by which it happens, and we’re hearing Asus has already heard of the issue and is looking into it. This should be able to be fixed with software considering the keyboard itself even has it’s own firmware.
Also another thing to note is that since the Transformer is heavier than the dock it is a bit screen heavy but Asus seems to have alleviated most of this issue with the way that the whole part that connects to the transformer itself also protudes out the bottom to act as a stand to angle the keyboard and help shift some of the weight.
Overall it’s a great accessory. Adds 7 hours of battery life, holds your screen up for you, has 2 usb ports and a full size SD card slot. It’s obvious Asus really thought about the design of this dock, and it wasn’t simply designed to be an added keyboard, but to give your Transformer that netbook feel with a screen that is better than any I’ve seen on a netbook.
The keyboard is a large reason why someone would choose the Transformer over a different tablet, myself included. If you have used an Asus netbook you will be familiar with the keyboard. Despite the size I find I have no issues typing, the separation between the keys helps and the keypress is a good range and feel. I do have to turn the touchpad off because my large hand keeps tapping in that space and Honeycomb OS doesn’t allow you to disable “tap to click”. But that is easy because it is one of the great quick keys in the top row. The USB ports are cool for additional storage or game controllers, and the extra SD card is nice for backing up or browsing photos off your digital camera. The extra battery life is extremely convenient when traveling, and having the complete unit in its clamshell adds some perceived sturdiness to the unit (if nothing else, the battery section is protecting the screen from shattering).
The Docking Station is made to look just like the Transformer itself: it’s got the same dark, brownish-gray/metallic color scheme, and the same geometric pattern on the back. The consistency is nice, making the combination look like they’re made for each other rather than two distinct products. At 6.9 by 10.7 by 0.6 inches (HWD), the Docking Station’s dimensions are virtually identical to the Transformer. Unfortunately, at 1.37 pounds, it weighs nearly the same as well.
On the face of the Docking Station is a chiclet-style, netbook-sized QWERTY keyboard, a surprisingly large touchpad, and a the hinge where the tablet connects. There’s a sliding silver lock switch, which snaps into place when the tablet is fully docked. Around the sides are two USB ports and an SD card slot, along with a space for the charger—the Docking Station has its own rechargeable battery inside, which Asus says will add up to 6.5 hours of battery life to the Transformer. When it’s docked, the Transformer can actually charge via the Docking Station, so when you take it off you’ll likely have more battery than when you sat down.
The Transformation: Tablet to Laptop
The hardest thing about using the Docking Station is actually docking the Transformer. The slot that holds the tablet has raised sides to support the device, so it’s hard to see the raised 40-pin connector that plugs into the Transformer. That means you’re blindly shoving the tablet into the Docking Station, and it takes some serious finagling the first few times. I was always afraid I’d break one of the two connectors, but, fortunately, I never did. Once you’ve got everything lined up, it takes a serious shove to get it connected—you’ll know it’s in there when the silver tab slides to the right.
The upside to the difficult docking process is that it’s a super-secure connection. Once the Transformer is sitting in the Docking Station, it really does become indistinguishable from a netbook or laptop. It can fold in half like a laptop, and be carried in closed-clamshell mode. When you want to disconnect the tablet, slide the locking mechanism to the left, and it pops out easily.
Using the Docking Station
Though a 92-percent-of-standard keyboard sounds big enough, the difference is stunning. In a few hours typing on the keyboard, I made far more errors than I usually do, but I did start to get used to it after a while. A couple of things—like the super-small Shift key on the right side—I never got used to, though. If you’ve used a netbook for any length of time, however, this keyboard will feel immediately familiar.
The biggest advantage of the Docking Station over any other keyboard is that it’s loaded with Honeycomb-specific keys. There’s a dedicated Search button, lots of media and brightness buttons, a Back button, Lock and Unlock keys, and more. One thing I’ve never liked about the tablet/keyboard combination is the constant back-and-forth from screen to keyboard, and the Transformer Docking Station does away with a lot of that.
In fact, thanks to the addition of a trackpad, you really don’t ever need to touch the screen. As soon as you dock the Transformer, a cursor pops up on the screen, and you use it as you would any other mouse. The touchpad is extremely responsive and fast, and even includes useful features like two-finger scrolling. This is a huge advantage over the iPad’s keyboard dock accessory ($69, 3.5 stars), which has no trackpad. In fact, the iPad cannot be paired with any type of mouse, as the screen can only be operated by touch.
The Asus Eee Pad Transformer TF101 Docking Station really does make the Transformer into a capable laptop. Once you get used to the size of the keyboard, there’s little you can’t do with the device thanks to the included productivity software, Polaris Office. The docking process is awkward, but it’s not a deal-breaker. In the sea of me-too Honeycomb tablets that’s currently coming to market, the Docking Station does much to separate the The Asus Eee Pad Transformer TF101 from the pack, and help it bridge the consumption and creation gap.