-- Given the flood of tablets, news of yet another iPad challenger won't exactly make you scream for joy.
But some new tablets do get you jazzed. And one deserving recognition is the alluring Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime that I've been testing. Available the week of Dec. 19, it vaults to the top of the list of available Android tablets.
Why the lust? Asus has produced a tablet that is fast, beautiful and generous with power. It costs $499 for a version with 32GB of internal storage or $599 for 64GB. Asus is throwing in a year of unlimited Web storage for free. Machines are Wi-Fi only.
What's more, if you spring for the optional $149 keyboard dock accessory — and I suspect most folks will do just that — the tablet can function as a notebook. You won't mistake the qwerty keyboard for one of the superior keyboards built onto an actual laptop, but typing on the Asus accessory is still better than typing on the tablet's virtual on-screen touch keyboard. The keyboard dock also gives you extra battery life and extra ports.
I've never gone gaga for Android software on tablets. There still aren't a lot of tablet-specific apps available for Android, certainly nowhere near what's out there for iOS and the iPad. And the slightly modified version of Android Honeycomb running on my test unit isn't as inviting as iOS software on the iPad.
What's promising though is that Transformer Prime will soon be upgradable to Android 4.0, dubbed Ice Cream Sandwich, which unifies Google's operating system on smartphones and tablets. Asus expects a free over-the-air upgrade for this next-generation version of Android to hit late this month, making Transformer Prime one of the first Ice Cream Sandwich tablets in the U.S. (A sub-$100 tablet called Novo7, initially available in China, has apparently beaten Asus to Ice Cream Sandwich.)
In demos on a tablet, Ice Cream Sandwich looks slick but we'll have to wait and see what the experience is like.
In the meantime, the Transformer Prime hardware is worth gushing about.
With a metallic swirl aluminum design that hints at gray and purple, my test machine is lovely to look at. It's less than a third of an inch thick, a hair thinner actually than the iPad 2. It weighs 1.29 pounds, slightly below the weight of Apple's tablet.
Even so, Asus managed to include a micro HDMI port and a micro SD card slot.
If you slide the tablet into the optional keyboard dock, you can take advantage of full-size SD and full-size USB 2.0 slots. Adding the dock nearly doubles the weight, but this is still a light and compact notebook substitute. Among the supplied apps are a note-taker called SuperNote and Polaris Office, which lets you read, edit or create Microsoft Office-compatible files.
Transformer Prime sports a brilliant 10.1-inch so-called Super IPS display with a wide viewing angle, protected by Corning's scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass. You can choose a brightness setting that improves viewing outdoors.
The tablet is billed as the first with Nvidia's Tegra 3 quad-core mobile processor. Key takeaway: The machine is a powerhouse. Expect it to make a splash with gamers.
The stunning graphics and fluid game play were evident as I immersed myself in the adrenaline-inducing Riptide GP, a speedy water-racing arcade game. Gamers will also appreciate that Transformer Prime comes with support for popular video game controllers, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii.
I don't expect people to take a lot of pictures with Transformer Prime but it has a decent rear 8-megapixel auto-focus camera with flash, capable of capturing high-definition (1080p) video. A 1.2-megapixel front camera can be used for videoconferencing.
A few frustrations: The video player crashed at one point. The tablet is slow to boot.
Under optimum conditions, Asus claims up to 12 hours of battery life for the standalone tablet or up to 18 hours when the tablet is docked. The quad-core processor consumes less power than its dual-core predecessors.
I ran a harsh battery test: Wi-Fi on, brightness cranked way up, high-definition video playing in a continuous loop. I went a shade past 6 hours before the battery pooped out, an impressive showing that suggests the slate will fare much better under more "normal" use.
Asus has done its part on the hardware side. Help needs to come from Android, in a fuller supply of apps.
Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime
$499 for 32GB or $599 for 64GB; Optional mobile dock accessory is $149
•Pro. Slim and attractive. Powerful quad-core processor. Impressive battery. Bright screen. Optional dock adds keyboard, extra ports and longer battery life. Upgradeable to Ice Cream Sandwich
•Con. Relatively few apps. Some bugs.
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