Sunday, 22 December 2013

Asus Transformer TF101: 'til All Are One

Flantier! Carlotta! Shown here with an external drive plugged into one of the USB sockets, just visible in the bottom left - try doing *that* with an iPad. In the background, an original Asus Eee looks on.

Today we're going to have a look at the original Asus Transformer, which was launched back in 2011. I remember being tempted by the Transformer when it was new, and now that they're available cheaply on eBay I decided to try one out. Depreciation has taken a heavy toll on the TF101's used value, but although it has some quirks it is still surprisingly capable.

That photo has nothing to do with the Asus Transformer, it's just that I can only photograph a tablet so many times before it gets boring. Purely as a tablet the TF101 is a generic landfill Android device; what sets it apart is the keyboard dock, which turns it - transforms it, like one of the Transformer toys - into a tiny quasi-laptop. Lots of tablets have keyboard docks, but the Transformer's dock is surprisingly functional. It has a second battery, an SD card slot and, unusually, USB ports.

Autechre's Gantz Graf was the point where casual Autechre fans gave up on the band, but I think it's fab - a bold, powerful evolving sonic sculpture that should have been number one across the world. I wrote this article whilst listening to it on a loop.

Astronauts of the ISS go on a spacewalk to fix the station's cooling system

The keyboard dock was an optional extra. You could buy the TF101 on its own, but nobody bothered because the keyboard was the main event. Technically the TF101 was called the Asus Eee Pad Transformer TF101, linking it to the older Eee netbook line, although at the time everybody just called it the Asus Transformer. 2011 isn't very long ago, but the modern tablet market was still fairly new and the TF101 was something of an experiment. Tablets themselves were experiments.

After all, in the words of Donovan Colbert, who had "over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry", writing in an article entitled Why the iPad will fail to win significant market share:
    "I think that the iPad will eventually be regarded much like Apple TV – a product that Jobs should have left on the drawing boards."
I have to wonder why "over 16 years", and not "two decades". Bear in mind that Donovan Colbert was paid money for that article. You're getting this one that you're reading now for free. And it's better-written, wittier, generally more perceptive. Perceptor was a G1 Autobot that transformed into a giant microscope with caterpillar tracks. Confusingly, Tracks - another Autobot - had wheels, not tracks.

Of course, the iPad and tablets in general went on to become very popular. Asus broadened the Transformer range by adding rubsigns and then a bunch of models that didn't even transform and as I write these words the company is on its fifth generation of tablets, with the TF101 being followed by the TF201, the TF300, the TF701, and the TF103C in that order. There's also a Windows-based "transformer book" called the T100, which would have been sold as an Ultrabook a couple of years ago but is now a budget model. The Transformers were originally aimed at the higher end of the market but the price has come down over time.

Android 4.2.2

OSMAnd, which uses OpenStreetMap data. I wonder how many people have slid through St Giles' Passage.

The TF101's immediate successor, the TF201, was also called the Transformer Prime, but this aroused the ire of Hasbro, who argued that it was too close to Optimus Prime, leader of the heroic Autobots. The eventual lawsuit was unsuccessful but Asus decided to abandon the Prime name nonetheless. And thus the next Transformer tablet was called the Transformer Ultra Magnus instead. No, I'm joking. Optimus Prime was actually replaced by Hot Rod, not Ultra Magnus.

Seriously, what was the deal with Ultra Magnus? The toy was originally designed for the pre-Transformers Diaclone range. It was simply a variation of Optimus Prime with some plastic bits added on to make him look bigger and more imposing. Hasbro decided to import this creation into the Transformers "universe" as a separate character, which was problematic, because Optimus was supposed to be the leader of the Autobots. It would make no sense for him to command a chap who was bigger than him.

And so Ultra Magnus was given a crippling inferiority complex, and as a consequence his character was a kind of Emo version of Prime, plagued by self-doubt. Thus he became a non-entity in the comics and cartoon continuity. He was too special to be used as a generic character, but not special enough to do anything significant. In the original movie he was given a shot at leadership, with disastrous consequences, and was immediately replaced by a brand-new character called Hot Rod, one of the few Transformers who already had a porn name.

I've always been fascinated with the process whereby the generic, unloved Diaclone toys of 1982 became one of the most popular toy ranges of 1984, and eventually one of the most lucrative toy franchises of all time. The toys were much the same, with slightly different colour schemes and decals. The thing that separates them is that the Transformers had meaning, because there was an invented backstory about an ancient war in space for the planet Cybertron, with a group of Autobots and Decepticons trapped on Earth, awoken in the present day to renew their conflict.

People often criticise highbrow art for being meaningless unless the audience absorbs reams of theory beforehand. "Works of art which cannot be understood in themselves but need some pretentious instruction book to justify their existence", in the words of Adolf Hitler. The Transformers toy franchise is a good example of a work of popular art that is inherently meaningless. Without the backstory - without the theory - the Transformers toys are just anonymous plastic robots. The same goes for Star Wars figures and vehicles. If the Star Wars toys had been invented by Mattel in 1977 (as Super Space Warriors or something), they would probably have bombed, just as Diaclone bombed. They would have been fundamentally unsatisfying unless you knew that your spaceship was called the Millenium Falcon, and it had been flown by a character called Han Solo.

Conversely some things are so impressive that it doesn't matter what they were made for. "Gantz Graf", the Autechre song in the link above, is pure spectacle, and I suspect any attempt at explanation would lessen it. The paintings of H R Giger are all surface, but they are overwhelmingly atmospheric surface. The odd thing is that the Diaclone toys were very impressive designs (the jets were better toy jets than actual toy jets, Megatron was a better toy pistol than actual toy pistols), and yet they had so little impact on the market that they were utterly forgotten just a couple of years later. And e.g. the successful Cabbage Patch Dolls had almost no backstory either. What can we learn from this about marketing a toy franchise? Not a great deal.

From top to bottom, an original Asus Eee (2007), a TF101 with its dock (2011), and an Asus 1005HA netbook (2010). The TF101 doesn't have ethernet or VGA. With the dock, the TF101 is surprisingly heavy - 1.2kg, which is almost the same as my ThinkPad X61.

At launch the TF101 came with Android three point something, and Asus was gracious enough to use a fairly stock installation without the masses of cruft that Windows laptops tend to have. The most recent official update took it to Android 4.0.3, and I've since upgraded mine to version 4.2.2 with an unofficial upgrade by a chap called Katkiss. Whose logo is quite obviously a dog. Is it a Hunger Games reference? Is that what the kids like nowadays? Android version numbers and names are alien to me. Suffice it to say that 4.2.2 feels a bit faster than 4.0.3 and it works, so why not? EDIT: I eventually installed Android 4.4.2, which is faster still, impressive given that the Transformer is three years old, and only has 1gb of memory and a dual-core CPU.

Dumb Ways to Die - so many dumb ways to die

Hardware-wise the TF101 runs on an a NVidia Tegra 2, which is essentially a dual-core ARM Cortex A9. This is the same processor used in the iPad 2, although performance-wise the iPad had a superior graphics chip. It's interesting to compare the TF101 with an old-school X86 tablet PC. Android tablets are designed to run forever on batteries without chucking out a lot of heat, and so they tend to have very weak CPUs by PC standards. In contrast PC laptops have fans and are only expected to run for five-six hours or so, and some of them are meant to be powerful enough to replace desktops. But tablets make up for the performance gap by pushing a lot of work onto the graphics hardware, and of course they all have SSDs, and the OS and applications are optimised for the limited resources of the tablet platform.

It's hard to compare directly, but Super Pi calculates Pi to two million digits in 1m 35s on my 2.1ghz Pentium M-powered HP TC4200 (2005), versus 1m 15s on the 1.0ghz TF101 (2011). Curiously the other Android version of SuperPi (without a space in the name) takes over eight minutes. The 2ghz Core II Duo in my ThinkPad X61 takes 53 seconds, so my hunch is that, CPU-wise, the TF101's dual-core Tegra 2 is on a par with one of the lesser early Core Duo CPUs from 2006, perhaps one of the 1.2ghz models. A rooted TF101 overclocks easily to 1.4ghz, which brings the score down to 1m 11s. Four whole seconds faster.

But there are far too many qualifications and caveats to draw a firm conclusion from this. Suffice it to say that Adobe won't be porting Premiere to the Android platform any time soon. But in an age of cloud computing, is there still a need for a high-powered client? Why not upload the video footage straight from the camera to a cloud service, and perform all the editing using the cloud's hardware? YouTube already has limited editing facilities, why not expand that model into a complete, cloud-orientated version of Premiere? You could use the tablet as a dumb terminal. You subscribe to the software, and if you want the exclusive use of a Cray XK7 you pay extra.

Against a 2ghz Core II Duo HP TC4400 (2007) the TF101 is outclassed in terms of performance, and the 4:3 aspect ratio of the TC4400 makes up for the 1024x768 resolution. But the TC4400 is larger, more awkward, weighs 1.5kg more than the TF101, pumps out heat, and doesn't run as long, so as a mobile device the TF101 beats it.

In practice I find the TF101 more sluggish than my old ThinkPad X61, and Android's oddities irritate me - simple stuff like cutting and pasting blocks of text, copying data between multiple applications, right-clicking etc aren't really Android's forte. Back in 2011 the keyboard dock raised the possibility that it could be used as a mobile productivity device - cue lots of articles about the impending death of the PC as a business platform - but my experience with Google Docs has been frustrating and the keyboard and touchpad feel laggy, albeit less so with 4.4.2. Besides, as a writer I need a huge screen with dozens of tabs open plus Photoshop, and in that respect the TF101 doesn't work as a creative platform.

The TF101 has a 10", 1280x800 screen, almost exactly the same size as the 1024x600 unit in an 1005HA netbook, glossy instead of matte:

In practice the resolution is fine in a 10" tablet, although in my opinion Apple's decision to go with a 4:3 aspect ratio is a better idea - the TF101 is too thin in portrait orientation. Build quality is decent. The bezel around the edge creaks a little but seems solid enough, and it gives your fingers something to grip. The hinge that connects the tablet to the dock is robust - it tilts back and forth, and the machine is smart enough to go into standby when you close it.

The TF101 was available with 16gb or 32gb of internal storage, with the 16gb option less of a limitation than it seems on account of the built-in MicroSD card slot and general emphasis on cloud storage. Battery life is roughly six hours with the wifi on. The screen tends to accumulate fingerprints and is very reflective, which is awkward for toilet surfing or porn; if the screen goes dark you suddenly find yourself staring at a clear reflection of your own face mid-poop/orgasm (it's hard to tell the difference). I have since applied a matte cover.

The dock is the thing, though. On the negative side, it makes the TF101 weigh almost as much as a small laptop, and it's surprisingly bulky. The touchpad doesn't add very much to the experience, as neither the OS nor most Android applications make use of it. You can't click-and-drag to select text, for example, and right-click generally does nothing. The keyboard is a decent chicklet-style affair that also feels a bit laggy, and has a lot of special keys that I will never use. Plus one point for including a caps lock light.

The dock adds a number of features that are still quite rare in mainstream Android tablets today. There's a full-sized SD card slot, so if you're on the move you can easily upload your photos to your favourite cloud storage service (assuming your camera uses SD cards) without having to bring a separate card reader. There are also two full-sized USB ports, which work fine with the USB sticks and external drives I have plugged into them, not so well with the card reader I tried, not at all with my Canon 5D MkII, but on the other hand I haven't tried very hard to get this working. In the photo at the top of the page I'm using a 1tb Western Digital Elements drive. If you're going abroad, you could in theory take this setup in your luggage for when you're in the hotel and you want to watch masses of hi-def porn. You could keep the drive and keyboard in the hotel, and detach the tablet for long train journeys.

It's a sign of how rapidly the technological world is evolving that I struggle to come up with reasons to store lots of content locally. I mean, yes, some parts of the world don't have wifi. But why go there? How can you Twitter your location if there's no internet? If you can't Twitter your location, what's the point of going there? The TF101 has a GPS chip but in my experience it was rubbish at getting a lock, so as a moving map it's not ideal.

The dock has a second battery. This extends the total battery life to twelve hours or so. It acts as a charging unit for the tablet, so that the tablet is always fully charged. The tablet can also be charged from your PC using a USB 3 cable, but it's apparently a very slow trickle charge that only works when the tablet is off. The batteries are fixed in place and you're not supposed to swap them yourself. Replacements are available on eBay, and both the tablet and the dock can be dismantled, although the tablet requires a heat knife and probably won't look very pretty once you put it back together again. The dock looks relatively simple to take apart but such is the way of things I suspect that the TF101 will quickly become an uneconomical repair.

So, the Asus Transformer. I haven't yet had a chance to take it on holiday. The experience of using an Android tablet is initially jarring - where are my files stored? why does nothing have a "quit" button? where's the taskbar? etc - but I'm still young enough to adapt to new things. The built-in GPS is more or less useless unless you're standing still outdoors. As a mobile productivity unit it's slower and more awkward than a proper laptop.

I bought one because I was curious to see what tablets were like, but unwilling to spend a huge amount of money on an iPad, because I'm still a PC person at heart. I almost opted for a Barnes and Noble Nook HD+ - which has a 1920x1080 screen - but it's not apparent whether Barnes and Noble will continue to make and support them. The Amazon Kindle Fire is currently being replaced with a newer and more expensive model. Most of the other large tablets have a very simple keyboard dock that adds keys but not much else; the Transformer's USB ports, SD slot, and second battery were the killer features that tipped my hand.

Tablets in General
The tablet market is in a state of rapid evolution, and 2011 was a long time ago. When the TF101 was new, manufacturers seemed to believe that they could sell their tablets at the same price level as the iPad without adding any extra features because, as far as they knew/wished, tablets were going to be expensive.

HP demonstrated this to be incorrect in spectacular fashion with the TouchPad. It was launched in July 2011 at an iPad-matching $599 for the 32gb model and discontinued only six weeks later, because nobody bought it. To be fair, it also used a proprietary OS, WebOS, which had very few applications. The company slashed the price to $149 in order to clear out their inventory, and as a result of this the TouchPad became the best-selling non-Apple tablet of 2011. Microsoft aimed for the high price bracket a year later with the Surface RT, which was also $599 (with a keyboard thrown in). The Gen One RT was a notorious disaster that eventually lost Microsoft almost a billion dollars. Microsoft is currently trying to sell the Surface 2, which is much the same but slightly cheaper. Time will tell if it is any more successful.

As I write these words the market has stratified into Apple at the high end, with a few other players in the +£300 market, not many more in the +£200 market, and a kind of bloodstained feeding frenzy in the sub-£200 sector. The budget end resembles the pre-Video Game Crash of 1983 period, when every company even tangentially involved in selling video games or televisions tried to crack the video games market. This culminated in games such as Chase the Chuck Wagon, a promotional tie-in for the Atari 2600 devised by a pet food company, and hardware such as the Mattel Aquarius (with its library of 21(!) games). This Christmas Aldi has a tablet. Argos has a tablet, and so does Tesco. Tesco! And there are scads of generic tablets from the Far East, which like Diaclone toys are probably perfectly fine, but they don't mean anything and some buyers are put off by this. I was put off by it. I want my tablet to mean something. The iPad is the most meaningful tablet of all - shops sell iPad covers, there are iPad screen wipes and screen protectors, iPad stands, leather iPad cases, just as there had once been a market for replacement ZX81 keyboards or mobile phone covers - but the Transformer has a certain amount of meaning as well. It won't impress people at a party and like every non-iPad tablet it's a sign that you can't afford an iPad, but dammit I just want to surf the internet with something that I can carry in one hand.

How long before a major newspaper releases its own tablet, eh? Amazon's Kindle Fire is essentially a shopping portal for Amazon's website, and should really be given away for free; imagine a Times-branded tablet that comes with a subscription to the newspaper. The Guardian would in theory be a natural fit, but they're wedded to Apple, and it would be awkward if The Guardian was to launch an Android tablet. Perhaps The Sun could release a tablet optimised for breasts, I dunno. The end.

EDIT: A year later, and I finally took my TF101 on holiday. It's fascinating how rapidly tablets have become a pervasive part of our lives. I used an App to download my boarding pass, so I didn't have to print anything out; I booked the hotel with another App, I used a third App to read books, a fourth to listen to music (whilst reading books). Essentially, the dreams of wild-eyed technological visionaries from thirty years ago have come true, like a dam bursting after thirty years of rain. Except that instead of sweeping everything before it in a torrent of futurism, the water just flows around us, because there is a time for everything and this is a time for tablets.