Editor's note: Updated with correct physical dimensions facts.
You've been patient. You've done your research and are now ready to finally plop down the cash for a tablet. For whatever reason, you've chosen to overlook the iPad 2 and are dead set on bringing an Android tablet home this year.
There are plenty of available Android tablets to choose from, the very best of which are running the Honeycomb OS; however, the recently revealed Asus Transformer Prime--the next iteration of the well-received Asus Transformer--represents the most significant hardware upgrade for Android tablets since the launch of the Motorola Xoom.
So, do you take the plunge now or wait for the Prime? Make no mistake, thanks to its increased specs over current Android tablets, anyone interested in buying a tablet should watch the Prime's launch closely. I'm looking at you, original Transformer owners, as the Prime will include all the features of the original Transformer, plus more.
So keep reading as I plow through what I consider are the most relevant concerns when considering your tablet-choosing dilemma.
The Transformer Prime will be the first tablet housing the Nvidia Tegra 3 CPU. Tegra 3 is a quad-core processor--that's twice the number of cores as the Tegra 2, found in most current Honeycomb tablets.
With Tegra 3, we'll likely see much faster app loading--especially complex 3D games--as well as faster OS navigation and switching between apps. Also, expect not only Web surfing speeds to improve, but Nvidia claims that scrolling through Web pages will be a smoother experience as well.
It also purports two times faster Flash performance, smoother streaming video, up to three times faster HTML5 and WebGL performance, and faster photo and video editing. Nvidia however doesn't make clear exactly which tablets it used as a comparison to get these numbers.
In games, expect higher frame rates on the Prime compared with the same games running on Tegra 2-based tablets. The developer of Shadowgun, Madfinger Games, says its game will reach the coveted 60 frames per second frame rate on the Prime, whereas it's capped at 30 on other Android devices.
Games like Riptide, Shadowgun, and Bladeslinger will sport additional shader and particle effects, and in cases like Shadowgun, more-complex environments as well. For example, you'll see pools of water on the Tegra 3 version of the game, but if played on a Xoom, you would see only a dry floor. Shadowgun will also sport specular highlights, animated textures, and more-realistic cloth animations.
In Riptide, a jet ski racing game, you'll see water effects that hit the screen as you race and a blurring effect that enhances the sense of speed when your boost is activated. These effect won't be seen on Tegra 2-based tablets.
Developers of the aforementioned games each state that its games will look the best on Tegra 3 compared with any mobile device. I think it's safe to assume that the "any" includes the iPad 2 as well.
Increased speed, of course, comes at a cost, and you can only push the processing and graphical envelope so far until you begin to pay for it in battery life.
In our tests, we've seen Android tablets hit a battery life cap of about 10 hours running a single battery; that's about 2 hours less than the average for iPads.
Asus hopes to extend tablet battery life on the Prime in two ways. First, through the CPU's fifth core. Yes, I lied, the Tegra 3 actually supports five cores, not four. The fifth is known as the companion core.
The companion core uses less power than the four main cores and takes on less-strenuous tasks like video playback. The four higher-performance cores step in when performance-hungry tasks like gaming and Web page loading are necessary. This sharing the load will conceivably consume less battery power and, according to Asus, will allow the Transformer Prime to match the iPad 2's 12-hour battery life; with the mobile dock attachment, the Prime could eclipse any tablet battery life before it, lasting up to 18 hours. Lofty goals for sure, so check back soon after launch to see how close it comes to those estimates.
Profile and weight
When it debuts, the 10-inch Prime will sport the thinnest profile of any tablet before it, measuring 8.3mm. The Prime (sans dock) is thinner than both the 8.9mm thick iPad 2 and 8.6mm thick Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. Weight-wise, the Prime measures right in-between the Tab 10.1 and iPad 2 at 1.29 pounds.
The Prime will have an even smaller profile than 7-inch tablets but it will be (in some cases) at least twice as fast.
However, since we've yet to actually touch it, we can't yet comment on exactly how comfortable the Prime will feel in our hands.
Some songs just aren't the same without an adequate amount of bass. My biggest complaint about sound quality with the vast majority of tablets is the lack of bass and overall tinny-ness of the sound they produce. Asus seeks to change this by outfitting the Prime with a subwoofer as well as integrating its SonicMaster tech that it co-developed with Bang and Olufson.
Asus says that thanks to SonicMaster, Prime users will experience clearer sound with richer and deeper bass; based on this demo of SonicMaster's sound quality in laptop speakers, I'd be hard-pressed to disagree.
I've already mentioned the speed improvements we should see with the Prime thanks to its sexy quad-core goodness, but according to Nvidia, the area we'll see the greatest improvements is graphical performance in games. Nvidia claims the Tegra 3 will deliver three times the graphical performance of Tegra 2.
You'll also see native support for wireless console controllers, allowing you to connect your Prime to the TV and play games from your couch on the big screen. If you have a 3DTV, you can also connect the Prime and play supported Tegra 3 3D games using Nvidia's 3D Vision.
While the Prime will launch with Honeycomb installed, Asus has confirmed that the tablet will see an update to Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) before 2012.
I'll leave the many, many new features of Android 4.0 to the actual review, but by all accounts, ICS is essentially "Honeycomb plus." It takes the basic aesthetics of Honeycomb, snazzes things up a bit, and adds new features.
The most exciting of which--that we don't already find in Honeycomb--is the folder creation, screenshot (!), and photo-editing features.
The Transformer Prime is slated to have the best camera yet seen on any tablet. While the Sony tablet S has so far yielded the highest-quality pics of any tablet, thanks to its inclusion of Exmor technology, the Prime should do even better.
The Prime includes two cameras: a 1.2-megapixel front camera and an 8-megapixel rear camera with LED flash. The rear camera includes a f2.4 aperture (matching the iPhone 4S), which means the iris of the camera allows in more light, thus more information, allowing pics to deliver more detail. We'll have to wait and see just how close actual pics look compared with this one released by Asus, however.
The Prime costs $500 for the 32GB version and $600 for the 64GB version. That's expensive, compared with tablets like the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet, but in line with most 10-inch premium tablets including the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and Sony S Tablet.
However, this being turkey week, there are a few Black Friday deals that may tip the scales back into the favor of available Android tablets.
The most enticing of which should excite users who don't already own an original Transformer. According to this supposed leaked ad, Best Buy will have a Black Friday deal on the original Transformer, selling it for a very low $250, which is $150 less than its normal price.
There will likely be plenty more Black Friday tablet deals, and if you see one that is so enticing that you can't pass it up, well, I can't blame you.
The Asus Transformer Prime could set a new high bar for not just Android tablets, but tablets in general; however, if you're not a gamer and don't do much that requires high-processing speeds like video editing, or if you find an amazing Black Friday deal, then there are some very good tablets out there well worth your money.
Though I'm excited about the Prime's potential, I've only been exposed to the good stuff. Once we have one in, I'll have a chance to see the full picture and can make a final purchase recommendation. Right now, if you have the patience and the cash, it's worth waiting a few weeks to see how closely this thing lives up to the hype. You may not buy it in the end, but if you wait, whatever decision you make, you'll at least know it was a fully informed one.