The Sony Vaio Tap 20 introduced us to the idea of the all-in-one/tablet hybrid device. Asus has taken that concept, slathered it with Asus' particular brand of experimental enthusiasm, and brought it to life in the form of the $1,299 Transformer AIO.
The Transformer AIO, like the Sony Tap 20, shows an effort to offer consumers an intriguing new blend of all-in-one desktop and semiportable tablet. Rather than following Sony's approach of relying on Windows 8's new touch-friendly interface to achieve that mix with a single, seamless piece of hardware, the Transformer AIO essentially gives you two computing devices. One is an Intel Core i5 CPU-equipped base unit that behaves like a standard Windows 8 all-in-one with an 18.4-inch display. Lift the display out of its cradle and the screen switches over to its built-in Nvidia Tegra 3 chip, becoming a giant, 5.6-pound Android tablet.
The design Asus has devised for the Transformer AIO offers a few advantages. The tablet portion weighs half as much as the Vaio Tap 20, making it easier to move from room to room. With two CPUs, the Transformer can also run Windows 8 and Android concurrently, making some clever multiuser scenarios possible once you connect an external monitor to the base station. Android also provides access to a larger library of touch-designed applications than you would have if the Transformer ran Windows 8 exclusively.
One downside of the Transformer is that the base-station-with-removable-tablet model introduces more complexity than a self-contained alternative like the Vaio Tap 20. Suddenly you need to keep track of two sets of applications, and two storage locations (where did I save that photo?), and otherwise maintain two different devices. A remote desktop function to run Windows 8 on the tablet is sluggish and unreliable. The chunky base station is also not as elegant as a single-piece all-in-one/tablet design.
Those issues might put off some potential buyers. My bigger reservation comes from the fact that we will see more hybrid desktop designs this year, both over the next few months and in the fall when Intel introduces a line of supposedly more power-efficient CPUs, code-named Haswell. There's certainly something to be said for Asus' dual operating system approach today, in particular its potential to satisfy the needs of multiple different users in one environment. I still advise waiting six months to see what other products might emerge in this compelling new desktop category.
Unlike the Sony Vaio Tap 20, the Asus Transformer AIO feels like a desktop first. Because you can move the entirety of the Tap 20's hardware, you can always grab its power adapter and plug it in somewhere else. Regardless of where you use the Transformer's display, though, you still need to find a home for the base station. Asus kindly includes two power adapters with the Transformer, one for the base station, and a different cable for the tablet, so in truth you don't need the base station to keep the tablet charged. Still, I suspect most people buying this system will also be interested in the full Windows 8 experience, which means they'll be apt to find a more-or-less permanent home for the base unit.
As a desktop, the Transformer is a clunky-looking machine with a too-small display for its price. Even HP's $499 all-in-ones start with a 20-inch LCD. The ability to connect an external monitor to the Transformer's base station via the HDMI port is a saving grace for those interested in this system as a full-fledged computer. Even better, Windows will automatically extend the desktop environment across the tablet and an external monitor should you connect one. It's not the same as using two 23-inch or 27-inch monitors, but at least the Transformer can make full use of any available screen space.
Asus also deserves credit for the display's touch screen. Both in Windows 8 and in Android mode, touch input felt responsive, even with two people playing air hockey. I also felt no noticeable drag. The only hiccup came when I tried using Windows 8 on the tablet by itself via the included Splashtop remote desktop software. In that case, the input was still usable, but annoyingly laggy, though that could be a function of the overtaxed wireless networks in CNET's New York office.
That brings us to swapping back and forth between usage modes. The process is for the most part seamless. With the tablet in its docking cradle, you can use either Windows 8 or Android, and moving between them is a simple matter of hitting a small button along the right edge of the display, or clicking on the Mode Switch icon that shows up on both operating systems.
Because the base unit and the tablet itself both have their own CPU, you never have to reboot or otherwise disable one operating system to start up another. You also don't lose any data or experience any other status changes when you move between operating systems. Remove the tablet from its cradle, an easy-enough, latch-free maneuver, and it defaults to Android. But because Windows 8 is still running on the base unit, you can use remote desktop software to virtualize Windows 8 on the tablet.
One trick to a smooth virtualization experience is minimizing input lag. That's easy enough to do over a hardwired network, less so over the local wireless connection that Asus has to provide here. Asus has opted to use a true Wi-Fi connection to bridge the remote desktop gap between the base unit and the tablet, and the company recommends a 5.0GHz, 802.11n network specifically. That could mean a router replacement for buyers of this system. If you intend to use remote desktop mode often, you would be smart to ensure that the signal is strong in all of the places you will use the hardware.
Setting up the connection between devices is simple. You must put both Windows 8 and Android on the same wireless network, then launch the Splashtop program in one OS, make an account, and then launch Splashtop again in the other OS and sign in to the account. Once all of that is set up, the tablet will automatically go into remote desktop mode and let you use Windows 8 away from the base station. You can still swap between operating systems on the tablet, as well, and again, you don't lose any data when you do.
If you're unsure about the point of all this OS switching, an easy way to think about it is that the Transformer is essentially two computing devices, a Windows 8 desktop and a large Android tablet, built around a platform that invites a variety of different usage scenarios.
Out of the box, you can use the Transformer AIO as a day-to-day household computer, or even a general-purpose home office machine, but you can then pull the tablet away to watch a movie, play an Android game, or browse the Web. A small support pulls out of the back of the tablet and lets you stand it up independently. Add a monitor to the Transformer, and you can hand the tablet off to someone else and continue using Windows.
|Asus Transformer AIO||Sony Vaio Tap 20||Dell Inspiron One 2330|
|Display size/resolution||18.4-inch, 1,920x1,080-pixel touch screen||20-inch, 1,600x900-pixel touch screen||23-inch, 1,920x1,080-pixel touch screen|
|PC CPU||3.1GHz Intel Core i5-3350P||1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U||2.5GHz Intel Core i5-3330S|
|PC Memory||8GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM||4GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM||8GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM|
|Graphics||2GB Nvidia GeForce GT 730M||64MB Intel HD Graphics 4000||32MB Intel HD Graphics 2500|
|Storage||1TB, 7,200rpm hard drive||750GB, 5,400rpm hard drive||1TB, 7,200rpm hard drive|
|Optical drive||Dual-layer DVD burner||None||Dual-layer DVD burner|
|Networking||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11a/b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Windows 8 (64-bit)||Windows 8 (64-bit)||Windows 8 (64-bit)|
And when you do use the Transformer as a Windows 8 all-in-one, you may find you're impressed with its capabilities. The base unit is not the most elegant piece of hardware, but it houses a full-fledged quad-core desktop chip, the Core i5-3350P processor. The Nvidia GT 730M graphics chip is the mobile variant, and a lower-end chip at that, but it's at least more capable than the embedded graphics chips common in this price range.
Asus includes no particularly exotic PC features here, like the Tap 20's NFC or the Thunderbolt ports you'll find on the Asus ET2300INTI all-in-one. But, screen size aside, anyone shopping for an all-in-one in this price range should feel reasonably satisfied with the Asus' core PC components.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)