Want a tablet on a budget? Get the original Transformer!

April 13, 2012
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So you want to get in on the world of Android tablets but don’t want to spend a lot of money? Well don’t worry! I had the same urges a few months back and got myself an Asus Transformer for £200/$317. Now, you may be asking why I am recommending a tablet that already has a younger and more powerful brother, the phenomenal Asus Transformer Prime. Well, if you are after a tablet which is still very fun, powerful and most importantly, affordable, this could be the toy for you.

First off, lets assume that you are a bit tight on cash (like most of the world it seems). Nevertheless, your heart yearns for a slice of the modern computing age – Android on a big screen. The Transformer ranges in price from $360 to $390 and can be acquired in so many places, including Amazon, eBay, Best Buy, Wal-Mart, just to mention the most important. Many sellers on eBay will go all the way down to $150 if the device is second hand. What’s important about the Transformer is that the price is decreasing every day, but you still get your money’s worth.

The specifications are not to be sniffed at either, remember that this device only came out early last year, and still rates very highly on benchmark tests.

The best part about the Transformer (for me at least) is the huge development community that stands behind it, supporting users with custom software and tweaks, partly because it is such a fun device, and partly because it wound up having a strong userbase. Long story short, there are plenty of ROM’s and tweaks available for you to enjoy.

The Specifications

At the end of the day, these are what we all care about, so I will lay the important ones out for you. What does $360 get you? Plenty, I promise.

  • OS: Android 3.2, though you would immediately be asked if you’d like to upgrade to Android 4.0.
  • Display: It’s a crisp 10.1″ LED WXGA screen, at 1280×800. It supports multitouch for up to 10 fingers, and has Gorilla glass – the scratch resistant glass that doesn’t care how many oddities get flung upon it.
  • CPU: The processor is NVIDIA’s beautiful Tegra 2. It is a dual-core chip, clocked at 1Ghz.
  • Internal Storage: This comes as 16 or 32GB, depending on the device you buy, it’s important to remember that the tablet has a microSD slot supporting up to 64GB.
  • Cameras: A 5MP Rear Camera, and a 1.2MP front-facer that always looks very crisp. Especially in Video Chats!
  • Outputs: Stereo speakers with SRS premium sound, and a great high quality microphone. A Mini-HDMI output! An Audio/Mic headset socket.
  • Sensors: G-Sensor, Light Sensor, Gyroscope, E-Compass, and of course, GPS.
  • Battery: This is fantastic. It lasts up to 9.5 hours alone, and will keep going to 16 hours with the keyboard dock accessory

The Keyboard Accessory

It’s called the Transformer for a reason, you know. The Transformer can sit itself happily into a keyboard dock, which not only makes typing a breeze but adds another 8 hours of battery life! The keyboard itself has a battery which (if docked) charges up along with the tablet when plugged in. This gives you (if you play your cards well) up to 16 hours on one full charge. Fantastic.

Unfortunately the keyboard accessory is another $120 and sold separately, so if your coin-filled coffee jar marked ‘Tablet Fun’ really is low, you probably don’t need this accessory. However, if you want to get a computing experience unlike any other, in which a tablet becomes a touchscreen netbook with two batteries, then it’s certainly a nice thing to have. It also has two USB ports for external connections such as memory sticks, and an SD card slot. And if you are a fan of video game console emulators on Android, you can plug your USB controllers into the dock. No bespoke adaptors necessary.

Which ROM is best?

As far as I am concerned there are two main contenders, Cyanogenmod 9 and AOKP. Cyanogenmod tries to be as close to stock Android as possible, with fixes and additions that better their community. AOKP has a similar objective, but tends to add more customization and has regular releases.

As to which one you should install, well it depends (as most things do) on your preferences. Cyanogenmod has a pretty slow update/nightly build cycle, however, they in turn have a great reputation for stability. Though AOKP is not unstable, very occasionally one or two things can slip up and need restarting. However AOKP has a much shorter release cycle, with new builds coming out, sometimes, every week.

Some people may think “Why is that good? You have to keep reflashing software”. Well yes, but the point is the AOKP team is very quick to incorporate new features and have everything ready for users. When Android 4.0.4 was released, AOKP merged the changes into ‘Build 29′ and released it all in a few days. As of writing, you can use Build 31. Two builds for fixes came out within a week! Most of the time you can flash one build over an older one, preserving your applications and settings. Sometimes the developers specify that a device must be wiped first to avoid conflicts with old software.

Though both ROMs offer great levels of customisation, AOKP takes the trophy here. You can alter everything from the Power Menu options to whether the WiFi indicator shows an icon or a percentage. All of this is achieved with ‘ROM Control’, which is a very tidy and well organised Settings category, far more so than ‘Cyanogenmod Settings’.

As for day-to-day use, there is really not a lot between the two ROM’s, when I first installed AOKP over CM9 I couldn’t tell the difference. If you require stability, use Cyanogenmod or even the stock Ice Cream Sandwich build. If you like to have new builds regularly and don’t mind a few bugs here and there then AOKP is a lot of fun.

My cluttered homescreen on AOKP Build 29. Loving it.

The best way to start your rooting and ROM-flashing journey is by rooting a TF101. Just remember that this voids the warranty. Afterwards, to flash a custom ROM, you need ClockworkMod recovery, here is our guide for that. Then the general guidelines to installing a ROM like CM9? Take a read of this.

In my opinion, you haven’t truly enjoyed Android until you are running a lightning fast custom ROM. That said, if you aren’t comfortable with the idea of custom ROMs, don’t worry. The default Asus builds are good too.

I go into far more detail on Rooting and how to get a grasp of it in this article. I also explain what a Custom ROM actually is in this article.

Well supported by developers

Android applications are constantly undergoing optimization to make them tablet-friendly and natively scaled. That way, they don’t have to be stretched or zoomed in, which nine times out of ten looks awful. Due to it’s large userbase, the Asus series of Tablets (including the TF101) are always amongst the first to receive such optimizations.

Overclocking?

Most ROMs, including the aforementioned, do not currently support overclocking (operating the CPU at frequencies higher than 1Ghz). There are some kernels available on XDA and RootzWiki which you can use that do allow overclocking, however, it is inadvisable to wipe/replace a kernel image that came with a ROM, and better to flash a totally new ROM which supports the special kernel.

To be honest the Nvidia Tegra 2 CPU already runs everything like a train. If you ever clocked up to 1.6Ghz (the highest most semi-stable kernels offer), I doubt you would ‘see’ much of a performance increase. Certainly not one that would justify running your CPU past its intended speed.

If you really wanted a Tegra 3 feeling, you could certainly get it with some custom kernels on XDA. Unfortunately running a 1Ghz CPU at 1.7Ghz causes system crashes for most people, so you wouldn’t enjoy the speed for long. But there have been some good reports of clock boosts up to 1.4Ghz being stable.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully some of my points here have interested you in the original Transformer. It’s an amazing, yet affordable tablet that is highly versatile, well built, and ready for anything you throw at it. If you go shopping, remember that this isn’t the Transformer Prime (TF201). The older model and subject here is the TF101.

So that’s all. If you’re looking for that affordable tablet then I promise you that the original Transformer won’t disappoint.

What are your thoughts on the device?

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