Adding a keyboard to an Android tablet should give you the advantage of two devices in one, but Asus’ Eee Pad Transformer didn’t quite make the grade when I took it for a spin.The concept of the Eee Pad is simple and appealing: you’ve got a standard 10-inch Android tablet (running Honeycomb), which gives you all the usual tablet advantages for browsing, gaming and light work. Then you can connect to the dock, which incorporates a full keyboard, charging and additional battery. The end result when you’ve done that is a device that looks virtually indistinguishable from a 10-inch netbook, but lets you work either in “notebook mode” or as a more traditional tablet. At $799, it’s slightly cheaper than buying a tablet and netbook separately (though not if you’re happy to settle for a lower-priced Android 2.2 unit).
I love Android tablets and my existing Asus netbook is one of my favourite travel devices, so I was looking forward to trying out the EeePad. Unfortunately, the whole experience got scuppered pretty fast by an unfortunate reality: using a keyboard attached to a tablet is not similar enough to using a keyboard attached to a notebook to make the experience actually productive.
I got off to a very bad start by diving into Google Docs to try some typing. For reasons I never adequately established, there’s a really noticeable typing lag when using the EeePad keyboard in Docs — so much so that I was often several words ahead. It doesn’t seem lose any text, but the experience was still discomfiting.
Once I installed AK Notepad, that problem disappeared, but there’s still some other keyboard nuisances that would put me off using this for large amounts of typing. In particular: I’m used to using Control+Shift+arrow keys to select entire words. That isn’t possible on the EeePad, because Control+Shift asks you to select an input device. Another problem for an experienced typist is that where you’re expecting the ESC key, there’s the Android Back key. That’s not entirely illogical, but if you’re used to hitting Esc to cancel something, it can have unexpected effects, especially if you’re typing inside a browser based app and suddenly find everything you have typed disappearing off screen without warning.
The keyboard also doesn’t have a replica of the Android menu key that works with Honeycomb’s expanded range of options, so there’s lots of tasks that require using either the trackpad or the touchscreen. (There are useful keyboard shortcuts for Android devices with keypads, but those don’t help with all these issues.) And a final physical design issue: on a smooth desk, the feet on the base of the dock aren’t sufficient to stop it from easily slipping.
Tweaking and customising might solve some of those problems, but there’s still the issue of whether this would actually be more helpful to me than travelling with a similarly-sized notebook. (The combo weighs in at 1325 grams; my current netbook is actually lighter, at 1250 grams.) There’s many things I can do on my Windows 7-based netbook that simply aren’t possible on the EeePad; there’s almost nothing I can do on the EeePad that won’t work just as well, or better, on the netbook.
Yes, I could detach the tablet and just use that for browsing. But I can do that with whatever phone I’m travelling with, and I’ll need a phone anyway; the EeePad isn’t a phone substitute right now. (A 3G version is expected later in the year.)
Ultimately, I can’t imagine why I’d pack this rather than my trusty existing netbook. If the keyboard issues get resolved in version 2, my interest might be piqued, but right now it feels like a case of “neat idea, but I don’t actually need it”.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman reminds manufacturers to not define Control+Shift as a shortcut in its own right. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.