In late 2012 I decided it was finally time to gift myself with a Transformer Infinity, a piece of hardware (or rather a class of hardware) I had had my eyes on for sometime. After a couple months of usage, I can finally start writing up my thoughts on its hardware and software.

This ‘review’ should be read keeping in mind that I'm not an ‘average user’: I'm not the ‘intended target’ for this class of devices, I'm a power user that prefers control to “kid-proof interfaces”, and I have some very specific needs for what I could consider the ultimate device. This is particularly important, and will be stressed again, in discussing software. And all of this will come together in the conclusions (there's also a TL;DR version for the lazy).

The hardware

One of the things, if not the thing, I like the most about the Transformer line is the brilliant idea of enhancing the practical form of the tablet with the possibility of converting it to a netbook: after all, one of the things that had been bothering me about the whole tablet concept was the impracticality of the on-screen keyboard, stealing reading estate to offer something on which typing for long periods is not exactly the most comfortable experience.

While it is possible to use external (bluetooth, typically) keyboards with other tablets, the simple yet brilliant idea in the Transformer is to have the keyboard as an integral (yet detachable, and separately bought) part of the tablet, additionally acting as a cover. The idea was very poorly copied also by the Microsoft Surface, that however misses some of the key points that make the Transformer so good, such as the fact that the TF keyboard is actually a full-fledged docking station, also offering extra battery and additional connectors.

This feature has thus been the major selling point of the TF while I was evaluating which tablet to get, once I was settled on getting one. The other factors that came into play were screen resolution and connectivity. The next competitor in line was Google's Nexus, that while sporting a much better resolution than the TF700T, was missing any kind of external media support: the Transformer, in addition to a micro-SD slot on the tablet also features an USB port on the docking station (yes, you can plug USB pen drives into it). Oh, and of course the fact that the 10" version of the Nexus was not actually available in my country also influenced the decision.

In the end I decided that the TF700T had a high enough resolution for my tastes. In fact, screen resolution is the reason why I finally got the Transformer Infinity rather than the Padphone, this other brilliant idea from Asus of having a smartphone that gets embedded in a tablet which is itself essentially like a Transformer (supporting the same keyboards/docking stations). If the tablet component of the Padphone didn't lag behind the actual Transformer line in terms of hardware, I would have definitely shelled the extra euros to get it.

And while we're talking about screen, I'm among those that doesn't like the wide formats (16:9, 16:10) which is currently standard (if not the only option) for monitors; however, I do believe that these formats are a good idea compared to the 4:3 ratio of auld times and modern iPads when it comes to tablets.

Indeed, the most annoying part about widescreen monitors (for computers) is that a lot of the available screen estate is wasted for many common usages (everything that revolve around text, essentially), and while they do come handy with multiple text windows side by side or when forced to read long-ass lines (such as some wide tables and stuff like that), they are not really a good alternative to just a bigger, higher-resolution (4:3) display, as the widescreen allows reading longer text lines at the expense of the number of text lines. And like or not, much of our computer usage (even if it's just social networking) still revolves around text.

However, what is annoying in computer monitors is actually a bonus point on tablets: since these devices are often used in portrait mode, with the longer dimension being kept vertical, their widescreen format is actually a long screen format, keeping more text lines in view and requiring less page-flipping. And it's not only about text: when reading full-page comics, the widescreen (longscreen) format actually wastes less screen estate, typically, than the 4:3 format, at least in my experience (but then again it might depend on what format the comics you read are in).

Stuff I don't like

Although I'm overall pretty satisfied with the Transformer Infinity hardware, there are a few things I don't like.

The first issue I have is with the glossy display. I have an issues with glossy displays in general, not just on this tablet. I hate glossy displays. I find it astounding that after years of efforts to make computer monitors anti-glare, no-reflection and overall less straining for the eyes of long-term users (when computers meant office space and work), the last 10 years have seen this fall back to displays that can only be decently used in optimal lighting conditions.

And no, no IPS (plus or nonplus) or other trick is going to solve the problem of a horrendously reflective surface. It helps, but it doesn't solve the problem. Even my colleague, die-hard Mac fan, finally had to acknowledge that the purportedly unreflective glossy display in the latest MacBook Pros is still more straining than the crappiest matte display in suboptimal lighting conditions, i.e. almost always.

But sadly, matte displays don't seem to be an option on tablets, that I can see (ebook readers do have them, though). So regardless of how much it bothers me, there seems to be no alternative to watching myself in the mirror when looking at darker content. Seriously, can some manufacturer come up and offer matte displays please? I'm even willing to spend a couple of extra euros for that (not 50, but up to 10 I would accept, even knowing that the process costs just a few cents per display).

The second thing I don't like about the Transformer Infinity is the connector. When I unpacked the TF700T (which I got before the docking keyboard), I was seriously pissed. What the heck Asus, I spend my days mocking iPad users for their ass proprietary connector and you play this dirty trick on me? Not cool.

Then I realized that the connector is actually the same connector that ties the tablet to the docking keyboard, and I realized that a standard USB port would have not made sense. While the external USB port of the dock, its SD card slot and the keyboard could possibly all have been made accessible to the tablet by presenting the dock as an unpowered USB hub, it would have been impossible to also allow charging the pad from the dock, which is in fact one of the most useful feature the Transformer has.

Tightly related to the connector issue is the power issue: although the other end of the power cable for the Transformer is a standard USB cable, you can't typically charge it from a standard power source, except for slow trickle charging with the device off or at least in standby, due to the power draw. Asus' own “wall wart” (the wall plug/USB adapter), on the other hand, detects the presence of the Transformer and can feed it more current (15V, 2A if I'm not mistaken) thereby allowing faster charging and making it possible to charge the device even while in use (very useful for bedside use at the end of the day, when the device battery is likely to be close to exhaustion)

I honestly wouldn't mind if the industry came up with a common standard that worked around the current limitations of USB, at least for device charging: even the N900, Nokia's best although now obsolescent phone, is a little picky on its power source, refusing to charge from some low-cost ‘universal’ chargers (it does work correctly with the wall wart that shipped with an HTC smartphone we bought a couple of years ago, so it does work with non-Nokia chargers).

Finally, not really necessary but a bonus point of docking keyboard would have been an Ethernet port: Asus themselves have found a very smart way to keep the port ‘thin’ when not in use, a solution that they use in their latest ultrabooks (or whatever you want to call thin, 11" laptops), a solution that I believe could be employed also in the docking keyboard of the Transformer. Its absence is not really a negative point (how often are you going to need to use a network cable with a device as portable as a tablet), but would have been a nice addition for its use in netbook form.

The software

The Transformer Infinity is an Android tablet. Most of what I'm going to say here is therefore about Android in general, except for the few things that have been ‘enhanced’ or otherwise changed by Asus.

Android, for me, is interesting, because it's probably the first (successful) example of large-scale ‘macroscopic’ deployment of the Linux kernel beyond the ‘classic’ server or workstation use (only recently trickled down into domestic use with Ubuntu and related distributions). (By macroscopic I am here referring to the systems with which the user interacts frequently, thereby excluding embedded systems —think of the many Linux-based ADSL modem/routers.)

While Android shares a very important part of its core with ‘classic’ Linux distributions (and even there, not really, since the Linux kernel in Android is heavily modified and it has only been recently that its changes have started trickling upstream into the main Linux source), the userspace part of Android, and specifically the middleware, the software layer between the Linux kernel and the actual user applications, is completely different.

Because of this, Android is actually the first system that suddenly motivates the FSF insistence on having the classic Linux systems be called GNU/Linux rather than simply Linux. On the other hand, the userspace in classic Linux system is not just GNU (and it's not like the X server, or desktop environments such as KDE, are insignificant components), so isn't just GNU/Linux just a little arrogant?

But I digress. The fact that Android is not a classic Linux distribution, however, is an important point, especially for someone like me, for reasons that I'm going to explain in the following.

Android, much like iOS, is an operating system designed for devices whose main target use is (interactive) consumption rather than production. Sure, there are applications available for both systems that can exploit the device features in creative ways, but even these are mostly focused on personal entertainment than anything else.

It's not like the operating systems actively prevent more sophisticated and heavy-duty usages: it's just that they don't particularly encourage it, since the usually limited hardware of the devices they run on wouldn't make productivity particularly comfortable.

After all, even I, a tinkerer and power user, finally bought the tablet having comic book reading in mind as its primary use (although admittedly 700€ is a little too much for just that).

For this intended target, Android is exceptionally well-designed. Thanks also to the very tight integration with the wide range of ‘cloud’ services offered by Google, it provides a very functional environment right from the start; and since it's “all in the cloud”, you don't even have to worry about synchronization among devices. All very fine and dandy —as long as you don't care having all your data in the hands of a single huge company whose main interest is advertising.

As if selling your soul to Google wasn't enough, Asus adds some of its own, by keeping track of your device with ridiculously extreme precision, even when geolocation services are disabled. I would recommend not carrying your Asus-branded Android device when committing crimes (I don't actually know if this “phoning home” thing is Asus-specific or general for Android), but the feature could come in handy if somebody stole it.

Aside from these creepy aspects, as I was saying, Android is actually quite nice. The software choice so far has also been rather satisfactory: aside from the games that I bought from the Humble Indie Bundles, the must-have Simon Tatham's Puzzles collection (which I have everywhere) and a few others available for free (many with ads), the most important piece of software I took care of installing was Perfect Viewer, which I obviously used mostly as a comic book reader.

In fact, Perfect Viewer is an excellent example to introduce what I really hate about Android: control. Perfect Viewer has a very useful feature, which is the ability to access files on remote machines. Why is this feature useful? Because Android doesn't provide it by default.

This, in my opinion, is a horrible failure on the part of the operating system: it should be its duty, after all, to provide a unified method to access remote files, which would be transparently available to all applications. Why should every application reimplement this basic functionality? Result: you can't peruse your home-server-stored media collection from VLC on Android, but you can peruse your graphics novel collection because one application went the extra mile to implement the feature.

The failure of Android to actually provide a built-in method to access remote directories is particularly grave considering that there is no practical reason why this shouldn't be available: the kernel (Linux) is very apt at mounting remote filesystems with a variety of protocols, and Android itself is already designed to expose mount points transparently to applications (easily seen when making use of the (micro-)SD card slots available on devices that provide them).

So not providing the possibility to mount remote shares is actually a design choice that require disabling feature Linux can provide. And I find it interesting that the web offers a plethora of tutorials to guide people through the gimmicks necessary to make the feature available (gimmicks that include ‘rooting’ your device to gain complete control of it). I find this interesting because it shows that it's not just ‘power users’ like me that need this feature (unsurprisingly, as media collections on home servers are common, and growing in popularity, and tables are good for media consumption —if you have a way to actually access the stupid media).

One is taken to wonder why is this feature not available in Android's stock builds. Sadly, the only reason I can think for this is that this forces people to unnecessarily use online services (such as —oh right— the ones offered by Google) that provide selective, targeted, and pricier alternatives to the widespread home server approach.

But I see this as a single instance of a more general problem with Android, i.e. the lack of control from the user. There's a lot in Android happening ‘behind the scenes’, and much of it is something which is intentionally hidden from the user, and which the user is actively prevented from operating on.

While the devices where Android runs are general purpose devices (like all computers), the operating system is designed to only allow exposure to selected features in selected ways. And even though it's not as bad as the competition (for example, in contrast to iOS, enabling “out of band” installations, i.e. installation of applications not downloaded from “official” channels like the Google Play Store, is a simple option in the settings), it's still a strong contribution to the war against general purpose computing (a topic on which I have a lot of things to say but for which I haven't yet found the time to patiently write them down).

Compare this with Maemo, the stock operating system of the N900 (ah, sorry, that's in Italian only for the time being): a full-fledged Debian-based Linux distribution; while the device is still very easy to operate, the underlying power and flexibility of the (GNU and more) classic Linux userspace remains accessible for those that want it. Maemo showed pretty clearly that you don't need to sacrifice power and flexibility to offer ease of use —unless that's what you actually want to do. And the fact that you do want to do that is for me an extremely negative sign.

There are efforts to make Android more power-user friendly, even without requiring hacks or rooting, the most significant probably being applications such as Irssi ConnectBot and the Terminal IDE. However, there's only so much they can do to work around some intrinsic, intentional deficiencies in the operating system.

Some conclusions

Ultimately, I was actually hoping to be able to exploit the convertible nature of the Transformer Infinity to make the device supplant my current ‘bedtime computer’, a Samsung N150 netbook that has been faithfully serving us since we bought it when we married.

At the hardware level, the TF700T could quite easily do it: it has the same screen size, with higher resolution (although the Samsung display does have the benefit of being matte), the keyboard is similarly sized, the battery (especially when docked) lasts longer, the CPU is better, the GPU is better, the webcam is better (and there are two of them), the amount of RAM is the same. There are some things in which the Transformer falls behind, such as having a smaller hard-disk, or less connectors, but these are things that don't normally have a weight in the usage I have for my netbook.

Where the Transformer falls really behind, though, is in the software space. The netbook has Windows preinstalled (and I'm keeping it that way so for those rare emergencies where an actual Windows installation might be needed), but I have a nifty USB pendrive with a Linux distribution on it, which I boot from to have exactly the system that I need: all of tools are there, it's configured to behave the way I want it, and so on and so forth. On the TF700T, I can't boot from the USB pendrive (I'd have to prepare a new one anyway, because of the different hardware architecture, but that wouldn't be difficult). I wouldn't even need to, in fact, if only Android wasn't such a crippled Linux.

It's no surprise that there are efforts underway to be have both the Android and the more classical Linux userspaces are your hands, such as this one, that gives you both an Android and Debian systems running on the same (Android) kernel. It's not perfect (for example, it still relies heavily on the Android subsystem for keyboard handling, and the X server must be accessed ‘remotely’), but it's a step in the right direction.

My ideal system? A Dalvik virtual machine running on something like Maemo or Meego. There actually was a company (Myriad Group) working on something like this (what they call “Alien Dalvik”): not open source, though, nor universally accessible (it's for OEMs, apparently). Pity.

TL;DR

I like (with a couple of caveats) the hardware of the Transformer Infinity (TF700T) and its capability of becoming a netbook by adding the mobile dock. I wish the software (Android) were friendlier to power users, though, to better exploit this.