Asus Transformer 3 Pro review: Playing the Surface Pro 4 at its own game

£900
Price when reviewed

There are no prizes for guessing who Asus is challenging with the Transformer 3 Pro. With its adjustable kickstand, folio keyboard and 2-in-1 design, it’s the spitting image of Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4. Asus is clearly hoping that its twist on the formula can win it a slice of Microsoft’s sales.

Design & features

If looks are the first hurdle, then the Transformer 3 Pro gets off to a strong start. The all-metal body strikes that almost-perfect balance of solidity, heft and slender dimensions that you want in a £1,000 device, and it’s lovely to hold in the hand. It’s nicely weighted whichever way around you’re holding it, yet somehow only tips the scales at a reasonable 800g.

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There is a striking resemblance to Microsoft’s iconic 2-in-1, right down to the flattened edges and indented cooling ducts along the tablet’s upper edge – not to mention the integrated kickstand at the rear. This swings out through 155 degrees, providing enough flexibility to use the tablet on a desk, or crammed into a Ryanair plane seat. It’s well designed, too: stiff enough to not flop backwards, yet pliant enough to adjust one-handed.

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One of the major departures from Microsoft’s 2-in-1 is the presence of a USB Type-C port. This allows for superfast data-transfer speeds via USB 3.1 and Thunderbolt 3, and also makes it possible to hook up a desktop-class GPU via Asus’ ROG XG Station 2 graphics dock – or any Thunderbolt 3 graphics dock for that matter.

If you’re looking for a tablet that’ll genuinely replace a desktop PC at home, then this kind of flexibility makes all the difference, but the good news is that Asus hasn’t left out any of the essentials. You still get a full-sized USB 3 port, a full-sized HDMI output, and a microSD slot, too, which gives you almost as much flexibility as most ultraportable laptops I can think of. And, of course, you get 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.1 into the bargain.

Keyboard, touchpad and pen

If you’re irked by the idea of 2-in-1 manufacturers charging extra for keyboards, then Asus will be your new best friend: the Transformer 3 Pro’s folio keyboard comes bundled in the box. With backlit, Scrabble-tile keys, it’s arguably a touch better than Microsoft’s Type Cover, thanks to a stiffer backing and keys that provide a firmer, more positive action while typing.

It’s not perfect, though. The touchpad beneath can be a little pernickety at times, and did occasionally ignore the odd swipe or stroke, but that was a rarity – in my time with the Asus, it was largely trouble-free. A bigger issue, however, is the keyboard’s eagerness to become dislodged from the tablet itself. Clearly the hidden snap-on magnets aren’t quite as strong as they could be.

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The Transformer 3 Pro is also ready and raring for stylus-related fun and games (or just making some meeting notes, depending on your preference). The Asus Pen comes in the box, and it certainly looks the part. The smart, brushed-aluminium finish is topped with a little pen clip, and there are a couple of buttons on the shaft. Just like the Surface Pro 4, Asus has opted for N-trig’s digitiser technology, which provides 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity, and that makes for smooth, fuss-free writing and onscreen scribbling.

Display

Everyone knows that bigger is better, and the Transformer 3 Pro’s 12.6in display trumps the Surface Pro 4 with a higher screen resolution of 2,880 x 1,920. Despite its larger screen – 12.6in to the Surface Pro 4’s 12.3in – that gives the Asus a narrow lead for pixel density. When I say narrow, though, I mean invisible to the naked eye. At 275 pixels per inch to Microsoft’s 267ppi, it’d take Clark Kent to spot the difference in a side-by-side test.

Putting those tiny pixels to one side, the Asus’ screen largely does all the right things. It’s glorious to look at, and this is principally because it reproduces all the colours you’d expect it to – 99% of the sRGB gamut, in fact. The glaring, or rather not-so-glaring, flaw is that it’s really not that bright. A maximum screen brightness of 292cd/m2 is absolutely loads for indoor use, but carry it outside and it struggles to remain legible on brighter days. By comparison, the Surface Pro 4’s 400cd/m2 backlight means that it’s much more usable while you’re out and about.

And if you’re hoping for a stellar audiovisual experience to make amends for the mediocre backlight, then you’ll be disappointed. The dual front-facing speakers are fine for occasional use, but crank the volume high enough to watch a movie or listen to some music and the tinny sound and creeping distortion will leave you reaching for your headphones.

Performance and battery life

The Transformer 3 Pro comes in both Core i5 and Core i7 flavours – interestingly, Asus hasn’t resorted to lightweight Core M CPUs here. Asus sent us a unit with a dual-core 2.3GHz Intel Core i5-6200U processor, 4GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD, but the pricier model bumps up the price and power with a Core i7 and twice the RAM and SSD capacity.

Compared to a similarly specced Core i5 Surface Pro 4, the Transformer 3 Pro lagged a little way behind in our 4K benchmarks. Despite a respectable overall score of 31, the Surface Pro 4’s faster dual-core 2.4GHz Core i5-6300U chip pulled ahead with 44, putting it quite some way ahead of its Asus rival.

With only a relatively small speed difference between the two Core i5 processors, though, I decided to take a closer look at our benchmark results. While it keeps pace with the Surface Pro 4 during most of the tests, multitasking performance sees the Asus lag behind. Given the surge of noise from the internal fans during that section of the benchmarks, it seems that the Transformer 3 Pro simply can’t keep its cool under pressure – or at least not as well as the Surface Pro 4.

As you’d expect, most 3D games are too much for the Transformer 3 Pro. Even older titles such as Dirt: Showdown slowed to a crawl at any detail setting above Low, and at a relatively modest resolution of 1,280 x 720. If gaming is on the agenda, then you’ll just have to shell out for a Thunderbolt 3 graphics dock and desktop GPU.

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Where the Transformer 3 Pro really falters, though, is battery life. The benchmark here is, unsurprisingly, the Surface Pro 4, which lasted 5hrs 56mins in our usual tests. Under the same conditions, the Transformer 3 Pro lasted just 4hrs 20mins in our continuous video-playback test, which is a tad disappointing.

Verdict

There’s much to like about the Transformer 3 Pro – it’s pretty, connectivity is great, and it feels every bit the premium 2-in-1. Sadly, though, being cheaper and better connected than its major rival isn’t much use if you drop the ball in a few key areas. A comparable Surface Pro 4 and Type Cover might cost you the best part of £300 more, but then you’re getting a 2-in-1 that is markedly faster, longer-lasting and has a brighter screen.

That doesn’t mean that you should discount the Transformer Pro 3 completely, but unless you’re absolutely sold on the presence of Thunderbolt 3, and really don’t mind carrying a mains charger around most days, then there’s only one logical choice – spend the extra and buy a Surface Pro 4 instead. Sorry, Asus.

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