Ice Cream Sandwich on the Transformer Prime review: first look
The Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime is currently the pick of the bunch when it comes to Android tablets, but one of its few weaknesses was the lack of the latest version of the OS. Not any more. It’s received its update, so we thought we’d do an update of our own.
You can read about our first encounter with Android 4 – or Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) – in our Samsung Galaxy Nexus review. We were impressed with it, but had a couple of concerns, chiefly concerning the use of soft buttons and the potential waste of valuable screen real estate. That, fortunately, is a non-issue on tablets. We’re already used to it on Honeycomb tablets, and it takes up a negligible amount of room on a 10.1in tablet such as the Prime.
Initially things don’t look that different, but a few minutes of browsing around really brings home the main advantage of the new OS: the Prime was already pretty responsive, but Android 4 takes that to the next level. It feels even more immediate than before, sweeping from desktop to desktop with the sort of smoothness typically associated with Apple products. Launching and scrolling menus feels buttery smooth, and there’s barely a judder or hesitation to be found.
In more practical terms, this translates to faster and more predictable behaviour in complicated websites. During our day-long test working with tablets, we found sites such as WordPress were barely usable on a tablet, whether iOS- or Android-based. With this ICS update, in most cases there’s zero typing lag and no irritating keyboard buffer run-on. One exception to this rule we found was Zoho Writer, which still feels sluggish in use.
Results in various benchmarks back up this impression. In our own in-house HTML test, which times the loading of 28 web pages, the Prime took an impressive 8.9 seconds, only a little behind the iPad 2’s 7.7 seconds. By comparison, with Android 3.2 on board, the Prime took 17.6 seconds.
Moving on to SunSpider, and oddly the position is reversed. On Android 3.2, the Prime scored a scorching 1,796ms; with Android 4 on board it slipped to 2,340ms. Just for the hell of it, we also headed of to the BrowserMark website to see how the Prime would fare: it scored 116,360. Alas, we didn’t get the opportunity to test in BrowserMark under Android 3.2, but the general consensus in other reviews is that it scores around 100,000. Another victory for Android 4.
We also retested battery life, but this is one area that appears to be unchanged. With our standard looping video test and the tablet in battery saver mode, the Prime lasted for 9hrs 49mins – that’s roughly the same as the 10hrs 8mins time we achieved under Android 3.2.
Android 4 doesn’t just boost performance. It also brings with it an overhauled user interface and a load of new settings and features. The lock screen has the new Android 4 font, but also a change in functionality: the lock icon can be dragged to the right to unlock the tablet, or to the left to unlock and launch the camera. Small beer, but every little helps.
Once you’re into the UI proper, more small changes become apparent. In the top-right corner, the + symbol has now disappeared. This used to launch the customisation screen – where shortcuts, apps, widgets and wallpapers could be dragged onto any of the five Honeycomb desktops. That screen has gone, with widgets moving to the app drawer (see below) and the wallpaper menu accessed via a long press on the desktop.
You may also have noticed a small black square filled with app icons in the bottom-right corner. That’s a folder. As with the phone version of Android 4, folders are created by dragging one app icon onto another on the desktop, then giving it a name.
Here’s the new app launcher screen, complete with widget preview. As with Honeycomb, you swipe left and right to navigate, and there’s a new fade-in animation: as the current page of apps exits stage left, rather than scrolling in from the right the new page of apps fades in from behind. Frivolous, but neat.
Another small change is the ability to tidy up the recent apps list. Pop up the list in the normal manner and you’ll see that the individual thumbnails can be removed with a quick swipe of the finger. Note, that process also removes the app from Anroid’s cached processes list, effectively killing the app completely. You can see the effects by visiting the App section of the settings screen, where you can now switch between a view of running apps and cached processes.
Speaking of which, this is the new settings screen, which looks similar to Honeycomb’s but sees a reorganisation of sorts. The list to the left is now broken up into sub-headed sections: Wireless & networks, Device, Personal and System. It’s a little easier to find your way around as a result, although it took us a while to get used to it.
There is also a handful of new options and tools hidden away in the various settings screens. Above is the new data usage screen, which gives an overview of how much data you’re consuming overall, plus a breakdown of data usage on an app by app basis. There’s the option to encrypt your tablet – apps and all – to improve security, as well as the ability to remove the lock screen if you so wish.
In terms of the core apps there are more tweaks, but nothing hugely dramatic. The Gallery app now looks a little neater, with thumbnails tidily tesselated together instead of surrounded by acres of wasted black space. A long press on any photo or album allows photos to be shared as before, but with slightly changed options – a one-click shortcut to the last service used is handily displayed next to the sharing dropdown.
While we’re on the subject of photos, the camera app has seen a dramatic overhaul. Much more of the screen is now given over to the viewfinder; the shutter button is surrounded by a zoom control, and there’s an extra option in the bottom-right corner for shooting panoramic photos.
Elsewhere, the changes are a little more sedate. Aside from a slight redesign, the Gmail app looks largely the same as before, and the same holds true for the email app used for POP3, IMAP and Exchange accounts. There’s still no sign of search (sigh), although you can at least browse your Outlook folders.
The Calendar, meanwhile adds a new Agenda view, listing upcoming meetings in a vertically scrolling list to the left and details in a larger pane on the right.
As far as the browser is concerned, it’s more minor tweaks. As you can see from this screenshot, there’s a new section – Accessibility – in the settings menu, which allows you to fiddle with text scaling, the amount the page zooms when the screen is double-tapped, and the minimum font size. Elsewhere, there’s a new ‘Fast Scroller’ setting, which brings up a scroll bar when the edge of a page is tapped. In a bonus for 3G tablet owners, there’s the option to switch off Google’s search result preloading, potentially saving a bob or two on data.
Finally, the keyboard sees a slight usability improvement. The look is a little cleaner, fitting in with the whole Ice Cream Sandwich ethos, but more importantly, each key is now a few pixels taller, making it a touch easier to type onscreen. The new keyboard is on the left in the above screenshot; the old Honeycomb one is on the right.
Overall, Ice Cream Sandwich is an excellent update that turns a great tablet into an even better one. I’m sure there are more new features to find, but hopefully this gives a flavour of what to expect when the OS update starts to roll in aboard shiny new quad-core tablets over the coming months.