The ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime has many charms, but price is not among them. At $499 for the entry 16GB model, it’s a step higher than the original Transformer, and ASUS has been selling them side by side since the Prime’s introduction in December. But with the new Transformer Pad TF300, ASUS has replaced its original tablet at a more palatable $379 while still keeping some impressive performance capabilities thanks to the NVIDIA Tegra 3 platform and the Transformer’s trademark keyboard dock. Ice Cream Sandwich out of the box is the icing on the cake. The Android tablet landscape is a lot more competitive now than it was a year ago – let’s see if ASUS has kept up.

Hardware

If you took the original Transformer and the Transformer Prime and blended them together, you’d get something like the Transformer Pad TF300. It keeps the slim profile of the Transformer Prime and the 10-inch screen and connection capabilities of both, but uses a plastic body instead of an all-metal chassis. This is a little cheaper, but it should help alleviate the poor WiFi and GPS issues that Prime owners faced – you’ll find no dongles here. The TF300 is slightly chunkier than the Prime, but still considerably smaller than the original Transformer.

You’ve got quite a few color and storage options for the Transformer Pad TF300: the first Royal Blue units will cost $379 and $399 for the 16GB and 32GB versions available April 23rd, with Torch Red and Iceberg White versions of both coming down the pipeline in June. The color-matched keyboard docks will cost $149. The pricing for the TF300 is very competitive, considering that the 8GB Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 2 is expected to retail at the $400 mark.

And speaking of the dock – it’s essentially the same one that fits the Transformer Prime, with a few material changes and color options. Working with the Transformer Pad TF300 in what we’ve come to think of as “Netbook Mode” is the same as it ever was – far from perfect, but much more flexible than the tablet alone. Android-specific shortcut keys and the extended battery options are appreciated, but the small and somewhat finicky trackpad isn’t.

Navigating the tablet interface via the dock is simple, though all too often you’ll still need to resort to touch control. Gamers and mobile professionals might as well add a Bluetooth mouse if they’re springing for the dock. The dock adds a full-sized SD card slot to the tablets’ MicroSD slot, plus a secondary battery that charges the tablet while attached. You can also charge both through a single cable when the tablet is inserted.

As far as guts go, you get the NVIDIA Tegra 3 quad-core processor, a gigabyte of DDR3 RAM, a 10-inch IPS LCD 1280×800 screen and the standard Bluetooth/WiFi combo. Mobile wireless versions of the Transformer Pad TF300 are in the works, but won’t be available any time soon. Weight is an interesting issue: the tablet itself weighs 1.3 pounds, with the dock coming in at half that. This makes the Transformer Pad TF300 “top-heavy” when used in the dock.

Check out our comparison video of the Transformer Pad TF300 and the Transformer Prime below:

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Compared to the Transformer Prime, the Transformer Pad TF300 holds up well considering the lower price and cheaper materials. The screens are identical save for the IPS+ rating on the Prime, making it slightly more comfy to use for an extended period of time. The plastic body makes the Transformer Pad TF300 feel lighter, even if it isn’t’ actually much of a margin. From a hardware perspective, it’s a solid choice for those who don’t want to spend the extra money.

Software & Benchmarks

If the hardware of the TF300 and the Prime is similar, then the software is nearly identical. The Transformer Pad TF300 is ASUS first tablet to ship with Ice Cream Sandwich, which shares much of the same code and ASUS/NVIDIA extras as the Android 4.0.3 update to the Prime. ASUS’ additions don’t get in the way of Android – a few custom icons and menu options to take advantage of the unique hardware are all you’ll see.

One of these is the Performance Mode and Power-Save Mode, accessible by the ICS pop-up menu. This takes advantage of the 4-PLUS-1 design of the Tegra 3, with a fifth core that engages during periods of low processor activity. You’ll want to keep an eye on the manual switch if you often find yourself mixing gaming and traveling.

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Another unique aspect of the software (though unique only to Tegra devices, not the Transformer line) is NVIDIA’s Tegra Zone. This app grants access to some exclusive Tegra-optimized games that you won’t find on the Google Play Store, though some of them wind up there eventually. Check out a few in the video below:

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Those who want some top-end power out of their tablet won’t be disappointed, and at this price point it’s a very compelling inclusion. The nearest Tegra 3 competitor in price is the Acer Iconia Tab A510, at $70 more expensive for the base model and $50 more than the equivalent 32GB TF300. And considering that ASUS’ build quality is generally a step above Acer’s, even on the lower-end Transformer, it’s hard to recommend the more expensive Iconia based on performance.

The various benchmarks show the TF300 as lagging slightly behind the Transformer Prime with its Ice Cream Sandwich update. This might be something of a sour note, if it weren’t for the fact that the Transformer Prime is already the fastest Android tablet out there. On the AnTuTu tests, the TF300 is running around 90% of the Transformer Prime’s Ice Cream Sandwich scores. This should be more than enough for the most enthusiastic gamer, and will probably remain so for at least a year as Android games become more and more complex.

Camera

The Transformer Pad TF300’s camera is the same one found on the Prime: an 8-megapixel shooter with 1080p video capability and an F/2.2 lens. There’s one important difference, beyond the cosmetically larger lens: the TF300 has no LED flash. It’s a disappointing exclusion considering that even cheap phones come with a flash these days, but perhaps ASUS wanted another differentiation between the two models.

You can see samples of the camera’s photos and videos below – quite good, especially considering that most tablets tend to skimp in the camera department. The only real difference here is the lack of flash, making nighttime and indoor shots much harder to take with consistency. Color and sharpness are great, easily as good as any of the later smartphones on our review table, with the exception of the HTC One X and HTC One S.

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Battery

The Transformer series has always been pretty solid when it comes to battery life, and that tradition continues here. We’ve gotten more than 7 hours of continuous operation with some 3D gaming and video streaming thrown in, so users who keep it to less intensive tasks can expect to meet or beat ASUS’ 8.5-hour battery life rating on the Transformer Pad TF300. Connect the dock (which can be charged separately or at the same time) and you’ll boost longevity all the way up to 12 hours easily. You can thank the Tegra 3’s well-documented power management for the excellent battery life. 

Wrap-Up

The Transformer Pad TF300 is an excellent choice for anyone looking for a WiFi tablet, and not just those who can’t afford the Transformer Prime. The combination of performance, features and price may be the best we’ve seen yet from any Android tablet. Up-to-date software and ASUS’ typically solid build quality make it a tempting device for anyone in the market.

The few sacrifices made to reach the price point – plastic construction, no LED flash and a slightly slower processor – are more than worth it in my opinion. Compare the TF300 to any other 10-inch tablet and you’d be hard-pressed to find one with as many features at this price point. And of course, there’s always the dock option to consider – you could get a 16GB TF300 and a matching keyboard dock to extend its battery and utility for just a bit more than the Transformer Prime (or iPad 3, or Galaxy Tab 10.1, etc.) alone. If you want a good tablet at a great price, this is it.

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