How Asus triumphed over Apple

Video: Vijay Ravindran, senior Vice President and Chief Digital Officer of The Washington Post, demonstrates the ASUS Android tablet.

MacBook Airs and baby bottles don’t mix.

I was reminded of this in May when my MacBook Air, the slimmest and sleekest of Apple’s laptop products, had a meeting with my son’s baby bottle. A few drops of milk on the keyboard left me searching for a replacement laptop. Eager to try something new, I landed on the then-hard-to-find Android-based Asus Transformer, known as the Asus Eee Pad.

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How much did it set me back?

The Asus tablet is as good as any Android tablet on the market. The Acer Iconia, Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and Motorola Xoom are its closest hardware relatives. The Asus is also affordable. A 16-gigabyte version, which you can expand with a 32-gigabyte memory card, retails at $399. That is $100 less than the iPad 2, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 and, as of the writing of this piece, $200 less than the Xoom. The 32-gigabyte version of the Asus costs $499.

Despite the pricing gap with the Xoom, it’s worth noting that the Asus display has been deemed superior by the review Web site Android Authority. However, making a direct pricing comparison is tricky, because the Asus does not require or offer a carrier contract — it’s a WiFi-only device. If you want or need a wireless carrier contract, the Asus is not for you.

Missing that keyboard?

The unique keyboard dock is the Asus’s best selling point. As much as you love your glossy, new tablet, admit it, you miss having a keyboard every now and then. While other tablets have Bluetooth keyboard options, I found them clunky and lacking the option for a mouse. A must-buy add-on, the Asus keyboard is sold separately and retails for $150. In addition to being an Android keyboard with home, menu and back buttons, the dock supplies roughly six additional hours of battery life, two USB ports and a full-size memory card slot. When the tablet is docked, the entire unit folds like a traditional netbook. When I show someone the docked Asus, they have no idea I have a tablet until I show the touch screen capability or undock it from the keyboard.

There is room for improvement, however. The click-to-touch feature on the keyboard’s touchpad defaults to “on.” This makes typing difficult, since a single touch of the keypad sends the cursor all over the screen. There is a hot-key to turn it off — a hot-key you’ll likely use often.

Hardware aside, the Asus also beats the iPad on a variety of fronts when it comes to software. It should be noted that all comparisons made after this point are between the Asus and the first-generation iPad — not the iPad 2.

iTunes vs. DoubleTwist

DoubleTwist is an Android application that allows you to sync your photos, music and playlists on iTunes with your Asus over a WiFi network. IPad owners, until recently, needed a hard-line connection to sync with iTunes. Apple’s new cloud feature now allows for iTunes purchases to sync on an account holder’s authorized Apple devices wirelessly. It’s worth noting that the photo sync feature is somewhat clunky, and if you have digitally rights-managed, or DRM, songs that were downloaded before Apple changed its policy in 2009, those songs will not make it to your Asus. But cutting the USB cord has been a breath of fresh air, and the Android widgets personalize the home screen, which is great if you want constant access to your audio controls. Once you wrap your head around the possibilities, the iPad interface will seem plain.

E-mail

Touchdown is a powerful e-mail application available only on Android. It can be directly compared to Outlook or Entourage. If you use iPad’s native e-mail client, you know how significant this is. Touchdown has nearly all of the sorting, search and storage features as Outlook.

The native e-mail client on the Asus is, however, comparable to the iPad but lacks a search functionality — a deal-killer for high-volume e-mail recipients. Thanks to Touchdown and the keyboard dock, I can bypass my company’s virtual private network (VPN) and increase my e-mail productivity.

Browsing

Asus’s stock browser blows Safari away because it supports Flash. More Web sites can be fully displayed, and you’re limited only by processor speed. For example, you can use Amazon’s music and video library on the Asus, and the products render well in standard definition. Firefox 4 is also available on the Asus and can be set as the default browser.

The takeaway

It has been two months since I made the switch to the Asus, and I am happy to report that I don’t regret my choice. While I continue to use a MacBook for work, and a MacMini and an iMac at home, among several Apple products, I don’t travel with a laptop or Apple product and still manage to effectively field large volumes of e-mail and edit documents.

The Transformer has allowed me to replace both my iPad and my MacBook Air without setting foot in an Apple store, and the Transformer’s unique combination of a tablet and slim keyboard dock allow it to fill two important functions — functions Apple has yet to consolidate.

The Asus Transformer is something rare. It has reduced the number of devices I use, while Apple keeps driving that number up. The iTunes single-computer requirement — a feature Apple is working to change — forced me to limit the use of my MacBook Air. The laptop stayed at home, since I feared it being lost, stolen or damaged.

Thanks to a misplaced dairy product, it met its demise anyway. If you are an Apple product user who lives with the same fear, or have trouble with the touch-screen keyboard like I do, an Android tablet or netbook might be a greater improvement than you realize.

Ravindran is senior vice president and chief digital officer for The Washington Post Company. Before joining The Post, he was chief technology officer for the start-up political technology firm Catalist and technology director for Amazon.com.

 
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