A few weeks ago, I purchased the keyboard dock for my ASUS Transformer TF300T Android tablet, an accessory that provides a full keyboard; an extra battery; and an extra SD card slot. Best Buy had this on sale for $50, a remarkable discount off of its original $150 MSRP. In return for one Ulysses S., what I’ve essentially ended up with is an add-on that turns my touch-only tablet into a capable netboo- er, sorry; “ultra portable” laptop with almost a day of battery life, a USB port, and 112 gigs of memory (16 gigs in the tablet; 64 gigs in the tablet’s microSD slot; and 32 more gigs in the keyboard dock’s slot).
Those who have a use for tablets know the benefits of having one: a portable, focused, and personal. It’s a passive entertainment and communication device that you can take anywhere you want to do the simple things that most people care about: e-mail, browsing, reading, and perhaps watching some TV and movies.
But when we decide to get off of our asses and do something productive with our lives, writing that resume or great American novel on a touch screen is a ridiculous prospect. While a laptop is the most ideal solution, having the option to purchase a cheaper add-on keyboard–whether it be the Transformer dock or a portable bluetooth add-on–is great.
In the Transformer’s particular case, though, having an actual dock that lets you close the two devices in a clamshell form factor–while barely adding any weight–is more portable in a certain respect. You don’t have two disconnected pieces hanging out sad and alone in their own corners. Closing the thing and picking it up is less clumsy than dealing with those disparate pieces, and the extra battery and storage is such an added value.
My experience has been great, but if there’s one thing that I regret about it, it’s that this whole affair has reminded me of just how much I yearn for the convertible gaming laptop-tablet hybrid to become a reality, and it’s shown me just how far away these tablet-first devices are from that.
A little history: When the iPad was first shown, I scoffed. What I wanted was a touch-screen device that could do everything that I would want a laptop for. The old Windows touchscreen tablets were a joke, and while the iPad had Apple’s mastery of design behind it, it still wasn’t what I wanted. I fell into the tablet landscape almost completely by accident when I decided that reading Kindle books on the small screen provided by my phone wasn’t such a fun experience. Why not just go the whole way and get something that could browse the web and display YouTube clips too, while I was at it? (A self-imposed $300-or-less spend on this market eliminated any Apple products or super high-end Android products–hence my old 7″ Iconia A100 tablet, now sold, and currently the TF300T.)
Now a tablet user of 16 months, have my views changed? Not so much. I do like what these types of devices offer from an accessibility standpoint, where prior to this I didn’t have much of a desire for it. Yet, it’s still not exactly what I want it to be–a device I can travel with that allows me to: edit the same Photoshop document I was working on at home; pick up a Steam game from where I last left it from my room; continue editing an episode of the podcast that I started from my desk; and yet still do all the things that we love tablets for.
In the Transformer’s case, its dock has bridged a large part of the gap in that at least I can work on documents mouse-and-keyboard style, and some of the games that interest me are coming out on the Android ecosystem (namely, Swords & Sorcery EP and other novel indie titles). But I recently tried spending a night with it as my only device and I almost went through multitasking withdrawal, pining for the ability to keep Audacity, Netflix and Gmail windows open at the same time, and unhappy with the fact that I could not open Photoshop to progress on a poster I’ve been working on. And forget, for a second, that I am so well-equipped with games that I am never at a loss for something to play–at the moment, I’m working on Torchlight II as the game of the moment. Last time I checked, I couldn’t open Steam on my tablet to boot that up. Bummer.
Tablets are great for what they’re focused on doing, but I still need a good laptop in my life. It’s why I still bothered buying my current Lenovo, whose GeForce GTX600M is fantastic at playing the same games I enjoy on my PC, and why I tote both devices with me when I’m on the road for work. (After all, a tablet and Pocket articles combine for a powerful bedtime story tool. Sidenote: Before my first tablet, I tried reading a Kindle book in bed with my laptop resting on my stomach. Not a comfortable experience.)
Products like HP’s Envy X2 are along the lines of what I’m after. It’s equipped with a full version of Windows 8 (not the crippled RT iteration) and it still splits off from its base to satisfy the tablet/e-reader form factor. Razer’s just-announced Edge product almost amazes me, too–it’s perhaps the most powerful convertible on the market, sporting discrete graphics and undoubtedly the closest to exactly what I want. And out of sheer curiosity, I’m itching to see what Microsoft’s Surface Pro has to offer.
But now that we’re so close to my portable dream machine, there are the little details that we have to worry about–and ALL of the checkboxes must be marked. Is overall performance a priority, as opposed to being sacrificed for ultra-portability? Can it play intense PC games at its screen’s native resolution without requiring me to strip off all of the high quality effects? Does it have enough high-bandwidth ports like USB 3.0 to satisfy any external drives I might want (I still watch Blu-Ray video on the road)? Can I connect it to my television via some form of HDMI, without paying an arm and a leg for a dock or converter? (That last one is the one thing that irks me about the Edge.)
The good news for me is that I’m no longer so adverse to being a three-tier consumer, thanks to more affordable Android products showing me the brighter side of the tablet form factor (and Apple’s great refurbished-products program for lower prices makes the iPad slightly more appealing to me), and the keyboard dock works great for typing something in a pinch. But when the day comes that a full-featured laptop with gaming performance and an optical drive–the kind that I prefer–also allows me to pop off its screen for some good ol’ Kindle reading, I’ll be more than happy to ditch the third device tier entirely