Is it Really Just Superficial?

Is my love for digital ink and Microsoft Surface PC’s on the level, or just skin deep?

Ok, kids…

I’m going to make this one quick and short for a few reasons – I’ve got a lot on my plate right now; and I want to really get to the meat of all of this in a deeper look at Microsoft’s Surface Book, intended to be published in the coming weeks.

However, I did want to relay a couple of things:

  1. Accept No Substitutes
    When you know you have your heart set on something, no matter how much it really just didn’t sit right with you in the first place, don’t try to convince yourself that something ELSE is just as good.In other words, even though it’s about one third the price, and has decent performance, the ASUS Transformer Mini T102HA is NOT either Microsoft’s Surface Pro nor Microsoft’s Surface Book. As awesome as Intel’s Cherry Trail processor is, it’s not an Intel Core processor (no Intel Atom processor is…) and it isn’t going to provide the same level of performance.
  2. It’s not What I WantedWhen you’re met with the unmistakable conclusion that you were wrong and that you should just accept the facts as they are and move on, you really should do just that.
  3. Don’t be so Damn Stubborn
    Dude. Just say the words…, “I was wrong.” It’s not all that hard. Just say the words.

Ok…

So… here it goes:

  1. There really isn’t a substitute for the Microsoft Surface Pro or Surface Book. They’re basically the same 3×2 convertible ultrabook (with some minor differences). While you may prefer one over the other for one (set of) reason(s) or another, they’re effectively the same. No other transformer PC or ultrabook out there is the Surface Pro/ Book. There are similar devices, like the ASUS Transformer Mini T102HA, but they are NOT a Surface device, and shouldn’t be thought of as a Surface replacement.They are similar, but NOT the same
  2. You can’t fit a square peg in a round hole. You can’t change the shape of your hole, either. If you want a round object, squaring it off isn’t going to make you happy. When you look at it, all you’re going to see is the fact that it used to be a circle.You can’t MAKE something into something it’s not. You hear that a lot about people, too… Yeah, it’s true there, too.
  3. Unde. I give, already.Okokokok… “you” were right. They’re not the same, and I just have to give in and let it go.

If you remember, I originally tossed my Surface Pro 3 to the wind because of the digital, disappearing ink bug that the Surface Pro (all generations – 1, 2, 3 and 4) and the Surface Book have.

The bug is still active, even as of this writing, and while I have implemented the work around, a work around is NOT a solution. Functionality on the Surface Pro series of devices is still deprecated in Microsoft OneNote. While I’ve disable “Use Pen as Pointer” and have turned off “automatic ink OCR,” having to use a work around just makes my teeth itch.

But then again, I’m a QA guy… defaulting to the work arounds is required to insure that ink doesn’t disappear, however, living with the work around and not a permanent fix just seems wrong to me.

But at the end of the day, the answer to the begged question here, “really..?? After all the complaining, you actually got a Surface Book??”, is, “yes. Yes I did.

The Surface Book has been around for quite a while, so doing a ground breaking review on it isn’t warranted, but I’ll have something together for it in the coming weeks. I’ve gotten an accessory or two for the device, so I’m committed to making it work; but the answer to that question, in all honestly, really remains to be seen.

I don’t like going backwards; and I don’t like having to put up with bugs on a machine, that by all accounts, should be the most bug free installation and implementation of Windows 10 and compatible hardware on the market. It feels wrong to me to have to put up with that kind of situation, and to be very honest, I’m not one to put up with that level of crap from Microsoft.

I don’t put up with it from Apple either, but the situation is a bit different. Windows is different from macOS in this regard because Microsoft licenses its OS to a number of different Original Equipment Manufacturers – or OEM’s. As such, there are a number of different drivers that have to be written for the OS, because – and let’s be honest – not all computer hardware is created equally.

I expect a great deal more from Microsoft Windows when it runs on a Microsoft branded computer than when it runs on a Dell or HP or even a Micro Center, build your own style PC. I expect everything on the Microsoft branded computer to work; and in the case of the Surface devices their history has been a bit bumpy.

If you remember, Microsoft had a number of different driver and firmware related problems with both Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book. Other OEM’s haven’t had this level of difficulty with their computers, especially when it comes to Microsoft software, like Office 2016 and all of their components.

In the end, with the work around, things work, but herein lies the article that I want to write later…

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FEATURE REVIEW – ASUS Transformer Mini T102HA

Please hold while I try to resolve this problem…

Introduction
As I stated a little while ago, I’ve found myself stuck between a rock and a hard place. It hasn’t been a lot of fun. Unfortunately for me, I really have no idea where Microsoft and Apple are headed with their computing initiatives. Its unnerving, too. I simply don’t know what to do at this point, and quite honestly, this is the first time I’ve been in this boat in the 20 plus years that I’ve been a tech journalist.

However, I think I may have found an interesting and rather affordable solution to my problem. Enter the ASUS Transformer Mini T102HA-D4-GR. Is this the right solution? Does it resolve most, some or all of my issues; or am I chasing through a rabbit hole without the possibility of finding my way out OR the white rabbit that made the hole? Let’s take a quick look at the device and find out.

Hardware
The ASUS Transformer Mini T102H is a Surface Pro clone. It’s a 10.1 inch transformer (ultrabook and “tablet”) in one. It’s got a magnesium-alloy casing and weighs less than 800g; and is running Windows 10 Home.

The device has a quad core Intel Cherry Trail processor running at 1.44GHz. The device, as reviewed has 4GB of RAM and a 10.1 inch, 16:10 backlit, HD display sporting 1280×800 resolution and integrated Intel HD graphics. The device as reviewed has a 128GB EMMC SSD.

The device has integrated 802.11 AC Wi-Fi for wireless networking and internet connectivity. It also supports Bluetooth 4.1 for short range, accessory communication. The ASUS Transformer Mini T102H also has a 2MP web cam for video communications.

For connectivity, the ASUS Transformer Mini T102H has one of each of the following ports:

  • Combo Audio Jack
  • USB 3.0 Port
  • Micro USB Port
  • Micro HDMI Port
  • Fingerprint reader (supports Windows Hello)
  • microSD Card Slot

The build quality here is surprisingly high. I have been really impressed with the hardware and its fit, form and function. For the cost of the device, it’s going to be hard to find something better, in any class of notebook.

The full 360, below, has some really good shots of the hardware, including the included keyboard AND pen.

>
The back of the device. Notice the circular fingerprint reader at the top The back of the keyboard
The device, opened up. The keyboard has magnets that attach it to the landscape side of the tablet The device, open
The left side of the device Close up of the left side, ports
The top side of the device with the microSD slot and the power button Right side of the device
Close up of the right side, volume rocker and speaker

 

Tablet
The ASUS Transformer Mini T102H is a Windows 10 ultrabook, just as the Surface Pro line of PC’s. However, it’s not a tablet. Please don’t consider this to be a true convertible – meaning this isn’t going to turn into your iPad or similar tablet when you remove the keyboard.

Like any other Windows 10 ultrabook convertible, all that happens when you remove the keyboard is that the ASUS Transformer Mini T102H becomes a slate PC.

A slate PC is NOT a tablet. It’s a regular PC with a touch interface that doesn’t require a keyboard or mouse.

A tablet is a content consumption device with an ecosystem – apps, videos, audio, etc. – available from a built in store, specifically made to consume ON that tablet. While a slate PC and an ultrabook have apps, and Windows has a “store,” per se in the Windows Store, you can get PC apps just about anywhere. You can also find videos and audio files (be they music, podcasts or other audio) nearly everywhere else that can easily be played on any Windows PC.

Windows 10 tablet mode is just a change in the standard Windows UI, nothing more. Nothing magical happens to the hardware. Nothing really magical happens to the OS after the keyboard is removed. It’s still Windows; just with a slightly different UI.

Aside from the whole Tablet Mode thing, this is really nothing more than a notebook computer with a removable keyboard. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it IS still just a PC. It just has more than one interface; but please don’t’ confuse this with a tablet like an iPad or a Galaxy tablet. It doesn’t run a mobile OS and it won’t. It’s going to have the same performance as it does when its keyboard is connected.

Keyboard
With the Surface Pro line of devices, the detachable keyboard is made of rubber and plastic. While this makes for flexibility, it doesn’t lend a lot of confidence that you’re getting a quality product. Well, that and the fact that the Surface Pro 3-4 Type Cover is an additional purchase that runs $129.99 for the older version to $159.99 for the version that has the Windows Hello compatible, finger sensor.

The keyboard that comes with the ASUS Transformer Mini T102H is included with the tablet at no additional charge. It functions nearly the same way as the Microsoft Surface Type Cover, but has a metal alloy shell. The keyboard itself employs a butterfly switch under each key and sports 1.5mm of key travel. The extra-large touch pad is built in.

The typing experience is merely ok. It’s nothing to write – or type – home about. In the end, including the keyboard as part of the whole package, is another stellar move. It just cements the value of the whole package.

Out of the box, the keyboard of my ASUS Transformer T102H had a problem with the touch pad. The keyboard is supposed to support a right click via clicking the lower right corner of the track pad. This hasn’t worked right from the moment I pulled the device out of the box, and it’s obvious that the issue is a hardware issue and not a software or driver issue.

I called ASUS Tech Support and got someone who read a script at me and had me uninstall and reinstall APK and touch pad drivers. Getting her OFF the script wasn’t possible. However, 4 restarts and one full uninstall/ reinstall round and me insisting that this wasn’t a driver issue stopped the tomfoolery.

She then told me that I could return the device to my point of purchase, or could send the device to ASUS for warranty work. I told her that since this was a detachable keyboard, and that was the only part that I needed, couldn’t ASUS just send me a replacement keyboard?

No. ASUS doesn’t send parts to customers. If I wanted a replacement keyboard, I would need to send in the entire device, and then they would examine it and then determine if they would repair my existing keyboard or send me a new one. When I reminded the tech support rep that the keyboard was removable and that all that anyone in Repairs was going to do was take a look at the paperwork, grab my unit, pull the keyboard off, attach another one and then call it a day.

I got similar service from Newegg, as I bought the device from them and also purchased their extended warranty for $50. I would need to send the entire device and they would then send a replacement. Both companies knew that this would leave me without a working machine and didn’t care.

I blame Newegg more than I do ASUS, simply because they are the ones that I bought the extended warranty from. Why no one will send me a detachable keyboard is way beyond me.

Performance
I’m going to get to battery life and other performance factors in just a moment, but I wanted to take a moment and talk about this computer and its processor and RAM performance.

In a word – WOW!

The Intel CherryTrail Atom processor definitely makes a difference. I’ve reviewed value based tablets before and haven’t been impressed. Atom processors promise decent performance coupled with battery savings, but, in my opinion, always have a hard time delivering.

My assessment of the Dell Latitude 10-ST2’s Atom processor can clearly be seen here:

The Atom processor doesn’t have a lot of horse power. In fact, it’s pretty anemic. The system is optimized for a few specific apps – Microsoft Office being one of them – but don’t expect it to power through anything else. The weak processor performance even seems to affect network traffic, disk I/O and display performance as well, though obviously system interaction between dedicated subcomponents will also factor in.

With the ASUS Transformer T102H, the tune is a little different. While this is NOT going to run Photoshop or Lightroom with any sense of reliability or desired performance, it can ink notes in OneNote 2016 without ANY ink lag at all. It will also handle most, if not all, your PowerPoint and Excel documents – barring any really complex macros or large, external data calls – with reasonable results. For reliable, light to medium level productivity work, this computer should more than adequately meet all of your needs.

To be honest, I don’t know if the level of performance satisfaction I have is due to the more advanced Cherry Trail processor in the ASUS Transformer T102H vs. the Atom processor in the Dell Latitude 10-ST2, or if the satisfactory performance is due to the device’s 4GB of RAM… or both. I don’t have the 2GB version of the device to compare mine against. However, I’ more than certain that it plays into the equation more than you might initially think. At the very least, it’s the combination of the quad core, CherryTrail processor and the device’s 4GB of RAM that are making such a remarkable difference in my expectations.

Battery Life
Led in part by its 1.44GHz CherryTrail Processor, I’ve found the battery life to be totally crazy awesome on the ASUS Transformer T102H. The device advertises an 11 hour, all day battery.

These estimates are close but I’ve found my results to be about half of what’s advertised in real life. However at five and a half hours, this should get me through most of the work day without really NEEDING a charge. This is great news; and a huge relief, as having a day long note taking solution is HUGE in the office, especially when you have back to back meetings and CAN’T get back to an AC outlet and charging cable.

I wish that all of my notebooks were as good on battery life and did me so well when it comes to the task at hand.

Software
The ASUS Transformer Mini T102H is a Microsoft signature PC. This means that its free of crapware. It doesn’t have any third party add-ons or software. The only thing that it really does have is the installation stub for Microsoft Office 365. Other than that, this PC is junk free.

In my opinion, Signature PC’s are the best on the market. I know in many cases that software companies cut deals with OEM’s to help defer the cost of software development, and the OEM’s get help to defer the low cost of the device. I think the software companies come out on top of that deal; and that’s fine when the software in question is useful; but when it’s something that’s so bloated like Norton Antivirus or MacAfee Internet Security, you really have to wonder why the OEM chased after it.

I’ve seen MacAfee software preinstalled on low end PC’s with budget processors and quite honestly, all that it really does is bring down the performance of the device. Having the ASUS Transformer Mini T102H be a Signature PC without all of that garbage software, is a huge blessing. Those apps don’t always remove themselves well, and you can end up with a gimpy system afterwards. Here, you don’t have to worry about that.

Conclusion
This one is fairly easy. If you’re looking for a Microsoft Surface Pro clone and you don’t want to spend a lot of money on the device, this is likely the PC for you. Its CherryTrail processor isn’t going to be something that’s going to punch through any audio or video editing or run Photoshop or Lightroom, well, really at all; but if you’re looking for a productivity machine for you or your kids, THIS is a really good choice.

The device will run Office very well; and if you’re into OneNote at all, then you’re in for a treat. The device comes with both a detachable keyboard and a pen, so you can take notes, draw, markup documents – whatever – right out of the box. There’s NO ink lag with the pen in OneNote 2016, and with an Intel Atom processor, that’s really very surprising. I’ve had other devices where that was NOT the case.

A side view of the ASUS Pen The top of the ASUS Pen. Notice, there’s no application button on the end.

This is an ultrabook PC, so even though you can remove the keyboard and use it without a keyboard, it is not a true tablet, as it doesn’t run a mobile OS. It runs 64bit Windows 10 Home. In any “mode,” PC or tablet, this is a PC. Period.

Speaking of the keyboard, it provides a decent typing experience. While it’s not something that I’d like to work with all day long, its ok; and can get you through a meeting in a pinch. Again, the fact that this device comes WITH the keyboard is huge. On the Surface Pro, it’s a $129 – $159 add on.

As a Signature PC, this device is awesome. No junk software! No crapware! This is huge on a device like this with a budget processor, no matter how good that processor may be; and huge when it has a non-upgradable SSD as a main drive. While it does have a microSD card slot for additional storage, the fact that you don’t have to run an app like the PC Decrapifier to try to remove all of the OEM sponsored junkware that comes on most Windows PC’s is huge.

The ASUS Transformer Mini T102H runs $349.99 for the 64GB version and $399.99 for the 128GB version. It is readily available on the internet and is perhaps one of the best budget PC buys you can make this year.

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