On its own, the Asus Eee Pad Transformer TF101 Tablet doesn’t look as if it’s about to set the tablet wars on fire. But after spending time with the Transformer ($399 for the 16GB model, $499 for the 32GB version) and its matching keyboard dock, I think Asus is on to something.

My full review of the Transformer is in progress, but I wanted to share my initial impressions after spending some hands-on time with the tablet. When I first turned it on, I noticed immediately some pleasant user-interface improvements that Asus made to stock Android 3.0 (Honeycomb).

For starters, the core navigation buttons are dramatically better. Asus replaced the standard Honeycomb nav buttons (three light-blue outlines that serve as the primary navigation aids at the lower left of the screen) with three white, solid button formations that are crisp and distinct. In particular, the back/exit button represents its function with a looping return arrow–an improvement on the stock Honeycomb’s chintzy back arrow that looks more like a bookmark symbol.

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Another big change involves the Asus keyboard. The stock Honeycomb keyboard is available as an option, but by default the Transformer uses Asus’s own keyboard. The redesigned keyboard has a row of number keys up top; and keys in both the number row and the first letter row are slightly taller than in the rest of the keyboard.

The keyboard actually appears to occupy about the same depth as the regular Honeycomb keyboard, but with the added benefit of the number row (a native first among Android 3.0 tablets). The keyboard incorporates Google’s predictive text, too, another native first for an Android 3.0 tablet. Unfortunately, this feature behaved a bit unpredictably in my testing.

For example, it didn’t work consistently when filling in fields in the Web browser. Also, the keyboard sacrifices some of its QWERTYness–by having the Z and S keys stacked, for example. But on the whole, the keyboard was responsive.

The Transformer gets its name, of course, from its companion piece, the $149 Mobile Docking Station. And Asus got this crucial part of the equation right. Though I wish that the USB ports weren’t protected by the covers that I’ll often remove to reveal them, and though I regret that the space bar depresses below the bezel separating it from the touchpad, those are minor drawbacks.

The Mobile Docking Station transforms the Transformer into a netbooklike clamshell that weighs just under 3 pounds when combined. The two pieces fit together seamlessly and easily, unlike keyboards that are of separate sizes and designs from the tablet (as is true of Bluetooth keyboards for the iPad 2); and the solution is far more integrated and elegant than even the best-designed iPad cases I’ve seen that include a keyboard.

The Transformer ends up looking smart and acting clever: The touchscreen is fully operational while plugged in, save for access to the on-screen keyboard; but in addition some key buttons–including Android back/exit and home buttons–are integrated into the keyboard.

The island-style keys are distinct and easy to press; they made accurate typing a breeze for this touch-typist. And by marrying the two components, you’ll get extra battery life (which Asus estimates will increase by about 72 per cent above and beyond the estimates for the tablet alone). If you needed to grab the Transformer and its Mobile Docking Station on the run, you could do so with one hand, a convenience for mobile professionals.

Asus clearly is being aggressive with the Transformer. The 16GB model costs $100 less than the comparable Apple iPad 2. The Android 3.0 app environment remains a big question mark, but the Transformer plus Mobile Docking Station has the potential to be a winning combination for prospective tablet owners who plan to use the device for both productivity and entertainment. Look for more details in my forthcoming full review.

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