Asus PadFone

The PadFone is a great idea, and it features a fantastic battery life when combined with its accessories. However, while the concept is cool, we think users may find the entire combination bulky.


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Announced last year at the Computex show in Taiwan, the prototype version of the Asus PadFone seemed like a logical progression of the Motorola Atrix Lapdock design. So, while it is not the first hybrid device on the market, it's likely the first to run Android 4.0.

Prototype devices sometimes don't make the cut, and get killed — Microsoft's Courier is a prime example of this. Luckily, Asus has pushed ahead with the PadFone concept, and the result is a handset that not only turns into a tablet, but also morphs into a laptop, too.

While the PadFone is primarily a smartphone, we'll be reviewing it together with the PadFone Station (the tablet attachment) and PadFone Station Dock (the keyboard).

Design

The PadFone itself is sleek and well built. We especially like the feel of the textured back, which gives the handset a good grip. The PadFone is in no danger of accidentally slipping out of our palms.

The textured rear makes for a good grip.
(Credit: Aloysius Low)

Volume controls are located on the right-hand side, while a 3.5mm headphone jack sits right in the middle at the top, with a power button next to it. Micro HDMI and micro-USB ports are located on the left, and these are used to connect the handset to the PadFone Station. The rear cover is removable, and, beneath it, you'll find the 1520mAh battery.

Asus has mostly left the Android 4.0 operating system as close to stock as possible, something we're in favour of. Some minor tweaks have been made to get it to work as a tablet, but these aren't visible to the user.

The entire front is clad in Corning Gorilla Glass, giving the PadFone a nice, modern look, similar to an Apple product. Since the PadFone uses software buttons, Asus has taken the opportunity to put its logo below the display. We would have been happier if the logo was located at the back, for a cleaner look. Instead, there's the word "Padfone", in alternate Roman and Strong typefaces, in a way that heavily recalls the iPhone.

We're quite sure that this isn't an attempt to ape Apple at all. Nope.
(Screenshot by CBSi)

Asus' handset features a qHD (960x540 pixels), 4.3-inch Super AMOLED display. Colours are vibrant and visible in bright sunlight. If inserted in the tablet accessory, resolution bumps up to WXGA (1280x800 pixels), and gives you 10.1 inches to play with.

Slip the PadFone into its "PadFone Station", and you get a fully functioning tablet with a larger, higher-resolution screen. Combine it with the dock, and you get something that looks very much like Asus' Transformer series of tablets.
(Credit: Asus)

The PadFone Station and PadFone Station dock look a lot like the Asus range of Transformer tablets. However, Asus has taken the strange step of restricting interoperability — you won't be able to connect a dock made for one Transformer tablet to another model. The lack of cross-compatibility is quite the downer, especially if you already own other Asus products, and are looking to get the PadFone to enhance your user experience.

When all your accessories combine...
(Credit: Aloysius Low)

Now, the PadFone Station is by no means thin or light — it weighs 724g alone — but, combined with the 129g of the PadFone, you're lifting 853g every time you want to read a book or surf the web with the tablet. Our arms got quite tired after a while, so this isn't an ideal solution if you want to use the PadFone in tablet mode for long periods.

Combine the tablet with the 646g PadFone Station Dock, and you'll find that you are actually lugging around a 1.5kg notebook that lacks the processing power of a regular laptop. While it's not really ideal — a netbook and a smartphone may weigh less and be more practical — it's good to know that if you need to type with physical keys, the option is there.

We found the keyboard to be useful, but typing on it was far from comfortable or usable. Since the dock has a limited axis of movement, you won't be able to tilt the screen backwards very much. The farthest you can go is about 100 degrees at the most, which, depending on your sitting position, may not provide the best user experience. Furthermore, our hands kept brushing against the touch pad, which caused plenty of typing errors, as the cursor would jump all over the place. However, you can disable the touch pad if you know you'll be doing some heavy typing.

Features

When used on its own, the PadFone is a typical Ice Cream Sandwich Android phone with a phone interface, but when plugged in to the PadFone Station, the OS switches to the tablet version. Sliding the PadFone into the PadFone Station tablet is a simple affair; just aim the phone towards the connectors, and push down till you hear a click. Because the PadFone Station has no rear camera, the phone's 8-megapixel camera does double duty, as you can see from our picture below. Asus would not comment on whether future Asus handsets would be able to connect with the PadFone Station.

The PadFone Station rear cover has holes for the PadFone's LED flash and camera.
(Credit: Aloysius Low)

Besides the 8-megapixel shooter, the PadFone has a front-facing VGA camera that is disabled when connected to the PadFone Station, which has its own a 1.3-megapixel camera in front.

When plugged in, the phone OS automatically switches to tablet mode, and the process is mostly seamless — default apps seem to support dynamic switching, which means that you can continue using them in tablet mode. If the app is not supported, then an error message will pop up, stating that the app in question has been closed. You'll have to relaunch it again. This happens when you connect or disconnect the PadFone from the PadFone Station.

Strangely enough, we noticed that when you dock the PadFone, it seems to shut down some running services, including messaging apps like WhatsApp. This means that you will not receive any push messages until you turn on the app again. This can be quite annoying, because, as mentioned, this will happen every time the PadFone connects or disconnects with the dock. Another bug we observed is that when the SMS app is in the foreground when in tablet mode, with the screen turned off, you won't be able to hear SMS notifications. These are possible deal breakers for those who place great importance on receiving messages in a timely fashion.

You can also make and answer calls while the PadFone is plugged in, but you're advised to use a Bluetooth headset if you want to avoid looking really silly. That, or you can quickly plug out the handset by opening the latch and pushing down to release the phone to answer your call. Asus has a Stylus Headset that works, as the name suggests, both as a stylus and a headset. However, this was not available in time for our review.

Both the PadFone Station and the PadFone Station Dock have built-in batteries, allowing you to charge your handset while away from a power plug. The PadFone Station and PadFone Station Dock feature a 6600mAh battery. In our review period, we found this to be very useful, as the PadFone Station would charge the phone, while the PadFone Station Dock would charge the tablet. We do note that charging the phone from the PadFone Station was slow — we only got back about 30 per cent of charge after four hours.

The only thing we didn't quite like about the concept was the need to constantly connect and disconnect the PadFone. Depending on your usage patterns, you may be content with leaving the handset inside the PadFone Station, but we preferred holding the lightweight PadFone when we didn't really need a tablet.

We did encounter some issues with the PadFone Station, too — sometimes, the PadFone would "lose" its connection with the tablet dock, and a shrill beeping would occur until you ejected the PadFone. This happened infrequently, and we were unable to deliberately trigger the issue.

Indoor test shot without flash.
(Credit: Aloysius Low/CNET Asia)

Indoor test shot with flash.
(Credit: Aloysius Low/CNET Asia)

The PadFone's camera has an 8-megapixel backside-illuminated sensor, F2.2 aperture and a 5-element lens. On paper, this sounds like a winning combination, but we found actual usage to be lacklustre. The electronic shutter was slow, and pictures taken often differed from what was displayed on-screen at the time of capture. White balance wasn't perfect, either, with the phone being unable to adjust to incandescent lighting. We still got yellowish photos of a white plate after manually choosing the "incandescent" setting. Images also appeared to be very noisy, and lacked detail.

Outdoor test shot.
(Credit: Aloysius Low/CNET Asia)

The Asus PadFone comes with all the connectivity options that you'll find on a high-end device. The handset packs HSPA+, Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi, GPS and A-GPS. On top of the micro-SD card slot on the PadFone, which allows for up to 32GB more storage, the PadFone Station Dock adds two USB ports and an MMC, SDHC card reader. Asus has also included a free 32GB cloud storage service for three years, called Asus Webstorage.

Performance

The dual-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 8260A (Cortex A15) processor made using the handset smooth and silky. Even in tablet mode, we found no issues with the performance of the phone's hardware.

Since the PadFone is supposed to be just one part of the entire ecosystem, we decided that our battery test would factor in the PadFone Station and PadFone Station Dock, too. The result? We went a whole weekend without needing to charge the handset, although, by Sunday evening, the PadFone Station Dock was dry, and our PadFone Station was almost empty. On its own, the PadFone lasted a day. This test was done with casual battery-test settings of having two Gmail accounts, as well as Facebook and Twitter, on push.

There were no issues with voice quality and call reception, but the external speaker volume could be louder. We even changed the ringtone to one of a higher pitch, and could barely hear it in noisy places.

Outlook

The Asus PadFone is a great concept that has made it to retail, but it still has some kinks to work out. Overall performance was great, especially battery life, but the handset was let down by an under-performing camera. The overall bulkiness of the PadFone Station and Dock also made those accessories quite inconvenient to carry with you. So, while the PadFone is meant to help you reduce the number of gadgets you lug around, it ends up taking up some space in your bag.

Via CNET Asia



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AndrewJ2 posted a comment   
Australia

In Australia Asus have solved the bulk/weight problem by deciding not to sell the Keyboard dock with the Padfone. How insane can you get? Probably wait for the Samsung Note 2 now because of that Dilbert management decision.




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  • AndrewJ2

    AndrewJ2

    "In Australia Asus have solved the bulk/weight problem by deciding not to sell the Keyboard dock with the Padfone. How insane can you get? Probably wait for the Samsung Note 2 now because of that Di..."

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