The Asus PadFone is a great idea and features fantastic battery life when combined with its accessories. However, while the concept is cool, users may find the entire combination bulky.
Asus PadFone: Where no phone has gone before
First 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's not the first hybrid device on the market, it's likely the first to run Android 4.0. And when I saw it again last February at Mobile World Congress I found the idea of transforming a phone into a tablet quite intriguing.
Prototype devices sometimes don't make the cut and get killed (Microsoft's Courier is a prime example). Luckily, Asus seems to have pushed ahead with the PadFone concept. The result is a handset that not only turns into a tablet, but morphs into a laptop, too.
While the PadFone is primarily a smartphone, I'll be reviewing it together with the PadFone Station (the tablet attachment) and PadFone Station Dock (the keyboard). So instead of just a phone review, you're also getting one for a tablet.
Editors' note: Because the Asus PadFone was reviewed by our companion site CNET Asia, we are publishing this review as an in-depth hands-on article without an official starred rating.
The PadFone itself is sleek and well-built. I 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 my palms.
Volume controls are located on the right side, and a 3.5mm headphone jack sits right up top, with a power button next to it. Micro-HDMI and Micro-USB ports are located on the left; they're also for connecting the handset to the PadFone Station. The rear cover is removable, and beneath it, you'll see the 1,520mAh battery.
Asus has mostly left the Android 4.0 operating system as close to stock as possible. It made some minor tweaks for tablet use, but these aren't immediately visible.
The handset's entire front is clad in Corning Gorilla Glass, which gives it a very nice modern look that you'll find similar to an Apple product. Since the PadFone uses soft keys, Asus has chosen to put its logo below the display. I'd be happier if the logo was located at the back instead for a cleaner look. The PadFone is lightweight at just 4.6 ounces.
Asus' handset features a qHD (960x540-pixel) 4.3-inch Super AMOLED display. Colors are vibrant and visible in bright sunlight. As mentioned earlier, the handset uses soft keys, which I prefer to physical buttons. In tablet mode, the PadFone features a WXGA (1,280x800-pixel) resolution.
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 making the docks proprietary, which means that you won't be able to connect a dock made for one Transformer tablet to another model. Seriously, Asus needs to promote interoperability between its products. 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.
Now, the PadFone Station is by no means thin or light -- it weighs 1.6 pounds alone -- but combined with the PadFone, you're easily lifting almost 2 pounds every time you want to use the full device. My 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 1.5-pound PadFone Station Dock and you'll find that you're actually lugging around a 3.3-pound notebook that lacks the processing power of a regular laptop. While it's not really ideal -- a separate Netbook and smartphone may weigh less and be more practical -- you can type with physical keys if you like.
I found the keyboard to be useful, but typing on it was far from comfortable. Since the dock has a limited axis of movement, you won't be able to tilt the screen backward very far. The farthest you can go is about 100 degrees, which, depending on your sitting position, may not provide the best user experience. Furthermore, my hands kept brushing against the touch pad, which caused plenty of typing errors, as the cursor jumped all over the place. On the upside, you can disable the touch pad if you know you'll be doing some heavy typing.
Sliding the PadFone into the PadFone Station tablet was a simple affair; just match the phone to the connectors and push down until you hear a click. Because the PadFone Station has no rear camera, the phone's 8-megapixel camera does double duty. In case you're wondering, Asus would not comment on whether future Asus handsets would be able to connect with the PadFone Station.
Besides the 8-megapixel shooter, the PadFone has a front-facing VGA camera that is disabled when connected to the PadFone Station. That has its own 1.3-megapixel camera in front.
When plugged in, the phone OS automatically switches to tablet mode, and the process is mostly seamless. The default apps I surveyed support dynamic switching, which means 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. In those cases, you'll have to relaunch it again. This also happens when you connect or disconnect the PadFone from the PadFone Station.
Strangely enough, I noticed that when you dock the PadFone, it seems to shut down some running services, including messaging apps like WhatsApp. As such, you can't receive any push messages until you turn on the app again. This can be quite annoying, because as mentioned, it happens whenever the PadFone connects or disconnects with the dock. Another bug I observed is that when the texting app was in the foreground during tablet mode with the screen turned off, I wasn't able to hear text notifications. That's makes two near deal breakers for anyone who wants to receive messages in a timely fashion. I've contacted Asus about these issues and am awaiting its response.
You can make and answer calls while the PadFone is plugged in, but I'd advise using a Bluetooth headset if you want to avoid looking really silly. That, or you can answer your call by quickly opening the latch and pushing down to release the phone. Asus has a Stylus Headset that works, as the name suggests, both as a stylus and a headset. However, it wasn't available in time for my 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 6,600mAh battery. During my review period I loved how the PadFone Station would charge the phone, while the PadFone Station Dock would charge the tablet. I noticed, however, that charging the phone from the PadFone Station was slow -- I eked out only a 30 percent battery level charge after 4 hours in the dock.
The biggest thing I 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 I preferred holding the lightweight PadFone when I didn't really need a tablet.
I did encountered some issues with the PadFone Station, too. Sometimes the PadFone would "lose" its connection with the tablet dock and emit a shrill beeping until I ejected it. This happened infrequently and I was unable to deliberately trigger the issue.
The PadFone's camera has an 8-megapixel backside-illuminated (BSI) sensor, f2.2 aperture, and a five-element lens. On paper, this sounds like a winning combination, but I found the results to be lackluster. The electronic shutter was slow, and pictures often differed from what was displayed onscreen at the time of capture. White balance wasn't perfect, either, with the phone being unable to adjust to incandescent lighting. I still got yellowish photos of a white plate after manually choosing the incandescent setting. Images also appeared to be very noisy and lacked detail.
The Asus PadFone comes with all the connectivity options that you'd expect from a high-end device. The handset packs HSPA+, Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi, GPS, and A-GPS. The PadFone's microSD card slot allows for up to 32GB more storage and the PadFone Station Dock adds two USB ports and an MMC/SDHC card reader. Asus also has included a free 32GB cloud storage service for three years called Asus Webstorage.
The dual-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 8260A (Cortex A15) processor makes the handset run smoothly. Even in tablet mode, you'll find no issues with the performance of the phone's hardware.
Since the PadFone is supposed to be just one part of the entire ecosystem, I decided our battery test would factor in the PadFone Station and PadFone Station Dock, too. The result? I went a whole weekend without needing to charge the handset, though by Sunday evening, the PadFone Station Dock was dry and the PadFone Station was almost empty. I performed this test with CNET Asia's usual battery test settings of having two Gmail accounts, as well as Facebook and Twitter, on push.
I had no issues with voice quality and call reception, but the external speaker volume could be louder. I even changed the ringtone to one of a higher pitch and could barely hear it in noisy places.
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 a underperforming camera. The overall bulkiness of the PadFone Station and Dock also made those accessories quite inconvenient to carry around. 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.
Asus has not revealed the pricing for the PadFone or how it will be bundled, but the company did tell me that it would be made available sometime in June 2012. I note, however, that the Samsung Galaxy S III announcement will be happening in the same month. So it goes without saying that the Asus PadFone may face some stiff competition when it hits retail.