You can never accuse Asus of being boring. In a market filled with "me too" products that lack imagination, the Asus Padfone, an Android phone that docks into a tablet shell, is one of the most interesting concepts we've ever seen. Disappointingly, at this stage the Padfone we have seen is too clunky, and the modular idea feels more like a concept rather than a finished product.
It is only fair to point out, however, that the Padfone was tested in our Australian office, and it is very early days for this intriguing hybrid product. We don't know yet when the Asus Padfone will be available in the UK, nor how much it will cost. We'll be updating this review with our own in-depth Padfone review as soon as we can get our hands on the UK product.
Asus Padfone: The phone
The Asus Padfone, as its name suggests, is a smartphone first and foremost. Its design keeps some consistency with most of Asus' recent product releases, particularly the well-designed Transformer Prime, an Android tablet. Like this tablet, the Padfone has sharp metallic edges, a gloss black bezel surrounding the display and an etched, swirl pattern on the back that provides adequate grip. The look and feel is very industrial and the phone feels well constructed. See also: Group test: what's the best Android tablet?
The Padfone has a 4.3in touchscreen so its dimensions are a little smaller than current flagship models on the market, such as Samsung's 4.8in Galaxy S 3 and HTC's 4.7in HTC One X. If you're put off by the extra large size of these smartphones, the Padfone is a nice balance between display size and sheer footprint. However, we found that the sharp edges, particularly where the aluminum frame meets the bezel surrounding the front glass, can uncomfortably dig into your hands. Visit Group test: What's the best smartphone?
Edges aside, the design of the Asus Padfone is well implemented. The power/lock screen buttons are well positioned and can easily be accessed with one handed use. On the left side is a micro-USB port for charging and a micro-HDMI port for connection to a TV — both of these ports are used when you dock the Padfone into the Padfone Station. The phone is powered by a dual-core 1.5GHz processor, has 1GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage. A microSD card slot behind the rear battery cover allows memory expansion. See also: Group test: what's the best tablet PC?
The PadFone's 4.3in screen is a Super AMOLED panel with a qHD resolution of 960x540. It offers excellent viewing angles, the vivid colour we've come to know and love on AMOLED screens and is responsive to use. However, the qHD resolution means it can't quite match many flagship rivals when displaying text. It's not a huge issue, but you'll notice visible aberrations on the edges of text when you compare the Padfone's display with higher resolution smartphone screens.
Asus Padfone: The Padfone Station
The idea behind the Asus Padfone is a modular concept. When the phone is placed inside the PadFone Station, the PadFone in effect turns into a full 10.1in Android tablet. The PadFone Station is just a screen, so all the processing power, memory and connectivity comes from the PadFone, though the tablet component does have a 6600mAh battery. As the tablet dock utilises the processing power and connectivity of the phone itself, the PadFone negates the need for two separate data connections.
The Padfone concept is a notable one and makes sense in a number of areas, but Asus' execution is a real let down - at least in the model we have tested in Australia. The biggest issue is that the Padfone Station is heavy, big and bulky. It's significantly thicker (13.5mm) than most other Android tablets on the market and feels very chunky. It weighs a hefty 724g on its own and 853g with the Padfone docked into it. That makes it much heavier than most other Android tablets on the market.
Its design is rather appealing, too. The bulging Padfone door latch means the Padfone Station doesn't sit flat on a desk or table and rocks when you touch the screen towards the top and bottom. This poses a significant problem when trying to type on a desk or table using the on-screen keyboard, for example. The Padfone Station also lacks the sleek look and feel of Asus' other Android tablets, like the Eee Pad Transformer Prime and the Asus Transformer Pad TF300. The ultimate feeling we get when using the Padfone Station is that it still feels like a concept.
The Padfone Station's 1280x800 screen, while large, can't compete with the higher resolution panels of tablets such as the new iPad, the Acer Iconia Tab A700 and Asus' own Transformer Pad Infinity. All of these models boast sharper, clearer, and higher resolution displays that will soon become the norm on tablets. In this case, the specifications on the Padfone Station are a little outdated. It's certainly not a bad tablet, by any means, but its value will be determined by how much it costs in the UK when it launches.
Thankfully, attaching the Padfone into the Padfone Station tablet is a relatively simple process. Open the latch on the top of the tablet which will flip open the compartment, slide in the Padfone as shown until you hear a click, then close the compartment. In most cases, the Padfone Station is ready to use about five seconds after you dock the Padfone in its compartment. Removing the Padfone is also easy and we love the fact you can push the down the hinged cover to pop it out. The process does feel a little flimsy but is fairly effective.
From phone to tablet and back: a work in progress
The idea of the Padfone certainly makes sense. Use your phone when you want a phone, and dock the phone into the Padfone Station when you want a tablet. While the idea has plenty of merit, Asus hasn't executed it nearly as well as we'd have liked at this stage.
The biggest issue is one that plagues all Android tablets — there aren't enough apps that have been designed to suit the larger screen of a tablet. Some of the regular apps we use such as Facebook, Twitter and Spotify simply blow up to fit the Padfone Station's larger screen. The latter doesn't even work in landscape mode. These apps look and work better on the Padfone by itself, defeating the purpose of the Padfone concept altogether.
It gets worse when you switch from phone to tablet mode, or vice versa. Asus says its Dynamic Display technology automatically resizes apps when you dock the Padfone into the Padfone Station, or remove it. The problem is, it works in some apps but not in others. If you're typing an e-mail in Gmail with the Padfone docked, for example, removing it kills the app and you lose your work. The same applies to the Play Store, Google Maps and YouTube. To be fair many third party apps like Twitter, Facebook, Chrome and Dropbox support the feature and work reasonably well, but the fact that default apps like Gmail do not is a huge downside.
Even worse still is the fact that docking and undocking the Padfone removes all apps from Android's recent apps list. This is a huge annoyance and a big oversight. Asus clearly hasn't found an efficient way to combine both smartphone and tablet modes seamlessly, a critical issue and one that almost defeats the purpose of the Padfone concept entirely.
Performance in tablet mode is a hit and miss affair, too. The home screens, for example, are smooth when used in phone mode but are often sluggish to swipe through when using the Padfone Station. The app draw is fast and efficient on the Padfone, but the same function is choppy and laggy on the Padfone Station. These are basic tasks yet the Padfone Station clearly struggles with them. We also noticed that when removing the Padfone from the Padfone Station the screen would often flicker for a few seconds.
Oops. The error message you get when you dock the Padfone into the Padfone Station.
These issues are obviously bugs that need to be ironed out and will most likely be fixed with future software updates but they contribute to the overall feeling of the Padfone — a great idea let down by poor execution and a very inconsistent and unfinished user experience.