Until I held it my hands, I almost didn't believe it was a real product. The Asus PadFone has been shown a number of different times over the last 12 months, and though it's finally available in Taiwan after a big reveal at Mobile World Congress, the bizarre transforming device remains a bit of a mystery here in the states.
The PadFone is the evolution of the idea brought to market by the Motorola Atrix. Your phone acts as the hub for all your apps, all your files and data, and it plugs into and powers a series of modular pieces that make certain things easier. The actual "PadFone" is a cell phone, but the PadFone package includes a way to turn your phone into a tablet, your tablet into a laptop... and your stylus into a phone.
If you're in Taiwan, you can already get your hands on a PadFone, though it won't come cheap. The phone alone costs NT$17,990 (around $610 US), and depending on the bundle you buy the PadFone package can cost up to about $980.
Motorola may have been a long way ahead of its time, but timing favored Asus: Android 4.0 is fully capable of powering both tablets and cellphones, processors are efficient and powerful enough to handle a variety of use cases. The PadFone definitely breaks new ground, but does it pick the right place to dig? Read on.
Hardware / design
The PadFone itself isn't all that exciting
The "PadFone" is technically just a cellphone. It looks exactly like you'd imagine, coming from the company behind the Transformer tablets: it's full of tapered edges and metallic finishes, and the concentric circle design of the phone's back feels like a cross-section of the Transformer Prime. The design touches are nice, though the PadFone doesn't feel quite as good to hold as the other tablets and almost feels a bit slippery. The body tapers sharply toward the back of the phone, making it feel smaller than it is — even with a 4.3-inch display, the PadFone's completely usable in one hand.
The phone's front face is, intentionally or otherwise, an awful lot like the iPhone's. There's a small silver bar at the top for the earpiece, next to the front-facing camera lens. Instead of the iPhone's physical button below the display, there's an Asus logo, but the overall effect of the two are remarkably similar. The logo looks fine when the display is off, but along with Android 4.0's persistent on-screen buttons it makes the phone look pretty cluttered when it's turned on.
It's just a tiny Transformer
There's a power button atop the PadFone's five-inch tall body, next to a 3.5mm headphone jack. Two separated volume buttons sit on the right side — they're a little mushy, but presses always registered without too much pressure. On the left side are Micro USB and Micro HDMI ports, mercifully uncovered by port flaps of any kind. The only thing really missing here is a dedicated camera button (or a way to repurpose one of the volume buttons, which is a great workaround), but that's sadly an all-too-rare feature.
Around back, you'll find the 8-megapixel camera lens sticking slightly out of the ridged back, along with a speaker, an LED flash, and a nice-looking etched PadFone logo. The back's removable, and since the SIM and microSD slots are both underneath, you'll have to get used to prying the panel off from the small notch at the bottom.
A year ago, this was a passable screen, but not in 2012
This is purely a matter of personal preference, but I think 4.3 inches might be the perfect size for a phone display. The Padfone's screen is big enough to be eye-catching, but I can still use it in one medium-sized hand. The screen's only okay, though: its 960 x 540 resolution can't measure up to the 720p displays on most current high-end phones, and colors all look a bit washed out. Months of working with Nilay Patel, the world's biggest hater of jaggy icons, has left me unable to forgive screens where individual pixels are visible — the PadFone has that problem everywhere you look.
On the plus side, viewing angles are great, and the screen is very responsive. It also appears really close to the glass above it, unlike a lot of phones where the display feels far away from your finger. It's not so much that this is a terrible display, it just hasn't been a good one since 720p and Retina displays became the norm with devices like the HTC One X or the iPhone.
The PadFone Station is what puts the Pad in PadFone. The 10.1-inch tablet looks a lot like a Transformer Pad, from the 16:9 aspect ratio to the shades of gray and black that form its hard plastic body. The 1.6-pound device isn't nearly as high-end or well-made as the other Transformers, though: its design is incredibly simple, without many of the stylish touches of Asus' other tablets. It's also really thick, at 13.5mm, and its body has bumps and ridges that keep it from every lying flat on a surface — it'll always wobble a bit when you press or tap on it.
The PadFone Station is totally, completely powered by the PadFone. All your files, apps, even your Wi-Fi or data connection is provided by the phone, which is a pretty great idea: you won't need to pay for a second data plan, or worry about clunky tethering solutions. There's a door that opens at the top of the tablet's back, with three ports that let you connect the PadFone. Connection is easy and usually only takes a second or two to switch over, though a handful of times it didn't seem to take — it showed an endlessly spinning loading wheel, and I had to disconnect and re-dock the device to get it to work.
Once the phone is connected and the door closed, the Station springs to life as an Ice Cream Sandwich tablet. The Station has a 10.1-inch, 1280 x 800 display, which is pretty standard for an Android tablet. It's just like the smaller display: it's fine but not great, with lots of washed out colors and jaggy text. It also has a loud speaker pointing out the back, which takes over all audio from the phone — it's a pretty good speaker, actually, though since it's directly on the back it gets easily muffled by your lap or a blanket.
The best thing the Station adds is an absolutely gigantic battery. Its 6600mAh of power is nearly four times the size of the PadFone's own battery, and since the tablet charges the phone when the two are docked it's also the best mobile charger you could imagine.
Big battery, big screen, basically nothing else
The PadFone gets better with every new accessory
The phone / tablet combination is the PadFone's bread and butter, but there are a couple of other accessories for the device that add even more functionality. There's a PadFone Station Dock, which is just like the dock for the Transformer tablets — it adds a full physical keyboard to the device, plus yet another gigantic 6600mAh battery. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to test the keyboard, but it's another handy modular piece, even though it requires the PadFone be docked in the PadFone Station — that gets expensive, since you'll have to buy all the parts. It also gets heavy: you'll be carrying around 3.3 pounds of PadFone with all three pieces connected.
By far the craziest thing I tested during my time with the PadFone (and with this device, that's no small distinction) was a stylus. It looks like a stylus, and works like a stylus... except it's also a Bluetooth headset. Seriously.
It connects to the PadFone — you can manually connect it to the phone, but it automatically connects to the tablet when the phone's docked — and then works just like any other Bluetooth headset. There's a Micro USB port on the shaft, along with volume buttons, a Send / End button, and a microphone and speaker. It even vibrates when you have an incoming call, so you can just leave your PadFone in your bag and keep the stylus in your pocket without fear of missing calls. It's actually a really clever multitasking tool, except for the fact that you look absolutely ridiculous holding a pen to your ear and carrying on a conversation.
The PadFone's two cameras are essentially the perfect mean of smartphone shooters. The rear camera takes 8-megapixel shots, but photos are very soft, colors very washed out, and options for improving them very limited. The f/2.2 lens is bright for a smartphone, and the PadFone does do slightly better in low light than a lot of phones I've tested, but it's not really a meaningful improvement. The front-facing camera is incredibly noisy, and you shouldn't use it to shoot anything you want to preserve, but it's good enough for video chat. I've seen a lot of better smartphone cameras, and a lot of worse ones — this is firmly, exactly in the middle. Both cameras are available whether the PadFone is docked or not, the rear through a hole in the Station's case and the front through a lens on the Station itself.
Same goes for the 1080p video captured by the PadFone. It's really soft and noisy even in the best of lighting, and virtually unusable in low light. You can zoom (digitally) and autofocus during recording, which is nice, but as with still shots the PadFone's not a good bet for saving and preserving precious memories.
The very model of a modern cellphone camera
Asus doesn't try to fix what's not broken
Asus has typically avoided making a lot of changes to Android with its tablets, so it's no surprise that the PadFone is running a near-stock version of Android 4.0.3. It's the same French Vanilla flavor of Ice Cream Sandwich as the Transformer Pad: a couple of small cosmetic changes to icons and notification menus, a new keyboard, and very little else. The effect is the same, too: Android runs quickly and smoothly on the PadFone, with fewer hiccups than ever — and, since you can download Chrome and get the updated version of Gmail, you get a better app experience as well.
Ice Cream Sandwich was the version of Android designed for both tablets and phones — if you didn't know that before, spend three seconds with the PadFone and you'll figure it out. The basic interface changes depending on which mode you're in, unlike previous versions of Android that would just stretch and expand everything to make it fit. It's a really nice experience — it makes the PadFone feel 100 percent like a phone and 100 percent like a tablet.
Unfortunately, the other thing the switching back and forth makes clear is just how bad phone apps look on a bigger screen. Whether you're using Twitter or Rdio (just to name two of a very long list), you get an app that looks fine on the PadFone's 4.3-inch display and terrible on its 10.1-inch screen. UI elements get stretched, screen real estate goes unused, and things just don't feel optimized. I found that for a lot of apps I'd pull the phone out and use it separately, just so the app would look right again.
The few apps that look good at both sizes, like Instapaper, only serve to throw Android's tablet app issues into sharper relief. Instapaper is brand new to Android, and its interface actually changes slightly depending on the screen size you're using, so you get an app that looks native to both resolutions — much like the universal apps for iOS. It's a breath of fresh air, and makes it painfully obvious that not enough developers are paying attention to Android tablets.
There's not much bloatware to be found on the PadFone, though it's impossible to say whether or not the relative scarcity would carry over to any US variants. Asus preloads a few apps, from the DLNA app MyNet to the awesome SuperNote, which lets you combine text, handwriting, drawing, images and more into a single notebook and then share it easily. There are a handful of other third-party apps as well, but unfortunately I'd expect the number to be much higher if the PadFone ever makes it stateside.
Performance and battery life
The 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon processor inside the PadFone is the same one powering the excellent HTC One X, and it performs similarly well with Asus' phone. Apps opened and closed quickly, multitasking was a breeze, and even the most intensive of games like Shadowgun and Grand Theft Auto III played without a hitch. There are still occasional lags as you move around Android, but that's more Android's fault than Asus's or Qualcomm's.
When the PadFone's just running as a phone, there are virtually no issues, but too much seems to get lost in translation when you're using it in tablet mode. There's a lot more stutter and lag, even doing simple things like opening the app drawer — it frequently hangs for a second mid-animation before finally settling the icons into their correct spots. I had almost no crashing, but an unexpectedly high number of small issues. Asus certainly knows how to make a great tablet, but the PadFone's not one of them; it's more like an external monitor for your phone than an iPad competitor.
The most frustrating thing about the PadFone is the inconsistent screen-switching experience. Sometimes — if you're on a phone call, say — you can pull the phone out of the tablet or drop it in, and everything keeps going perfectly. Other times, when you try to switch screen sizes you get an error message about how some apps aren't set up for "dynamic resizing" and thus have to be reopened. The latter seemed to happen with nearly every third-party app, and having to re-boot Instapaper or Netflix was frustrating every time. The modular experience doesn't work unless it's a completely seamless one, and it looks like that's going to require a lot of developer help. I don't know how Asus is going to convince developers to build apps that can support the back-and-forth between screen sizes, but the PadFone's usability is severely limited without them.
|HTC One X (LTE)||4,925|
|HTC One S||5,141||2,420||57fps||29fps||7,107|
I used the PadFone with an AT&T SIM card, and had no problems — call quality was solid, as was reception. I can't pass too much judgment one way or the other here, since the device isn't optimized or even officially supportive of US carriers yet, but every test I ran seemed to be a good indication that the PadFone works quite well as a phone.
Battery life is perhaps the single greatest strength of the PadFone and its ecosystem. Phones are becoming more and more power efficient, and the 1500mAh battery inside the handset was easily able to get through a full day of fairly heavy use, though I did have to charge it every night. Used in conjunction with the PadFone Station and its 6600mAh battery, I got through more than a full weekend on a single charge. I wasn't able to test the Station Dock, but adding its 6600mAh of power would certainly make the PadFone the longest-lasting laptop you've ever used.
Better than I expected, not as good as I hoped
After spending time with the PadFone, I believe more than ever that it's the future. Maybe not the PadFone specifically, but at least its concept: your phone as the hub of all your data, files, and apps, and pieces available to you for your particular needs. If you're mobile, just bring the phone. Need to answer a lot of emails? Drop it into the dock and type away. Want to watch a movie? Connect the PadFone Station and enjoy a much larger, more shareable screen. Android 4.0 is much more able to handle this kind of use than any previous version, and the PadFone's internals are largely up to the task as well.
The PadFone nails the idea, but misses on the execution to the point where it feels more like a tech demo than a viable product. There are enough performance issues and app interface problems that I began to avoid using the PadFone as a tablet, and even the phone itself has some underwhelming specs for a supposedly high-end device. I want badly to be able to ditch my laptop, set up a dock at work and a tablet at home, and just carry my phone everywhere knowing I can get done whatever needs doing. The PadFone hints that we're not far from that day, but proves conclusively that it's not here yet.