We’ve said this before and we’ll say it again: Asus seems to be one of the few companies out there willing to take risks when it comes to bringing concepts to the market. They really hit it out of the park with the Transformer series of tablets and today we have something that takes that concept one step further. The Asus PadFone gives you the full functionality of an Android smartphone as well as the ability to use it as a tablet or notebook, depending on where you’re using the device. How’s this possible? The design of the PadFone is threefold – there’s the phone itself, a tablet-like docking station called the PadFone Station and then you have the keyboard dock, like we’ve seen on the Transformer tablets. Let’s start with the phone.
Design and Build
The PadFone itself is quite handsome. The Gorilla Glass in the front contrasts well with the aluminium body and from some angles, resembles the iPhone a lot. It’s quite light at just 129g and slim as well at 9.2mm at its slimmest point. Asus has gone with a wedge-shaped design for the PadFone, which we think works well in its favour. The volume rocker buttons are within reach and so is the power/sleep button on the top. It doesn’t feel all that big for a 4.3-inch display, but I think that has more to do with the increasing popularity of phones with screens this large. For connectivity there's a microUSB port, microHDMI, and three contacts for the docking station.
A handsome looking phone
Speaking of which, the PadFone Station is nothing more than a tablet without the innards. It packs in a 10.1-inch HD display and weighs 724g. You get a front facing camera while the rear camera is the one on the phone itself. You also get a power button, headphone jack and volume rocker that are linked internally to the phone. The station packs in an additional 6,600mAh battery which charges the phone when docked. For a tablet, it’s quite bulky and when you dock the phone as well, it gets really heavy. But we’re not done yet. You also get the keyboard attachment that adds two USB ports, a card reader and yet another battery pack. The keyboard dock is very similar to the one we saw in the Transformer series. The keys on this one, however, seem to have a bit too much travel and feel too spongy, which does not bode well for typing. The trackpad is okay but its buttons are terribly hard, similar to some of the Eee PC netbooks. You also get a stylus which doubles up as a Bluetooth headset so you can receive and make calls by holding it to your ear. A little weird, sure, but at least you don’t have to pull the phone out of its dock every time you get a call, or worse, talk into the tablet.
It' party trick
The build and finish of the PadFone are really impressive and same goes for the accessories that accompany it. Our only problem is that it’s too bulky when you put them all together, which makes carrying it around a real task.
Our unit had Android 4.0.3 running out of the box along with Asus’ minimalistic skin. The UI is smooth for the most part, apart from slight jerks and lags that creep in—nothing that a little taste of Jelly Bean won’t fix. The Super AMOLED screen feels a little oversaturated at times, especially in the UI; although videos look extremely rich and sharp with great viewing angles. Asus has modified the notification bar with a handy scrolling bar of toggle switches. Other additions include their own widgets, a section in the menu for tablet apps, and a ‘PadFone’ submenu in the settings. As soon as you dock the phone, you get the typical tablet layout but none of the folders you create on the phone translate into tablet mode.
Familiar ICS interface on the phone
The shortcuts and widgets used in phone mode are different from the ones in tablet mode. Also, as soon as you dock it, the station starts charging the phone. The trouble with this is there needs to be some amount of charge left in the station to power the screen since the phone’s battery isn’t powerful enough, so even if you have power left in the phone, the station will not power on if it’s discharged. The PadFone is powered by a Qualcomm S4 MSM8960 SoC running at 1.5GHz. This dual-core CPU is based on the new 28nm ‘Krait’ architecture and features the Adreno 225 for graphics. This is a powerful chip and it reflects in the benchmarks. Linpack returned a single threaded score of 100MFLOPS while in the multi-threaded score returned 180MFLOPS. AnTuTu also gave us a high score of 6941pts, which is very good.
The same homescreen but in tablet mode
The section in the menu called ‘Pad Only’ is for applications that can only be used in tablet mode. This is almost meaningless since even if you try to install a tablet-only application through the Play Store, you can’t, since Google still recognises the PadFone as a phone and not as a tablet. You’d think this would work in tablet mode, but it doesn’t. The QWERTY keyboard features shortcuts for locking the screen and going to the settings, and the trackpad even features gestures for browsing through menus, just like on the Transformer tablet.
Custom settings for the PadFone
You can seamlessly go from phone mode to tablet mode without having to restart any running application, provided the app is enabled in the ‘Dynamic Display Switch List’ in the settings. The good thing is that all downloaded apps appear here and you select which should have the dynamic switching ability. The bad news is that not all the of the stock apps show up here and you can’t manually add any. For instance, you have the music player, news and weather, and Google Search. Other apps including Google+, Gmail, Play Store etc. cannot switch dynamically. This is something Asus needs to fix. Thankfully, the stock browser does switch dynamically when docked into tablet mode, even though it doesn’t show up on the switching list. Asus also gives you the flexibility of using its own keyboard, which is not too bad, or the stock ICS keyboard. Most OEMs force you to use their keyboard alone, so it's nice when you have a choice.
Asus hasn’t messed around too much with the stock music player, which is not a bad thing since ICS comes with a pretty mean one. You can sort your songs by Recent, Albums, Artists, Songs, Playlists or Genre. The player has a clean look to it and you even get audio enhancements by default. The great bit is that the player also supports FLAC files now. The audio quality is good with a decent pair of earphones and the volume is quite loud even without the enhancements.
Media playback is good
The one place where we feel Asus could have done better is the video area. Since we are stuck with the stock player, there’s only support for MP4 videos. 1080p videos play just fine though, even through pen drives plugged into the keyboard dock's USB port. Videos look crisp and sharp on the phone while the tablet screen is just about average. It doesn’t seem like Asus has used an IPS display for the PadFone Station. Despite that, docking in the phone while watching videos is a good idea since you get a bigger screen and the sound is also a lot fuller as the audio is routed to the larger speaker in the PadFone Station.
The PadFone is a quad-band GSM device, but supports only two bands for 3G: 900 and 1200. It still does 21Mbps down and 5.76Mbps up, so it’s still on par with most other smartphones. Other connectivity options include Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi Direct and Bluetooth but no NFC. For storage, you get 16GB built-in along with a hot-swap microSD card slot under the cover, which expands it by up to 32GB.
Browsing the web is a pleasant experience thanks to the fast CPU
We also have Asus WebStorage with unlimited web storage space for one year, after which you have to pay a fee to continue the service. MyCloud lets you quickly browse and sort out your media files saved in the cloud. One feature we really like is App Locker. It essentially lets you put a common password for whichever app you want so you can, for example, prevent nosy people from snooping through your private picture collection.
The stylus/headset is part of the bundle
Other apps include MyLibrary, which lets you read Ebooks and popular news publications. Kindle app also comes bundled. There’s MovieStudio for editing your captured videos, Polaris Office for working on Office documents and spreadsheets.
The 8MP camera lacks a BSI sensor but still manages to capture good detailed outdoors shots. The LED flash is also quite powerful and evenly illuminates a dark area, provided you’re within 2-3ft from the subject. Panorama mode works very well too. Pictures look even better outdoors in natural light. Touch to focus is present as well along with touch to capture, face detection etc. You also get a bunch of scene modes to play around with. The PadFone only has a VGA front camera, whereas the station packs in a 1.3MP cam, so for video chats, you’re better off using the PadFone Station.
The revamped camera UI
The camera also handles 1080p video recording and playback very well. The frame rate is solid at roughly 30fps and motion is rarely jerky or stuttery, unless you’re moving around fast.
Captures good amount of detail
For our video drain test, the brightness was set to medium and Wi-Fi was off. We managed to get about 6 hours of playback time from the phone alone. This is a bit too little since the PadFone packs in a rather weak 1520mAh battery. Once plugged into the the PadFone Station and the keyboard dock (which were fully charged), we managed to squeeze out another 9 hours of video playback on the 10.1-inch screen. In the loop tests, we managed to get just 5 hours of usage from the phone alone, which included 1 hour of voice calls, 2 hours of video and 2 hours of music streaming. The phone itself has a weak battery life and is only good enough when you pair it with the accessories, which might not be possible everywhere. With regular usage, we also found that the PadFone would heat up quite a bit for even simple tasks like music playback, which is not a good thing.
The PadFone Station is a bit bulky, so carrying it around is not always feasible
Verdict and Price in India
The Asus PadFone retails for Rs. 65,000 and as part of the package, you get the phone, the station, the keyboard and the stylus headset. This makes it the most expensive Android smartphone in India. But is it worth it? Well, not really and here’s why. At the heart of it all, the PadFone is first and foremost a smartphone, but it’s not a high-end phone, at least not anymore. If Asus were to sell it as a standalone product, we’d reckon it would sell in the 20-30K price bracket. In essence, you’re paying more than double for the tablet, keyboard and stylus – stuff that you may or may not use that often. Looking at it purely as a phone, the PadFone lacks a quadband 3G radio, has no NFC and has a weak battery. The tablet dock and keyboard are great when you’re at home, but you’d rarely carry them with you since the combination gets really bulky and heavy. You also can’t install tablet specific apps on the PadFone even in tablet mode, since Google still sees it as a phone and not a tablet. The PadFone is a great concept, no doubt, and we applaud Asus for bringing it to the market. However, we just feel there’s a lot more work needed, software-wise, to make the transition between phone and tablet more seamless and to truly enjoy the best of both worlds.
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Oct 27, 2016
Oct 27, 2016