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.