Asus has a rich history of interesting and innovative products and on Android that has included the likes of the Transformer series of tablets. In early 2012 they showed another unique product in the form of the original PadFone, a high end phone that docks into a full size tablet which they called the PadFone Station. The concept is simple, you have a powerful phone and then you convert that into a powerful tablet. No more worrying about syncing data or installing apps on two different devices.
In late 2012, Asus announced the PadFone 2 which is now available here in the UK for the princely sum of £599 including both the phone and the PadFone Station, a 10.1" tablet dock with its own large battery. The station does not function without the phone docked into it, so it is very much one device with two screens. Here we take a look at this second iteration of the PadFone concept (which now, sadly does not include a keyboard option) and examine whether it is a worthy entry in the Android market.
Lets start by looking at what the phone offers:
- Dimensions: 137.9 x 68.9 x 9 mm
- Weight: 135 grams
- 4.7" Super IPS+ LCD, 720x1280 HD display
- Scratch resistant Gorilla Glass display
- 2140 mAh battery
- 13 megapixel autofocus camera with LED flash with full 1080p HD recording @ 30fps
- 1.2 megapixel front facing camera
- 1.5GHz quad-core Krait CPU, Adreno 320 GPU, Qualcomm S4 Pro chipset
- 2Gb of RAM
- 16/32/64Gb storage
- 50GB free ASUS Webstorage for 2 years
- Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, Wi-Fi Direct, dual-band, Wi-Fi hotspot
- GPS receiver with A-GPS
- Standard 3.5 mm audio jack
- microUSB port with MHL support
- Bluetooth v4.0 with A2DP
- FM Radio
- Dimensions: 263 x 180.8 x 10.4 mm
- Weight: 514 grams
- 10.1inches, WXGA 1280x800, IPS with Capacitive touch panel
- 19 Whr/5000 mAh battery
- 1 megapixel front facing camera
Amazingly, the hardware specs of the PadFone are no longer absolute top end despite being that just a few months ago, but the design of the PadFone is absolutely up there. Some people have unfairly criticised the phone as being generic, but I couldn't disagree more strongly. Unfortunately, the Station certainly IS generic and in some ways close to unpleasant.
But lets start with a look at the phone part of this dual device. Yes, the back is plastic, but it has a unique design aesthetic and a great, high quality feel with the circles pattern that Asus have chosen to use here. It is actually a common design pattern for many of their Android devices. It feels simply great in the hand, easy to hold, light, strong and smaller than its dimensions would have you believe. It is at least as good as the best of last years flagship Android devices such as the HTC One X and the Samsung Galaxy S3.
The buttons - an important part of the design of a smartphone for me - are excellent. They are responsive, well positioned and easy to feel for without looking. I prefer the power button on the side and Asus have not disappointed me.
The front is dominated by the screen of course with a discreet Asus logo beneath it. Between the screen and the logo is where the capacitive Android buttons appear when the screen is on. There is a small speaker used for voice calls only at the top with the front facing camera top left.
The right side of the phone houses the buttons and here we can see the effect created by the tapering silver band of what may be metal, I struggled to confirm that exact material. The phone does not taper nearly as much as is suggested, but it does slightly. The left side of the phone has nothing on it.
The bottom of the phone is where you will find the micro USB charging port. This port is actually of a propriety Asus design that is a superset of micro USB so works with any standard cable, but Asus provide their own special cable in the box. The extra pins here are used for connecting to the PadFone Station. Using a standard cable works normally but the cable does sit slightly loose in the port and is easy to knock out inadvertently.
The top is where the standard 3.5mm headphone jack is located along with the micro SIM tray.
The back is fairly standard with the camera, flash, speaker and PadFone logos the only features.
Moving on to look at the PadFone station, we can see that the front is dominated by the 10.1" screen and there is another front facing camera which is necessary as the front of the phone is obscured when it is docked. The left side of the dock houses the volume rocker, and the power button is up top on the left side.
The back is where the phone docks and Asus have made a nice design feature of the dock itself, looking a little like the back of the phone. More on the docking mechanism itself later.
The charging port on the bottom of the tablet is of the same type as that on the phone.
Unlike the phone, the tablet portion of this device is made from quite cheap feeling plastic. The screen is very prone to fingerprints and the whole piece has a cheap feeling to it. The speaker is fairly poor too and seemingly mono which is a shame. The PadFone Station is quite disappointing in feel when compared to the fantastic quality of the phone.
As with the build quality, the screens here tell two very different stories. The phone has a fantastic 720p screen which is extremely responsive, bright, very sharp and a pleasure to use. 4.7" seems like a very good size to me and this is an excellent screen. It copes well in direct sunlight and Asus actually give a good level of control over the brightness of the screen too.
The tablet portion of this device has a very different looking screen. I found it to be of poor quality, with a resolution that is lacking these days. Text is far from crisp and whilst it is perfectly bright enough, at least indoors, and fairly responsive, I have tired quickly of reading text on this screen. It is fairly decent for watching movies, but I couldn't read a book on it.
Asus generally provide a fairly lightweight skin on stock Android on their devices and the same is true here. This is a largely stock looking device and that is to be applauded. But there are some changes and some extras to discuss. Unusually perhaps, I am going to focus on the negative first.
Every time I had a notification while the screen was off, I cursed Asus' decision to not allow you to pull down the notification drawer on the lockscreen. A very frustrating change for which I can see no logical reason. The second maddening change that Asus have made to stock Android is that the text message notification sound and the default notification sound are the same. I could not find a way to set two different sounds for these two different things.
Thankfully though, we can now move on to the positive changes that Asus have made which are plentiful. This is an impressive device in so many ways, not least because Asus appear to have really given some thought as to what was less than perfect with Android.
Asus have enhanced the notification pull down quite considerably. I say enhanced, but if you don't agree, there is one option in the settings to disable their enhancements entirely. It features a set of customisable quick toggles including things like WiFi, bluetooth, mobile data, power saving mode etc. There are also settings for screen brightness mode and a slider to manually control the brightness. All this takes up about a third of the total space available and so could be considered intrusive, but it can be disabled easily.
There are a couple of very nice and useful widgets provided, including a nice weather clock and battery meter which when docked in the PadFone Station shows the battery state for both the phone and station.
Asus tweak the standard settings to include some of their own options including changes under the sound menu allowing you to control the alert tones for text messages, emails and calendar notifications. There is an Asus Customised Setting area where there is a group of settings such as for the enhanced notification pull down - Asus Quick Settings - and options to control various tablet to phone and vice versa switch settings. More on that later.
There is a power saver mode available which can do things such as lowering the screen brightness and disabling your data connection whilst keeping it alive when some apps are in use. It is all quite useful on the surface especially as there is a preconfigured set of options. I did not find it actually enhanced my battery though, so I fairly quickly disabled it as I did miss a few notifications.
Various apps are provided, some of which are just bloatware and some of which could be useful. Asus have a backup app which can save your installed apps and data. It seems to work reasonably well. App Locker can protect apps with a password so only you can use them. BuddyBuzz is a social aggregator and there is the Asus WebStorage app which gives access to the free storage provided with the PadFone 2. One of the more interesting additions is Block List, an app which can block calls from specific numbers.
A final word here on the app drawer which has a special tab for pad only apps, nicely separating apps which are only useful when the phone is docked into the station.
I am most certainly not a camera aficionado, but even I can conclude that the main camera on the PadFone 2 is an extremely mixed affair. Sometimes I was able to take fantastically bright and detailed images, other times I couldn't capture anything good enough to even share on Facebook. Overall, my feeling is that this is a reasonable camera that has a wide standard deviation on quality but it is better than most cameras I have used recently with the exception of the HTC One and the HTC One X. I also spent most of the time wondering if the problem was how I was framing the shots as when I took my time, I could get great results.
The camera interface is pretty neat, with buttons for capturing an image or a video without switching the interface at all. There are settings on the left side for things like camera effects and camera mode and an exposure setting. Auto focus can be quite slow, but capturing speed is excellent as is the time taken to launch the interface. It is quick and simple to use. I actually prefer this interface to the stock Android one.
I will provide only a brief summary here as everyone's usage differs. Suffice to say that the battery in the PadFone 2 performs exactly as I would expect. It has excellent stand by life, it sips battery during calls and using the screen causes the battery to drain pretty quickly. Compared to my Motorola RAZR i which lasts me a solid two days, the PadFone 2 consistently lasted me about a day and a half or so. Pretty decent and better than my Nexus 4, but nothing special.
The specs of the PadFone 2 suggest it should be a screamer of a device and perform exceptionally well. Whilst that is true in part and certainly it lives up to its billing in synthetic benchmarks, it somehow doesn't feel quite as fast as it should. The performance is very consistent, but is simply not stellar. In general, my Nexus 4 just feels that little bit snappier in all tasks. The difference is very marginal but a number of people who tried the PadFone 2 said the same thing. It was never enough to be annoying, but it left me wondering if there was something not quite right with the device. Asus have made mistakes with the type of flash memory they have used in their tablets - eg the Transformer TF300 - causing poor I/O performance which could be to blame here, but to be clear, this is a phone that performs very well, but it just never felt absolutely up there to me. In tablet mode, the performance was identical which is a good thing as there are not many very high spec Android tablets around right now.
Switching between phone and tablet mode is the PadFone's party piece. Sliding the phone into the station dock causes the dock to vibrate, the screen to come to life and about one or two seconds later you are back where you were but in tablet mode. At least that is the theory. Not many apps worked seamlessly for me and I found it easier to set the device to kill apps when switching docking and undocking. When it does work though, it is a fantastic trick and feels like it takes no longer than a normal screen rotation. Despite switching off what Asus call Dynamic Display, apps start up fast enough to not be a bother.
The docking mechanism is superbly engineered. There are no latches or catches, just a slot where the phone goes on the back of the station which has rubberised grippers on the sides to stop the phone falling out. These work very well and I found it impossible to shake the phone loose once it was docked. Cleverly, when docking and undocking in the proper manner, the phone slides smoothly in and out. It is simple and just works.
There are a couple of things to note about using the PadFone 2 in tablet mode. Firstly, when put on a flat surface, the tablet sits on the phone back which protrudes somewhat, this gives the tablet a slightly unsteady feel. But, the phone doesn't get in the way while holding it normally. Secondly, whilst it is not too heavy overall, the weight balance is a little unusual and slightly top heavy. I found it slightly less comfortable to hold for extended periods than other similarly heavy tablets.
When docked, the PadFone station can charge the phone but it seems to need some battery life of its own to work at all. It is super convenient to use the device as a tablet in the evening and take out a nicely charged phone in the morning when heading out for the day while leaving the tablet to recharge separately.
The Play Store Problem
When you first connect any Android device to the Google Play Store, the device is registered as a tablet or a phone with it's various screen size specifications. This works perfectly for almost all devices. The PadFone however has two modes. The first time I set up the device, I did so as in phone mode and several tablet apps were then simply not available to me. The Play Store also did not offer me any recommended tablet apps even in tablet mode. The solution would seem to be to set up the PadFone whilst it is docked in the station. This certainly solves some problems but I have had problems with a few apps not wanting to work in phone mode. A few virtual keyboards got very confused and app makers who offer both a tablet and a phone version of their app, each with slightly different purposes makes the situation worse. An example is the excellent MySMS which I use for backing up my text messages. With the PadFone registered in tablet mode, the Play Store could not install the phone version of MySMS. This means that my text messages are not being backed up. There is no perfect solution here, but is certainly something worth considering if you are thinking about buying a PadFone.
This is a really tricky one for me. I absolutely love the concept that Asus is pushing here. It is very neat to have only one device serve two purposes. I want to love the PadFone 2 and in some ways I do, but I don't think the execution here is quite right. If Asus sold the phone part on its own, it would be an easy device to recommend. But they don't. The screen on the PadFone station leaves a lot to be desired and the overall feel of the device in tablet mode left me a little cold.
Then there is the price. In this age of 1080p screens and super high end camera experiences combined with premium materials, the PadFone 2 has fallen slightly behind. At £599 for the phone and tablet, I think the price is just slightly too high. For that price, you can get a Nexus 4 and a Nexus 10. That combination gives you a phone that matches the PadFone in every way bar the camera and a far superior tablet. It is not that the PadFone 2 is bad value, just that it is not the best value it could be in my opinion.
So should you buy one? If the concept appeals, it is the only option available right now. Personally, I would wait and see what the new PadFone Infinity is like. It brings the phone part of the device bang up to date with a 5" 1080p screen, all aluminium build, a SnapDragon 600 quad core processor and a wider aperture camera whilst the tablet is also upgraded to a 1080p screen. But it will be a lot more expensive.
I really enjoyed my time with the PadFone 2 and one message I want to get across very loudly is that Asus should build more phones - the PadFone 2 is a great phone. But it is not a great tablet, merely an OK tablet and only you can decide if that is enough.
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