If you want to create a 7” tablet nowadays, you have to differentiate. That could be design, it could be specs, it could be price, it could be functionality... but if you’re just going to churn out a ‘me too’ product then don’t bother. The Nexus 7 redefined the category and gave any potential rivals a very tough competitor.
Here we have some competition for the Asus Nexus 7 from, er Asus. That’s right, they’re competing with themselves, but what they bring to the table with their FonePad is very different.
There are a number of key things that make the FonePad unique amongst it’s peers...
You can make calls on it
With a name (an awful name) like the FonePad, you’ll not be surprised to learn that you can make calls on the FonePad. Yup, not only does it have a mobile radio on board, you can literally put it up to your face and phone someone on it. No question, you’ll look like an idiot doing it, but that’s a pretty unique feature and more appealing than you might think. With phone bits inside you can of course SMS and connect to the Internet using it too.
It’s got Intel inside
The FonePad does away with the trendy quad core processors and instead has a 1.2GHz, Intel Atom Z2420 CPU on board. We’ve seen from previous devices such as the Orange San Diego and Motorola Razr i that Android on the Atom is very capable, and it’s getting better and better.
The FonePad is £179.99. Yes, it really is that cheap. That gets you the 3G connected, 16GB, microSD expandable, single model... undercutting it’s Nexus 7 3G sibling (itself touted as a bit of a bargain) by a cool £60. Value for money is guaranteed.
The review device is a full retail unit purchased from Amazon UK, running software version 3.1.11.
In the box
In the box you'll find the tablet, a microUSB cable and a mains to USB adaptor. Bare minimum.
It’s pretty hard to differentiate when it comes to a 7” tablet, but the FonePad, with it’s metallic-feeling back, definitely feels different. It’s a looker... but more on that later.
The raw specifications for the FonePad are as follows...
- Android 4.1
- Intel® Atom™ Z2420 1.2 GHz CPU
- 16GB ROM
- 1GB RAM
- HSPA+ UL:5.76 Mbps/DL:21 Mbps
- 3G : WCDMA : 850/900/1900/2100
- 2G : EDGE/GSM : 850/900/1800/1900,
- 7" LED Backlight WXGA (1280x800) IPS screen
- WLAN 802.11 b/g/n
- Bluetooth V3.0
- 1.2 MP Front Camera
- Micro USB
- 2-in-1 Audio Jack (Headphone / Mic-in)
- Micro SD Card Reader,up to 32GB
- 3.5mm headphone socket
- Micro SIM
- GPS & Glonass, G-Sensor, E-compass, Proximity, Ambient Light Sensor
- Vibrate motor (yes!)
- 16Wh Li-polymer Battery
- Standby Time - 751 hours(3G)
- Talk Time - 32.5 hours(3G)
- 196.4 x 120.1 x 10.4 mm (LxWxH)
- 340 g
Around the device
The front of the device is the predictable plain glass slab with a black bezel. The earpiece sits up top (emphasising the device’s phone credentials!) flanked by the front facing camera and the various sensors. Below the screen sits the subtle Asus logo. The main buttons are on screen as you’d expect on a tablet, so the look is pretty plain. Smart though.
The left hand side of the device is home to the power button and volume rocker. They might have switched sides from the Nexus 7, but they feel and look exactly the same. Convincing to press, how buttons should be. With that in mind the right hand side is free of buttons, the back curves inwards from the black screen edge, it looks good.
On the bottom is the microphone, the ‘upside down’ microUSB port and the 3.5mm headphone port, while the top has a secondary microphone.
The back has a metallic feel in stark contrast to the ‘perforated leather’ style plastic back of the Nexus 7. At the bottom are various certifications (the IMEI is also printed here), the speaker and the proudly worn Intel Inside logo. Near the top is an embossed Asus logo and at the very top is a removable panel underneath which sites the microSIM slot and the, *gasp*, microSD slot!
Overall the device feels great... I think I prefer the feel actually to my Nexus 7, it feels very well put together and is a joy to hold.
The FonePad runs an Asus-ised version of Android 4.1.2 - you are of course at the mercy of Asus for your OS updates. To be fair, their track record is mixed - their updates come out in a very timely fashion for the latest devices, but older models do get left behind. They’re better than many however.
Asus’ OS skin is pretty light compared to some OEMs, and the additions are largely useful. You get Asus’ customised launcher, which is pretty indistinguishable from stock Android. It has 5 screens by default but you can remove some or add more.
The notification pulldown is very customised, with additional buttons, toggles and a brightness slider, but they are largely useful additions. If it’s not to your taste however, you can revert to the stock style notifications with an option in the Settings application.
The button bar at the bottom of the screen - traditionally back, home and tasks on a Nexus - gains a fourth button which pops up a bar at the bottom of the screen. On this bar you can add widgets that then, when selected, ‘float’ on top of whatever app you have open. It’s quite cool, although i’m not sure how much i’d use it in real life.
Preinstalled ‘bloat’ apps are fairly evident but many of them - Amazon Kindle, Asus Story, Asus Studio, Block List, BuddyBuzz, Dictionary, File Manager, MyBitCast, PressReader, Sticky Memo, SuperNote Lite, To Do List, Webstorage and Zinio - could all be easily disabled from the apps menu. A few others, App Backup, App Locker, Audio Wizard and MyPainter - couldn’t be disabled, but they are fairly non intrusive.
Some of the applications are customised slightly, notably the people and phone apps, but Asus have done a good job on the whole. I’m particularly pleased to see ‘smart dial’ functionality in the dialler, something that is all too rare even on the highest end phones.
When you first power on the device it boots up nice and quickly, and feels snappy enough in general use. Of course, the Intel Atom processor is effectively ‘single core with hyperthreading’, but it’s not really fair to compare it to the other quad core devices out there as they are completely different architectures. You’d be hard pressed to spot a performance difference compared to it’s Tegra 3 powered sibling at least initially, although things do slow down under particularly intensive tasks (the good old ‘installing an app from the Play Store’ makes things grind to a halt, something that’s pretty rare on today’s fastest ARM chips).
The FonePad includes a 1280x800 IPS screen, a much better screen than many of it’s peers, and viewed in isolation, it is a very good screen. A useful utility called ‘Asus Splendid’ (wth?) allows you to enable a ‘vivid’ mode, tweak the colour temperature and adjust the hue and saturation of the image. Impressive! The display also features an outdoor mode which bumps up the brightness, something I found myself using all the time as the auto backlight is once again rather aggressive. The screen is quite easily marked by fingerprints, so you'll find yourself giving it a wipe frequently.
I caveated my assessment of the screen with ‘viewed in isolation’ for a very good reason - and that is that when placed next to a Nexus 7, the screen just isn’t as good. It isn’t as bright, whites are more ‘yellow’ and even with outdoor mode enabled and everything optimised in the Splendid application... it just doesn’t ‘pop’ like the excellent Nexus 7 screen does. That said, most buyers won’t have a Nexus 7 to compare directly with so I suspect they will be very happy with the screen.
Touch sensitivity of the screen is good on the FonePad, although as I first started using the device I did find it missing some of my touches... I suspect it’s not *quite* as sensitive as, say, my HTC One... but my fingers obviously became trained to it because I noticed it less as time went on! I'm really glad that Asus included a vibrate motor in the FonePad for haptic feedback, I really miss it when it's not there!
I must admit to having some concerns about whether all apps would run on the FonePad due to it’s Intel insides but i’m pleased to say I needn’t have worried. The ARM translation features seem to be getting better and better, the FonePad runs some apps that the San Diego and RAZR i balked at. Good news! I feel like I can detect slightly delayed starting of applications when this translation is taking place though...? It’s hard to put my finger on.
I played some pretty intensive games on the FonePad and while it definitely doesn’t quite have the raw graphical performance of the Tegra 3 machines, it is more than acceptable for most uses.
The speaker on the device, despite being mounted on the back, is nice and loud... I think the curved back helps the sound escape when it’s placed flat on a surface, although if you’re holding it in landscape to play a game you may well find your hand blocking the speaker.
That good speaker volume means that the FonePad makes a great speakerphone. Calls in general on the device are very clear, whether by bluetooth or wired headset or when holding the device to your head. With the focus on data use nowadays, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear of people buying the PadFone for mainly data use and just making the occasional call with it up to their face.
The front camera on the FonePad is about what you’ve come to expect from these devices - it’s a 1.3 Megapixel unit with lots of options in the camera application (and at least there IS a camera application this time, right Google?!?) but it really is designed for video calling and not for high quality shots. With that said, the performance of the camera itself in poor conditions is better than I expected, so for those late night video calls from your darkened room, er, it’ll be fine.
Wireless reception on the device is good. There’s no 5GHz option in the WiFi settings which will be disappointing for some and no NFC support (who cares?) but on the whole the wireless portion of the device is well up to the task. It doesn’t hang on to WiFi signals quite as well as my benchmark device (the HTC One, incidentally) but that’s not to say there’s anything to be concerned about.
I have found battery life on the FonePad exceptional. It seems to outlast any other device I have and although battery life is hard to quantify on these devices, it just seems to go on and on. It positively sips juice in standby and doesn’t drain when in intensive use anywhere near as quickly as the powerful quad core machines. Power saving features are built into the software, but I haven’t even bothered to turn them on yet. Bear in mind that i’ve been using the device mainly with the screen in high brightness mode and the FonePad seems like another Intel device that is setting the bar high when it comes to low power consumption.
What it’s not got
So the FonePad has lots of good stuff like microSD, 3G etc., but what’s missing? For me, the one big disappointment is that, like the Nexus 7, there’s no MHL capability. I really value the ability to be able to plug my tablet into a TV and play media content, particularly when there is expandable storage on board but no, unless i’m missing something, that’s not possible on the FonePad. There’s no rear facing camera on the UK units as discussed previously... the non UK units have a poor 3 Megapixel camera which is no great loss, but I think for a lot of people having a half-decent camera might be the tipping point between the FonePad being a real viable replacement for their main phone and it not. A little bit of a missed opportunity perhaps.
Rooting and ROMs
Rooting and ROMs are very much an unknown quantity on the FonePad. Although Asus generally provide the ability to unlock the bootloader on their devices, there's no confirmation this will be possible for the Fonepad as yet. The usual root tricks don't work on the device so if you absolutely need root and custom ROMs, it might be worth holding fire.
The Asus FonePad is a great device, regardless of price. There are a few little niggles, but nothing that's really anywhere near a show stopper... and there's so many good points that those niggles are easily outweighed. So it's a great device... but at £179.99 it's insane. There's really nothing that can touch if for the price! If microSD expansion and voice capability aren't an issue then the Nexus 7 3G is well worth considering, but I can see the FonePad selling like hot cakes. MoDaCo recommended!
Pros and cons
- 3G connection and phone calls
- Smart design
- Good build quality
- microSD expansion
- Vibrate motor
- Excellent all rounder
- Performance not as high as the latest quad core tablets
- Screen slightly yellowy
- No MHL support
- Updates at the mercy of Asus
- Root / custom ROM status TBC
- Annoying name
Do you have an Asus FonePad? Do you agree / disagree with my review? Post below!
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