The Asus Padfone 2 wants to simplify the smartphone or tablet or conundrum, giving you both sides of the equation, locked into symbiotic coexistence.
It gives you the benefit of both worlds: the big screen when you want it; the powerful pocketable phone when you don’t. There’s no problem with knowing what files are on which device, you don’t need separate data contracts, you only need to sync one device.
But at the same time, you’re compromising. Just how well does having an expanded display work? What happens to apps you’re running on one when you shift to the other? Is the Padfone concept - that of a hybrid device - really one that’s going to take off?
The original Padfone wasn’t the best-conceived device with a flap arrangement letting you tuck the phone into the tablet. It was always going to be a design barrier and ultimately, the Padfone didn’t launch in many countries.
The Padfone 2, however, evolved the docking process so that it works. There’s nothing tricky, no awkwardness in the process. It’s simply a case of slipping the phone into the back of that tablet. It’s secure when in place too, so you can pass your Padfone 2 over to someone else without the worry that the smartphone and the tablet are going to part ways.
In that, we’ll say that Asus has done an excellent job. Making the two halves of the Padfone 2 fit together feels wonderfully engineered.
Moving to the smartphone itself and in some ways the Asus Padfone reminds us of the phones from bitter rivals at Acer, or those coming from the likes of Huawei and ZTE. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but pick up the Padfone and it lacks the flourish of the latest phone from Sony or HTC.
READ: Sony Xperia Z review
The Asus Padfone is a sealed unit, but has a plastic back that lacks the feeling of solidity that you’ll get from a premium smartphone like the Samsung Galaxy S III. Asus has given it a textured back, which, although ridged, we didn’t find to be as grippy as you might want it to be.
There’s a metal waistband running around the edges before you arrive at the Corning Glass top. It has a slightly wedge-shaped profile and the curved edge makes it a comfortable phone to hold. The Padfone measures 137.9 x 68.9 x 9mm and it weighs 135g, which are pretty typical specs for this size of device.
Then you have the Padfone Station. From the front this is a typical 10-inch tablet, but flip the Station over and obviously you have the dock for the Padfone. There’s a reasonably solid feel to the Padfone Station and the tactile feel and soft rounded finish make it a nice tablet to hold. However, the arrangement with the phone slipping into the back means it won’t sit flat on a table, so if you’re giving this over to children to play with, it’ll be rocking around as they jab at the screen.
The Station measures 263 x 180.8 x 10.4mm and it weighs 514g. That weight alone is pretty meaningless, as you’ll need to add the 135g of Padfone to that to use it, so it’s 649g in usable form. That’s pushing towards the top end of tablet weights these days: the Nexus 10 is 603g, realistically around the same ballpark, but something like the Sony Xperia Tablet Z is noticeably lighter at 495g.
READ: Nexus 10 review
It’s comfortable to hold with nicely curved edges around the back. Firing up a session of Real Racing 3, it was nice and grippy, with enough bezel around the display to ensure you can grip the tablet without having fingers in the way.
Overall there’s nothing too offensive when it comes to the design. It lacks the flourish of either a high-end smartphone or a top-notch tablet, but as we’ve said though, the docking mechanism is excellent.
Hardware and displays
The brains of Asus’s dynamic duo is the Padfone itself. There’s a 1.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro chipset at the heart of the Padfone, with 2GB of RAM, so it’s pretty much up to date. There’s a range of storage options from 16-64GB, along with Asus’ offer of 50GB of webstorage for two years.
That means the Padfone has plenty of power to offer you and you’ll be able to fire up the latest apps and games, or playback HD video, with no problems at all. We also found the touch response of the Padfone was nice and fast.
The smartphone itself has a 4.7-inch 1280 x 720 IPS display. It’s vibrant, with plenty of punch in colour and good viewing angles and with 312ppi, it’s nice and sharp. There are a range of brightness options worked into Asus’ tweaking of Android, with an "outdoors" mode boosting the brightness to ensure things stay visible in the sun, with 550nits on offer.
The tablet is entirely dependant on the smartphone for its operating system and storage, only offering additional battery power and that 10.1-inch display. The tablet display has an average 1280 x 800 pixel display, the same resolution as the Asus-built Nexus 7. That resolution isn’t uncommon, although with tablets offering the same at 7-inches, and higher resolutions now being used at 10-inches, it looks a little soft to our eyes.
However, pair up the two sides and you get the advantage of a battery boost, with some clever options to govern how the battery is managed. You can have the Padfone Station charge the phone only when it’s running low, or always supply power until the handset is fully charged, with those options easy to access and the power icon showing you what’s happening.
The battery in the Padfone 2 handset is 2140mAh, which will just about see you through a typical day in our tests. The Padfone Station has a 5000mAh battery and as we’ve said, if you have both halves with you, you can use it to boost your smartphone through the toughest of days. Once the Station has a flat battery, however, it can’t charge from the phone. Both halves have a bespoke connector, which is an adaption of Micro-USB.
Overall, the Padfone, as a smartphone, matches the top-tier devices of 2012. If you're looking for something competitive with 2013's launches, then the Padfone Infinity was recently announced bringing a larger display and more power and a larger 5-inch display, but at a higher price.
The speaker performance of the handset is good and through a quality set of headphones you’ll find a nice balanced audio offering. There is an AudioWizard that helps tune the speaker performance, but unusually doesn’t apply to headphones, only the external speaker.
AudioWizard is mostly pitched at the tablet, however, where you’re more likely to be using the integrated speaker for things like movies or TV. There are various modes for music, movies or speech, however the part letting the side down seems to be the speaker on the Padfone Station itself. The Station lacks the stereo speakers becoming common on devices, and there’s lots of vibration through the case when you turn the volume up.
As a speakerphone, we found the sound quality was sufficient, although callers reported a very noticeable drop in the quality when switching from using the phone handset to using the tablet.
There are a range of options to manage calling behaviour. You can take calls on the tablet, or have it switch to Bluetooth headset instead. You can also choose whether slipping the ‘Fone out of the Station will answer a call, or whether you then have to press the "call answer" button.
In regular calling, however, using the Padfone as a conventional telephone, we found there was plenty of volume and callers reported no problems with calls.
The Asus Padfone 2 lands on Android 4.1.1 and it’s mostly a raw Android experience, although there are tweaks to things like the notifications area, and Asus has added various options to manage how these two devices work together.
There’s also a smart handling of Wi-Fi. Select the option in the Wi-Fi settings and the Padfone will detect when you could be getting a better connection through a different network. If you have multiple access points in your home or office, then this works great, avoiding those slow downloads because you’ve forgotten to manually switch over.
There’s also the option to change the behaviour of the recent apps button. You can turn it into a screenshot key with a long press (as well as the normal standby+volume down), but this then won’t let it act as a menu button for apps that haven’t embraced Android’s three dots approach. The result is an overlay with three dots in the bottom right-hand corner, in some cases obscuring the content you’re looking at.
Aside from those tweaks, there’s an additional area in the apps tray for "Pad only" apps, if there’s anything that is specifically for the larger display. When in using the Padfone as a tablet, you’ll be served up tablet apps from Google Play, whereas the phone gives you regular phone apps. You can then designate those you only want to use in tablet mode to save confusion.
For example there are two Amazon apps, one designed for smartphones, one for tablets. Using this system, you can fire-up whichever suits your needs, although in many cases, Android apps have been designed to cater for a range of screen sizes, so dynamically adjust themselves.
You can also dictate the behaviour of the Padfone when you plug in the two halves. You can opt to open up on the home screen, or keep the app you currently have running. That means, for example, that you can be doing something on the smartphone and instantly have it on the tablet, as soon as the two are connected.
There’s a selection of pre-installed apps and services that come bundled with the Padfone 2. There are app management apps, so you can restrict access to apps, for example, to get around the problem of having your kids leafing through your messages.
There’s also BuddyBuzz, a social aggregator, and Asus’ own take on a gallery with Asus Studio. This duplicates the features of the stock Android Gallery app (also present), adding time and location options to album views. Bizarrely, we also found that the stock Gallery struggled to play 1080p video, but Asus Studio had no such problems.
Otherwise, much of the Android experience is as it should be, with access to all areas of Google Play to pick up your favourite apps. However, we did come across some problems. We had a couple of unprompted restarts and this seemed to coincide with docking or undocking, so we guess it’s down to apps getting confused.
The Asus keyboard isn't bad, although the stock Android keyboard is also available should you prefer. We found that some third-party keyboards could get confused, especially where you have separate tablet and smartphone apps, as the won't cater for the resizing correctly.
There are three cameras in the Padfone 2 bundle. The Station has its own front-facing 1-megapixel camera for video calling. The Padfone handset then has a 1.2-megpixel front-facing camera and a 13-megapixel rear camera. When docked, you'll still get access to the rear camera of the phone, so it can be used in either mode.
The camera app has been given a complete reworking, with Asus bundling in plenty of options. You have things like scenes, panorama and HDR as well as all the options for exposure compensation, resolution, guide grids and so on.
The front-facing cameras behave differently, we found the tablet to be more natural, with the phone giving a much more saturated result. Both were sufficient for video calling, but as a stills camera, you'll find it soft and noisy.
The rear camera performs pretty well, producing nice results in ideal conditions, but becoming very noisy once the light drops. Focusing is fast however, with touch-focusing allowing you to pinpoint what you want in focus. There's plenty of detail in shots, but as with many of these high-resolution sensors noise can be a problem in good conditions too, with skies taking on a slightly mottled finish. That's not uncommon, however, and still perfectly acceptable for things like social sharing.
There's a range of creative filters you can apply, as well as a wide range of editing options, so without additional apps, the Padfone has you covered. It also looks like there's some tweaking happening in the camera, for example boosting the blue of the sky.
On the video front there's again a range of options for resolutions, including high-speed 720/60p and the creative filters that you get in stills capture. The results are good, although we found the audio to be very noisy and full of hiss.
The price of compromise
The Padfone 2 has been priced at £599 on pre-order for the 32GB model. That’s £599 for the Padfone 2 and the Padfone Station. It’s worth considering what this equates to in rival products to decide whether it’s worth the asking price. Sure, it’s a unique solution and if this hybrid does exactly what you need, then it might be the best for you.
The handset itself is close to the specs of the Nexus 4. You can only get up to 16GB of storage in the Nexus, but otherwise, the power and display are closely matched, although the battery life is better in the Padfone. The Nexus 4 is £279.
When it comes to tablets, the Nexus 10 will cost you £319 for 16GB, so you get the same combined total storage. The total cost is £598, the same as the Padfone 2. For that money you have two separate devices, but the tablet display is substantially better, with a much higher resolution, and we'd argue that the Nexus 4 is more premium in its design.
There are plenty of other devices out there, but generally speaking, these Nexus devices are among the most aggressively priced, so it's definitely worth looking around to see what you can get for your money.
A problem shared
With the competition being fierce, then, taking a hybrid approach has to come with some advantages to divert you from the typical approach of having separate devices. If you have a family, or want to share your tablet, then the Padfone 2 isn’t for you. You’ll be handing over your phone to the kids when they want to watch a movie in the back of the car, for example. You can’t use the tablet as a distraction whilst you use your phone.
Asus claims this device combination means you don’t have to worry about syncing or file management. If your music is on your phone then it’s on your tablet too. That’s true and it is nice that you can be looking at something on your phone and then just slip it into the Station to move onto the big screen.
However, Google’s vision behind Android sort of negates this need. With Google syncing aspects of Android across your account, having a separate tablet and phone isn’t a problem. Within Google’s services, you can have everything streamed to your Android devices anyway. With Chrome you can open tabs already open on different devices, and Google Docs will save to your Google Drive, almost instantly available on other connected devices.
Where Asus do have a point, however, is that things like movie files you’ve sideloaded might not be in the right place. Padfone 2 steps over that one nicely, as there’s only one storage location. Then you have the issue of connections. With the phone powering the tablet, it gets a mobile connection too, be that 3G or LTE. That means you’re never disconnected.
Many have questioned why Asus hasn't included a keyboard dock to make this a viable portable workstation, but there's nothing to stop you using a Bluetooth keyboard and there are options in the settings to control the buttons on an attached mouse, it that's your intention.
The more we’ve lived with the Padfone 2, the more apparent it has become that for every highlight, there’s a simple, regular solution. That leaves the Padfone 2 in something of a tricky situation. It’s well engineered, it’s almost priced right, but you walk away without a hero handset or a hero tablet. You don’t get the both of best worlds, you get something in the middle: a compromise.
Compromises aren’t necessarily bad, as long as you’re getting what you need. In all compromise situations you have to ensure you’re not going to be foresaking something that really matters to you. So the big question is: Will the Padfone concept will really work for you?
We really like the attention to detail on the Padfone, there are some great features, like the smart Wi-Fi switching and the options for batteries and calling, but if you asked us to choose between Padfone 2 and a Nexus 4-Nexus 10 partnering for the same price, we’d choose the latter.
There's still the feeling that the Asus Padfone is a little niche. It's a nice enough smartphone with competitive performance, but there are a number of compromises you have to live with on the tablet front should you take this hybrid solution.