Of Taiwan’s consumer electronics companies, Asustek Computer Inc (Asus, 華碩電腦) is usually the one trying to grab everyone’s attention. Five years ago, the computer manufacturer created its biggest buzz when it created the “netbook,” a tiny, low-powered — and usable — laptop.
When netbooks fell into obscurity with the advent of the iPad, Asus came up with its own tablet computer, the Transformer, which quickly became a favorite among fans of the Android operating system. The Transformer presented itself as a novelty, as it had something that the iPad didn’t: a detachable keyboard that doubled as a battery dock.
Asus continues to riff on the all-in-one concept with the Padfone, one of the company’s more interesting ideas to date. The Padfone is a smartphone with a 4.3-inch touchscreen running on Android 4.0, but it’s also the core of a “3-in-1” suite of accessories that “transforms” the device into a tablet computer and a laptop.
(A quick note: Asus didn’t wait very long to update the Padfone — the first generation model, which is the subject of this review, was released in April; the second generation model was announced last week and will be released at the end of the year.)
Padfone is designed to be plug and go. Slide the Padfone into a compartment in the “Padfone Station,” which is basically a module with a 10.1-inch screen, and you have a functioning Android tablet. (The Padfone Station doesn’t work as a tablet on its own because the Padfone serves as the “brains.”)
If you want to do a lot of typing, there’s the “Padfone Station Dock,” which is essentially a keyboard and a battery that recharges your phone. (Note to Asus: These names are confusing. Why not just call it “Padfone Keyboard”?)
The Padfone and its accessories are a great product in theory because these days, many of us now have multiple devices, most often a smartphone, a laptop and maybe a tablet. Asus seems to hold ambitions for the Padfone to be the all-encompassing device on which we do all of our computing. One can see it as the ultimate solution for the business traveler: You’d have the phone for communications on the go. Then you’d slot the phone into the Padfone Station tablet to surf the Web, and when it’s time to do email, there’s the keyboard, which doubles as a battery charger for the phone.
So how does this ultimate combo work in practice? As usual, the devil is in the details. Here’s a rundown of impressions of this combination smartphone/tablet/laptop.
■ As a smartphone, the Padfone gets the job done
Running on a variant of Android 4.0, the Padfone is intuitive to use, the touchscreen is responsive and apps run fast enough. The look of the home screen and the user experience is very similar to the Google Nexus by Samsung, the current gold standard for Android phones. I like the size of the Padfone better. It’s slightly smaller (4.3 inch screen vs the Nexus’ 4.6 inches), which makes it more comfortable to use with one hand, but the screen still feels spacious. The screen resolution doesn’t match the crystal-sharp quality of the latest smartphones, but I learned to live with it after a few days. As for the camera, it’s perfectly fine for basic snapshots.
■ Switching between using the Padfone as a smartphone, tablet or laptop is relatively smooth and easy
Padfone is much more “plug-and-go” friendly in comparison to the first iteration of the Asus Transformer, which was plagued with problems when its tablet module was attached to the keyboard. The software often crashed, and the keyboard often wouldn’t respond when you first plugged it in. I found none of these problems with the Padfone and its components. When you slot the phone into the Padfone Station tablet, there’s a slight lag, but then it’s generally smooth sailing from there. One particularly nice touch: With some apps (unfortunately not all), you carry on where you left off when you switch between smartphone and tablet mode. To me, this came in handy when I was browsing the Web on the Padfone, and decided I wanted a larger view. I plugged the phone into the Padfone Station, and voila, there was the same page, except on a bigger screen.