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.
■ It’s easier to be connected to the Internet
The Padfone makes it easy for you to stay online, assuming you have a mobile Internet data plan (which most smartphone owners have). When plugged in to the tablet module, the Padfone just uses the regular mobile data connection to get online, which removes the need to find a WiFi signal, as you might with an iPad or similar device. Of course, the tablet module has a WiFi transmitter when you want to use it.
■ Battery life is quite good, especially with the Padfone Station and keyboard dock
When I tested the Padfone, I managed a day and a half between charges, which is average for a high-end smartphone. But with the Padfone Station (the tablet module) and the Padfone Station Dock (the keyboard), you get an extra boost. Both have a built-in battery that charges the Padfone, which for me, meant that I could eek out two or three days without having to charge anything. This makes the idea of an all-in-one device a little more convincing.
The not so good
■ The Padfone is a decent smartphone, but a mediocre tablet
While the software runs smoothly (I found it to be an improvement over the Transformer — see page 11 of the Jun 29, 2011, edition of the Taipei Times), it’s still Android, which, let’s face it, is just not as refined Apple’s iOS. If you’re good at tweaking settings, fine. But this is not a device for your grandma. Also, there’s a more practical matter — the Padfone Station is uncomfortable to hold. The 10.1-inch screen is too wide — it often felt like holding a steering wheel. Holding it the other way around, in portrait mode, makes the screen seem too narrow and long.
■ As a laptop, the Padfone is also mediocre
Adding the keyboard didn’t do much to change my impression of the Padfone as a tablet. In general, it felt like a netbook all over again. The keyboard dock is cramped and I never really got used to it in the three days I spent using the Padfone and its accessories as my main smartphone and computer. While a laptop with a touchscreen sounds like a great idea, I found it tiresome to paw at the screen to navigate. There’s a touchpad, but like the ones on almost every laptop out there, it’s too sensitive, which makes it easy to send the cursor flying all over the place. One thing I missed when using the Padfone as a laptop: the ability to undo using “Control+Z,” which will probably annoy any avid typist.
■ Combined with its components, the Padfone becomes physically unwieldy
As a laptop, Padfone is top heavy — the Padfone Station (the tablet screen) is 724g and the keyboard weighs 640g. With the Padfone attached to the tablet module and keyboard dock, when I titled the screen at the angle I needed, it was too heavy to stand on its own, and would just tip over backwards.
■ The Padfone comes with a fancy stylus, which isn’t very useful, and doesn’t work well
The Padfone Station comes with a Bluetooth pen-stylus, on which you can receive and make calls. You hold it up to your ear as you would with a phone receiver. The idea behind the stylus is that when you’re using the Padfone as a tablet, you can use it to make and receive phone calls, so you don’t have to pull the phone out of the tablet. The main problems: The reception using Bluetooth can be hit or miss (I gave up using it because people I called couldn’t hear me well enough) and it feels awkward to use (lift a pen to your ear and start talking — that’s what it’s like; you also have to deal with fiddly buttons). Also, if you’re like me, you’d lose it right away — it’s just an extra part you have to keep track of.
■ The entire set is expensive and the price doesn’t quite match the value
The Padfone retails for NT$17,900, the Padfone Station (the tablet) is NT$6,990 and the Padfone Dock keyboard is NT$3,000. All together that’s almost NT$28,000, which is a sizable amount to spend for a tablet screen and keyboard that you may get sick of using.
With the Padfone, Asus was thinking in the right direction by making a smartphone the nerve center of one’s computing needs. In this case, the company is onto something with the concept, but the execution feels somewhat flawed. As a tablet, the Padfone is usable, but shortchanged by its design (especially its wide-screen dimensions), and with the keyboard dock, it feels like Asus is trying to shoehorn laptop functionality into the mix. It should also be noted that with the next generation Padfone, due out at the end of this year, Asus is no longer offering the keyboard dock — not exactly a vote of confidence for the “3-in-1” design. If you like the look and feel of the Padfone, skip the accessories. At the end of the day, it’s a decent enough Android smartphone.