The Padfone 2 is the second iteration of ASUS' smartphone/tablet hybrid. It's an unusual concept, but does it work?
The ASUS Padfone 2 was first unveiled back in October 2012 as an update to the original Padfone. Beyond mere spec updates, there are design improvements over its predecessor also. It's an unusual concept for sure, but then ASUS is absolutely no stranger to trying out-of-the-ordinary products. This is, after all, the company that brought us the original Transformer tablet with laptop dock, and one which since has released an enormous Windows 8 desktop/Android tablet hybrid.
And that's why we love ASUS products. There's usually something that sets them apart from the competition, and for that they should always be commended, even if the results aren't always perfect. The Padfone has always intrigued, but it's suffered from limited global availability since the original launched, not to mention astronomical price tags. But, since Mobile World Congress (which also saw the launch of the Padfone Infinity) Padfone 2 availability increased somewhat, and the device finally saw a UK launch. So here it is, one of the more unusual devices to pass through for review, but also one we've been waiting to get our hands on.
But is it any good? Click on and we'll find out.
Relatively un-tampered Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, displayed through a very nice looking Super IPS+ display on the phone. Top notch hardware specs, especially for a device that's technically six months old. Battery control when docked in the tablet is superb -- the intelligent mode ensures that the power stays where you need it. Good camera, with plenty of options in the ASUS camera app.
Non-standard charging cable is frustrating. Display on the tablet a little disappointing. Prone to crashing when shooting 1080p video, which forces a full device reboot. Sound from rear speaker almost non-existent below half volume levels.
ASUS Padfone 2 video walkthrough
ASUS Padfone 2 hardware - smartphone
As the Padfone 2 comes in two pieces, we'll take a look at the hardware of each part individually, starting with the smartphone. The tl;dr version -- It's excellent.
Starting up front, the Padfone 2 contains a 4.7-inch, 1280x720 Super IPS+ display, and it's gorgeous. Everything is crystal clear and razor sharp, colors pop nicely and it's beautifully bright. Blacks could be a little deeper, but whites are crisp and bright with almost no evidence of discoloration. The new Android Central app with its white backgrounds looks exceptional on this display.
Viewing angles are also first-rate, with no real deterioration as you turn the phone away from you. ASUS has included in the software build some handy quick settings for optimizing the display depending on external conditions. Beyond the standard auto-brightness there's also a one-tap setting for "normal" mode, for regular indoors use, and an "outdoor" mode which basically cranks everything up to 11.
Taking a quick tour of the externals, there's little out of the ordinary. Up top is the standard 3.5 mm headphone jack, sitting alongside the microSIM tray. The left hand side of the device is completely bare, and on the right hand side we find the volume rocker and the power button. The charging port is down the bottom, and is the single most frustrating part of the whole device. But we'll come to that in a minute.
Inside the Padfone 2 powering everything along is a 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 Pro, coupled with 2GB of RAM. So, definitely no slouch. It comes in a variety of storage options, though the one we have here has 32GB of on-board storage without the option for a microSD card slot. The manufacturer does throw in 50GB of ASUS Webstorage free of charge for two years as well. The phone packs a reasonably sized battery, at 2140mAh, and it is none-removable.
Camera wise, the Padfone 2 comes with a 13MP f/2.4 rear shooter, coupled with a 1.2MP front-facer. We'll go into the cameras in more detail later on, but needless to say they're -- perhaps surprisingly -- pretty good. By default the camera shoots 13-megapixel images in 4:3 aspect ratio. Switching to a more phone (or TV)-friendly 16:9 reduces this to 10MP, which is still pretty high.
Sitting next to the camera on the rear of the phone is the rather small speaker. I'm not sure whether it's a hardware issue or a software issue, but from about half volume and below, the sound from the speaker is pretty much in-audible. Once you get over half volume, all is well and max volume is plenty loud. It's as baffling as it is frustrating should you rely on the external speaker a lot. HTC BoomSound this ain't.
Generally, though, all is well on the hardware front when it comes to the smartphone. There's a great display, and it's packing some good power under the hood, along with a pair of good cameras. But, remember earlier we mentioned the charging port? Yeah ...
The charging port is microUSB, only it isn't. Not quite. In a move no doubt related to how the phone docks with the tablet, the charging cable has a kind of extension on the top of it. Maybe I was just doing it wrong, but I couldn't make it accept a standard microUSB cable, and actually destroyed two of them trying. It's not a major disaster, but you only get one in the box. And if you lose it, or if you break it, tell me the closest place you can buy a replacement from. Apple can get away with proprietary charging cables, as you can head to any big-box electrical retailer and pick up a new one. ASUS doesn't have that kind of coverage. So look after that cable.
ASUS Padfone 2 hardware - tablet
The tablet part of the Padfone 2 is basically just a case, a screen and a battery. In terms of internals, it uses the Snapdragon S4 Pro and 2GB of RAM in the phone. The battery in the tablet is a pretty decent 5,000mAh, and will work in conjunction with the 2,140mAh battery in the phone. With intelligent mode enabled, the unit will divert the power where it's most needed -- but more on that later.
The display is pretty average fare, being a 1280x800 IPS panel. It isn't bad, but it's not as nice to look at as the one on the phone, so there is a sense of disappointment when you dock and fire up the tablet. But, it's responsive, bright and colorful, and has all the same brightness options as the phone.
It'sa round the back of the tablet where things get a bit different. The rear is home to the docking station for the phone, and there's a hump in the middle where it sits. The docking mechanism on the original Padfone was awkward -- hidden behind a door no less -- but this is smooth, and quick to dock and un-dock. The phone just slides into the channel, clicks into place and you're all set. There's then a momentary delay while the tablet fires up, but it's not like waiting for a bus. Just a second or two and you're ready to go.
The tablet has the same charging port as the smartphone, and you can charge both while the phone is docked. Otherwise there's nothing much to look at -- the usual array of switches, and a single speaker off to the left hand side. On a tablet, I'd personally prefer a central speaker, but the design of the docking mechanism pretty much rules this out.
ASUS Padfone 2 Software
The Padfone 2 comes running Android 4.1.1 Jelly Bean, and purists will delight that in typical ASUS fashion it's a mostly unmolested version of Jelly Bean. In fact, the UI is pretty much as Google intended, with the most noticeable changes coming in the notification tray. The app drawer is stock in appearance, and the main ASUS customizations take the form of a bunch of pre-loaded applications and widgets.
Because the Padfone 2 has capacitive keys, that gorgeous 4.7-inch display is just full of Jelly Bean top to bottom. The ASUS wallpapers and widgets fit well with the aesthetics of stock Android, complementing Google's software design.
When docked, the tablet interface takes over, and we're looking at a more 'traditional' tablet layout, not as we've become accustomed to with many recent Android tablets. Notifications and the clock are bottom right, on-screen buttons can be found on the bottom left, with Google Search taking one top corner and the app drawer occupying the other.
The great thing about the tablet being powered by the phone is that every single application installed on the phone suddenly is accessible on the tablet. And that includes the messaging app and the phone app. Nothing is disabled, meaning you have in your hands a 10-inch telephone. Let's ignore the ridiculousness of using a phone of this size for a moment and consider the benefits. You're sat on a train, for example, playing a game and someone calls you. Instead of having to put down the tablet and reach for your phone, just hit answer and you're on the call. That's just one example, but if you spend a lot of time using a tablet, it's a nice little time saver. (Since there's no earpiece you shouldn't be tempted to hold it to your head.)
You can also personally identify any apps as "Pad only" within the app drawer. Whether these are specific tablet-only applications, or just some games that you only wanted to play on the bigger screen, identifying them this way hides them away until the phone is docked.
ASUS has thrown in a selection of its own apps too, including a gallery, a photo story maker, the Webstorage app complete with 50GB for free for two years, and some kind of social widget called BuddyBuzz that kept crashing. Polaris Office and a file manager are nice, and useful additions -- the former is especially useful when using the Padfone 2 as a tablet.
The software on the Padfone 2 performs fantastically well for most of the time. The smartphone's performance is superb all of the time. Speedy, silky smooth, no visible lag or stuttering anywhere. The tablet is generally good most of the time. From time to time things can get a little jerky, but this is perhaps more a by-product of the docking system.
Remember too that ASUS is traditionally speedy when it comes to delivering updates.
ASUS Padfone 2 Camera
The rear camera on the Padfone 2 is pretty good, perhaps surprisingly good. (Perhaps because ASUS is best known in the Android space for its tablets, where cameras tend to be an afterthought.) The shooter is billed as 13-megapixel unit, and it is, so long as you don't mind shooting in the 4:3 aspect ratio. If you prefer 16:9, the resolution drops to 10MP, but lets face it, 10MP is more than ample.
The camera app is equally impressive. It's absolutely chock-full of options, from the regular exposure and ISO settings, through to some Instagram-style filters, scene modes and even a user-definable setting for zero shutter lag. Everything is laid out perfectly too -- the settings menus are off to the left, and the shooting controls are off to the right. This means you can hold the Padfone 2 safely and steadily in two hands and still have the ability to reach all the controls as you're lining up your shot.
Talk of cameras is no good without samples though, so here's a selection of snapshots from the Padfone 2 taken in ever-changing conditions. All were taken at 10MP in 16:9 aspect ratio, no effects, just stock settings.
The only criticism I can really direct towards the camera is that it seems to struggle a little focusing on close objects in more direct sunlight. You have to really fight the auto-focus to try and sharpen up your subject. The camera seems to handle changing light conditions reasonably well, though I did notice sometimes the white balance get thrown off a little. However all those images were taken with stock settings. If you dive in and tweak things, the results could be even better.
Oh, and just for the sake of this review, I shot a couple using the 'hipster' filters. My advice; add such things in post processing with another app, as the ASUS filters aren't that great.
The Padfone 2 is capable of full HD 1080p video recording, though I can't say I would necessarily recommend it. For whatever reason, trying to record a 1080p video would almost always cause a total crash and reboot of the phone. It's surely fixable, but when the resolution was dropped the crashing seemed to disappear. However, perseverance pays off, and you'll find a sample video below. The sound collected could be a better, but all-round it's not too bad.
The front facing camera is a 1.3MP unit, and again is surprisingly good. For a front facing camera, the still images are more than acceptable, leaving you with some pretty decent looking Instagrammable selfies. If only it could do something about the person it was shooting the footage of...
Video quality from the front facer is also decent enough. Considering a common use of the front facing camera is video calling, the Padfone 2 does a decent job of this. Folks on the other end should see a reasonably clear image, and it seems to capture plenty light to keep you looking clear throughout.
ASUS Padfone 2 battery life
This is where things get a little confusing. During testing, battery life was incredibly hard to gauge for one simple reason -- the tablet dock. Because the battery in the phone and tablet work together, the tablet was charging the phone when required. The bottom line is that using it this way resulted in plugging in to charge every couple of days.
This is the result of the so-called intelligent mode that can be activated when the phone is docked into the tablet. This will divert battery power where most required; since the tablet requires the phone to be able to work, it will charge the phone from its own battery. This is actually a great way to go about things. During camera testing, I spent a whole afternoon walking around my local town and as you might imagine the battery took a bit of a pounding. Because I also had the tablet dock in my rucksack, I threw the phone into it, put the whole assembly into my bag, and left it charging while I walked to my next destination. Importantly, that meant the phone always had enough battery power, and that's the way it should be.
You can set things up so that the tablet will always charge the phone, regardless of the phone's own battery level, but intelligent mode works really well. When the phone is full, instead of wasting power trying to keep it full, the tablet will start using its own battery to power what's on the tablet display. Granted, setting things up this way requires frequent use of the tablet, but then if you're buying a Padfone 2 you're likely going to use the tablet part a fair bit anyway.
The bottom line
I'm still not sold on 10-inch Android tablets, but that's just me. Some people are, and the Padfone 2 offers a great way to get into that space. The UK price is currently around the £600 mark, which is a lot of money -- around US$1000, in fact. But you're getting both a decent 10-inch Android tablet and an excellent Android smartphone. I've always been intrigued by the idea of the Padfone, and considering ASUS generally doesn't do phones, it's done really, really well. I love the smartphone part of the Padfone 2.
It's a niche product, but for someone who wants both a good quality smartphone, and a 10-inch Android tablet the Padfone 2 represents very good value for money. The smartphone portion is superb, with top notch specs, a relatively vanilla Android 4.1 experience and a great camera. Please, please, please though, ASUS -- won't just you build us a smartphone on its own?