Having teased it for over a year, today ASUS publicly unveiled the Padfone in its final form, at its Mobile World Congress press conference in Barcelona. In addition to the much-hyped phone-within-a-tablet functionality, ASUS has brought along a few surprising new features, including a capacitive pen which doubles as a handset. It's also expanded upon the Transformer concept, introducing a keyboard docking option for the Padfone. That's right, you can plug the phone into the tablet, then plug the tablet into the keyboard dock. Crazy stuff to be sure.
Read on to find out what we thought of ASUS' ambitious three-in-one device.
The Padfone's hardware has changed a little since we first saw it back in 2011. The handset itself is undeniably sleeker than what was first unveiled last year, and the tablet dock -- though a little bulkier than we'd like -- at least looks attractive and sports a bright IPS display.
Most of the magic happens inside the handset itself. It runs a 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 processor and Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich on a 4-inch qHD SuperAMOLED display. We've since been spoiled by a glut of 720p smartphones, but on a 4-inch display, the Padfone handset's 960x540 pixels are more than sufficient. ICS itself has been moderately skinned on the phone side, mirroring what ASUS has done with its tablet UI. It's closer to vanilla ICS than most phones, but it definitely has its own personality. Throw in 16GB to 64GB of storage, an 8MP rear camera and you've got what we'd describe as a decent mid to high-end phone. The ICS phone interface -- and its tablet counterpart when docked -- fly along on the speedy "Krait"-based dual-core Snapdragon.
The tablet dock is best described as a slightly chunkier version of the original Transformer. There's a bulge at the back where the phone slots into place, and there's no denying that it's a bit heaver than the other two ASUS tablets on show at MWC -- the Transformer Pad Infinity and Transformer Pad 300. We didn't have any trouble holding it comfortably though, and performance was just as smooth as you'd expect.
The IPS-based tablet screen was equally impressive -- bright, sharp and colorful. Besides the screen, the only thing of interest in the tablet dock's hardware is the battery, which ASUS says boosts battery life by up to 5X (in the same way as the keyboard dock for other Transformer devices).
Add in the keyboard dock and ASUS claims a 9X increase in battery life for the Padfone, as a result of yet another battery found in the base station. If you've used a Transformer before, you'll be right at home with the Padfone's keyboard dock. There's a latch to lock it in place, and when you do, Android adapts itself once again to go from phone, to tablet to laptop, complete with mouse control options.
The morning's big surprise came when ASUS chairman Jonny Shih introduced yet another component into the mix -- a capacitive stylus, which doubles up as a handset when the Padfone is in tablet mode. Like the on Galaxy Note or Optimus Vu, you can use the pen to draw and interact with the screen. But if you want to make a call, you can also hold it up to your head and take advantage of the built-in speaker and earphone. Very cool, but we'll freely admit it looks more than a little ridiculous. Voice calling over the pen was demonstrated to us at today's press conference, though how it'll work in the real world remains to be seen.
There's no doubt that the Padfone is a technically impressive device, and ASUS deserves credit for even attempting to brew up such a crazy pot of mobile technology. But we have to wonder how practical this will end up being in every day use -- time will tell whether consumers will want to take ASUS up on its offer of a three-in-one dockable device with pen input.