The ASUS Fonepad — mainly tablet, but also part phone. And ASUS is definitely marketing this as something you would use to make phone calls — just check out their official marketing videos for proof. But it's also a 7-inch Android tablet, with Intel internals and a competitive price point. It's a device with a pretty specific use case, but for the kind of person who might put the Fonepad to good use, it could be invaluable. But is it any good as a phone, or a tablet, or either? Let's take a look.
- Relatively untampered Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, displayed through a nice looking 7-inch IPS display. Excellent battery life. Convenience of having an all-in-one device. Well-priced for both a budget tablet and a budget smartphone.
- Sluggish performance — the Intel chip inside is perhaps not really up to the task of running a tablet. Screen auto-brightness is too aggressive, and outdoor mode isn't really bright enough even outdoors. Holding it up to your head to make a phone call is just bad.
The Bottom Line
From the front, the Fonepad strikes a similar pose to the MeMo Pad 7 and indeed the Nexus 7, so ASUS continuing with a familiar design with all their tablets. On the front we're looking at a 1280x800 resolution IPS display at 7 inches. While it's a nice enough panel to look at — akin to that of the Nexus 7 — the way the auto-brightness is handled is less visually pleasant. It's very aggressive, and even indoors has a tenancy to drop brightness too low. Thankfully, a brightness slider is on hand in the notification try, but even so, I found myself spending most of the time with the Fonepad with "outdoor mode" enabled and cranked up to maximum brightness.
Also on the front of the tablet is the 1.2-megapixel front facing camera, and the ear piece. We'll examine both in more detail later on, but make no mistake, you're supposed to hold this up to the side of your head while you're making a call.
Round the back things are a little plain. The rear of the Fonepad is made from metal, though admittedly not metal of the highest quality. An iPad this is not, but the back is at least very smooth, and not tacky like some plastic cases. My personal preference would have been for a Nexus 7-style rubberized rear to the Fonepad, particularly as ASUS sees you holding this up to your head. It's not overly slippy, but still doesn't offer the same grip as the soft rear on the Nexus 7.
Also on the back we've got the rear-facing speaker, which while quite small is also reasonably loud, so you shouldn't find yourself in danger of missing a phone call when you set it down flat beside you. The darker colored strip up top is removable, and that's where we find the microSIM card slot and microSD card slot. Our test unit came with 16GB of internal storage, but the microSD card slot will support cards up to 32GB should you wish to expand. Both ports are spring loaded too, so no fiddly times ahead trying to get your cards out once they're in there — just press and release.
Down below we have the standard 3.5mm headphone jack, and a standard microUSB charging port. That's great to see, since on the Padfone 2 — for specific reasons, I know — you had a proprietary charging port with a unique cable. Thankfully there's none of that here.
And so, onto the stuff we can't see — the internals. Powering the Fonepad is an Intel Atom Z2420 chip clocked at 1.2GHz. This is the same chip we saw at CES in January, commonly known as Lexington, that was marketed primarily for emerging markets. It's backed up by 1GB of RAM and Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, but there's no getting away from the lackluster performance. Basic tasks such as navigating the tablet are fine, but if you scroll too quickly through the app drawer, things get jittery. Similarly with web browsing, scrolling isn't at all smooth and Chrome takes a few seconds to kick itself into gear upon launch. If this is your first experience with an Android tablet, you possibly wouldn't notice any of this, but if you've ever touched something like a Nexus 7 you'll be disappointed. Compared to that device, every operation on the Fonepad feels lethargic.
Cellular connectivity is 3G-only, compatible with HSPA+ downloads up to 21Mbps. So, not the dual-channel variety some carriers, and no LTE either, but at the price at which the Fonepad is retailed we'd not necessarily expect any advanced connectivity options.
For the Far East market, an upgraded version of the Fonepad was recently announced. Basically the same, it comes with more on-board storage and a 1.6GHz Z2420 Intel chip (and a rear camera, for what that's worth). Honestly though, I'm not sure how much difference the extra 400MHz would make overall. I'm a fan of what Intel's doing with Android, I just don't think this particular chip is really tablet-worthy.
It's Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. It's pretty much untouched, and it has a bunch of ASUS' custom apps and wallpapers included. That's about it. Much like Samsung doesn't alter Touchwiz much from device to device, ASUS hasn't altered its software experience from earlier tablets.
The fact its software remains pretty much untouched might endear the Fonepad to fans of the pure Android experience. ASUS' main visual customizations come through wallpapers and widgets, and changing up the look of the on-screen navigation buttons. Speaking of which, there's also a fourth key added to the bar, and this brings up ASUS' small apps, those which can be used as an overlay atop the main UI. These 'small apps' include a browser, a calculator, a video player to a stopwatch. Most of them are actually pretty useful — I always need a calculator for example, so being able to call one up in this way is pretty darned handy.
The pre-installed apps are very much standard ASUS fare, and much the same as we covered in our review of the Padfone 2. One cool addition is the (questinably named) ASUS Splendid app, which does some neat stuff to the display. It's essentially a screen calibration tool, with a "vivid mode" that makes everything pop a little more, and tools for you to adjust the hue, the saturation and the color temperature to your own preference. I like this a lot — I love displays that have bright, vivid colors so being able to pump it up is a welcome addition. ASUS has also included a screenshot editor on the Fonepad. So every time you take a screenshot you can edit or annotate it, and quick share if you so desire.
And not forgetting that this is a phone, it comes with a 7-inch phone dialer, and a stock SMS app. The SMS app is as Google intended, but ASUS has put a little flavor of their own into the dialer. It's not offensive at all, but lacks the simple style of the stock, Nexus style phone dialer.
One element of the ASUS software that needs pointing out (and shaming) is the stock keyboard. It's horrible, it's slow, it's woefully unresponsive, and needs replacing as soon as you turn it on. It really is that bad. There, now I feel better.
There are far too many options inside the camera app on the Fonepad, for a device that sports just a front-facer. Extra settings aren't necessarily a bad idea, but adjusting white balance and exposure for "selfies" seems a little extreme. We should remember that there is also a version of the Fonepad with a rear-facing camera, but the options seem out of place on the model we reviewed. It's actually a really nice camera app, as it was on the Padfone 2, but its features are sadly lost on the Fonepad.
Images aren't appallingly bad, but equally you won't be hanging them in a portrait gallery any time soon. Video, it's claimed, is recorded at 720p, but honestly, aside from acceptable video calls, I couldn't recommend much more from the front facing camera. It does what it needs to do just fine, without excelling in any area.
One issue I found particularly troublesome was lining myself up in the middle of the frame. Because the Fonepad has an earpiece, the camera is offset from the center. As such, I couldn't just hold it up in front of me to make a video call. I had to angle it slightly, which was a little uncomfortable. A slight inconvenience, but an inconvenience all the same.
ASUS Fonepad - Using it as a phone
I've written up a separate post on several aspects of using the Fonepad as a phone, so I don't want to cover the same ground twice. The short version is yes, you can use it as a phone. I did, and call quality is very good, the ringer is plenty loud enough, and providing you remove the ASUS keyboard, texting is just as easy as it would be on a standard sized smartphone.
ASUS wants you to be in a bar, having a drink, and pick up your Fonepad and stick it to the side of your head to talk to someone. Please don't. Do yourself a favor and use a headset or some earphones instead.
This has been a tricky one to gauge. As much as I've tried to use the Fonepad as my daily driver, for reasons discussed elsewhere, that didn't quite happen. One thing's for sure though, you're looking to at least 2-3 days of average-to-heavy use between charges. The 16 Wh battery ASUS claims will offer 32.5 hours of talk time and 751 hours of standby time. I've seen 9 days of battery life from mostly being on standby. But needless to say, the combination of Intel's much-hyped efficiency and a decent-sized battery results in a excellent longevity on the Fonepad.
ASUS Fonepad pricing and availability
Here in the UK, the Fonepad can be had from Carphone Warehouse and Amazon. Amazon are currently selling it for £179 outright, while Carphone Warehouse has it for £169 or free on a new 2-year contract at £21 and above. Either way, the Fonepad is well-priced for both a budget tablet and a budget smartphone, with the added bonus of actually being both of those things.
I really want to like the Fonepad, and in some respects I do. For the price, this is a very competitive device with fantastic battery life, Jelly Bean, the ability to make calls. Sadly, the internals let it down, and I fear that the price tag alone may have led to the decision to use the Intel Z2420. It just doesn't feel nearly as smooth and snappy as the Nexus 7, which is similarly priced and a full year old. It hampers the overall experience, which is otherwise typically good from ASUS.
The biggest thing I don't like is the way it's marketed by ASUS, almost more as a phone than a tablet. Holding this to my head in public was awkward to say the least. With headphones, it's a more reasonable proposition — an all-in-one device that is both a proper tablet and a full-featured smartphone. But please, don't hold it to your head. This is a tablet, whichever way they want you to look at it.
For some time now, we've longed for ASUS to just make a smartphone. Not a tablet, nor a dockable device, just phone. Sadly that wait continues.