It all starts with a smartphone that runs Android 4.0.3 with a 4.3-inch AMOLED screen (960 x 540 qHD resolution), a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 dual-core processor clocked at 1.5 GHz, 1 GB of RAM, 16 GB of storage plus a microSD slot for upping the memory, a micro-USB port, an 8-Megapixel photo/video camera, Wi-Fi b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0.
The smartphone can then be inserted inside a touchscreen tablet via a port that relays the smartphone's image and sound to the slate. The only components in the tablet are a pair of speakers, an IPS display, an extra battery and Asus' proprietary 40-pin connector.
This smartphone-in-a-tablet can then be transformed into a touchscreen laptop by attaching the keyboard/battery/dock, just like on the Transformer Pad.
But that's not all. There's also a capacitive stylus. And, being an Asus product, the stylus does more than just write. It has a built-in Bluetooth headset that lets you use it to talk on the phone while the smartphone is inserted in the tablet.
...You following all this?
The Asus PadFone is being sold with the tablet included for around £650. The Transformer Pad keyboard dock is compatible with it, but there's a special one designed just for the PadFone that, of course, is sold separately, as is the Bluetooth headset-stylus.
DESIGN & HANDLING
Rest assured, the PadFone smartphone is more than just a piece of plastic with a SIM card inside. You can tell that Asus wanted to make a cool-looking smartphone that's both functional and reliable. It's thin with quality finishing, and although the back is made of plastic, the engraved concentric circles help bring out the refinement of the product. The PadFone is asymmetrical in shape, with the top of the phone thicker than the bottom, sort of like the Sony Xperia Tablet S.
Speaking entirely subjectively, this is one of the most nicely designed smartphones we've had the pleasure of holding. It's super-light and fits just right in your hand.
The tablet is basically a Transformer Pad that's been gutted of everything but the screen, speakers and battery. The bump on the back is where the lid opens to receive the phone.
Attaching the two devices is like child's play. You gently slide the smartphone in the slot on the tablet with the two lateral connectors facing towards the slate, and before you can even close the lid the image from the smartphone appears on the tablet. The one downside to all this is that the tablet is really quite big, especially once you've gotten used to the thin smartphone, not to mention the Transformer Pad Prime and Infinity TF700.
We tested the PadFone using a Transformer Pad keyboard dock, but the dedicated dock isn't all that different. It has shortcuts for Android, a battery and extra connectors (SD card slot and USB ports).
The headset-stylus looks like a large pen that many may find too wieldy. It charges via its micro-USB port and has to be activated via an integrated application when in tablet mode.
The smartphone has a Super AMOLED screen just like any, meaning that black tones come out black and the colours look exaggerated.
By definition the screen has infinite contrast. It has an "Outdoor" mode that greatly increases the values of lighter colours. That's something we'd love to turn on at all times, but then we'd have to kiss the battery life goodbye!
The colours are simply delirious, with an average Delta E of 12.5 (where accurate tones would normally be under 3...). It's disco time—AMOLED all the way. That said, Asus does correct a problem common to the Galaxy S II, Lumia 800 and Galaxy Note, which is an obvious deviation towards blue. There are no traces of that here, which the Taiwanese brand has traded for a "very slight" deviation towards red.
The screen has a ghosting time of 18 ms, but the images are displayed "curtain-style", so the movement is progressive and the eye sees nothing but a near-perfect image.
Now, that was the smartphone screen. As for the tablet, it continues the long-standing tradition of Asus' IPS panels. The average contrast is 850:1 and the brightness goes up to 330 cd/m², giving perfectly adequate legibility when outdoors.
The colour rendering on the tablet is almost the opposite of the smartphone. It may not be accurate enough for the purists, but with an average Delta E of 6 and several readjusted colours, the tablet is certainly more realistic and less outrageous than the smartphone.
Left: colour rendering on the smartphone. Right: colour rendering on the tablet.
The two devices have practically the same colour temperature: 8,000 kelvins on the tablet and 7,168 K on the smartphone.
The ghosting time is 23 ms, which could be better, but Asus tricks your eye by inserting one black image in between every four images, thus in most cases creating the illusion of a more smooth, fluid image.
INTERFACE & NAVIGATION
If you're already familiar with Asus' mobile Android devices, you'll notice that everything you find on the latest Transformer Pads can also be found here. If you're new to Asus, then here's what you're in for.
Asus devices give you Android in its purest form, unlike Samsung and HTC, which add their own in-house software overlays, TouchWiz and Sense, respectively. You'll find Supernote, an app for taking typed or handwritten notes and adding audio recordings, photos and drawings, as well as MyNet and MyCloud, two apps for sharing and managing content quickly and easily on local networks. Each app is simple, enjoyable and well-thought-out. One nifty idea Asus had was to programme the devices so that when you connect the PadFone to the tablet, only the apps that work on a tablet screen show up, that way you don't have to bother sorting through them all.
Another feature that Asus is advertising is continuous action. The idea is that when you start an activity on the smartphone (say, watching a movie) and then plug it into the tablet, the activity continues instantly on the slate with no lag time. Sounds amazing!
But is it amazing? Yes and no. It's true, you can start playing a video on one device and continue it on the other (from smartphone to tablet, or vice-versa) simply by connecting or disconnecting the two. The movie switches screens instantly without skipping a beat. But your other, multitasked activities disappear. Not cool! And when you've started taking notes in Supernote on the smartphone you have to relaunch the app once you're in tablet mode. That isn't the story you sold us, Asus!
Of course, all this probably needs is some fine-tuning in the software and I would imagine Asus will fix it rather quickly. But it's still a (minor) let-down. However, you never lose any data in the process. Everything saves automatically when you connect/disconnect the devices, thank god. And the operating system runs smoothly on both. Snapdragon, you rule!
The PadFone gives fast web browsing. In the smartphone and tablet modes alike, the difference between a Tegra 2-run Transformer Pad and a Snapdragon S4-run PadFone is blatant.
But there's a huge problem with the web browsing experience: the screen resolution. The PadFone has a qHD AMOLED display, which means 960 x 540 resolution, which means that reading text and web pages is liking trying to decipher your doctor's handwriting. So no matter what site you're on, unless you zoom in, all you see is lines—not letters. You're better off browsing in landscape mode, where the text is bigger. Like several other 4.3-inch-and-higher smartphones (Galaxy S II and HTC Titan, that's you), the PadFone upholds the paradox of the large, not-very-readable display.
But Asus seems to have recognised this by giving the tablet 1280 x 800 resolution, which on a 10.1-inch screen goes a long way to compensate the imprecision on the smartphone display. Whether in landscape or portrait mode, the slate is as readable as the Transformer Pad Prime and TF300, and the zoom is fluid and precise.
The PadFone has the standard Android 4.0.3 multimedia compatibility: MPEG-4, MP4, h.264 and AVI/MKV for video; MP3, WAV and Ogg Vorbis for audio; and BMP and JPEG for photos. To get a wider range of formats you'll want to download a third-party app like MX Player or MoboPlayer, both of which are free. The Snapdragon S4 processor runs video like a champ, so no worries for 1080p (Full HD).
And video games run just as well; the S4 flawlessly fulfils its end of the bargain. True, it isn't an Nvidia Tegra, so you don't get all the optimised games you find on TegraZone, but everything you see on Play Store will run like a finely tuned Swiss watch.
The camera sensor isn't the best 8-Megapixel you'll find on a smartphone. Less neutral than the iPhone 4 or Sony Xperia Go, it veers strongly towards green and the flash tends to incinerate any subjects that are too close.
The PadFone has just a 1,520 mAh battery, but it lasts just as long under intensive use as the HTC One X (6 hours and 10 minutes, on average). So it'll still be kicking at the end of the day, as long as you don't try to do too much with it.
Where the PadFone really becomes interesting and leaves the competition flapping in the wake is when it's plugged into the slate. The tablet adds an extra three hours of battery life to the device. And for those of you who want to ride the concept all the way home and get the keyboard-battery-dock, the battery life will jump to just over 17 hours. The full hybrid device is a colossus of longevity with enormous incentive for mobile buyers, as both the dock and tablet charge the phone. You can even manage the energy transfers yourself...