We can't help but crack a smile when Asus chairman Jonney Shih steps onto stage. If he's excited about a product you'll know by his exuberant presentation style and never was this more apparent than at Asus' big launch event in Milan last October. The Asus Padfone 2 was the star of the show and although it's taken four and a half months to actually make it to the UK market, we're finally getting our hands on this new hybrid device.
Asus have become well known for their Transformer line and their general approach to more adaptable, modular devices, so with that in mind, we meet one of their latest creations, part smartphone, part tablet: the Asus Padfone 2.
Asus Padfone 2: Design
The handset itself is of a unibody construction, with clean lines and shared elements from other Asus devices all there to create a distinctive brand identity. On the phone's front sits a 4.7-inch display on a gloss plastic surround with capacitive home, back and app switch keys underneath as well as a front facing camera and earpiece at the top.
The back uses Asus' iconic 'Zen' concentric circle design to add texture and grip to the Padfone's back as well as draw your eye to the 13-megapixel camera in the middle, which is surrounded by an LED flash and the loud speaker. In the hand the Padfone feels great, considering the wealth of tech packed inside that 9mm thick body, it’s impressively light. Thickness in particular is deceptive with a tapering edge emphasised by the silver plastic band which skirts the phone’s edge and also features the only hardware buttons on the entire device; the power/lock key and volume rocker.
Of course the whole reason for the Padfone name is the interplay between phone and tablet. As it’s such an important aspect of the device, Asus have clearly spent time ensuring that the feel and fluidity of the mechanism is correct. Like the Padfone itself, the tablet body of the Padfone station is impressively light; even with the Padfone 2 on board and makes for an enjoyable 10-inch tab experience.
The all-plastic body features a glossy surround on the display and a soft touch backing which provides enough grip for one-handed use with a speaker grille on the right hand side along with power/lock and volume rocker controls. Aside from the Padfone 2’s designated slot, the only other port is a hybrid microUSB slot centrally mounted on the bottom of the Station.
Slipping the phone into the tablet body is effortless and as Asus had hoped, the glide as you attach or remove the Padfone 2 from the Station is surprisingly enjoyable. Once in, the Padfone feels snug and secure and can be turned upside down without concern. To clarify the positioning of the Padfone, Asus have even made a diagrammatic representation of the phone’s back etched into the Padfone Station’s docking bay.
By docking the Padfone whilst it’s switched on, the device vibrates to confirm that the connection has been made before the Padfone Station’s HD display flashes into life. Despite our appreciation for the ingenious design work which has gone into the development of the Padfone 2, the fit and finish doesn’t feel quite as top notch as the Padfone itself, with the lip of the display’s bezel feeling noticeably sharp, but beyond this, we loved the look and feel of the entire kit.
Asus Padfone 2: Screen
The 4.7-inch Super IPS+ LCD panel sports a 720p HD resolution. Brightness and colour are the first things which jump out at you, the display’s backlight can pump out an impressively bright image and the notifications pull down bar even offers quick access to the brightness slider for automatic or manual control as well as an outdoor mode which pushes the backlight even harder.
The bright screen also helps show off the Padfone 2’s excellent contrast levels and colour reproduction, with the vivid palette looking more AMOLED than LCD-based. Of course blacks don’t have the same deep accuracy as non-LCD technology, but the whites are right on the money and viewing angles work well too. The only real shortcoming we picked up on was lacklustre responsiveness with touch input when swiping or during text entry not always making the connections as it should, which did lead to frustration web trying to type fluidly and coherently.
The 10.1-inch IPS display on the Padfone Station doesn’t offer such a dramatic visual experience as the Padfone itself. Featuring a WXGA (1280x800) resolution, HD content looks good, but with newcomers like the Sony Xperia Tablet Z and more established names like the 4th-gen iPad already sporting Full HD resolution or higher, for the most part visuals are more appealing directly on the phone.
Asus Padfone 2: Performance
When the Padfone 2 was announced back in October last year, the spec sheet put practically every other smartphone to shame and for markets like Taiwan who had access to the Padfone 2 just weeks after its announcement, it was the obvious choice for a smartphone that’s a cut above the rest. Unfortunately, due to the laborious processes of bringing the device to the UK market, rival manufacturers have had time to craft and refine their own flagship alternatives, not leaving the Padfone 2 out in the cold, but certainly narrowing the gap by a vast margin.
The popular quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor which we’ve seen appear in the likes of the Google Nexus 4 and Sony Xperia Z lies at the heart of the Padfone 2 clocked at 1.5GHz and to ensure that the user experience across phone and tablet modes is consistent, there’s also 2GBs of RAM to help things along too.
Aside from the aforementioned dozy touchscreen issues, the Padfone actually deals with heavy lifting and intensive tasks extremely well; with multitasking, HD video and rich 3D games all working without issue.
Slotting, the Padfone 2 into the Station automatically causes whichever app is running to scale up, such are the advantages of Android ICS and newer, serving as both smartphone and tablet operating systems simultaneously. We did encounter a few hiccups with the system when it jumped from one device layout to the other, such as with games where graphical demands are higher, but more often than not, the experience was consistent and fluid.
Asus Padfone 2: OS
The Padfone 2 hits running Android 4.1.1 and although the majority of the changes to the stock experience are in place to facilitate the phone/tablet transition, for the most part the UI feels very much like vanilla Jelly Bean. Some elements, such an as the lock screen are a direct lift whilst some areas such as the notifications drawer feature a wealth of additional options such as toggling the phone’s various radios, power saving and more.
Asus have augmented the stock experience with additional services such as App Locker and Asus Studio; the latter offering up an enhanced, more aesthetically pleasing variation of the normal Gallery app. In addition, Asus bolster the 16GB, 32GB or 64GB of inbuilt storage with the option of a cloud storage app which syncs from from Padfone to PC.
Dropping the Padfone into the Station translates as you’d expect to the typical Android tablet UI, again with the advanced notifications drawer as well as widgets showing the battery life on both Padfone 2 and Station as well as a power management widget which lets you define power usage priority between the two parts of the system. The jump from one to the other didn’t always work swimmingly, with select apps dropping out if they were mid-use when a jump from tablet to phone or visa versa was made.
We liked the overall lightweight nature of Asus’ changes to the stock Android experience but as they cross-device experience wasn’t always consistent and the aesthetic somewhat dated already, we weren’t fully engrossed when using the more unique additions to the Padfone 2’s UI and services.
Asus Padfone 2: Camera
A rather impressive looking 13-megapixel camera sits on the back of the Asus Padfone 2, with Full HD video recording and a specially made five element lens at its disposal. Launching the camera app offers up a decent range of controls and settings to tweak, with a more hands-on approach over other smartphones favoured to get the best results. Indeed we found that automatic settings were great for general use, but the ‘party’ setting was far better suited to coping with colourfully lit press events which we found ourselves in, as an example.
Colours appeared accurate with contrast levels not as pronounced as some rival devices, especially with HDR mode switched on and we felt resultant images lacked sharpness in the fine details, despite creating a pleasing overall look. Meanwhile video came across as mediocre with a lack of bass in footage audio, not to mention a lack of detail much like still shots, as well as a fast motion appearing to stutter during tracking.
Asus Padfone 2: Verdict
Compared the original Padfone, the Padfone 2 is far more usable, prettier, significantly more powerful and more affordable device. Asus have clearly spent care and time over the design refinements, not to mention instilled it with some of the most powerful hardware on the market, but there are a few shortcomings which probably won’t be resolved until the Padfone Infinity hits which was announced at MWC this year.
The camera although high in megapixels lacks the finesse and clarity of some equivalent alternatives and Asus might want to consider creating a more distinctive and unique user experience to help better define their Android devices. We loved how fluid the action of jumping from phone to tablet and back again felt and all the elements surrounding the switch work well.
The Asus Padfone 2 is now available from in the UK for around £599, which considering it includes the Padfone Station too, seems like a great combination.