Asus's PadFone devices are as unconventional as a gadget gets in the smartphone business. It is basically a small smartphone that can be placed in a tablet dock, which then relays whatever is running on the smartphone's screen on the larger screen of the tablet. It is aimed at those who want a big-screen device to read ebooks, surf the web and watch videos but don't want to carry it around all the time.
The Taiwanese company is set to launch a new iteration of the PadFone in India at the price of Rs 15,999. Having used the device, named PadFone mini, for a few days, we bring our two cents on what it offers to the average user...
The Asus PadFone is composed of two separate pieces — a smartphone unit and a tablet dock. The smartphone is as conventional as they come; in fact, it is almost the same as ZenFone 4 in terms of features and design. What's different is that it has a docking point at the bottom, so that data can be relayed from the smartphone to the tablet part.
The smartphone is pretty compact to hold and has the same metallic strip with concentric semicircles at the bottom that we have seen in the ZenFone range. The Home, Back and Task Switcher keys are below the screen and not backlit; the loudspeaker is positioned next to the rear camera. The metallic power and volume keys look good and feel nice to the touch. The plastic back is not slippery, so you won't find yourself dropping it too often.
The tablet dock, officially called the PadFone Station, is a 7-inch slate that is devoid of basic features like front and rear cameras, loudspeaker, earphone jack etc. For all these, PadFone mini relies on the smartphone. What the PadFone Station does have is a battery pack, microUSB port, power and volume keys and the usual host of sensors.
Asus has cut some corners in designing the tablet, dumping the metal in favour of plastic. Gone too are the soft keys that the smartphone has; instead, you get on-screen keys. Similarly, the power and volume buttons are made of plastic and there is not even a hint of metal on the dock, except the small strip on the back that says Asus and PadFone Station. Wielding the PadFone mini in one hand is a little cumbersome due to the bulge on the back.
The differences in the design languages of the smartphone and tablet portions make it seem as if Asus has just strapped together two separate devices instead of making a product that is more cohesive.
The PadFone mini smartphone unit has a 4-inch 480x800p IPS screen, dual-core 1.6GHz Intel Atom Z2560 processor with 1GB RAM and 8GB internal storage (with additional microSD support). It has battery of 1,700mAh capacity; 8MP and 1.9MP rear and front cameras; and dual sim support. The tablet part only has a 2,100mAh battery and 7-inch HD (800x1280p) IPS display.
On the software side, PadFone mini runs on Android 4.4.2 (KitKat) operating system with Asus's Zen UI on top. We have previously used this custom software on Asus ZenFone 5 and quite liked the features it offers. For a deep look at Zen UI, click here.
PadFone mini is pretty simple to use — just place the smartphone unit in the dock and the tablet portion will detect it in a couple of seconds. But be sure to place it securely as we did not push the smartphone in the dock firmly and did not realize the mistake due to the rather tight fit. If you want to take out the smartphone, you need to give a firm tug.
The device lets you know when the smartphone has been docked/removed via a vibration on both units; there is a small notification light in the power button of the tablet blinks for a few seconds to let the user know when the smartphone has been docked.
Once the smartphone is docked, the tablet will be able to open most of the apps that you downloaded on the phone. However, there are a few apps that will not be opened, such as Hangouts and Skype as these require a front camera, which is missing in the tablet portion.
The downloaded apps that you open on the tablet need to be put into a list, called Dynamic View, in order to be opened on both smartphone and tablet. We were able to run all common Android apps in smartphone as well as tablet modes. As it supports voice calls, you will be able to talk on the tablet.
PadFone mini gives you the liberty to keep separate layouts for both tablet and smartphone. For example, you can keep the video player app on the home screen in tablet mode, while the smartphone unit can have Skype on its home screen.
In terms of performance, Asus PadFone mini is not the best device around. It is fast enough, but not the fastest, when it comes to opening and switching between apps as well as running games. Due to just 1GB RAM, a couple of heavy games even crashed while we were using the tablet, which is now seen in only a few other phones in this price range.
The smartphone unit's display is bright, has good viewing angles and decent colour saturation. The tablet's screen is similar on most counts, but the colours lack the desired punch. You can notice a little pixilation if you stare hard enough, otherwise the screen masks over the pixels despite less than desired resolution.
One thing that we are extremely disappointed with is the battery life. Though we have not had enough time to spend with PadFone mini, whatever we have seen in terms of battery capacity has let us down. The smartphone lasts only a little more than half a day with moderate usage; when used in conjunction, the tablet and smartphone still last less than a standard work day.
Asus isn't targeting the mainstream buyer with PadFone mini; instead, it is looking at the niche consumer who wants the convenience of two devices rolled into one. We have our reservations about PadFone mini, such as the rather low screen resolution, poor battery life and chunky build. Plus the overall performance is good enough, but you can get much better performance if you add a couple thousand rupees more.
Then there's a rather big problem for Asus: its own ZenFone 6 (which has much better features and a 6-inch screen) costs nearly the same as PadFone mini, and we wholeheartedly would recommend the former.