ASUS Fonepad Review
The Fonepad is a first effort from ASUS, and a decent one at that, though often frowned upon. It’s not the only tablet on the market that is equipped with a physical earpiece, but it is part of a select few products from companies that try to address a specific, though not overly popular, need of the market.
If you do a lot of on-the-go work on your tablet you surely know the feeling of carrying around another device: a phone. Whether that’s for tethering or, most of the time, calls, it really depends on your particular needs. While you can easily overcome the phone-tablet combination while tethering — by getting a cellular enabled tablet — it’s not so easy for phone calls. Up until just recently you only had two options for taking calls on your tablet: speakerphone or Bluetooth accessories. So why not include an earpiece for those who don’t mind (or even prefer) this over the other — often impractical — solutions?
We’ve spent an entire week with the ASUS Fonepad, using it as our daily driver, heroically withstanding the “WTF-looks” people were throwing our way when putting it up to our heads. So, join us as we take a close look at this hybrid in our full ASUS Fonepad review, examining all the aspects on the outside, as well as the inside, of the Fonepad.
Video Review · Specs · Hardware · UI · Camera · Performance · Battery Life · Call/Network · Pricing/Availability · Conclusion · Scored For Me
Video Review, Comparisons & Unboxing
Those looking for a powerhouse and “best specs on a tablet” should look elsewhere. If you’re looking for a decent-performing tablet that also happens to be cheap, then you’re in the right place. Nothing on the Fonepad stands out in terms of its specs; the combination, however, taken as a whole, is a lucky one, especially if you consider the price.
The ASUS Fonepad is powered by an Intel processor, the Atom Z2420 to be specific, part of the Intel Lexington platform family introduced at this year’s CES. It tries to bring cheap processors to budget products while not sacrificing too much on the performance end. The Atom Z2420 is a single-core processor — which we so quickly learned to dismiss thanks to all the dual-, quad-, and even octa-core solutions on the market — and it’s clocked at 1.2 GHz. Intel heavily calls out the Android optimization on its chip and the reality actually isn’t that far off. The inclusion of Hyper-Threading on a chip built on a 32-nanometer process technology helps a lot, and so does the PowerVR SGX540 GPU.
The display is a seven-inch IPS panel with a resolution of 800 x 1280 pixels, resulting in a PPI figure of 216. Even though viewing angles are good and text is crisp and sharp, black levels on this particular panel will not make your Fonepad stand out. Contrast ratios are decent and the on-screen colors are natural.
However, outdoor visibility is poor even if you enable the “outdoor mode”, which bumps the brightness level one or two notches above the maximum. Another downside is that the display is highly reflective, but everything pales in comparison to our biggest gripe with the tablet: it is the most difficult tablet to clean and to keep clean. Fingerprints, dust, grease, etc. stick to the surface of the difficult-to-clean screen, and the fact that you can bring its earpiece up to your head, your face touching the entire screen, doesn’t help at all!
Screen and processor aside, the Fonepad is almost an identical Nexus 7 twin; ASUS makes both tablets, after all. There’s one gig of RAM trying to help out the single-core processor and storage options include 8 and 16 GB flavors, which can be augmented by inserting a microSD card underneath the back cover, where the micro SIM slot can be also found.
The radio is capable of 2G frequencies on GSM 850/900/1800/1900MHz bands, as well as 3G functionality on HSDPA 850/900/1900/2100MHz frequencies. It also offers Bluetooth 3.0, WiFi b/g/n, and GPS capabilities.
Our particular review unit only sports a 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera but “select” markets will see the Fonepad ship with a 3.1-megapixel main shooter on the back as well – sans flash, though.
Powering everything is a combination of a 4,270mAh battery and Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean.
This phone won’t fit in your shirt pocket, that’s for sure. As long as you treat the Fonepad (judge it, and think of it) as a regular tablet, you should be fine. Once you start thinking of it as a phone you’ll probably have to answer questions like “where should I put it?”, or “where should I carry it?” You have to be part of a very elite few that can (want to, and will) carry the Fonepad as their single daily driver to do so; for everyone else it should be the tablet to use when working on-the-go, without taking a phone with you for calls.
The similarities between the Fonepad and the Nexus 7 are close to “twin” territory, and the measurements back that up. Aside from height, where the Fonepad measures 2mm more than the Nexus 7 (at 198.5 mm, or 7.81 in), all the other figures seem to match up nicely: 120 mm (4.72 in) wide and 10.45 mm (0.41 in) thick.
On the far top you’ll find the earpiece that will offer you another (probably the easiest and most convenient) way of taking calls. Sure, you can hook up a Bluetooth headset (if you already have one or don’t mind purchasing one) or have conversations over the speaker (which is weirder in public than lifting the tablet to your ear), if you don’t want to use the earpiece.
Next to the speaker grill on the top you’ll find the 1.2-megapixel webcam which, alongside the ASUS branding on the bottom, is all you’ll see on the Fonepad’s front. Everything else is taken up by the seven-inch screen (and the outrageous amounts of grease, dust, fingerprints and smudges on it). While the display doesn’t really stand out through performance and it probably won’t wow you at all — being a decent budget tablet screen — ASUS bundles an application called Splendid which enables you to tweak your display experience by customizing color temperature, hue, saturation, or turning “vivid” mode on or off.
If the Nexus 7 has all of its buttons on the right, the Fonepad has them on the left; that’s where you’ll find your power/stand-by button up-top and the volume controls underneath it. Nothing else graces the left-hand side and the right edge is completely naked.
The bottom holds your 3.5-mm headphone jack, microphone, and microUSB port for syncing and charging, while the top features an additional microphone for noise cancellation.
Our particular unit’s back is naked in terms of main shooters but in some markets you’ll find the main 3.1-megapixel camera at the top. There’s an ASUS logo, Intel logo, and a speaker grille on the bottom — that produces modest sound both in terms of loudness and quality — and the top part is covered by a removable cover. This is where you’ll find your microSD and micro SIM card slots for all your expansion, cellular, and data needs.
Android 4.1.2 is what you’ll get out of the box with the Fonepad. ASUS slapped its own skin on top of it – a light one, granted – which tries to maintain as much as possible of the stock, vanilla Android experience.
You can have a total of seven and a minimum of five home screens at all times and even though we applaud the fact that you can rearrange them and customize their count, we really wished ASUS would allow users to go as low as three. The software also often times stutters when you pinch out and in to see the list of home screens.
The dock, accommodating up to six shortcuts, as well as the application launcher, is persistent on all screens, just like the on-screen action buttons. In addition to Back, Home, and App Switcher, ASUS has added another icon that brings up the Floating Apps list.
Floating Apps are windowed applications or widgets that hover on top of everything, allowing you to use several at the same time. Most of them are resizable and we often times found them useful, especially when composing e-mail and checking our calendar, firing up the calculator or checking out a web page. Sadly, only specific Floating Apps and Widgets can be utilized, and we really wish ASUS would have allowed us to use any of our apps in such a manner.
The custom notification shade gives you extra customization options. You can choose to have shortcuts displayed for quick access to most of the important things that are buried within the settings or elsewhere. You need to have at least six items checked, but if you prefer a stock Android look you can disable the ASUS Quick Setting feature from the menus.
The app tray is completely stock and flipping between pages is smooth, regardless of if you’re looking at apps or widgets. However, the keyboard is not stock and ASUS has bundled its own text input method as a default on the Fonepad. It features five rows, the topmost being dedicated to number input. It’s pretty basic, but if you just have to have a stock experience you can disable it at any time and use the vanilla Android keyboard.
There are quite a few applications bundled with the Fonepad, some useful, and some you’ll try to uninstall from the first time you fire your tablet up (or disable from the menus in case one’s baked in, so that it doesn’t get any future updates on top of the app itself residing in the ROM).
To be more specific, you get: ASUS Splendid (for display customization), ASUS Story (to create photo albums in a very Apple Newsstand-esque representation), ASUS Studio (a Gallery replacement with all your picture editing tools), AudioWizard (to customize the sound coming out of the speaker), BuddyBuzz (gathering all your social updates and news under a single app, when it doesn’t crash), a Dictionary, File Manager, Movie Studio, MyBitCast (for taking voice notes with images and text), MyLibrary (e-book reader), MyPainter (if you or the kids feel like painting), Press Reader (for newspaper reading), Sticky Memo, SuperNote Lite, To Do List and the Zinio magazine reader app.
Since it is running Android Jelly Bean we can’t skip mentioning the Google Now functionality, your Android personal assistant that brings the information important to you on one voice-search-enabled screen.
There’s really not much we can say about the camera performance on the ASUS Fonepad as our review unit only comes with a 1.2-megapixel webcam. Its performance is as good (or as bad) as any other mid-range front-facer, but it will come in handy for your video calls and occasional self portraits. We wouldn’t rely on it at all for picture taking and we feel that ASUS really should have offered a back-firing camera as a default.
If the Fonepad tries to eliminate the need for carrying a phone for calls, it re-introduces, at least with this no-camera unit, the need to carry either an additional phone or a camera if you want to make sure you’ll never miss that once-in-a-lifetime shot.
Despite being no powerhouse on paper — and we’re specifically referring to the single-core 1.2GHz Intel ATOM Z2420 processor — the Fonepad is doing a decent job at coping with tasks. The “Android optimization” Intel talks about really shows, and Project Butter on Android Jelly Bean helps a lot in making things fluid.
That’s not to say that you will have a lag- and stutter-free experience but we’re generally happy with how the device behaves (considering its specs). The benchmark score below should give you an idea of how the ASUS performs compared to some of today’s tablets but we all know that benchmarks are only half of the story; real-life performance sometimes seems to reflect them, while other times it can seem to contradict benchmark scores.
|Sunspider (lower is better)|
While using the Fonepad for your daily apps, including e-mail, calendar, browsing, social, navigation, phone calls, music, streaming, and so on, you will have no problems. Some apps launch almost instantly, while some apps will need you to wait one or two seconds. It’s when you try to play a higher-end game when the Fonepad stutters, but not horribly. Overall, it offers solid performance (considering the specs).
It will definitely lag sometimes when pinching out or in on home screens, but we tend to believe that’s an ASUS issue and not one related to Android or the CPU. Internet browsing is on-par with the Nexus 7 and even the iPad mini as long as you use the Android browser and not Chrome. If you choose Chrome, you better have patience!
Going in and out of menus and screens is most of the time fluid and lag/stutter free, but you’ll see the occasional frame-drops.
Battery life is a category where the Fonepad excels. With moderate-to-heavy use you’ll definitely get a full day’s worth of battery life, and if you go light-to-moderate you can even go as high as one-and-a-half, two days. That’s without enabling the power saving option; you can choose one of the following three Smart saving choices: ultra-saving mode, optimized mode, and customized mode.
Without enabling any power saving options we got anywhere between a full day and one-and-a-half days worth of battery life while using the tablet for: three-to-five phone calls, just as many text messages, social media apps, YouTube video streaming, Spotify music streaming, about 50-or-so incoming e-mails and about 10-15 outgoing messages, calendar activity, slight mapping and navigation actions, internet browsing, etc.
The AnTuTu battery life tester, which recently became our standard benchmark analytic for reviews, is sadly not available on the ASUS Fonepad. However, during the six-day period we’ve used the Fonepad we managed to get a real sense of how battery performs. You can definitely rely on it for an entire day’s worth of moderate-to-heavy use, both as a tablet, and as a phone.
Call Quality/Network Performance
Using the Fonepad around Oradea, Romania, under the steady HSDPA umbrella, we can tell you that the device performance was solid. The Fonepad managed to hold on to the poorest signal while reporting one-bar-stronger signal than other device in the same spot. Call quality, as well as the data connection, was stable, steady, and we didn’t get any dropped calls, with good sound on both ends.
Cellular speeds varied depending on coverage, from anywhere between 3690 kbps and 7124 kbps.
Speakerphone performance was also good, thanks to the larger (tablet-sized) unit on the back, though we are in a stage where we really wish for front-firing speakers on every device.
+ phone functionality via earpiece
+ affordable price
+ decent performance
+ good battery life
+ solid build quality
+ aluminum back
+ close to stock experience
– screen is extremely difficult to clean (and maintain clean)
– mediocre screen
– no main camera on our review unit
– decent performance
– Nexus 7-like design becoming old
– back cover is difficult to remove
– only Android 4.1.2 out of the box
– Android tablet app ecosystem is poor (but constantly improving)
Pricing and Availability
This particular ASUS Fonepad unit set us back $333 in Romania, but you can get it cheaper, depending on the region you are living in. Also, some regions, like Italy, get the version equipped with the main shooter on the back, which really eliminates all reasons to carry another device (phone, camera, etc.) in addition to the Fonepad.
If you are not in the target audience for the Fonepad (namely those who don’t want to carry a phone for calls alongside a tablet for work) then the ASUS tablet will be less appealing. It is, however, a cheap Android tablet you’ll enjoy most of the time, if you are light-to-moderate as far as your daily usage is concerned.
If you have absolutely no need for phone capabilities then you should check out the Nexus 7, which is also a cheap and exceptional tablet, or you might want to wait until Google shortly releases a follow-up. Then again, there’s always a more costly alternative: the Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0.
However, if you often find yourself being on-the-go, the Fonepad is an excellent choice offering the best of both worlds: phones and tablets. It will do its best to never let you down (even if you sometimes have to wait a second or two for it to do something) and the battery will surely be to your liking; all this while never missing a call or a text.
However, if you don’t necessarily have to have phone capabilities and you don’t care whether your tablet is running Android or iOS, the Apple iPad mini is also a great alternative.