ASUS PadFone X review: a beginner’s flagship with a tablet in the box
Back in 2012, in one of my first-ever editorials for Pocketnow, I called the first-generation ASUS PadFone an answer to a question no one was asking. I admired that it “cheated the system by changing the rules,” providing a continuous computing experience across a smartphone and a tablet, but found its hardware-based approach antiquated. In a world where more and more of our content resides in the cloud, I reasoned, what place does a dumb-terminal tablet have?
Three generations later, ASUS still believes the PadFone concept has legs – and AT&T seems to agree. But in a reversal of the typical carrier role (mucking up great hardware with terrible pricing), AT&T has provided the best-ever reason to consider a device as unusual as this: the PadFone X starts shipping June 6th for a mere $199 on-contract. What’s more, its monthly data plan should cost you no more than that of a standard smartphone.
That’s an outstanding, almost unbelievable value proposition for someone looking to stock up on devices while pinching pennies – but does the newest PadFone demand too many sacrifices for its low price point? Find out after the jump, in our ASUS PadFone X review!
ASUS PadFone X Review Videos
Specs & Hardware
It only takes a few seconds with the device’s handheld half to realize that most of the PadFone X excitement resides with the tablet. The smartphone’s build is average in every respect, its only cosmetic concessions the brushed metallic detailing on the sides and the subtle sparkle paint job on its matte-black backplate. The phone measures 9.9mm thick and 150g in mass, but its brutally rectangular chassis makes it feel both heavier and thicker in the hand, and the large bezels at top and bottom mean it’s almost as tall as the HTC One M8 (a tougher pill to swallow on the PadFone, with its lone rear-firing speaker).
While the handheld’s 5-inch display echoes the mediocrity of the build in some senses –it has fairly narrow viewing angles and it’s not great in broad daylight– its 1080p resolution results in an excellent pixel density of 441ppi, and it’s capable of richer saturation than you might expect from an IPS panel. The screen’s color reproduction seems authentic to our eye, but ASUS has bundled an app called Splendid for rudimentary modifications to the palette if you disagree.
Down in the engine room, a Snapdragon 800 purrs along at 2.3GHz, helped out by 2 gigs of RAM and 16GB of onboard storage (10.5 of which are user-accessible). Fortunately that storage space is expandable to 64GB via a microSD slot nestled under the removable back cover – but those looking to replace the small 2,330 mAh battery while they’re there will come away disappointed, as it’s an embedded power pack.
Fortunately, that’s where the tablet dock comes in. Slotting the PadFone X into the “PadFone Station” is a painless affair, the handheld locked into place via a combination of slick rubber teeth and a pair of long docking posts flanking the USB connector. A short buzz from the haptic motor and a brief flash of the tablet’s notification LED lets you know you’ve made a good connection, and the juice starts flowing from the PadFone Station’s 4,990-mAh power pack into the phone.
At 1920×1200 and 252 pixels per inch, the tablet’s display doesn’t come close to the sharpness of the smartphone’s, but that’s a tradeoff we’ve come to expect from most tablet screens – and the PadFone’s 9-inch diagonal offers a much larger canvas relative to the phone (which is, of course, the whole point).
The Station also takes over from the smartphone in other, more mundane respects. On the audio front, the tablet’s dual front-firing speakers are a little on the quiet side, but they’re worlds better than the smartphone’s single rear-facing unit. The MicroUSB port and power/standby and volume controls on the tablet’s flank all take the place of their equivalents on the phone while the two are docked, and the aforementioned notification LED above the display makes sure you don’t miss any alerts. ASUS made the strange choice to stick with a 1-megapixel front-facing camera on the tablet –a significant resolution penalty compared to the phone’s 2MP front-facing shooter– but that’s the only real downgrade that moving to tablet mode carries.
In the hand, the docked PadFone X is … beastly. At 664g, the combined pair is more massive than Apple’s fourth-generation iPad, and thanks to the bulbous protuberance at its centerline, the PadFone X is decidedly more cumbersome. It’s mildly uncomfortable to hold in landscape, incredibly awkward in portrait, and on a tabletop it wobbles like a see-saw. Also, while the phone sits snugly in its docking cradle and can’t be rattled loose by even vigorous upside-down shaking, it does wobble just enough to make the occasional knocking sound against the casing.
But despite all this, we don’t really mind using the PadFone X as a tablet. Maybe it’s because we often go two-handed for gaming, Netflixing, and reading; maybe it’s because we’ve grown used to heavy tablets in our time with devices like the Lumia 2520; maybe we just love the added flexibility that a big screen and a nearly-5000 mAh battery brings along. Whatever the reason, we think the PadFone Station certainly brings enough utility to counteract its physical handicaps.
The PadFone X ships with Android 4.4.2 underpinning an ASUS-made skin that resembles the company’s ZenUI. Fortunately the skin doesn’t bog down the experience at all; the PadFone’s Snapdragon 800 is more than capable of pushing graphics along at a quick clip. ASUS has also made some nice aesthetic enhancements here: the notification shade with its circular toggles in bright whites and blues feels especially fresh, and we like the use of consistent colors for different apps to unify the experience.
In other areas, like homescreen widgets, the effect of ASUS’s custom UI is more cartoony, with a lot of wasted space and colors that seem a little elementary. That’s especially true in the Calendar widget, which uses such a big typeface that you need to scroll endlessly to get any use out of it. Also, despite the “friendly” feel the bold color palette inspires, not all of ASUS’s value-adds are easy to manipulate: SuperNote, for example, is anything but super when it comes to usability, and while the Tasks app seems mighty powerful with its various To-Do lists, it’s not so handy that we’d choose it over something like, say, Google Keep. Finally, there are enough minor bugs in our pre-release software to give us pause about the overall quality of ASUS’s skin, but we’ll have to wait for the official software to render final judgment.
Even after a week of testing, locking the PadFone X into the PadFone Station still elicits a kind of retro-futuristic thrill. Just like in the commercials, there are hints of real seamlessness here: call up a big graphic or webpage on the phone, plug it into the dock, and a few seconds later you’re looking at that webpage or photo or spreadsheet on a much larger canvas.
On the homescreen, the process can be a little confusing at first because of just how smooth the transition can be. Android is smart enough to display a tablet-style interface on the PadFone Station’s screen rather than just a scaled-up smartphone OS, so it really does feel like you’re using two devices. At the same time, since everything is powered by and contained within the phone, there’s none of the inconvenience that comes with using two devices: you never have to ask if something is stored on your tablet or your phone, because it’s all the same thing.
Of course, unique twist or not, this is still effectively an Android tablet when using the PadFone Station … which means you’re still going to encounter the problems that all Android tablets run into. Apps like Instagram which are coded exclusively for smartphones will still force you into portrait mode, which is frustrating. Some widgets don’t scale properly to the larger homescreen, exacerbating the problems with ASUS widgets mentioned above.
The biggest caveat of all isn’t ASUS’s fault, but it’s still a big frustration: because of the way Android is built, many major apps like Gmail, Hangouts, and Spotify can’t automatically transition between display modes. This means that rather than seamlessly segueing from tablet to phone or vice versa, these apps will throw an ugly error that requires you to restart them or close them before continuing. This isn’t a massive inconvenience –it’s just one extra step, after all– but it’s definitely an impediment, a sabot in an otherwise smoothly-running piece of machinery.
(Editor’s Note: Our impression of the PadFone X’s software is based on a pre-production build, and ASUS and AT&T have promised a software update before the PadFone X ships. While this update won’t fix the major issues outlined above, it will likely correct the minor bugs we’ve noted. We will follow up post-launch with more clarification if necessary.)
Whether shooting from the smartphone or the tablet, the PadFone X’s camera module is the same: a 13MP BSI sensor with an f/2.0 aperture and ostentatious “PixelMaster” branding (that thankfully doesn’t show up outside the spec sheet). The viewfinder, with its various shooting modes, is a simplified version of what you’ll find on most modern smartphones, and we’d call the photos it produces in broad daylight “acceptable.”
On the plus side: colors are rich, and shooting at the maximum 13MP resolution gives you enough detail and zoomability to “get the whole picture,” as it were. If you’re shooting an action scene, a 35 FPS mode called Turbo Burst is available alongside the now-standard panorama, foreign-object removal, and other options. On the down side: digital noise is apparent is most shots, probably thanks to some artificial sharpening on the software end, and that’s especially true in the otherwise-handy HDR mode.
If noise is something you’re willing to live with though, you’ll really be impressed by the PadFone’s performance in near darkness. The phone offers not one but two low-light shooting modes to let the most light in: Night Mode is called out in the viewfinder menu, but the special PixelMaster light amplification mode only becomes available via an automatic prompt when the camera detects a low-light situation.
ASUS quotes a 400% increase in apparent lighting when using the PixelMaster camera in this mode, which is tough to dispute: the end results are dramatically brighter than shots taken in Automatic. That added light comes at a cost, though; the pixel-doubling approach ASUS uses for this technology means you’re also subjected to a massive downgrade in resolution, to less than 3MP. And the software processing required for the artificial contrast and color balance can result in even more noise than usual.
For these reasons, we tend to like the middle ground provided by Night Mode; it still requires a steady hand (exposures can be pretty long, as you’d expect), but it produces colors which are truer to life.
On the front side, the 2MP selfie cam won’t be winning any awards, but it comes with enough options for “alien eyes” and the like to keep even the most restless narcissist busy for hours.
On the video front: 4K recording is supported, but we spent most of our time shooting in 1080p. Unfortunately, performance here isn’t the best. Frame rate is low enough to be annoying when you’re doing even slow pans, and there’s plenty of digital noise in even well-lit set-ups. While autoexposure and focus seem to work well, colors are just a bit off. Audio is muffled, too.
In sum, this is a camera you’ll be happy to have in low-light situations, and as with most smartphones, it gets the job done for a Facebook or Instagram photo. It offers easy-to-use software, plenty of fun features, and ample resolution … but you wouldn’t want to count on it for a wedding. Even if you’re just a guest.
ASUS hasn’t skimped on the “Fone” portion of this device: call quality on the handset is particularly good, with callers reporting clear audio and good background-noise suppression when in earpiece mode on AT&T’s voice network. (The PadFone X supports AT&T’s new HD Voice offering, but it’s not live in our market yet.) Quality takes a hit on speakerphone mode, as you’d expect, and that’s also true when using the PadFone Station – but it’s fine for quick calls, and the PadFone Assistant software allows you enough control over how the phone behaves that you can avoid talking on the tablet if you want to. Reception over HSPA and LTE is on par with the high-end devices in our arsenal, and that goes for the 802.11b/g/n/ac stack as well. On the media side, we don’t often have to make use of the SonicMaster software enhancements when jamming down with Spotify: music sounds great over the included earbuds.
The Snapdragon 800 performs well in benchmarks, and even high-demand gaming won’t make it break a sweat – but you’ll want to make sure to have a charger handy if you’re going to be playing more than a few minutes of Asphalt 8. A smallish battery and a full-HD display are never a good pair, and the PadFone X is no exception.
As mentioned above, the PadFone Station’s 4,990 mAh battery can serve as a handy rescue kit if you keep it around. On one of our first test days, we put the tablet and phone through mixed use (in both docked and un-docked modes) for about 16 hours. Once the phone was down to 4%, we docked it with the Station and used the combined pair for another 90 minutes, at which point the tablet finally ran dry – but the phone, having gotten a boost back up to 35%, could have lasted us another few hours of light to moderate use.
So while the combined pair probably won’t get you through an entire weekend of heavy use if you forget your USB cable or PMA wireless charger at home, it’ll definitely hold up to moderate usage until you make it back to civilization (especially if you flip on ASUS’s “Ultra Saving Mode”).
It’s a wonderful thing when a gadget still has the ability to surprise you at the end of a review period. A week after first picking up the PadFone X, we continue to feel the odd thrill of running our day-to-day operations from a device that offers two different form factors. And given that the core of that experience –the processing and radio communication– is being driven by the smartphone, it’s tough not to be impressed with its performance. If you ever doubt the power and adaptability of the modern smartphone, take a quick glance at the PadFone X.
+ Unbeatable value for a phone/tablet combo
+ Powerful specs
+ Camera low-light performance is impressive
– Unremarkable smartphone and cumbersome, heavy tablet
– Unpolished software inferior to stock Android
– Continuous usage impossible with many apps
– Smartphone battery life not the best
Pricing and Availability
It must be said: the warm and fuzzy feelings we have for this oddball would not be nearly so pronounced if it weren’t for its on-contract price tag. We touched on this in the intro, but pricing is so crucial to the PadFone X story that it bears repeating: AT&T is offering the PadFone X with a two-year contract for $199.99, or between $22 and $30 per month on one of the carrier’s Next installment plans.
That price point is absurdly low. Even if you splurge on the $99 ASUS keyboard dock, you’re still effectively getting a smartphone, tablet, and light-work notebook for $300 on a contract. And the savings continue on the wireless bill as well: contrary to the traditional policies of American carriers, AT&T doesn’t require an add-on fee for tablet usage. All you need is a standard smartphone data plan.
For those interested in purchasing the PadFone X at full retail price with no contract (for some reason), AT&T is asking a notably less-awesome $595.92 for the privilege.
The PadFone X isn’t the world’s most attractive smartphone … or tablet. It’s cumbersome, it’s bulky, and whether it offers enough convenience to overcome these setbacks is an open question. In today’s cloud-oriented mobile world, the average person could easily approximate the PadFone’s convenience with a Nexus 5 and a Nexus 10 using Android’s built in handovers, or an iPad and an iPhone using Continuity.
But not for the same price. For $199, we consider ourselves lucky to get earbuds thrown in when buying a flagship smartphone. The PadFone X includes a de facto tablet in the box at that price point (and tosses in the earbuds to boot). When you lump that in with the PadFone’s powerful internals and versatile performance, it’s easy to see how this unique –if quirky– smartphone/tablet hybrid would appeal to a student, a gadget lover, or a penny-pincher. If you’re any of the above, the PadFone X stands a good chance of ringing your bell.