So, on the original Star Trek series, landing parties exploring alien worlds often carried the “Phaser II,” which was essentially just a more-powerful cradle for the diminutive “Phaser I” which plugged into it. Star Trek Enterprise did something similar with their portable universal translator. Since no one watched Enterprise, I’ll fill you in: a handheld communicator latched into the top of another device, serving as the “ears” of the translator’s processing unit.
These sci-fi analogies doing anything for ya?
Point is, our society really likes the idea of convergence devices. For years, people have been asking, “what if we combined X-gadget with Y-gadget to create the ultimate XY-doing machine?”
That’s the question that docking-station-lover ASUS hopes to answer with its latest off-the-wall product, the Padfone. Let’s see what these crazy cats are up to.
I do most of my mobile computing on three devices: a Macbook Air, an iPad, and a Galaxy Nexus. While some of my work now resides in the cloud thanks to applications like Google Docs and Evernote, I still manage a lot of memory-hungry content (videos, photos, music, etc.) that needs to be constantly updated across devices.
I use a few apps and programs to help me do this: TuneSync keeps my Galaxy Nexus in step with iTunes on my Macbook. Apple’s iCloud promises to do the same job more elegantly between iTunes and my iPad, though as of this writing I still can’t get it working. Box.net helps me transfer large files like videos and oversized PDFs between all three devices.
So, the ability to share information and content across phone, tablet, and computer is, obviously, insanely convenient. The ugly side is in the implementation: keeping everything current across devices is a constant, cumbersome struggle. What if we didn’t have to do that dance anymore? What if all of our content lived on a single device that adapted itself to each new situation?
Enter the Padfone.
The Padfone handset itself doesn’t offer much in the way of standout features: Android Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0.3 runs on a dual-core 1.5GHz Snapdragon processor, under a Gorilla Glass-covered 4.3″ qHD Super AMOLED display. Turn the slightly tapered, wedge-shaped device around and you’ll find an 8MP shooter around back. Storage options run up to 64GB, and there’s a gig of RAM onboard. All this is powered by a 1520-mAh battery, and both HSPA+ and LTE versions are slated for production. It’s a fairly typical early-2012 Android handset.
Until, that is, you need to expand your work surface. Working on a smartphone is hardly ideal in all situations. Motorola offers an (outrageously priced) laptop dock for those occasions when you need to transform your Atrix or DROID RAZR into a mobile computing station, but notebooks are so 2011. ASUS looks to cash in on the exploding popularity of tablets by offering that form factor as an in-between option.
The Padfone slides into the slot at the top of the “Padfone Station” (tablet dock). Check out Anton’s hands-on: It’s not exactly a one-handed process, more akin to loading a VHS tape into an old-school VCR, but it works. Close the protective cover over the phone, and within a few seconds, a 1280×800 version of Android ICS flashes to life on the 10.1″ display, powered entirely by the phone. A 6600-mAh battery within the tablet starts recharging the handset, and antennas and speakers built into the tablet casing take over for those in the phone, ensuring no loss in audio performance or reception. A small window in the protective cover ensures the camera is still accessible. An available stylus doubles as a Bluetooth headset, a clever-if-unusual touch. Overall, it’s a very smart design.
“But wait,” as they say; “there’s more!” When you tire of typing on the smooth glass of the tablet, you can mate it to a keyboard dock that’s very similar to the keyboard accessory available for ASUS’ Transformer line. This dock integrates an additional 6600-mAh battery, further extending the useful life of the combined device. That’s a lot of juice!
Cheaters Never Prosper
We obviously won’t be able to offer a final verdict on the usefulness of this product until we have a chance for a full review, but let’s examine the overall concept. For their part, ASUS has this to say about their goals for the Padfone, in their “Behind The Scene” video which they probably should have hired a voiceover artist for:
“The Team at ASUS wanted to make an accessory that will complement the phone and allow consumers to enjoy the benefits of both the phone and the pad. The combination of both gadgets is a breakthrough product.”
You know what? They’re right. Ignoring a seemingly inferior Chinese design that arguably beat them to the punch, ASUS has indeed built a “breakthrough” product. No one has ever done this before with a phone and a tablet, and certainly not in as polished a manner as the demo units seem to indicate. Obviously there’s no shortage of advantages to the approach ASUS has taken: no matter what form factor you choose -phone, tablet, or notebook- your data remains intact and accessible within the “core” of the device, with no syncing required. Also, your mobile data connection is the same across all three devices, obviating the need for tethering or separate data plans from your wireless carrier.
At first glance, this doesn’t look to be a classic case of a “jack of all trades, but a master of none.” If it works as advertised, the Padfone suite of products will likely serve its intended purpose quite well. Rather, the stumbling block is more fundamental: this is a convergence product that’s arriving too late. It’s built on an outdated concept of what the “continuous client” should be.
The notion -the dream, if you will- of the “continuous client,” as elucidated by Joshua Topolsky, is simple: “when you leave one device, you pick up your session in exactly the same place on the next device you use.” This applies to Twitter notifications, to browsing sessions, to Angry Birds progress, etc. Your session history and your content should follow you from computer to tablet to phone – and back again. Right now, that’s not how it is. And that’s annoying.
Modern approaches to this issue are based primarily in duplicating your data across multiple devices, but doing so automatically in the background, seamlessly, avoiding the annoying need to manually “sync.” That’s why there’s so much buzz about The Cloud these days; storing all of your data in one location, accessible from any of your devices, is the easiest, most direct means to accomplish that end.
ASUS, while attempting to deliver the ultimate such experience in the Padfone, is in fact offering exactly the opposite. To return to my Star Trek metaphor, ASUS is Captain Kirk taking the Kobayashi Maru test: it cheats the system by changing the rules. Only this time, it doesn’t work. ASUS is effectively saying “put your life on this device, and then plug this device into whatever accessory fits your current need.”
While that’s actually not a bad idea (ignoring the obvious pitfall of possible loss of your phone), such a bold concept requires bold hardware to back it up. “Say goodbye to constant syncs!” ASUS declares on the Padfone website. But if the Padfone is going to be my substitute for the cloud, it needs to be a powerhouse monster-truck of a device. 64 GB isn’t gonna cut it; I’m going to need a 500GB hard drive in the phone, enough RAM to run a few browser sessions at once, etc.
Of course, ASUS isn’t suggesting that the Padfone replace all of your computers but then what are they saying? What’s the point of this product? The principal benefits are multiple form-factors when you’re on the road, and the ability to use a single cellular data plan to connect all of them. That’s it. It’s still dependent on the cloud because of its low storage capacity, so you still need “constant syncs!” to keep it updated. You’re still lugging three devices around (phone, tablet, keyboard), but you can’t use them at the same time or share them, as you could with independent devices. And when you want to upgrade to the next evolution of the Padfone, you better cross your fingers that ASUS makes the new handset compatible with the tablet dock and keyboard, or you’re in for a lot of eBaying and re-investing.
In a previous editorial, our editor-in-chief Brandon Miniman opined that the Padfone reminded him of the Kyocera Echo, in that it makes a splash with something different, but won’t be a success. I agree.
The Padfone is the answer to a question no one’s asking anymore. While it looks beautifully built, and though I love innovative, cool gadgets as much as the next tech geek, I don’t see it gaining much traction. Even with the hip “I’m talking on a pen!” demographic.