It wasn’t too long ago that we were describing the first Padfone as a ‘gadget kangaroo’ and at MWC 2013 the Taiwanese black sheeps over at Asus have announced the third iteration of the wacky phone-tablet hybrid: the full HD Padfone Infinity. Still, that bundle doesn’t even have a release date yet so let’s concentrate our attentions on the middle child, the Padfone 2, instead.
First off, what is it? The Padfone is essentially a smartphone that Asus is bundling with a 10.1in Station. This tablet shell is nothing more than a bigger display, extra battery and extra front camera – when used in tablet mode, the power, processing and data come from the Padfone handset.
Vs Asus Padfone
So what’s new? A bigger, higher-res 4.7in 720p screen for the Padfone 2 itself for starters, with the PadStation keeping the very respectable 10.1in HD screen from the first model. Then there’s the extra power courtesy of a quad-core Qualcomm S4 Pro chip running the show, a step up from last year’s dual-core S4.
Ah, and we almost forgot: there’s the new docking mechanism on the Padfone Station – the result of three years of refinement by Asus engineers, apparently. Out goes the flap and sideways docking to make way for a single action slotting the Padfone 2 vertically into the back of the tablet shell. In short, the set-up is now more piggy-back than pouch and it’s a definite improvement.
Design and build
Apart from the new docking design, the Padfone 2 looks very similar to the original Padfone and, larger handset aside, at first glance you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. It’s also slightly heavier at 135g but not that’s not enough to worry even the weediest of gadget-wielders’ arms.
The circular “Zen” pattern on the plastic back casing can easily handle bumps and doesn’t scratch easily, and while the Padfone 2 might not be as striking as the likes of the HTC One, it looks premium enough. The band around the phone – which could be mistaken for brushed metal – makes the Padfone 2 look skinnier than it is – a neat trompe l’oeil. And while the gaping hole for the Padfone is the main event, we’re fans of the matte back of the Padfone Station.
With clean lines all round, the Padfone 2 has just the proprietary multimedia port on the bottom (matched by the Station), a 3.5mm headphone jack and a microSIM tray.
Asus has kept the 1280x800 IPS panel on the Padfone Station, no doubt to make way for the Padfone Infinity which has two full HD screens to contend with. And while this is very watchable and battles sunlight admirably, it’s not a patch on the best tablet screens we’ve seen, like Asus’ own Transformer Infinity and the iPad 4.
More impressive is the superb 720p screen on the Padfone 2 handset – it’s crisp, with vivid colours, cracking viewing angles and excellent contrast, plus a very bright Super IPS+ outdoor mode too. From text on web pages to Google Play movies, this is a serious step-up from the previous Padfone.
Android Jelly Bean OS and performance
Running Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, the Padfone 2’s OS hasn’t been tinkered with too much and any additions are an improvement on stock Android. The notifications pull down is genuinely more helpful with quick access to Wi-Fi networks, brightness, connectivity options and notifications, plus there’s a redesigned time, date and weather widget.
As you’d expect, apps, widgets and wallpapers on the Padfone 2’s homescreens magically rearrange themselves into the Asus tablet format when the Padfone is docked. In tablet mode, there’s also a pop-up menu of floating apps (calendar, calculator, email, dictionary, social network client BuddyBuzz and the AudioWizard menu), which is similar to what Samsung and Sony are doing on the Galaxy Note 10.1 and Xperia Z and it works just as well here.
As a phone, the Padfone 2 eats up multi-tasking and browsing, with games like Temple Run 2 playing smoothly, though not quite to the same extend as something like the Nexus 4. In fact, our only niggles came when the handset was docked in the Padfone Station.
Phone + tablet
We’re still torn about the Padfone in use – on one hand, we love the retro, modular simplicity of slotting the phone into the tablet to power a bigger screen. And two 3G/4G devices for the price of one contract is both an affordable and neat solution – no tethering, turning on Bluetooth or setting up hotspots.
But as impressive as Asus’ Dynamic Display tech is, it still doesn’t work beyond built-in apps like the excellent SuperNote. For instance, if you’re surfing via the built-in browser on the Padfone and want to switch to the Station the open page will appear on the 10.1in display, but if you’re using Chrome you have to open it up again. Ditto for YouTube. And Gmail. And pretty much all third-party apps, media players and games.
Switching between the two mid-movie does still give us a kick, but the Padfone can’t always cope: stutters, outputting sound without picture and one reset mean that operation is far from hassle-free.
The 2,140mAh battery in the Padfone 2 itself has a dependable second in the form of the Station’s 5000 mAh battery, and if you get used to taking both out with you, it’s really nice to stick your Padfone 2 into the Station for a quick recharge.
According to Asus the Station also more than doubles your talktime from 16 to 36 hours. In practice, we easily lasted the day using the bundle for the usual browsing, gaming, listening to music and a spot of work. With light use of both, the Padfone 2 combo will stretch to two days.
We did have one small niggle with the power management, though. It’s great that you can toggle between Intelligent mode (to charge both devices) and Phone preferred/ Power pack mode – both of which use the Padfone Station to power the handset. But when the tablet dock is completely out of juice, it’d be helpful to make reviving the Station a priority if the Padfone doesn’t need the extra power.
Camera and video
Once it had nailed the obligatory camera specs – 13MP sensor from Sony and 1080p video – it was really up to Asus to deliver on the images. And the Padfone 2 takes very good snaps indeed, particularly outdoors and when the light’s on your side, reproducing colours on the warmer, saturated side of the palette. When things get gloomier, a little noise does start to creep in, though, and while the Night mode does a great job of picking out whites in the dark, the Padfone does struggle to focus at times.
With the Padfone slotted neatly in the back with a clear, bright 1.2MP front camera, the Padfone Station has to have its own 1MP front camera for bigger screen video calls. For video that doesn’t involve your face, the rear cam takes smooth and detailed footage for the most part. Like many smartphones, it does suffer once you’ve zoomed in with the slider and can jump about if you’re moving. But anything except the speediest of moving subjects is taken in its stride – leaves blowing - yes, rapids on the River Thames - not so much.
When we tested the original Padfone a Transformer-style keyboard dock was on the cards for the series, but Asus has annoyingly scrapped this 3-in-1 compatibility with the Padfone 2. If the lack of a battery-filled keyboard is a deal-breaker then getting hold of the first Padfone might be a better bet.
Price and release date
Perhaps announcing the Padfone Infinity and the Padfone 2’s price and release date at the same time wasn’t the smartest move on Asus’ part. But the Padfone 2 is now available to pre-order as a 32GB bundle with the Padfone Station for £599 from March 1st, with bricks-and-mortar stores getting stock in late March. Asus has also confirmed we won't be able to buy the Padfone 2 as a standalone handset anytime soon – that's a shame as it means finding a big chunk of cash in one go.
At the risk of repeating ourselves, there’s nothing quite like the Padfone, and if this second model was even £100 cheaper it would be a no-brainer for early adopters and maverick techies. The Padfone bundle is very light indeed but the truth is it still takes up the same amount of room in your bag as two devices, and the full potential of Dynamic Display is yet to be realised.