The Rock, Andre the Giant and the Incredible Hulk: three monstrous behemoths who could happily hold a 7in device to their faces without looking ridiculous. But for the rest of us mere mortals, we have to wonder where a 7in phone-capable tablet (alright, ‘phablet) such as the Asus FonePad might fit into our lives.
Is it a viable phone alternative? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps what really matters is that this seems to essentially be a Google Nexus 7 (also made by Asus, of course) with added 3G and a couple of other nifty features. It’s Asus versus Asus, and we’re excited.
Design and build
The FonePad, like the Nexus 7, sits heavily yet comfortably in the hands, and both tablets are identical in weight. We felt no aches or pains in our wrists after hours of swiping, gaming and browsing, which is what we like to see from a 7-incher designed for on-the-go use.
Unlike the Nexus 7’s grippy and dimpled rubberised back, the Asus FonePad sports a metal rear. We actually had to check it really was metal, as it feels rather like coated plastic, and to our eyes the Nexus 7 is the better looking device anyway, while the extra grip it offers is definitely an added bonus. The FonePad creaks and flexes a little, too, so don’t go thinking you’ll be getting iPad Mini-levels of luxury at $369.
But here’s one feature that neither the Nexus 7 or even iPad Mini can match – expandable storage. The back panel has a small plastic section that’s easily removed to reveal a microSD slot next to the one for the SIM, giving you the option to bolster the built-in 16GB of storage by up to 64GB, turning your affordable slate into a veritable Tardis of media hoarding.
And while the FonePad and Nexus 7 in many ways seems separated at birth, it’s worth mentioning that the former’s buttons are on the opposite side. That means the right-handed among us will be using their middle finger to press the power and volume buttons on the far side, which for most should be more comfortable and less fiddly than using a thumb, although it largely depends on what you’re used to.
The Asus FonePad’s screen packs the same 1280x800 resolution as the Nexus 7 and 8in Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0. It’s lovely and bright, and the outdoor mode even pumped up the brightness far enough to make the screen usable even outdoors in sunny Singapore.
It's obviously not as sharp as the gorgeous 1080p screens found on the likes of the HTC One, nor will it offer Nexus 10-levels of sharpness, but at this price point that’s no surprise.
A side-by-side comparison with the Nexus 7 shows that the FonePad screen offers truer, brighter whites, while colour saturation, hues and temperature can be customised to taste with Asus’ pre-loaded ‘Splendid’ calibrator app. Even without tinkering the FonePad strikes a better balance of bright, vibrant colours and natural skin tones than the Nexus 7.
Weirdly, we found that when using the Chrome browser on both tablets the FonePad suffered from softer, blurrier text and images. It’s not a problem when using the stock Android Browser, which looks equally sharp on both, but it’s worth bearing in mind if you’re a dedicated Chrome surfer.
OS and Features
If you’re familiar with the Transformer Prime/Infinity or PadFone you’ll immediately feel at home with the FonePad’s Android skin, which offers some nice, useful features over the stock OS. The customizable status bar options and screen brightness toggle return, and there’s a handy power saver mode to help you squeeze as much juice out of the battery as possible.
Other extras include an audio wizard with pre-set configurations for games, spoken words and music. But it only works when using the built-in speaker, which doesn’t really have the fidelity to resolve the differences. Overall the little drivers behind the grille on the back are just about good enough for the odd YouTube clip, but definitely shouldn’t be relied upon for any out-loud movie-watching or music-listening.
The Asus Studio and Story apps do a pretty good job of showing off your photos and videos in more interesting ways than the stock Android gallery, while MyPainter lets people more artistic than us create digital masterpieces. If creating tablet art is your thing, though, the Samsung Note 8.0 still represents the better option, thanks to its bundled S Pen and Wacom digitiser technology.
An extra software button on the FonePad lets you open up ‘floating widgets’ which take multitasking to another level. From mini browser windows and movie players, to calculators and stopwatches, you can do sums and watch cat videos while reading an ebook. If your senses are up to keeping track of it all.
Apart from that, the standard Android features including the increasingly useful Google Now are all present and accounted for, despite the FonePad’s not-quite-up-to-date version of Android Jelly Bean.
Now here’s where things get really interesting. Where every other Android tab manufacturer is getting its power from Qualcomm or Nvidia, Asus has plumped for a 1.2GHz Intel Atom processor.
Being the kind of people that we are, we love a bit of benchmarking, but as we’ve said for a long time, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Take the FonePad, for example – AnTuTu gave it a score of 7043 while Geekbench returned a verdict of just 551, and next to the Nexus 7’s 11,774 and 1442 those seem pretty terrible.
But in real use the FonePad’s performance gave us no cause for concern – we even ran the gorgeous and graphically gargantuan Real Racing 3 with multiple background apps and both a video and browser widget overlaid on the screen and there was still no noticeable stutter or lag during the race (which we obviously lost thanks to all the distractions). We’re sure an app or game will arrive that will trouble the Asus’ Atom, but we haven’t found it yet.
The local version of the FonePad has a rear-facing camera and the 1.2MP front-facing offering is, as you can imagine, nothing to write home about. Shots are grainy, unclear and generally the camera isn't fit for anything more than video calling. Given the $369 price-point and the fact that no sane person should use a tablet to take photos in public, we don’t consider that to be a much of a problem.
The FonePad's 4,270mAh battery held up well during our review. At nearly 100 percent full we left it running a video on loop for three hours at 50 percent brightness with Wi-Fi and email sync on. We then embarked on our morning commute, which meant a further 90 minutes of constant browsing, emailing and texting, and when we arrived at the office the battery had dropped to 40 per cent. So that’s a drop of 60 percent in around five and a half hours of very intensive use, which means the average user should find that the Asus has got plenty of juice left even as they’re collapsing into bed.
Using It As A Phone
After drawing more than a few odd looks from fellow commuters when using the FonePad to make a call, it became apparent that Bluetooth headphones would have to be used. While that resolved the issue, we can’t say that having a 7in tablet as a phone is very practical at all.
Sure, it’s a lot easier firing out texts and emails, but unless you feel like carrying a bag everywhere or awkwardly slipping it into your back pocket (if it fits) then there’s simply no way that the FonePad can fully replace your existing smartphone. Unless you’re comfortable wearing clown trousers in public. Much better to concentrate on the fact that you’ve got 3G for data and that you could use the FonePad as an emergency blower when your smartphone runs out of battery.
We've compared the FonePad to its vanilla Android-toting rival a lot throughout our review, and with good reason: both are 7in Asus-forged Android tablets that offer slick and powerful gaming and multitasking goodness. But while we prefer the Nexus 7’s build quality (and we suspect most die-hard Android users would rather have the stock Android experience it offers), the FonePad pips its brother to the post for two main reasons – price and expandable storage.
$369 will get you the 3G-ready FonePad, while you'll need to fork out over $469 for the 3G Nexus 7. That’s a price difference that’s hard to ignore, especially when comparing two very similar devices. Yes the 3G Nexus 7 offers 32GB of storage compared to the FonePad’s 8GB, but its microSD slot negates that problem easily. If you’re happy with a Wi-Fi only connection though then the $399 32GB Google Nexus 7 is the way to go.
The Asus FonePad’s size makes for a terrible phone. But that’s ok. We see it as a 3G tablet with optional phone abilities, should you ever need them. The FonePad will give you mobile data and 8GB of expandable storage, which for some is the Nexus 7’s Achilles heel.
While its Intel innards might not score as well in benchmarks, the FonePad never left us wanting for power, handling 3D games and multitasking with ease. Despite not being the sexiest, most well-made tablet around, you'll be looking long and hard to find another 7-incher that can best it at this price point.