MWC 2012 – Asus Padfone hands on review

A phone in a tablet in a laptop? Sounds bonkers, but can the Asus Padfone come up to the bar set by the Transformer tablets?
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Asus Padfone – overview

Using your smartphone processor to power a bigger device isn’t new. We’ve seen the Motorola Atrix with its bevy of docks and accessories. But Asus has evolved its Transformer (and Transformer Prime) concept – which uses a snap-on keyboard with battery boosting powers – so that it morphs from a phone to a tablet to a legit netbook replacement. But is the Padfone a bridge too far? Let’s take a look...

Asus Padfone – the phone

The phone – the bit that’s actually called the Padfone – is in its own right a respectable bit of hardware. There’s a 4.3in Super AMOLED display laid over a 1.5GHz Snapdragon that takes care of running Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). Although at 9.2mm thick, it’s off the pace in the skinny phone race, those tapered edges give it a lovely feel and the Padfone’s circular patterned rear evokes the company’s UX laptops – no bad thing.

Asus Padfone – the tablet

Slot the phone into the rear compartment on the 10.1in tablet – known as the Padfone Station – and a reassuring buzz comes to your fingertips. But the real buzz is now having a powerful tablet at your disposal, one that’s charging your phone from its own cells. If we were feeling uncharitable, we’d point out that the compartment door feels too flimsy, but once clicked shut, it’s sturdy enough. It does mean the tablet is blighted by an unsightly bulge that makes portrait use feel unbalanced and stops the slate lying steadily on a surface when laid flat. Cleverly, though, the Padfone Station’s rear camera is simply an aperture for the Padfone’s own 8MP rear-facing snapper.

Asus Padfone – the keyboard

The snap-on keyboard used by the Padfone will be familiar to anyone who owns or has used the Eee Pad Transformer. A further set of cells are on hand to charge the phone (as a priority), then the tablet itself. It’s a sensible hierarchy that we can’t poke holes in – more evidence that this device has been thought through by engineers who consider it far from an idle gimmick.

Asus Padfone – in use

We took a look at a fairly early implementation of Android 4.0 on the Padfone (and Station, etc), but there are some nice touches. There’s the neat battery widget above, for example, that breaks down where you’ve got juice. Asus is also working to make core apps that intelligently switch to an optimised layout based on which screen size you’re using, and encouraging developers to do the same. You feel that it’s these details that’ll decide whether the Padfone’s place in history is assured as a genuine shift in thinking, or simply an interesting dud.

Asus Padfone – first impressions

The Padfone isn’t perfect. There are, perhaps inevitably, sacrifices to be made in the transition to a gadget matryoshka. As a netbook it suffers too much weight, as a tablet it suffers an ugly bulge and as a phone it lacks the pizzazz of hardware created outside an abstract physical brief. But the right thinking is there, and great effort has been made. This could be a sleeper hit of a gadget… if only Asus can make it all – both literally and figuratively – stack up. We’ll have a full review nearer to the release date to see how close to that goal the Padfone can get.

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