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First look: Asus PadFone X "phablet" is fun but weighs a ton

Can this smart phone/tablet hybrid do the work of both devices?

Published: May 28, 2014 11:15 AM

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The new Asus PadFone X is an unremarkable-looking smart phone with an interesting accessory: a docking station with a 9-inch touch-screen. Slide the phone into a cradle on the back of the docking station and you have a tablet computer. The phone does all the work; the PadFone Station dock is little more than a display with a large, 4990mAh battery.

This smart-phone/dumb-dock combo offers several advantages, though it has a few shortcomings, including its weight and dated design. First, the pluses:  

Bargain price

The PadFone X and PadFone Station, an AT&T exclusive, costs only $199 with a two-year contract, or $549 at full retail price—about $100 less than you'd pay for a top-shelf smart phone alone. You can also purchase it interest-free at $22.92 per month with the AT&T Next 18 plan, or $29.80 per month with the AT&T Next 12 plan. (The devices are sold only as a bundle.) Also, since only the smart phone is actually connecting to the service, AT&T won't sock you with the extra $20 a month charge for bringing a tablet or laptop to your data trough.

Easy phone/tablet switching

You can switch from smart phone to tablet without losing your place in an app, such as e-mail or the calendar and even the camera. What's more, the apps automatically optimize their layouts for the screens on which they’re viewed. For example, the e-mail inbox on the phone is just a list of incoming messages, but pop the phone into the PadFone Station and you'll see an additional column for Drafts, Sent, Trash, and other folders—just like on a tablet.

Tablet phone calls

Since the PadFone Station gets all of its "brains" from the phone plugged into it, you can make and take calls (via speakerphone) even while in tablet mode.

Power to spare

If you're hours or even days away from an electric outlet, Asus provides considerable flexibility in managing power consumption on both devices, including allowing the PadFone Station to divert most or all of its immense battery power to the PadFone X phone.

Easy to use

I've been using a press sample of the PadFone X for several days, and found it easy to use even without the benefit of guide or instruction manual.

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Now, the drawbacks. Low price and intuitive operation aside, the device's weight problem, its dated look, a few app glitches, and other shortcomings may diminish its appeal to mobile shoppers. The details:

PadFone X is plain, though competent

Measuring 5.7 inches x 2.9 inches x 0.4 inches and weighing 5.4 ounces, the PadFone X looks rather plain and feels a bit thick, somewhat like a Samsung or HTC phone from 2012. But its 5-inch display, which offers an impressive 441 pixels per inch of resolution, appeared reasonably sharp and bright in my informal tests. The 13-megapixel camera, which records 1080p video, lacks many of the gee-whiz editing tools you'll find on phones from Samsung, LG, HTC, and Nokia, but all of the important controls are there, including HDR for capturing details in the shadows of bright sunlight. A mode called Turbo Burst lets you snap up to 35 pictures a second, after which you can select the best pictures and chuck the rest.

The most noticeable Asus tweak to the PadFone X's Android Kit Kat interface is the powder-blue pull-down notifications bar, which clearly shows off the white-text previews of e-mails, social-network updates, and other notifications.

Other specs are straight from last year's hit parade, including a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 quad-core CPU, support for payments via NFC (Isis Mobile Wallet), and a 2300mAh battery that provides up to 19 hours of talk time in 3G mode, according to Asus, and about half that for Web browsing and streaming content.

The PadFone Station's screen looks relatively small

The first thing you'll notice about the PadFone Station is how small the 9-inch display appears relative to the body, which measures 9.8 inches wide by 6.8 inches tall. It's framed by a 1-inch thick black bezel that appears much thicker than those that adorn the sleeker-looking tablets of today, including those from Asus.

Inside that vast, unused blackness floats a puny 1-megapixel camera for video chats and a narrow set of stereo speakers along the left and right edges. Trace your finger along the PadFone Station's upper left-hand corner and you'll find the power button and rocker switch that controls sound volume and also serves as a shutter release when you're using the camera app.

The PadFone Station wobbles and weighs a ton

The PadFone X smart phone slips neatly into a cradle on the back of the PadFone Station, and it's held snugly in place by the rubber-like "teeth" along the sides of the sides. But once they’re fitted together, the duo weighs a whopping 1 pound, 7 ounces—a weight befitting larger tablets with 12-inch or larger displays. More than a pound of that weight belongs to the PadFone Station, a device that's absolutely useless unless the PadFone X is plugged into it. Not only that, but the cradle for the PadFone X forms a half-inch hump about 3 inches wide on the back of the PadFone Station, which makes the PadFone Station wobble when you lay it on a flat surface.

Some apps sync, other sink

Some apps for e-mail, calendar, camera, and photo gallery transition smoothly when you switch between smart phone and tablet modes, a process Asus calls Dynamic Display. But other popular apps, including Facebook and Gmail, aren’t yet supported, so you have to restart them and lose your place if you're in the middle of doing something, like composing an e-mail or reading a post.

Also, apps and widget arrangements you make on the PadFone X's desktop, such as putting the Facebook app on the home page, won't appear on the PadFone Station's desktop and vice-versa. But that's a good thing if you want each device to have its own layout. Besides, making such changes is equally easy on either on either device.

Bottom line

With the PadFone X, Asus takes a forward-looking approach to combining the benefits of a smart phone's portability with the more-generous screen real estate of a tablet in one simple, affordable package. It's too bad the devices it tasked with this assignment are burdened with design shortcomings from the past.

—Mike Gikas

   

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