The Asus Padfone 2 (opens in new tab) is the latest in a series of devices by Taiwanese gadget maverick, Asus. If you haven't heard of the Asus Padfone idea before, you're in for a treat. The idea is simply to give you the best of a smartphone and the best of a tablet, in one bundle.
So, instead of just working on phones and tablets separately – the Asus Transformer tablets are much better known – Asus also likes to bring the two together.
The Asus Padfone 2 is a 4.7in smartphone with a 720p screen, running on the Android Jelly Bean operating system. It’s 4G-capable, has a quad-core processor and is available as a 32GB model. So far, so good. But why is it £600?
Asus Padfone 2 review: Design
Well, the Padfone 2 Station is a 10.1in tablet dock for the smartphone. It sports a respectable 1280 x 800 screen and also houses a big 5000mAh battery that can be used to power the Station’s screen or as a battery pack for the smartphone itself.
An interesting modular proposition, then. But what are the benefits? The biggest one we’ve found is the fact that the Padfone 2 combination uses one contract for calls, messages and – crucially – data.
Until now, we’ve had to choose between a wi-fi-only tablet, two monthly network payments or fiddling around with tethering a smartphone’s data connection to a tablet. With the Padfone 2 slotted into the Station, the shell simply uses the phone’s processor, OS and data to do everything on a bigger screen.
The second benefit is battery life, a real pain for most modern smartphones, including the Google Nexus 4 and Sony Xperia Z. The Padfone 2’s extra juice means you don’t have to find battery-boosting cases and gizmos to get you through to bedtime. Assuming you keep the Station fully charged, just stick the Padfone into the tablet to recharge when it’s running low.
So, can the Padfone 2 compete with the best smartphones and tablets in terms of performance?
Asus Padfone 2 review: Display
Let’s start with the phone itself. Its upgraded 1280 x 720-pixel Super IPS+ screen is bright with good viewing angles, but it lags behind the best for both contrast and detail when watching HD movies.
Next to the Google Nexus 4, it is noticeably noisier both when streaming over wi-fi and viewing downloaded videos, and tends to overdo the colours compared with superior smartphone screens. Grass in Planet Earth, for example, looks downright artificial, and skin tones can appear considerably more orange than they should be.
It’s much the same story when the Padfone 2 is docked in its Station – Asus hasn’t kitted it out with the best display it could have, and the 1280 x 800-pixel IPS screen can’t compete with the best tablets, such as the iPad 4. Blacks can have a grey/green tinge to them and text can look fuzzy on webpages next to the likes of the Nexus 10’s smooth fonts.
Considering the superb video quality of the Asus Transformer Infinity, this is a real shame – but maybe Asus is holding out on killer hardware for this year’s Full HD Asus Padfone Infinity.
Another quick niggle – the Padfone 2 can’t be used with a Transformer-style external keyboard, even though the first Padfone did have this capability. So if you were hoping for a device to get work done on the train, you’ll have to do without a physical QWERTY.
Asus Padfone 2 review: Sound
The Padfone 2 and Station share the same 3.5mm heaphone jack, but we slightly prefer the sound when the smartphone is docked – this is perhaps down to the extra power the Padfone 2 is able to draw from the Station.
Still, it largely sounds a little bright and harsh when listening to David Bowie’s The Next Day through headphones, and the improvement when docked isn’t enough. It’s by no means an unlistenable experience, but cheaper handsets such as the Nexus 4 sound more exciting and offer a more balanced sound.
The speakers on the Padfone itself are average for a smartphone. The Padfone Station offers only a single speaker on the rear, which is likely to be covered up in use – so, as usual, we’d stick to listening to with headphones.
Asus Padfone 2 review: Build quality
If the sound and picture quality disappoint, the same could be said for the design and build of both the Padfone 2 components.
The handset has clean lines, (broken only by the micro-USB/Mobile High-Definition Link port) with metallic-looking edges, and its plastic back – with Asus’ signature circular Zen pattern – fares well against bumps and scratches. At 135g it’s not too heavy either, but it does look and feel a little cheap next to premium smartphones.
The Padfone 2 Station’s matte-finish back is nice, but you’ll notice immediately that it creaks and flexes as you hold it – something we’re not used to from the solidly contsructed Transformer Infinity.
The docking solution is more elegant than with the first Padfone, which had an annoying door on the rear to slot the Padfone into. Now it’s one swift action to seat the Padfone 2 into the slot in the Padfone Station – and even if it’s shaken very hard, the smartphone stays snug.
Still, despite this improvement, the Padfone 2 Station won’t lie flat on a desk and, as you hold it in landscape, you’ll always be conscious that’s there’s a phone sticking of out the back of your tablet.
Asus Padfone 2 review: Software
One redeeming aspect of the Padfone 2 is that Asus hasn’t tinkered with the stock Android 4.1 Jelly Bean operating system too much.
The only changes are the power-management app, a list of pop-up mini apps that can float over your main applications and a redesigned notifications panel, which makes accessing wi-fi networks and brightness settings very quick indeed.
The Padfone 2 also performs very well with multi-tasking and Android games such Asphalt 7, thanks to the Qualcomm Snapdragon processor under the hood. When it was docked in the Station, though, we experienced quite a few stutters and problems.
Homescreens and apps move between smartphone and tablet positions without a hitch but there are some instances of sound output with no picture when mid-movie, the occasional crash, and the need to dock and re-dock to get it going again.
Since this feature is one of the main selling points of the Padfone 2, it’s disappointing when it’s as hit and miss as this in use.
With a 13-megapixel rear camera, which can be used in Station mode too, the Padfone 2 takes very serviceable photos – particularly outdoors or in good light indoors.
The Night mode does help in low light, but pictures can look noisy and there’s sometimes a bit of a hunt for a focus point, making it just a touch behind the best smartphone cameras. Full HD 1080p video is impressively detailed too, but the Padfone 2’s image-stabilisation abilities could be better.
Asus Padfone 2 review: Verdict
As we said, battery life is a big plus when considering the Padfone 2. The duo give around two days of normal use watching movies, playing Android games, messaging and making calls.
In fact, if the Padfone 2 were cheaper we’d be much more enamoured of it. As it is, £600 for the pair could buy a smartphone and tablet with far superior multimedia capabilities and more premium build quality. As the Station uses fewer parts than a whole new device, we’re surprised Asus hasn’t been able to pass on any savings.
The shared data plan will appeal to some but with the Padfone Infinity due later in the year, it might be worth waiting to see if Asus can better equip the Padfone with this model.
The performance glitches are worrying, too – hopefully Asus can iron these out with software updates and get more third-party app developers on board with its clever Dynamic Display tech.
An impressive feat, then, but the Padfone 2 isn’t quite there yet.
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