Back in April we looked at the Asus Padfone 2, a 4.7in phone that docked into a 10.1in screen to form a tablet. Now we’re looking at the other side of the coin with the Asus Fonepad, a device you can view as either a 7in Android tablet with a cellular connection, or a really enormous smartphone. Unless you like doing your best impression of Dom Joly circa 2000 it’s probably best to stick to the first interpretation, but with a Bluetooth earpiece or a lot of chutzpah it would work perfectly well as the latter.
Asus already makes the best 7in Android tablet in the shape of the Google Nexus 7, and the Fonepad is clearly a close cousin. The front-facing camera has moved slightly to the right to accommodate an ear-friendly speaker for phone calls, while the dotted plastic rear has been replaced by a smarter brushed aluminium back. Still, it looks and feels very familiar, and even has the volume and power controls in the same place. At 316 grams the Fonepad is slightly lighter than the Nexus 7 and it’s also ever-so-slightly smaller, but really, the two might as well be twins.
This close kinship extends to build quality. The Nexus 7 was one of the first budget tablets that felt like it might survive more than a few months of actual use, and the same goes for the Fonepad. Meanwhile connectivity is actually better on the Padfone, with the microUSB port and headphone hack joined by a microSD card reader and a microSIM slot for connecting to your chosen network. The latter items are hidden beneath a rubberised plastic cover at the rear. With the Nexus 7 you were stuck with whatever capacity you bought, but with the Fonepad, you can add up to 32GB of extra storage later on.
Screen quality and sound
There are more similarities to the Nexus 7 with the screen. It’s a 7in 1280 x 800 LED-backlit IPS panel, and clarity and resolution are about as good as you get on a 7in tablet in mid-2013. It’s bright, colours are rich and vibrant and viewing angles are wide enough for those moments when you want to share a video clip, web page or photo with a friend. Games and HD video look good, and photos look punchy but natural.
You can also tune the screen with the pre-installed Asus Splendid app, though some of the settings seem to make precious little difference, while others make no sense unless you really want grotesquely over-saturated colours or an obvious colour tinge. The glass doesn’t exactly shrug off fingerprints, but we’ve seen a lot worse, and our only word of caution is that the glass isn’t Gorilla glass or anything unusual, so you may want to get a screen protector.
Sound quality is reasonable. There’s more than enough volume for TV, films and games while you’re off duty, and the tone isn’t ear-splittingly shrill. The Fonepad doesn’t produce the depth or width of sound that we’ve heard from the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 or the Sony Xperia Tablet Z, but by tablet standards it’s still pretty good. Calls are also clear, though you might want to watch the volume if you don’t want to share your conversation with everyone in a 20 metre radius.
Usability and software
The Fonepad might make a whacking great phone, but as a mobile communications device it’s almost ideal. Its compact size and low weight mean you can carry it around just about everywhere, but the screen is a great size for web browsing, email and social networking, and you can either tap away with both thumbs using the on-screen keyboard or hold it in one hand and type with the other. The screen size is also perfect if you’re looking for a tablet that can double as an eBook reader, and with the Google Play and Kindle apps pre-loaded you only have to download Kobo to get access to all the major eBook stores.
Otherwise, the Fonepad uses Android 4.1 Jelly Bean – not the latest version, but close enough – and Asus hasn’t gone bonkers with skins or enhancements. Between the Asus Studio photo manager, the Asus Story album-maker, the BuddyBuzz social networking app and the SuperNote Lite note taking app, there are quite a few pre-installed apps that either duplicate default Android apps or provide a second-rate alternative to more popular apps, but these are easily removed if you don’t want them. And with the Floating App feature (see the image above) you can run a small selection of apps as a widget on top of the home screen or another app, allowing you to check your email while you’re browsing, or look at notes while you work on an Office document (although there is no Office suite pre-installed).
Where the Nexus 7 was based on an Nvidia Tegra 3 SoC, the Fonepad comes packing an Intel Atom Z2420 clocked at 1.2GHz, accompanied by 1GB of RAM. In general use it’s fast enough, and there’s no noticeable slowdown when opening and running apps. HD video plays smoothly and games like Need for Speed: Most Wanted and Rayman Legends run without a hitch. That said, we couldn’t persuade the demanding T-Rex tests in GFXBench 2.7 to run, and the score of 552 points in Geekbench 2 is pretty pitiful; the kind of result you’d see from a first-generation Android tablet. That doesn’t mean that the Fonepad isn’t a solid performer in everyday use, but don’t go in expecting a powerhouse.
In some territories the Fonepad ships with a rear-facing camera, but here in the UK we have to settle for a 1.2-megapixel front-facing effort. Given the general uselessness of most tablet cameras this isn’t something I’d necessarily worry about, though it might worry you if you’re planning to use the Fonepad as your tablet and your phone. The front-facing camera isn’t too bad. It overexposes slightly, but it copes reasonably well with poor lighting and should suffice for Google Hangout video calls and the like.
Battery life is excellent. I used the Padfone off and on for a day, checking email, browsing the web, watching an episode of Justified and playing games for twenty minutes, and it still had over 60 per cent capacity on the gauge as midnight approached; something I couldn’t say for a lot of smartphones. 40 minutes of video playback only knocked 6 per cent off the meter, so you could easily be looking at 11 hours plus of heavy use. Throw in power management features that turn off Wi-Fi while in standby or vary the screen brightness according to the app, and you could stretch a charge out even further.
The Asus Fonepad will be a brilliant Android tablet for many business and home users. In most areas it matches the Google Nexus 7 and in some key areas – like battery life and expandability – the Fonepad outperforms it. This device’s real ace, however, is its built-in mobile connectivity. Get yourself a cheap data deal, and you have a tablet that can handle email and Internet on the move at a much lower price than the equivalent Nexus 7 3G, Galaxy Note 8.0 or iPad mini. It’s a shame that the mediocre performance levels put a slight dent in the proceedings, but if you’re looking for a tablet for work or staying in touch, then this is one of the most practical 7in devices money can buy.
Manufacturer and Model
1.2GHz Intel Atom Z2420
7in 1280 x 800 IPS
MicroUSB, headphone, microSIM
16WHr Lithium Polymer
Size and weight
196 x 120 x 10.4mm, 340g