It’s a matter of opinion whether Asus make the best Android tablets in town, but there’s no question that it’s the master of producing devices that transform into something else. Whether it’s the tablet that turns into a laptop, the phone that turns into a tablet, or the device that looks like a tablet but turns out to be a phone as well, the company seems obsessed on building things that are really other things in disguise. We can only dream of the Asus phone that turns into a tablet that turns into a laptop that turns into a big-screen TV, but until then we have the Padfone 2, the 4.7in smartphone that slots into a 10.1in dock so it can moonlight as a tablet too.
Design and build quality
It all sounds bizarre and unwieldy, but the execution is more elegant than you might think. The 4.7in screen phone slots into a carefully sculpted cavity at the back of the tablet dock, at which point the phone’s internal components power the dock’s 10.1in screen. The transition is seamless, the display adjusting automatically for the different resolution and screen ratio, and in some apps (though not all) you can go from working on your tablet to working on your phone just by sliding the latter out of place. This doesn’t happen so easily that the phone can fall out by mistake, so you can pass the Padfone 2 around without any major risk of dropping your smartphone on the floor.
The effect on the physical design of the tablet is a bulge in the centre where the phone rests, but otherwise it feels like a fairly standard 10.1in Android tablet weighing in at a reasonable 649g. The phone alone is 135g. Build-quality is up to Asus' usual high standards, with the back of the tablet rubberised for easy gripping and the rear of the phone constructed from a tough black metal with a familiar concentric swirl textured finish. Otherwise, the tablet dock is featureless except for a proprietary micro-USB/charge connector at the bottom, power and volume controls and a single speaker grille. The combo uses the phone’s built-in 13-megapixel camera and headphone socket, situated handily at the top.
You’ll note that there’s not a lot of connectivity there, but the connector on the docking station will work with a standard micro-USB 2.0 cable and supports micro-USB hosting and MHL. Sadly, there’s no way to upgrade the memory, though with 32GB on-board this isn’t a disaster. Plus, with NFC, Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11n Wi-Fi, it’s pretty well-equipped on the wireless front.
Screen quality and sound
The phone part of the duo feels like a solid mid-range handset – not quite in the HTC One/Samsung Galaxy S4 class, but not embarrassingly short of the mark. It has a 4.7in, 1,280 x 720 Super IPS+ screen made of scratch-resistant glass with an anti-fingerprint coating, and with a 312ppi pixel density it’s crisp and bright, with punchy colours. Call quality is decent, and sound is surprisingly powerful, too. I wouldn’t dream of watching Netflix on most phones without a pair of headphones, but I happily sat through most of an episode of Justified, cans-free.
Plug the phone into the tablet dock and the news isn’t quite so good. The 10.1in IPS screen still delivers on the brightness and colour front, but the 1,280 x 800 resolution isn’t what we expect from a high-end Android tablet these days, and it gives the Padfone 2 the feel of a budget to mid-range device. It’s still perfectly usable, and bear in mind that the pixel density isn’t any different than you’d get on a Windows 8 device, but with tablets like the Google Nexus 10, Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9 and Sony Xperia Tablet Z appearing, the display lets the tablet side down just a little. On the plus side, audio remains pretty good, though not quite in the class of the Kindle Fire HD 8.9.
Both the phone and – when it’s docked – the tablet use Asus’s familiar reskinning of Android 4.1. With the exception of the email and weather widgets on the homescreen it’s not a particularly thorough reskinning, and all the better for it. You get access to a few pre-loaded apps, but there’s not much to get in the way of the vanilla Android interface. I’m not a big fan of Asus’s stock keyboard, but then one of the pleasures of Android is that you don’t have to use it. Either switch to the Google one or install your own.
Cleverly, the Padfone 2 supports different homescreens, widgets and icons from phone to tablet, so you can optimise your setup for either way of working. The great thing is, of course, that you get the same apps and the same files whether you’re using your tablet or your phone. That’s good news if you’re editing a Word document or browsing photos, and also quite handy if you’re playing games; there’s only one save game to track your progress.
All the usual Google apps are pre-installed, and Asus bundles in its SuperNote note-taking app, and the superb Polaris Office office suite, along with some more gimmicky image-editing, social networking and photo story-making apps. It’s a sensible approach, adding a little value without bashing you around the head with dubious UI enhancements or in-your-face bloatware.
I’m always dubious about the usefulness of rear-mounted cameras on a tablet beyond their use in business apps, but the peculiar nature of the Padfone 2 makes its snapper an exception. Whether you’re using it in tablet mode or smartphone mode you’re getting a solid 13-megapixel camera with an f2.4 aperture lens.
It’s good in daylight, delivering sharp and detailed images with good contrast and natural colours, and it copes reasonably well indoors providing there’s some sunlight or strong artificial light to work with. It’s only in low light or with fast motion that it struggles, resulting in gloomy, noisy images with the former and blurred detail in the latter. It shoots 720p video at 60fps, and while the quality isn’t astonishing it’s fine for capturing family moments and the like.
The phone has its own 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera, which gives it a slight advantage over the tablet dock’s 1-megapixel effort. It delivers slightly brighter images with more detail, and seems to cope better in low-light.
The Padfone 2 comes sporting a Snapdragon S4 Pro SoC at 1.5GHz and 2GB of RAM, which means it performs very similarly to the Google Nexus 4 as a phone. In other words, it’s fast in comparison to most of what’s out there right now, though it might struggle to compete with next-gen Snapdragon and Tegra 4 phones or tablets launching later this year. The Geekbench score of 2108 isn’t quite up there with the Google Nexus 10, but it’s faster than any Tegra 3 tablet can manage, and the SunSpider score of 1101 milliseconds backs up that result.
The Adreno 320 GPU also comes in for praise, delivering frame rates of 33fps offscreen and 41fps onscreen in the GLBench Egypt HD benchmark – again in excess of Tegra 3. You can comfortably play Real Racing 3, Need for Speed: Most Wanted or Dungeon Hunters 4 on this device, and being able to play games on the tablet in the living room then carry on later on the smartphone on the move is a really good thing.
Asus has been clever in how you can use the batteries in the tablet dock and smartphone parts together. You can set things up so that, when in tablet mode, the smartphone battery remains untapped, or turn the tablet battery into a recharge pack to recharge the smartphone from empty in roughly two hours. Or, you can simply let the device drain from both batteries at once. The phone itself has enough charge for a day of relatively heavy use with just a little over for the morning, and with both phone and tablet working together you’ll get around eight to nine hours of mixed use.
The Padfone 2 is a great idea, and one that’s mostly well-executed. There are definite advantages to having phone and tablet share a single set of apps and the same storage space, and – in theory – it makes sense not to double up on processing power, storage and cameras with discrete devices.
However, at £600, these efficiencies haven’t quite translated into cost savings, and you start to wonder whether you’re getting the best smartphone and tablet you could for your money. For £598, for instance, you could get a 16GB Google Nexus 4 and a 16GB Google Nexus 10, which would get you a superior phone and a superior tablet. That’s enough to put a dampener on my enthusiasm for the Padfone 2, but not enough to extinguish it entirely. It’s a fine device, and if Asus can put a better screen on the Padfone 3 and still compete on price, it might have a winner on its hands.
Manufacturer and model
Asus Padfone 2
1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro
4.7in 1,280 x 720, 10.1in 1,280 x 800
1.2-megapixel (phone) / 1-megapixel (dock)
802.11bgn, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC
Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean)
2,140mAh Lithium (phone), 5,000mAh Lithium (dock)
Size and weight
138 x 69 x 9mm, 135g (phone), 263 x 180.8 x 10.4mm, 514g (dock)