As we’ve already written on several occasions, ASUS has got us used to innovations in the Android world and devices that are simply different than anything else the competition has to offer. It all began with the Transformer series and their additional keyboard/battery dock, continuing with the first PadFone, which was a phone, tablet and netbook rolled into one. And while we awarded it for the concept, the first PadFone just wasn’t convincing enough in tablet mode. In order to make PadFone 2 truly successful, the responsible ones in ASUS had to pay very much attention to critics by media and users and try to implement the necessary changes with success.
Minus the pen and the keyboard
The first PadFone showed a clear direction as to what PadFone 2 could be, and we’ve noticed that some of our wishes have been granted as soon as we’ve opened the box. The PadFone 2 Station, i.e. the tablet part of this symbiosis has become a much more beautiful and elegant device. With a modern design and noticeably thinner and lighter than the previous version, the new Station is entirely up to par with what other tablet manufacturers have come up with in the meantime. We’re particularly impressed by the fact that this tablet remains light and comfortable to use, while the new Station itself is lighter than its predecessor by almost a third.
The previous phone insertion system wasn’t good enough, so it’s clear why folks at ASUS have concluded that it needed a thorough redesign. As you can see from the images, it’s far simpler now, and we can confirm that it’s more functional as well, enabling faster access to the phone and keeping it in place very firmly. With the help of the soft, jagged edges, Teflon pad and two holders, everything is kept well-tightened and in place, which means that the phone is only going to fall out if you really put your mind to it.
The improved ergonomics and easier phone ejection left the pen out of ASUS’ newest equation, and we can’t say that it’s missed, even with its role as a mediocre Bluetooth headset for answering calls when the phone is inside the tablet. However, we’re not sure as to why it’s been decided for the additional keyboard to stay behind as well; it wouldn’t surprise us to see it as a paying extra later on, but there are no such allegations at the moment.
Both the Station and the PadFone itself are made of high-quality materials and components, yet again. This is clear from the very first moment you grab one of them, as everything is perfectly in place, firm and compact, giving a sense of reliability in manipulation. PadFone 2 is literally an enlarged PadFone, adjusted to the new, bigger display. Other than the changed button layout, everything has remained the same, only proportionally enlarged. The looks haven’t changed either – the back side still has a Zenbook-style perforated cover, the front one is entirely covered by Gorilla Fit glass, resistant to scratches and fingerprints, and most of the edges consist of a metal ring made of a magnesium-aluminium alloy. The identically painted bottom edge is the only plastic part on the phone, since this section contains wireless antennae, so covering it with metal would impact signal reception adversely. It’s very much due to the increase in dimensions and weight that PadFone 2 doesn’t feel as reliable in hand as its predecessor, despite the perforated back cover. While the original PadFone didn’t make this very noticeable, PadFone 2 definitely does, and we’re prone to blaming the slick metal edges for this feeling. If they’d been perforated or matted as well, things would probably have turned out for the better. The tablet has a perforated surface in similar style, in perfect unison with the one on the phone, which looks very neat indeed.
The same 13-pin non-standard adapter cord is used for charging, video and data transfer on both devices. This means that connecting any of these to an HDTV will require you to purchase the MHL-to-HDMI adapter from ASUS. If you already have one of these from a previous device, bear in mind that it’ll probably only cooperate with the phone, not the tablet. On a brighter side, the port is compatible with the micro-USB connector, so you’ll be able to transfer data and charge the device(s) with a standard micro-USB cable.
Both the phone and the tablet contain one speaker each, and it’s clear that ASUS’ engineers have done their best to make sound quality as high as possible, especially compared to the competition. More space gives a slight advantage to the tablet speaker, but the phone is no less impressive in this respect. The software enables you to select one of the several pre-sets, which makes music, speech or film sound as good as it gets. While we tend to dislike such software solutions that reshape the original recording, we have to admit their usefulness in scenarios such as this – if you come across a Sean Connery-starring film, he may not have the perfect accent, but you’ll still understand what he’s saying very well, even in a noisy environment. If you decide to hook up a pair of headphones, all software optimisations are turned off automatically, so that you can enjoy the original sound.
Top-of-the-line smartphones have long ago grown past their basic functions and become multifunctional devices that can shoot very good pictures or video. And while our expectations haven’t been particularly high in this regard until recently, the latest trends are dictating that a perfect smartphone has to be perfect in every way, including this one. The extraordinary camera and the latest technology ensure that ASUS’ PadFone 2 will make the competition that much stiffer. Images are excellent, there are plenty of settings and you can spend a lot of time toying around with them if you’re so inclined. The option of continuous shooting has an incredible rate and quality compared to competing solutions. The only thing we haven’t been impressed by is the super macro mode, as we’ve seen better elsewhere on the market. The front camera is expectedly much weaker than the back one and only serves the purpose of video calls, which is a function it does very well even in low-light conditions. Video recording is yet another of PadFone 2’s strong points, as the device has unprecedented capabilities in this regard, including very high framerates (up to 90fps in 480p), while Full HD recording is child’s play to the hardware inside. This gives you exceptional video in high resolution that can be used to create slow-motion effects naturally, just like the ones you see in TV ads. This high framerate also helps keep all moving objects in the video precise and well-defined, rather than blurry, as is usually the case.
When we first saw PadFone and found out what hardware it uses, we were impressed, as it’s very rare for a newbie player in the global market to launch a product that strong and high-quality the first time around. Although it was no easy task, therefore, ASUS has managed to impress us yet again with PadFone 2. The bleeding-edge quad-core platform simply grinds everything in its way. As you can see in synthetic benchmarks, tests in which PadFone 2 hasn’t ended up first are very rare. A CPU this strong is accompanied by an equally powerful graphics chip, which doesn’t seem to have broken a sweat despite all our testing. The phone gets a bit warm under heavy load, though, but nothing more than that. The large amount of RAM is reinforcement to our astonishment, as it means that future versions of the operating system and all installed applications will work just fine regardless of ever-increasing hardware requirements. Whether you use it in phone or tablet mode, PadFone 2 is difficult to overfeed. The internal storage memory is devilishly fast, with incredible response on document opening or large video scrolling. Since the company has taken the dreaded step of removing the micro-SD card slot, make sure you pick your flavour of PadFone 2 well, as it comes in versions with 16, 32 and 64 GB of storage. With all this in mind, it doesn’t come across as surprising that the cover on PadFone 2 isn’t intended for frequent opening. According to ASUS, this has been done in order to decrease dust and dirt intrusion, as well as protecting NFC and other sensitive antennae, but their solution doesn’t entirely disable you from doing it, unlike the case with so many competitors. With some difficulty, any user can remove the back cover and replace an aging battery, for instance. Since hardware this powerful can only consume equally as much battery juice, we were quite concerned about battery life, but consumption optimisations in the latest platform and an increased battery capacity will give you at least two average workdays between charges, which is rare in this day and age.
Now let’s go to the visually most striking difference between the two generations of PadFone – the display. The new display has a larger diagonal and higher resolution, and instead of Super AMOLED, Sharp Super IPS+ is used. Excellent resolution, remarkable sharpness, faithful colour reproduction and amazing viewing angles – it’s all thrown in for good measure, making PadFone 2 the new benchmark for mobile displays. True enough, contrast is still a bit weaker compared to Super AMOLED displays (especially with black), but that’s ridiculously insignificant compared to all the pros. Add to this the already standard outdoor mode, which “overdrives” the display backlight under direct sunlight to provide perfect readability, and all further discussion is futile. We were shocked to learn that PadStation while have outdoor mode is not nearly as effective as it is on PadFone 2, with the official reasoning behind this move that tablets aren’t usually used in broad daylight. We can’t really accept this as the primary cause behind this decision, as their Prime tablet has the exact same feature. That said, this likely has more to do with cost-saving than any practical reasons for its expulsion. Another aspect of this display that leaves competition in the dust is the touch response time. While an improvement of 10-20 ms is difficult to measure, it still contributes to the feeling of speed and excellent responsiveness to touch. Interestingly enough, PadStation and PadFone have very similar display resolutions, further enhancing compatibility between apps in both modes and their transfer behaviour from one mode to another.
As powerful as the hardware installed into PadFone 2 is, we were still disappointed that it isn’t accompanied by the latest version of Android OS, Jelly Bean, but its predecessor, Ice Cream Sandwich. However, after prolonged use, this feeling slowly melts away, to the point where we didn’t really care anymore. Project Butter, the main attribute of Jelly Bean which enhances exactly this type of devices, simply won’t be as prominent on PadFone 2, for the simple fact that things are already hellishly fast, fluent and natural, so we can’t really see how anything could be tangibly improved in this respect. For those eager to get the additional advantages contained in the 4.1 version, a breath of fresh air and also some changes to the UI, the good news is that an update is almost ready and will roll out before New Year in any case.
PadFone 2 continues ASUS’ winning strategy of making only minimal modifications to Google’s vanilla user interface. Unlocking is standard and the Home screen identical, except for the ASUS Quick Setting panel replacing the usual notifications panel, adding useful shortcuts such as wireless and brightness control, the aforementioned Audio Wizard, and Instant Dictionary. The list of preinstalled apps is well-known, and as was the case with the previous PadFone, there’s a separate section with “Pad Only” apps. We still don’t really fathom the purpose of this section, as you can add and remove apps from it with full freedom, and it exists on both the phone and the tablet, adding further confusion. As for standard system parts, the settings screen has gone through slight changes, while the gallery has met its match in the form of ASUS Studio app, which offers more advanced sorting and editing options. Basic system commands are issued via the three integrated buttons on the display – back, home and task switcher. Since there’s enough room for an additional one, we would’ve appreciated a settings button a lot, since this way, it’ll eat up an entire additional row in apps that require it.
In order to counter the Dropbox offer extended to Samsung and HTC users, ASUS has allocated 50 GB of storage space for every buyer through their WebStorage app, free for a period of two years. Alongside WebStorage, some other acquaintances are there as well, such as SuperNote, now in its 3.0 version, optimised for the faster response of PadFone 2 screen. There’s also the well-known AppLocker, which allows apps to be started only if you enter the correct password. For office documents, Polaris 4.0 will do a great job, as it’s rightfully one of our favourites for this purpose. Connecting to a Windows PC and remote controlling it will be taken care of by MyDesktop, i.e. a renamed version of SplashTop, which has to be installed onto the corresponding PC as well, so that you can access your home or office PC on-the-go. The list doesn’t end there, so you also have App Backup, the name of which is self-explanatory, as well as Power Saver, for detailed power control settings, and a few minor apps for e-books, FM radio and several others.
Widgets are an entirely separate story, as ASUS has always treated this segment with particular attention. The weather widget has been slightly reshaped and improved, but it remains instantly recognisable and very useful. ASUS Battery does what it promises to, as does Task Manager, while PadFone Station Assistant helps determine the way you want to take a call if the phone is inside the tablet.
One of the main features of the PadFone series, and one that ASUS seems to be particularly proud of, is Dynamic Display. This technology is in charge of seamless transfer of applications from the phone to the tablet and vice versa. When we met the original PadFone, we encountered a fair share of trouble with this aspect, and most notoriously, the issue of crashing apps that lost all their unsaved data, which was potentially abysmal. Luckily, things have changed, and the situation is much better now. Apps that don’t work as expected are very rare; according to ASUS, all top 100 apps in Google’s Play Store work correctly, and 92% of them adjust to the new display orientation and size automatically. Switching from one mode to the other has been vastly improved, usually taking no more than a second (we haven’t been able to determine what causes the difference in transfer times). Having in mind the attention granted to Dynamic Display as technology that’s supposed to create a truly seamless experience between the phone and the tablet, we were surprised to see that only a few apps in the installed apps list were marked as supported, with glaring omissions such as Gmail not in the list, even though we’ve encountered no problems whatsoever with them. We’ll leave it to ASUS to reply to this question, and as far as we’re concerned, we’re free to say that Dynamic Display has been brought to the level of comfortable everyday use, although it still needs some extra polish. In any case, don’t be afraid to demonstrate PadFone 2’s capabilities with switching modes in the middle of an HD video or a heavy-duty game, as everything is very likely to continue working correctly.
Is it Phone, tablet or something else?
The first PadFone was an experiment of a relative success. One of the main problems that plagued it was an insufficiently good Station (heavy, bulky and with a quirky phone insertion system), in addition to software issues. We’re glad to say that PadFone 2 rectifies all these troubles, making itself the first truly great hybrid between a phone and a tablet. A single device now gives you a light and portable tablet, which is simultaneously an advanced, high-quality and quick smartphone. This should be of interest to users who can’t bother syncing and transferring data between devices all the time. This way, if your data is on your phone, it’s on your tablet too. Even more importantly, both devices use the same micro SIM card, which implies a single subscription and a single monthly bill. The experience of browsing an Excel chart on the phone and then transferring it onto a much larger tablet display with close to no activity is astonishing.
Whether you view it as a tablet or a phone, PadFone 2 is an ultrafast device, loaded with the very latest the IT industry has to offer, which makes it more than capable of tackling any task in the Android world with immense speed. An exceptional choice of materials, high-quality finish, fantastic display, excellent sound output, an innovative and advanced concept are all features that few manufacturers are able to offer, let alone in a single device. We remain a bit sad that there doesn’t seem to be a keyboard planned along with this device, as it would further add to the variety of tasks you can accomplish with nothing but PadFone 2 at your side.
|ASUS PadFone 2 Specification:|
|Processor||Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro Krait, four cores, max 1.5 GHz|
|Memory||RAM 2GB LPDDR2, internal 32 GB + 50 GB ASUS Webstorage for 2 years|
|Display Padfone||4.7'' Super IPS+, SHARP 1280 x 720 pix, protected with Corning Glass Fit|
|Display PadStation||10.1'' IPS, 1280 x 800 pix, protected with Corning Glass Fit|
|OS||Android 4.04 Ice Cream Sandwich|
|Camera PadFone||Front: 1.2 MP; Back: 13 MP, f2.4, Sony BSI, autofocus, LED flash|
|Camera PadStation||Front: 1 MP|
|Connections||LTE, WiFi, WiFi Direct, NFC, Android Beam, Micro USB and MHL, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS, 3.5 mm audio|
|Battery||2140 mAh PadFone, 19 Whr / 5000 mAh PadStation|
|WxHxD||137.9 x 68.9 x 9 mm PadFone, 263 x 180.8 x 10.4 mm PadStation|
|Mass||135 g PadFone, 514 g PadStation|
|Price||Expected €799 ($1,040) for 32 GB model and €899 for 64GB model. Prices include PadStation|
Of course, to get this cream-of-the-crop device, you need to pay up a fair amount, so you shouldn’t be surprised or deterred by PadFone 2’s rather pricey nature. Of course, the device isn’t immaculate, as it lacks a micro-SD slot, lacks grip a little and doesn’t contain the outdoor option in tablet mode. However, these drawbacks are dwarfed to such an extent by the list of present features that we can only give our maximum commendation to ASUS for creating such an exceptional device, with a corresponding Editor’s Choice award to follow.