After MWC (Mobile World Congress) introduction earlier this year, we were looking forward to meet the latest Padfone as well as Fonepad, new brand in vast ASUS Android portfolio. Presented by Jerry Shen, ASUS CEO himself, Fonepad holds several interesting attributes at aggressive price point. It is the world’s first 7-inch Intel Lexington tablet and features the Intel Atom Z Series SoC with 1 GB of memory, a HD (1280x720) IPS display, microSD card expandability and has cellular data connectivity, but it also features full voice calling and SMS capabilities, allowing it to replace your smartphone. The focus is on staying connected and consuming content on the move, while occasionally making phone calls, likely via a Bluetooth headset (it will be bundled on some markets).
Due to its affordable price, we didn’t expect build quality to be this good. Best part of back cover is made of anodized aluminum except for the top plastic stripe. This plastic is there to improve wireless communication and can be removed to enable access to reset button as well as microSD and micro SIM slots. Omission of back camera didn’t make us sad, despite the fact that models for other markets have it. Instead of back camera we got double the internal memory as well as microSD card slot, which are of much more importance to us. On the back you can see Intel inside logo, a rare beast on tablets these days, as well as loudspeaker grill on the bottom side. Speaker is well positioned and loud enough even for the noisier environments. Power button and volume rocker are positioned on the left side, with nice and firm feeling during usage. Microphone, audio jack and microUSB port are located on the bottom. It is nice to see that despite integrated high capacity battery ASUS didn’t implement their proprietary connector to power it up, but went on more standardized route. You can use USB port not only for charging but also to connect Fonepad and PC. USB OTG is not supported, so no peripherals like keyboard or USB flash drives.
Full front side is covered with one piece of scratch resistant glass without hardware buttons. There is ASUS logo on the bottom, and speaker grill and on top there is camera good enough for web conferences. Rest of the face estate is reserved for display, which is surprisingly enough very good. Its 720p resolution is on par with screen size, with good color reproduction and great viewing angles. As with many IPS based screens contrast and brightness are really good. It even has Outdoor mode, which was until now reserved for higher priced tablets. When turned on, it produces more backlight at the expense of the battery life. At present state, it is more of a gimmick than a useful function, as under direct sunlight it is hard to spot the difference. If you want to use Padfone on a sunny day, better look for shade.
Beating heart of this tablet is Intel Atom processor, optimized for low power consumption. That proved true during our test, 2 to 3 days between battery charging were common even under the heavy load. It is obvious that this CPU + GPU combination is a good choice for long battery autonomy, but it also showed its weakness in benchmarks. Achieved results were quite low, showing that Fonepad is not intended for heavy computing tasks. That aside, Fonepad is a great example that in Android world performance of given device can be very much affected by software / OS implementation. Using a Launcher and browsing through App Drawer as well as many usual tasks like exploring gallery or listening to music were quite fast and fluid. Fluidity in these operations was on par with Nexus 7 which has stronger hardware, which is not an easy feat to achieve.
As the ASUS guys noticed, the Android user interface have taken several giant steps forward in the last couple of years – particularly with Ice Cream Sandwich and, more recently, Jelly Bean (Fonepad utilize Android OS 4.1.2).The default user interface is now at a point where they feel that over-customization can hinder the user experience and also delay operating system updates. So, the customizations that ASUS made to Android’s user interface are subtle and are designed to enhance what already exists with subtle changes, rather than replace it outright. We must agree to this line of thinking, especially when it means a very fluid and responsive App drawer, homescreen transitions, and basically everything involving UI.
Some of the changes include adding a 4th Android button, which pops up the option to add floating widgets. These apps open in a window that ‘floats’ above the app or home screen below, and can be dragged around the screen or maximized to fullscreen. This enables better multitasking - for example, you can use the calculator or calendar while you reply to emails or edit documents. Notification area also got some improvements as usual, outdoor mode, audio enhancements and better range of switches being most noticeable.
ASUS also added several apps and widgets, like a weather widget or a SuperNote Lite which, in contrast to full version, omits the handwriting-to-text function. ASUS Studio parallels its function with regular Gallery, offering almost the same functionality, promising to improve much more in future updates. We especially liked how ASUS gave us option to customize color temperature and enhance color saturation if needed.
Implemented keyboard is spacious and easy to type on, and we especially liked the extra row with numbers. However, we didn’t like the looks and specific implementation of predictive feature. As usual, when you start typing, there is a selection of predicted words to choose from, but you don’t have any information what exactly did you type at any given moment.
|Memory||1 GB LPDDR2-800 RAM, 16 GB Storage expandable via micro SD|
|Battery||Integrated, 4270 mAh|
|Display||7 inch, 1200 x 800 pix, IPS with scratch resistant glass|
|Interfaces||WiFi n, 3G, Voice, Bluetooth 3.0, GPS, 3.5mm audio jack|
|OS||Android OS 4.1.2|
|User interface||Slightly modified vanilla Android|
We were a bit surprised that stock Android browser is preinstalled instead of Chrome for web browsing. When we installed Chrome just to try it out, it appears that it was a well thought decision; stock browser is better optimized, faster and less memory-consuming. Add that to the problem we encountered with current version of Chrome where font rendering was a bit blurry and you don’t have many reasons to use Chrome until it gets fixed. Font blurring is already a known problem with Chrome on many devices recently, so we are confident that it will be solved in an update or two. That said, while stock browser was faster, less performing hardware was evident when we tried to open some more complex pages, rendering and moving around the page was slower than we would have liked.
A bit alarmed, we moved on to movies reproduction in our testing. Implemented video player doesn’t support subtitles and has a short list of supported video files. Due to architectural differences, our favorite BS player didn’t utilize GPU for hardware decoding which resulted in low FPS. Instead we turned to MX player, which has x86 compatible codecs and it worked flawlessly. Even our test Full HD mkv with 20 Mbit/s bitrate and several audio streams played without hitch.
Next for testing were games, and results were in line with benchmarks figures - ASUS Fonepad is not a gaming tablet. For casual gaming like Angry Birds or Where is my water, it will suffice, but if you are looking to play 3D title like NFS or even Temple Run 2, low FPS will make that experience painful.
What will be our final decision for Fonepad is hard to say. Beside typical tablet usage it focuses on voice calls, which we found awkward when we tried to use it as a typical phone leaning it on ear. Poor voice quality doesn’t help the case, so our recommendation is the use of a Bluetooth headset. In the future, we would also like to see an accessory which will act as a dumb phone (form vise also) and via Bluetooth connect to Fonepad. On the other hand, build quality and display are very good. Battery lasts for a long time, and movie watching is a pleasure. It is not powerful enough for latest games, but for some casual gaming it will suffice. So, if you find yourself having just a few calls weekly, use Facebook and other IM’s extensively and like how Fonepad looks and feels, it can be a dream device. Add to that affordable pricing together with 3G capability, and list of potential buyers grows longer.