The ASUS Padfone X, available now on AT&T for $199 (with contract), is a smartphone that transforms into a tablet that sort of transforms into an Android laptop. It’s an intriguing concept, especially if you want or need a tablet with productivity chops and you don’t want to pay extra for mobile hotspot service. That use case only covers a specific type of user. If you mostly use a tablet at home, the Padfone X may not be the device you need.
Once upon a time ASUS introduced the world to the Transformer Pad, a tablet that turned into a laptop thanks to the addition of a solidly connected keyboard dock. With each new model the concept got better and better, and now there are dozens of Transformer-like Android and Windows tablets around. ASUS is pretty good at this two-in-one device thing as well as the tiny laptop thing, which made us initially excited about the new Padfone X. But where the audience for a tablet that turns into a laptop is pretty vast, there are fewer people who need a phone that turns into a tablet.
The Padfone X consists of a 5-inch smartphone and a 9-inch Padfone Station with a dock for the phone on the back. Slide it in and everything, including files, contacts, and apps, appears on the tablet screen. There is an optional Bluetooth keyboard dock that gives the tablet a clamshell feel, though it’s not quite the same experience as the ASUS Transformer.
The phone works on its own, but the Padfone Station does not. When they’re separate the tablet part just sits there with a dark screen waiting for the return of it’s brains. The dock does have it’s own battery (which can charge up the phone if you need it to), speakers, and front-facing camera. All other functions and hardware depend on the phone.
Due to this design, the Padfone comes off as kind of bulky and awkward in tablet mode. The Padfone Station is as thick or thicker than most Android tablets around this size, and the docking part juts out even more than that. With the phone docked the whole thing weighs around 1.5 pounds. Much of that weight is in the center instead of distributed, thus it doesn’t balance well. The protruding phone also makes using the device on a flat surface difficult as the tablet tips to one end or the other.
Taking all of that into consideration, it’s clear that the Padfone X is not a device for every person. Those of you who kick back with your tablet in front of the TV or use it in the kitchen while cooking or read on it or play games and movies at home don’t need the extra special flair the Padfone brings to the table. However, people who use tablets for work will appreciate it’s uniqueness more.
Road warriors who use Wi-Fi-only Android tablets must either hunt for an open connection or use a mobile hotspot, which costs extra. Syncing files between devices isn’t always fast or completely reliable. And it can be a pain to make sure tablet and phone have the same necessary apps. Yes, these are minor annoyances.
The Padfone makes them all moot. Both tablet and phone use the same data connection, the same internal storage, and the same apps.
Switching between phone and tablet is as smooth as can be expected for an oddball device. Android looks and acts slightly different on phones and tablets, though it’s the same operating system overall. So going from one to the other doesn’t just mean making things bigger. Some Android apps look and act different depending on the device and screen size. In such cases, the Padfone will attempt to relaunch whatever apps are active into the right environment when you make the switch using ASUS’ adaptive display technology. This doesn’t always work. When it doesn’t, you won’t lose data even if you manually relaunch an app.
Sliding the phone in and out of the dock is easy; we got the hang of it in just two tries. And it stays firmly in place even if you hold the tablet upside down.
By itself, the phone is a pretty standard Android handset. The design isn’t exciting to look at or ultra premium, but is comfortable to hold. It’s about the same size as the HTC One M8 and the Samsung Galaxy S5. If those are too big or you find it difficult to use them one-handed, you’ll have the same problem here. The plastic backplate offers no grippyness.
The 1080p resolution screen is bright, sharp, and very colorful. Viewing angles are decent, but when playing accelerometer games like Temple Run 2 the colors shifted and darkened whenever we tilted to the left or right. Enough to notice, not enough to interfere with gameplay.
Overall performance and 4G LTE performance are both speedy, call quality is great, and the small speaker on the back gets loud enough for sharing YouTube videos as long as there isn’t a lot of background noise.
The tablet portion is not quite as impressive. The 1920 x 1200 resolution screen is good quality and has wide viewing angles. Unfortunately, there is only 9 inches of it. Given that the chassis size is about the same as a 10-inch tablet, this means there’s a wide bezel around the edge and an overall feeling of wasted space.
The front-facing speakers get loud enough to hear videos, music, or a caller clearly even with some background noise. Yes, you can make and receive calls in tablet mode using the speaker, a Bluetooth headset, or a wired headset. Not having to switch away from the tablet to do this is a bonus for the productivity-minded. Another nice extra is that the rear-camera on the tablet is the same as the rear camera on the phone.
This 13 megapixel shooter is backed by a robust camera app that includes several creative modes and filters. On Auto, the app is intelligent enough to suggest modes when it senses particular shooting conditions, such as low light or an imbalance between highlight and shadow. In good light the photos aren’t as well-exposed or crisp as the Galaxy S5 is capable of, but colors are true to life. Low light performance is better than average and it’s possible to get by without a flash.
The ASUS Padfone X isn’t a premium device despite the wow, cool factor of the concept. By itself, the phone is one we’d expect to pay about $100 for on contract. The tablet, if it were a singular thing, might sell well at $150 – $200. The combo is $199, which feels right for what you get. Aside from being an inexpensive option to buying a phone and a tablet separately, you’ll also save money by not needing mobile hotspot service. For the narrow audience that the Padfone X will appeal to, that’s a significant mark in it’s favor.
If you’re interested in the Padfone X for its productivity chops, you may be tempted to buy the $99 ASUS Bluetooth keyboard dock. Our advice? Don’t.
It’s cool that the keyboard has a docking hinge that kinda turns the Padfone into a clamshell laptop. However, the keyboard is heavy (1.7 pounds) and there isn’t much room. To save space, ASUS combined some keys and made terrible decisions about which ones are important. For instance, the apostrophe is a secondary key you have to press Fn to activate. Get a different Bluetooth keyboard instead.
The Good: Switching between phone and tablet is fairly smooth, displays are both colorful and bright, great performance and call quality, good camera, data, apps, files, contacts shared between both devices.
The Bad: Tablet is bulky and awkward, heavy when phone and tablet are docked, tablet doesn’t work on it’s own, 9-inch screen in a 10-inch body, keyboard dock is terrible.