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Asus PadFone 2 hands on: A phone and tablet merger that actually works

There can’t be all that many people who don’t think that, in principle, the idea of the PadFone 2 is a good one. After all, it combines the two most popular — and fastest growing — consumer electronics markets into one handy device. At the PadFone 2’s launch event today, I had the chance to spend some time playing with Asus’s unusual device, and while it’s still not exactly clear at whom it’s aimed, it’s a clever machine with considerable potential for the future. Asus’s tagline for the tablet is “It’s intuitive.” I have to agree.

The first thing you notice about the smartphone is how light it is, feeling lighter in the hand than both the Galaxy S3 and iPhone 4, despite them all being within a couple of grams of each other. The phone is made of plastic, as is the brushed metal-look band around the edge, and since the rear panel is non-removable, the battery won’t be able to be swapped out for a new one.

Installed on the PadFone 2 at the event was Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), but an upgrade to Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) should be coming in December. This means the European PadFone 2, which should arrive early next year, will most likely come with the latest version of Android already installed.

Padfone 2 Hands-on Front and Back Padfone 2 Hands-on Dock

Quad-core power

The Snapdragon S4 Pro quad-core processor gives the smartphone incredible performance. Even without Jelly Bean’s “Project Butter,” scrolling was smooth and precise, and video was expertly handled. Scrolling could still be “sticky” in the browser though. A 1.5GB HD video file could be scrubbed back and forth with no delays in playback, and when the Adreno 320 GPU was put to work on a Need for Speed game, it looked stunning.

Grasping the tapered body of the PadFone 2’s phone section, it’s simple to slot it into the tablet and in fact, you don’t even need to look at what you’re doing. This makes perfect sense when you consider the sharing aspect of the PadFone 2, as you can be looking at a photo on the phone, which then appears on the tablet’s screen almost instantly when you dock them together. Fiddling around on the back of the tablet would spoil this experience completely.

Slotting the phone into the tablet station is precise and satisfying, and ends with a positive push to lock it into place, feeling not unlike docking an iPhone into a well-made audio dock. It’s not going anywhere either, as even turning it upside down and shaking it about failed to see the phone slip out and clatter onto the floor.

Padfone 2 Hands-on Back

Instant sharing, with a catch

Using the tablet is a very similar experience to using the phone as it’s the same OS, but with this comes a slight drawback — the browser wants to open mobile websites. Visiting DigitalTrends.com, the BBC and YouTube on the tablet resulted in exactly that happening, but a better YouTube experience could be had using the standalone app. This is a problem on most Android tablets.

The instant sharing is also flawed at the moment, as it only works with certain applications. Say you’re reading a website using Chrome on the smartphone, but decide you want to read it on the larger screen, so you plug it into the tablet station. Sadly, it doesn’t just appear and you need to open Chrome as usual. Sure, your content is there straight away, but it adds a step or two to the process. The answer is to use the standard browser instead, which does instantly start when you dock the two devices, as does the gallery, the camera app, Google Play and the standard email app too. But generally, if you’re doing something on your phone before you plug it in, prepare to have to re-open that task.

Asus says that many apps are undergoing a certification process, so by the time the PadFone 2 goes on sale, this could all change. Hopefully it will, as it’s one of the standout features of the device.

Padfone 2 Hands-on Tablet

Intuitive and pleasantly surprising

Using the PadFone 2 for only a short time confirms that Asus is right to call it intuitive, primarily because of the instant sharing feature and the easy docking, but learning the ins-and-outs of the lightly skinned Android OS was a breeze too. This, along with the all-in-one nature of the PadFone 2, makes it a good choice for anyone new to smartphones and tablets.

Such simplicity, design innovation and power doesn’t come cheap though, with the 32GB model priced at 800 euros ($1,042) for the smartphone and the tablet station. Before you snort derisively at this figure, think about this: A 32GB iPhone 5 costs 790 euros on its own, and you’re stuck with that battery and that screen size. Add a 32GB Wi-Fi and Cellular iPad and you’ll need another 700 euros, giving a total of 1,488 euros ($1,940) for the pair. Pop over to Amazon for a SIM-free Galaxy S3 and a Galaxy Note 10.1 and you’ll still need the best part of 1,100 euros.

So, although the initial outlay sounds like a lot, that’s quite a savings when you consider how much buying two separate devices to emulate the PadFone 2’s abilities costs. It is, however, still a big price for a relative newcomer to ask for an quirky product. It could also be saved if U.S. wireless carriers decide to subsidize the phone and tablet combo deeply enough, it could be quite affordable. But with how badly the Motorola Atrix + Laptop Dock were priced, it’s difficult to be hopeful.

In the short time I had with the PadFone 2, it was certainly winning me over, and it’s impossible not to be impressed by the Snapdragon S4 Pro’s performance. I have the feeling a lot of people are going to be surprised by the PadFone 2, it just takes an open mind, a calculator and good, solid test run.

Video playing on the PadFone 2

The PadFone 2 camera