TC@MWC: Hands-On With The Surprisingly Solid Asus Padfone

The Padfone is a peculiar beast, to be sure. Given the right accessories (and enough money, I suppose), Asus’s newest smartphone can easily transform into a tablet and a faux-notebook in the blink of an eye, but how well does the thing work? Asus was kind enough to let us play with one for a short while in their booth here at Mobile World Congress, and we’ve put together a quick video tour for your viewing pleasure.

As far as the Padfone phone itself is concerned, I have a feeling people will either love it or hate it. At 8.9mm thick it’s a very slim device (though not the thinnest we’ve seen over the past few days), and a surprisingly lightweight one too. I personally wasn’t a fan of the Padfone’s feel — I thought it felt sort of chintzy and inexpensive, though the latter probably won’t turn out to be true. Your mileage may vary on that front though, as I’m generally a fan of devices with a bit more heft to them.

The rationale behind the Padfone’s design seems pretty clear here — with the Padfone meant to dock into another into a tablet frame, Asus had to make the phone itself as slim and light as possible so as not to give the tablet a hunchback. I’m happy to report that the docked Padfone tablet indeed manages to avoid the Quasimodo route, though the bulge is still very noticeable.

Once docked in the so-called Padfone Station, users are greeted with a slightly retooled UI meant to take advantage of the 10.1-inch display running at 1280 x 800. All of the Padfone’s functionality remains intact when docked, including the ability to make and receive phone calls thanks to a little help from Asus’s Stylus Headset. The keyboard dock doesn’t require much explanation — it sports its own battery like the tablet dock, and the keys were well-spaced and had good travel.

One thing that has become very clear to me over the past few days is that it’s very hard to judge a device’s performance in these conditions. Without any benchmarking apps (or any third-party apps at all) on hand, there isn’t much to go off of, but the Padfone’s 1.5 GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 processor and 1GB of RAM were more than enough to deliver smooth navigation of menus and websites. I suspect that it’s more than enough horsepower for most users too, though we’ll have to see how well it stacks up after more time with it.

Note: I mistakenly referred to the Padfone’s processor as clocking in at 1.4GHz in the video when it’s actually 1.5. Whoops, sorry about that.

On the software front, Asus did exactly what I had hoped they would: they left it (mostly) untouched. Asus opted to leave Ice Cream Sandwich almost entirely alone on the Padfone aside from a few new widgets and a new Pad Apps section in the app launcher. I’ll admit that manufacturer-specific UIs have undergone a huge jump in quality lately (I’m looking at you Sense 4.0), but I’m still a fan of simple, clean, unfettered Ice Cream Sandwich when all is said and done.

In the end, it’s a great concept from Asus, and it’s been executed far better than I had expected. Hardware preferences aside, Asus did a solid job of taking an off-the-wall idea and making into an actually (some would say compelling) product. Still, the real question remains: how many people would ever actually buy one of these things?