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AT&T Asus PadFone X review: Two devices for the price of one, with some compromises

The idea of a transformer device that lets you switch between a tablet and phone sounds good, but we have yet to see great execution even though Asus keeps on trying.

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Topic: Mobility
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1 of 30 Matthew Miller/ZDNet

PadFone X retail package

Millions of people own smartphones and tablets, often with different operating systems on each. The idea of taking your phone and popping it into a larger display without having to install and manage apps separately sounds good, but I'm not sure all the compromises make practical sense.

Asus is good at testing unique form factors in the mobile space, check out their line of Transformers, and recently launched the PadFone X on AT&T. There were two previous generation PadFone devices released outside the US and I have always wanted to give one a try. I spent over a week with the PadFone X and think it just might appeal to the entry to mid-level market where people still view a tablet as an additional accessory rather than a dedicated stand-alone must-have device.

Hardware

I was sent the PadFone X and PadFone Station, which are sold together from AT&T. You can also buy a Bluetooth keyboard accessory for $99 that acts as a screen cover and keyboard docking station, similar to what you may see in their Transformer tablet hybrid device.

PadFone X smartphone: The PadFone X package comes with both a phone and a docking station, the PadFone Station, that serves as the tablet. As you can see below in the specs list, the PadFone X is a very capable high-end smartphone. However, the shell is rather ordinary and reminds me of a phone from a couple of years ago. It's clearly a plain black slab.

Asus didn't put much effort into designing a colorful, metallic, or curved phone. The edges are rounded though the matte finish does help it feel just fine in your hand. It does feel solidly constructed and definitely does not have a cheap feel to it. It is about as heavy as the One (M8) even though it is made of high quality plastic instead of aluminum.

You will find a 5 inch high resolution (1920 x 1080 pixels) IPS display in a phone about the size of the HTC One (M8) with a mm or two less height. The power and volume buttons are on the right, the microUSB port is on the bottom, and the headphone jack is on the top.

The back can be pried off to reveal the microSIM card slot and microSD expansion card slot (expandable to 64GB). The battery is visible, but not removable. It is held in place with several screws.

A 13 megapixel cameara and single LED flash are located at the top of the back with an AT&T logo and Padfone branding on the lower back.

PadFone Station: The PadFone Station reminds me of my old HP TouchPad tablet computer, meaning that it is rather boring and chunky. The bezel around the display is about 1 inch on all four sides, which looks rather ridiculous when you hold up a modern Android table or iPad.

The display on the Station is 9 inches with the same resolution. The 1 megapixel front facing camera is centered above the display. A power button is found on the left top with the volume button and microUSB port on the lower left hand side.

When you flip it over you will see the large docking area for the smartphone. You simply slide it down in place to use the PadFone X in tablet form. The Station will not turn on or do anything without the smartphone docked into the back.

With the phone in the back, the tablet is a bit bulky. Thankfully, Asus made the two sides less thick so you can hold onto the PadFone Station comfortably with two hands. This is not a tablet you want to read in bed and have fall on your face though so use with caution in that position.

Like the phone, the PadFone Station feels solidly constructed. It's just a bit boring and chunky. However, if you only want a tablet to extend the display of your smartphone then it might be a perfect fit for you.

Software

The PadFone X runs Android 4.4.2 KitKat and offers a nearly pure Google experience. You will find a few Asus utilites, modifications to the lock screen, and a custom notifications area. If you don't like all the bells and whistles of an HTC, Samsung, or LG phone, then you may like the purist PadFone X.

There are lots of AT&T services and utilties, some are actually useful. You can easily hide these in the application launcher, but I would like to see removal as an option some day.

Asus designed the PadFone X so that when you slip it into the dock the interface changes into a tablet look and feel. They did a pretty good job with the Dynamic Display software that switches between phone and tablet forms with apps not just getting bigger, but more useful.

I particularly like using email and the calendar in tablet form. Unfortunately, the web browser (Chrome and standard included one) don't switch into desktop mode so you get all the mobile sites just like you would on your phone.

Pros and Cons

To summarize my experiences with the Asus PadFone X, here are my pros and cons.

Pros Cons
Solid, high-end internal specifications Plain phone design
Bright, high resolution display Huge bezel on all four sides of the PadFone Station
Minimal change to UI, almost a pure Google experiences Still a bit too much non-removable AT&T bloatware
Great price for dual use environments  

Pricing and availability

The PadFone X is only sold with the PadFone Station, but the pricing is even less than flagship smartphones. With a two-year contact you can pick up the combo for just $199.99. The full, no-contract price is $549.99. Most high end smartphones today have full prices in the $600 to $850 range.

The competition

There really isn't any competition in this space. You can pick up an entry to mid-level smartphone for free to $200 (with a contract) and then pay $200 up to $800 for a tablet, but you won't find other two-in-one products like the PadFone X.

Specifications
Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 quad-core 2.3 GHz processor
2GB RAM
16GB internal storage with microSD card slot
5-inch 1920x1080 pixels resolution Super LCD display
13 megapixel rear camera and 2-megapixel front facing camera on the phone and 1 megapixel camera on the station
2,300 mAh battery in the phone and 4,990 in the station
Dimensions of 5.67 x 2.85 x 0.39 inches and 5.29 ounces for the phone
Dimensions of 59.86 x 6.78 x 0.46 inches and 18.13 ounces for the station (23.42 ounces together)

Conclusion

Asus is offering a pretty compelling package for the average user who doesn't want to spend hundreds on a dedicated tablet they might just leave sitting around gathering dust. For the price of a smartphone, you get an accessory that gives you a tablet experience.

The phone is not a marvel of design like many modern smartphones, but it has the right internals and it does a fine job performing everday tasks. The nice thing about this combo is no separate data plan is needed and the same data always appears in phone and tablet modes.

I would like to see the next generation slim down both the phone and the station to give it more of a high end smartphone look and feel. I would bump up my rating by at least a full point if the design was more modern.

Contributor's rating: 7.5 out of 10

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Opening up the retail package

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Front of the PadFone X and PadFone Station

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Back of the PadFone X and PadFone Station

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Docking the PadFone X

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PadFone X smartphone in hand

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PadFone Station in hand - landscape

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PadFone Station in hand - portrait

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Moto X, Sony Xperia Z2, PadFone X, LG G3, HTC One (M8)

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Moto X, Sony Xperia Z2, PadFone X, LG G3, HTC One (M8)

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Upper back of the PadFone X

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Right side of the PadFone X

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ASUS custom notification area

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PadFone X Station home screen view

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PadFone X Station app launcher

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PadFone X Station app launcher

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PadFone X Station widget selector

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PadFone X Station AT&T apps

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PadFone X Station ASUS apps

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ASUS SuperNote app

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SuperNote in portrait

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PadFone X Station calendar view

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PadFone X Station Gmail view

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PadFone X Station image gallery

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PadFone X Station settings

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PadFone X Station settings

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PadFone X Station AudioWizard

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PadFone X Station Splendid display utility

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Home screen in smartphone mode

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App launcher in smartphone mode

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