Showing off the Asus PadFone X at a May press event, an Asus executive called it a "niche" product. As such, he acknowledged, the device—an unusual two-in-one hybrid made up of a 5-inch smartphone that slides into a tablet shell to power its 9-inch display—isn't for everyone.
This is really the most essential thing that can be said about the PadFone X, and it's the best place to judge it from. It is indeed not for everyone. It's for people who would like to have a smartphone and a tablet but don't want to pay very much for either and are willing to put up with what comprises are necessary to get a real deal.
AT&T is selling the PadFone X—which comes with both pieces included, smartphone and tablet—for $199 with a two-year contract or via its Next plan, starting at $25 a month for 20 months.
To be clear, the tablet shell, called the Station, does nothing on its own. It's basically a battery (it charges the phone, doubling its battery life) and a crisp, bright full HD display that's dark until the powered-on phone is (easily) slid into a cradle on its back.
As smartphones go, the PadFone is a solid, mid-tier smartphone. It's on the heavier side, and a bit thick; my first impression was to think it, indeed, looks like a slab that could power another device. But I found myself liking it more than I expected to. There's something very appealingly straightforward (if even cute, which seems an odd but apt descriptor) about Asus' treatment of Android 4.4 (KitKat).
The phone is speedy, the display is rich and crisp (1,920 by 1,080), and the smooth, plastic back cover manages not to feel cheap or slippery but rather cool and comfortable in the hand.
Its 13-megapixel rear camera also surprised me. It takes fine photos inside and offers an impressive feature set and level of adjustment before one snaps an image though little in the way of editing afterward. (There are apps for that.) Photos and videos I took outside on a sunny day, however, floored me for the vibrancy of the color they captured. And, then, there's the added pleasure of clicking the phone into the Station and seeing one's photos as crisp and bright on 9 inches of Gorilla Glass-slick real estate.
Disappointing, though, was the graininess of zoomed-in images.
As for the Station, it's heavy (1.1 pounds, before the phone is clicked in). Holding it, my hand quickly tired. Some people may also find it a little awkward that the lump of the phone on the Station's back prevents it from laying flat.
I also experienced some awkwardness typing. Too often, a space would be inserted and I'd have to go back and retype—it was as though the digital keyboard was registering my hovering palm as a tap to the space bar. Perhaps this was just a fluke of the pre-production test unit I was given.
While the PadFone phone could stand on its own, the tablet experience the Station offers feels a lot more compromised. Yet, again, for the money, it has its perks. When someone sent me a document to sign online, I found it tricky to complete on the phone; once I clicked the phone into the Station, though, it was a snap.
One thing Asus will hopefully have worked out by the time the PadFone X ships is a consistent transfer from phone to tablet. (If you're reading an article on the phone when you slide it in, you want that article to immediately appear on the tablet.) Often, this wasn't the case.
Both the straightforwardness of the phone, though, and the ability of the tablet to behave as a magnifying glass of sorts for the phone—whether to view photos, an article or documents—made me think the PadFone could be a good companion for older users who find themselves squinting at their phone's display.
For the value-conscious of any age, the PadFone X is worth considering. Asus also offers a keyboard accessory for $99 that enables users to snap in the tablet to transform the tablet into a laptop. If you go with the contract option, that's three form factors—smartphone, tablet and laptop—for $300. That's not a bad deal by really any measure.
The Asus PadFone is now available to preorder, exclusively from AT&T, and will arrive in one to two weeks.