Asus Smartphone-Tablet Hybrid Shows Potential, a Few Kinks

NEWS ANALYSIS: A quick hands-on with the Asus PadFone, available to preorder from AT&T June 6, shows its advantages, but it may need fine-tuning.

Asus PadFone

AT&T has finally announced pricing and some (light) availability information about the Asus PadFone, a two-for-one device that features a smartphone that slips behind a 9-inch Full HD display to power an LTE-enabled tablet.

AT&T introduced the PadFone at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, and in February there was talk of an April arrival but no further news. But during a May 28 press event, AT&T shared that the device will be available to preorder June 6 and arrive shortly after. AT&T will exclusively sell the PadFone, and the two companies have a multi-year deal.

The PadFone is priced at $199 with a two-year contract or, with AT&T Next, 18 payments of $22.92 or 12 payments of $29.80. That price includes the phone and tablet "Station," as it's called. A keyboard dock for turning the two-in-one into a three-in-one is sold separately for $99.

The LTE-enabled PadFone runs Android KitKat and has a 5-inch-display. When you need a little more screen real estate—or a little more juice, since the Station both charges the phone and reportedly doubles its battery life—just slip the phone into the back of the Station. If you want a laptop experience, slip the two into the dock of the keyboard.

A perk of the configuration is said to be that a user can enjoy a smartphone and a tablet on AT&T's LTE network while only paying for one device. (Normally, subscribers pay an extra $10 a month to add a tablet to an account.)

AT&T gave journalists early review units to try out, and after a few hours with the PadFone, my impression is that it's nice to have a smartphone and a tablet and a laptop, but the PadFone consists of a not-optimal smartphone, a not-optimal tablet and a not-optimal laptop.

For the convenience of multiple form factors, you have to be willing to exchange having a high-level experience with any one of them. That really isn't surprising, given the price. Making all three seriously excellent would send the price seriously higher.

For some people, the quality of the experience that the PadFone offers will be good enough; the trade off—especially for consumers who don't have a laptop or desktop—will be well worth it.

An exception to the sub-optimal talk may be the smartphone. Again, this assessment is not a full review, but is based on two sittings of use.

What's initially off-putting about the phone—or, maybe more fairly, what makes it immediately seem like a not very serious smartphone contender—is its size. It's shorter than an HTC One (M8), taller than an Apple iPhone 5S and thicker than both. It's thick in a way that makes perfect sense, considering it's the brains of a tablet, but also thick in a way that's likely to prevent anyone from ever showing off this phone in excitement.

Still, the display is incredibly crisp and bright. It's the thing that makes a user want to give the PadFone a proper chance. The phone is also fast and responsive. Though in an odd design choice, Asus put the power button on the side, instead of on the top, where most phone users have learned to grope for a button.

The side placement not only makes for some getting used to, but it makes the button inaccessible when it's inside the Station. Maybe this was Asus' intention. If the tablet's display goes dark, due to inactivity, perhaps Asus wants users to tap the tablet's power button instead of the phone's.

The tablet isn't light—there is a phone attached to it, after all—and some content that looks great on the phone becomes a bit grainy when stretched those four more inches. I also found the on-screen keyboard a little too eager to make choices of its own, regarding word choice. As for the keyboard dock, I've slotted in, turned on Bluetooth and Near Field Communication (NFC), slid the button to "on" and still can't get it to type.

Again, these are early units and early days. Let's see how it all works out with time.

Follow Michelle Maisto on Twitter.