The Asus PadFone 2 is improved, but not perfected

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/ Updated: 17 November 2012, 8:32 am AEDT

Announced at a press event in Taiwan last month, the Asus PadFone 2 follows in the footsteps of the original smartphone/tablet combo -- the only mainstream hybrid device on the market since Motorola discontinued the Webtop app and laptop dock first introduced with its Atrix smartphone.

Editors' note: Because the Asus PadFone 2 was reviewed by our companion site CNET Asia, we are publishing this review as an in-depth First Take without an official starred rating.

Design
The concept of the first-generation PadFone was innovative, but its bulk was its major downfall. Fortunately, that has changed with the PadFone 2, even if it maintains certain design elements such as the concentric circles on the back. Made of aluminum alloy, the textured rear gives the handset a grippy feel. Its construction is premium, and a metallic bumper surrounds the sleek 0.35-inch profile.

The design is generally the same, though some elements, such as the front camera, have been moved. Aloysius Low/CNET Asia

Compared with its predecessor, the PadFone 2 is a whopping 7.3 ounces lighter when combined with the tablet component. It also does away with the Station Dock, which essentially added a physical keyboard.

Asus improved the 4.3-inch qHD (960x540-pixel) display on the original PadFone to a 4.7-inch 720p HD screen on the PadFone 2. The Super IPS+ screen has a brightness rated at 550 nits, which is readable in direct sunlight. I liked the wide viewing angles and razor-sharp text. What's more, though it's not Corning Gorilla Glass, Asus says the screen is scratch- and fingerprint-resistant. The tablet component's display remains the same: a 10.1-inch WXGA (1,280x800-pixel) screen.

There aren't any hardware buttons at the bottom of the display, as Asus chose to go with onscreen software buttons. I don't have a problem with that change in general, but my review unit leaked light out of the slight gap between the glass and chassis. It could be a deal breaker for some people, as it's quite obvious in dark environments or at night.

A thin sliver of light leaks out of the gap between the glass and chassis. Jacqueline Seng/CNET Asia

For some strange reason, Asus has decided to use a proprietary version of the Micro-USB port for the PadFone 2 and PadFone 2 Station Dock. While I could still use a normal Micro-USB cable to charge, the connector wiggled around and tended to fall out easily. This is a major downside if you rely on portable external chargers to power up the PadFone 2's nonremovable 2,140mAh battery while out and about.

Another mild annoyance is that the speaker is located on the rear of the phone, which makes for muffled speakerphone audio sound when the PadFone is resting right side up on a flat surface.
The Micro-USB port on the phone (left) and tablet. Aloysius Low/CNET Asia

Features
The PadFone 2 runs Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), with minimal software tweaks from Asus. This is as close as you can get to the stock ICS experience, although Asus has thrown in some proprietary apps such as SuperNote (a note-taking app) and WebStorage (for cloud storage). PadFone 2 users get 50GB of WebStorage space free, which is handy as there's no microSD card slot on the handset. I also found App Backup (backs up and restores installed apps and app data) and App Locker (protects installed apps with a password) quite useful.

Despite the relatively simple user interface, I wish that Asus could have included more lock-screen shortcuts for quick access to frequently used apps, rather than just one camera shortcut.

The transition to tablet mode was fuss-free and faster than with the original PadFone. Since Asus has done away with the cover on the PadFone 2 Station, the phone slides in easily in one smooth motion, too.

When switching between tablet and phone mode, you can continue using any app that has been designated to support a feature called dynamic display switch (DDS), which is fully customizable in the settings menu. Otherwise, any app that doesn't support DDS will be closed, and you'll have to launch it again when you connect or disconnect the PadFone 2.

The PadFone 2 features a 13-megapixel Sony camera that mustered average performance in most conditions. For a high-end smartphone, I expected better results. On the whole, the camera churned out images that were slightly oversaturated with smeared details and some grain, even in bright conditions. Photos taken in HDR mode were overexposed, as well.

Outdoor shot Jacqueline Seng/CNET Asia

Outdoor macro shot Jacqueline Seng/CNET Asia

Admittedly, images here are a lot better than those from the original PadFone's 8-megapixel camera, but there's still room for improvement. You can take a look at the test shots here.

Indoor test shot Jacqueline Seng/CNET Asia

Indoor low-light shot with flash Jacqueline Seng/CNET Asia

You may like the "Beautification mode" on the camera, which makes eyes appear bigger, cheeks slimmer, and skin smoother, and even adds a blush of color to cheeks. I'm not sure if it actually makes one look more attractive, but it may be useful for someone who's considering getting cosmetic surgery.

How our camera reviewer, Shawn Low, usually looks (left) and with Beautification mode turned on. Jacqueline Seng/CNET Asia

Finally, the PadFone 2 has almost any connectivity option you'd expect out of a high-end handset -- you get LTE, NFC, and MHL, along with the standard HSDPA, GPS, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth options.

Performance
The PadFone 2 runs on the latest quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor clocked at 1.5GHz and 2GB of RAM, which delivered zippy performance, even while multitasking. With an Adreno 320 GPU, graphics-intensive games such as Shine Runner ran smoothly without juddering.

With its battery rated at 2,140mAh, the PadFone 2 was able to last a full day on a single charge. This was on CNET Asia's standard test settings of Wi-Fi turned off, two e-mail accounts set on push, and Twitter and Facebook refreshing at 15-minute intervals. I expect that it probably boils down to the more efficient power optimization features of the S4 chipset.

The PadFone 2 Dock Station features a 5,000mAh battery, which is used first when docked. In the "Intelligent mode" setting, the Station is even able to charge the PadFone 2 when it is low on power. I managed to get two full days of usage with both the PadFone 2 and Station fully charged, although you may prefer using the lightweight smartphone over the tablet in some scenarios.

With heavier usage of viewing videos, playing games, and taking photos, the PadFone 2 still managed to muster up about 16 hours on its own. I reckon that you could go a whole day at the office without reaching for the charger -- even with LTE enabled.

Unfortunately, although the PadFone 2 is capable of supporting LTE networks, I find that browsing speeds are not blazing fast. In fact, compared with an Apple iPhone 5 on the same network, the PadFone 2 clocked slower average upload and download speeds on the Speed Test app.

The iPhone 5 beat the PadFone 2 in most of the tests we conducted using the Speed Test app. Both smartphones were on the same LTE network and using the same server. Screenshots by Jacqueline Seng/CNET Asia

In my time using the handset, I didn't experience any dropped calls and call quality was generally crisp and clear. Sound quality out of the phone's speakers has also improved -- it's now sufficiently loud for voice calls, listening to music, and watching videos, thanks to Asus' SonicMaster audio technology. I'd also recommend using the preinstalled AudioWizard app, which gives you a selection of audio modes for different content, such as watching videos or listening to music, for the best sound quality.

Conclusion
I love the concept of the smartphone/tablet hybrid, and I think it's great that Asus has taken our previous complaints about the original PadFone into consideration and improved on many aspects of it -- for example, making it slimmer, lighter, faster, and less unwieldy. However, the camera could have been improved even more, as it's still not on par with those of some of the better high-end smartphones.

Another potential issue would be with timely operating system (OS) upgrades -- while Asus has promised a Jelly Bean update for the PadFone 2, the company has not revealed when this will be made available. The original PadFone runs on ICS and has not been updated yet, either.

CNET Asia's Aloysius Low contributed to this review.

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Asus PadFone 2

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