Asus PadFone X (AT&T) review: Unique two-in-one hybrid proves to be more than a gimmick

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CNET Editors' Rating

3.5 stars Very good
  • Overall: 7.3
  • Design: 7.0
  • Features: 8.0
  • Performance: 7.0
Review Date:

The Good AT&T's Asus PadFone X has a fast quad-core processor, a capable 13-megapixel camera, and it can dock into a 9-inch tablet that doubles as a charger.

The Bad When combined, the PadFone X has a clunky design and its rear-camera loses a few some of its features. The device also comes with a lot of bloatware and a nonremovable battery.

The Bottom Line Though it has last year's specs, the PadFone X marries two mobile devices into one convenient form at an affordable price.

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Other than its predecessors, there's nothing quite like the Asus PadFone X. As a smartphone-tablet (and sometimes even laptop!) hybrid, it is an amalgamation of two devices aiming to give users the most seamless and efficient mobile experience.

When I first looked at it, the skeptic in me remained unconvinced. It's too clunky. It bulges in the back. And at $200 on-contract (or $550 without), it seemed better to invest in a single top-tier tablet or handset, rather than settle for two mediocre-looking devices.

After spending time with it, though, I stand corrected. First, the phone in and of itself is solid and reliable. You can't go wrong with its sharp 1080p screen, swift quad-core processor, and nimble 13-megapixel camera. But once it's plugged into its dock, consuming media and browsing the Web take on the more immersive form that only a bigger tablet-size screen can deliver -- all without forming a disconnect in your ecosystem.

Does the PadFone X achieve full cross-device zen? With its current design aesthetic, not just yet. But for those struggling between the land of the smartphone and the land of the tablet, its price is right for two devices, even if the specs run similar to the flagships of last year.

Design

Measuring 5.7 inches tall and 2.9 inches wide, the handset is comfortable to hold, and easy to maneuver with one hand. It sports tapered edges with a brushed-aluminum design that adds just a dash of style to the otherwise bland-looking device. However, at 0.4 inch thick and weighing 5.3 ounces, it's a tad heftier than most high-end 5-inch phones.

On the top edge is a 3.5mm headphone jack, and to the right are a sleep/power button and a volume rocker. At the bottom is a Micro-USB port flanked by two circular ports, which are used for plugging into the tablet dock. Located on the back is a 13-megapixel lens with accompanying flash, and a barely-there speaker grille right below it.

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The handset features a sharp, 5-inch 1080p display. Josh Miller/CNET

To access the microSD card slot that accepts cards of capacities up to 64GB, you'll need to pry the battery door off using the Micro-USB opening at the bottom. This requires more muscle than it should, and my fingers and nails had to struggle to get through the task. When's all said and done, you can expand your storage on the right of the handset and view the nonremovable 2,300mAh battery.

The phone has a 5-inch display with a 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution. The touchscreen is sharp and responsive to the touch, but it can look a tad dim. This was most apparent when viewing a plain swatch of white; it doesn't affect the overall viewing experience, but it is something I noticed immediately.

But even as unexciting as the phone's design is, the whole aesthetic looks even worse when plugged into the tablet. For one thing, the tablet (which measures 9.9 inches wide, 6.8 inches tall, and 0.8 inch thick at its thickest point) will end up bulging out the rear. That means when placed face-up on a tabletop, the tablet will never sit flat. And for a 9-inch display, it's heavy. It'll weigh 23.4 ounces combined, compared with the 13.1-ounce Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 and the 16.5-ounce Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet.

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The tablet's dual front-facing speakers. Josh Miller/CNET

To connect the two, you'll need to slide the handset, screen-side down, against the back of the tablet. A short haptic vibration will let you know that it's fully docked, and ridges on the side of the tablet's canal locks the phone in place. Indeed, while carrying it around, it felt very snug and secure. When I held it upside down in attempts to shake the handset loose, I didn't succeed.

The station dock cannot function without the handset, so only when it is inserted can you begin using the tablet. The tablet has a 1,920x1,200-pixel resolution, which is passable, but not as crisp as the phone's (in case you're curious, the pixel per inch count will drop from 441ppi to just 252ppi on the tablet). However, due to its 9-inch size, watching videos and playing games will be much more comfortable and compelling. The device also has dual front-facing speakers on either side of its bezel, making audio loud and clear.

Software features

The PadFone X runs Android 4.4.2 KitKat and comes loaded with the usual array of Google services like the Chrome browser, Drive, Gmail, Search (including voice), Plus, and Photos. There's also Hangouts, Maps, the Play app store and its corresponding Books, Games, Movies and TV, Music, and Newsstand portals, and YouTube.

Overlaid on top is Asus' ZenUI interface. Featuring brightly colored, flat icons, and boxy, oversize widgets, the skin is user-friendly, but it can come off as too playful and unsophisticated to the austere eye. Personally, I like it. The blue notifications shade is easy to read, and the circular settings icons from the pull-down menu are pleasingly minimalistic.

Some apps that reflect and continue this ZenUI are the calendar app, the SuperNote memo app, and the to-do Task list. Asus threw in usage and file managers; Splendid, which adjusts your displays color hues; and the photo organizer, Story, as well.

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The notifications shade (left) and the pull-down settings menu from Asus' ZenUI interface. Lynn La/CNET

When it comes to moving in between your handset and your tablet, downloaded apps will display on both components. Certain customization settings, like wallpapers and widgets, will have to be settled independently from each other. Others, though, affect both -- turning on and off auto-rotation, for example, is one of these cross settings. If you have 4G LTE on your phone, you'll also have it on your tablet, and you can make calls on either devices.

AT&T preloaded a hefty amount of its own bloatware. There's FamilyMap, which helps you locate family members on your AT&T account; 5GB of free cloud storage through AT&T Locker; and if your device gets stolen or lost, Mobile Locate will pinpoint its location. The carrier preloaded apps to help setup and use your handset , as well as your visual voice mail.

Other apps include the AT&T Digital Life home security service; MyAT&T, which lets you check your data and account info; and an app called AT&T Smart Wi-Fi that connects your phone to publicly available Wi-Fi. Finally, there is DriveMode. This sends a customizable message to incoming calls or texts when it senses the device is traveling faster than 25 mph.

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Asus' ZenUI in all its tablet, landscape-oriented goodness. Lynn La/CNET

Third-party goodies include Amazon Kindle; an app that adjusts audio settings depending on what you're listening to; Beats' music streaming service; a mirror app that utilizes the front-facing camera solely as a reflection; and Famingo. Famingo enables users to set parental controls and download kid-friendly games and videos. There's the WildTangent games portal; Isis Wallet's digital payment system; the Lookout security app; a password organizers called Keeper; a movie editor, the mobile office suite Polaris Office 5; a battery and power manager; Facebook; and the YellowPages.

Basic task management apps are native Web and email clients; a calculator; a clock with alarm functions; a sound recorder, and a weather app. All this adds up to lots of preloaded software -- that you can't always get rid of, mind you -- running on 16GB of listed internal storage and 2GB of RAM.

Camera and video

Photo quality for the 13-megapixel camera was solid. Pictures did tend to have a noticeable amount of digital noise, both in dimly and well-lit environments. In addition, light sources and white hues were often blown out and overexposed. Aside from that, however, photos were sharp with well-defined edges. Colors looked true-to-life and white balance was accurate.

The camera shutter is fast as well; auto- and touch-focus adjusted quickly and I didn't notice any lag between my moving of the camera and the viewfinder feedback. To learn more about these photos, click on them below to view them at their full resolution.

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In this outdoor photo taken on a cloudy San Francisco day, you can see how the sun's reflections on the stone cubes to the left are overexposed. Lynn La/CNET

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Notice on the left grey wall and against the carpet there is a notable amount of digital noise in this well-lit indoor picture. Lynn La/CNET

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Technology WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM
  • Service Provider AT&T
  • Weight 5.3 oz
  • Diagonal Size 5 in
  • Sensor Resolution 13 pixels
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