MWC 2013: Asus PadFone Infinity Hands-On Preview

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ASUS PadFone Infinity Tablet DockIn early 2012, Asus introduced the PadFone, a unique, if somewhat flawed, device. By creating a phone that can dock directly into a tablet, the PadFone offered users the best of both worlds, especially from a data usage standpoint. With the PadFone Infinity, the third iteration of the device, the company is looking to fine tune what is a good idea on paper, but yet to be perfected in execution.

Despite the innovative nature of the device, the design of the phone aspect was probably the most impressive part of the PadFone. It’s a truly beautiful phone with an understated design, featuring flat sides and sharp edges. It’s very reminiscent of the iPhone 5, especially in that it’s thin (a mere 8.9 millimeters) and long thanks to its 5-inch display. But the back is ever so slightly rounded, giving it a different enough shape that Apple won’t sue.

ASUS PadFone Infinity Phone

The other difference — and a significant one, at that — is that its unibody design is aluminum and given a very classy looking brushed metal finish on the back. The only unfortunate part is that this design choice doesn’t carry over to the tablet dock, which has a plastic back.

Button and port placement is standard for the most part, with one exception: the phone’s sole speaker is located on the right edge right above the power button. It’s a rather unorthodox location for the speaker, and it’s easy to accidentally cover it up when holding the phone with your left hand.

ASUS PadFone Infinity Right SideBeyond that, however, everything is by the books. The power button and volume rocker on the right side, micro USB charging port on the bottom, SIM card port on the left side (it needs a pin to be ejected), and a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top.

The phone slides easily into the slot on the back of the PadFone’s tablet dock, but it doesn’t sit flush with the surface of the tablet, so it’s not flat. Not that this was a mistake; it’s very clearly by design. But having a bulge on the back of the tablet where the phone rests isn’t particularly pretty.

Granted, it does dock in the center of the tablet, so at least users don’t have to worry about the tablet being uncomfortable to hold by the edges. The PadFone is also surprisingly light when put together (about 1.48 pounds) considering the fact that it’s two devices in one.

Unfortunately, given that the docking aspect is what the PadFone is all about, docking the phone is when we encountered a rather serious problem. Though switching from phone to tablet is a simple process — the screen of the tablet immediately turns on upon pushing the phone into the dock — the screen continually shorted out and went black while we were using it, and it wasn’t just turning off. Rather, we could see that it was still backlit, it was just blank.

And this wasn’t an issue with poor contact points or the phone sitting loosely in the dock. In fact, the phone fit quite snugly and securely in the docking slot, something that impressed us. Attempting to push the phone down further into the dock or wiggling it around (not that there was really any wiggle room) didn’t solve the problem; the only way we could ever get the display to come back on was by hitting the power button on the tablet numerous times.

ASUS PadFone Infinity Docked TopOnce the display turned back on, we were brought to the lock screen and whatever process we had been doing was interrupted. This problem occurred so frequently that it made it impossible to complete a Quadrant benchmark test that we were running to, ironically, get a feel for the tablet’s performance.

As is usually the case with advance units at trade shows, this is an early build (the PadFone Infinity won’t be available until April in Taiwan and in Q2 for the rest of the world) so we’re willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. For now we’ll chalk up the display issues to the fact that this wasn’t the final version, but we really hope the work the kinks out before the PadFone’s release, because it’s a very serious problem.

The rest of our experience with the PadFone went smoothly, though. For one, we were very impressed with the phone’s 1920 x 1080 Super IPS display, which looked beautiful in all its 441 ppi glory. The 10.1-inch tablet display looked good too, but it wasn’t as impressive due to the fact that it had roughly the same resolution (1920 x 1200, different display ratio) on a larger screen, knocking the pixel density down to 224 ppi.

ASUS PadFone Infinity BackWe especially appreciated Asus’s light skin to the device’s Android 4.1.2 OS. There seemed to be a fair amount of bloatware that users will probably have to get rid of when they first acquire the device, but in terms of performance and functionality, Asus didn’t get in the way of itself.

Asus smartly incorporated a large, easy-to-read panel on one of the home screens that shows the charge levels of both the phone and tablet, since they have separate power sources. It’s especially useful since the phone is charged by the tablet when it’s docked, so keeping track of the separate power levels is a must.

One other clever aspect of Asus’s additions is the Instant Dictionary, a translation service that was added in the last iteration of the PadFone. When enabled via the top pull-down menu, the Instant Dictionary exists as a button that can latch anywhere on the sides of the display (users can drag and move it around freely to keep it from getting in the way). When the button is tapped and Instant Dictionary mode is turned on, users can drag their fingers across a word or sentence and have it translated, on the fly, into the language of their choice. It may not necessarily come in handy for everyone, but the Instant Dictionary feature is a good way for Asus to ensure that its product can be used by people from all around the world.

ASUS PadFone Infinity Instant DictionarySome people may think that the PadFone is too peculiar of a device to ever catch on, and they might be right. But it’s difficult to deny that the idea of two popular devices in one is a good concept. All local content is in the same place, data usage draws from the same account, and users can switch on the fly from phone to tablet depending on their immediate needs. They can use the phone to make calls and keep things portable, and switch over to the tablet when they need a bigger screen for watching movies, reading, apps, etc.

That being said, as it currently stands, the PadFone Infinity still needs some work if the Asus wants it to even have a chance at succeeding. The display shorting out regularly was a huge problem, the bulge in the back of the device isn’t aesthetically pleasing, and perhaps the biggest turn-off for consumers is its price: it will go for 1000 Euros, or roughly $1325. People can get a smartphone and a tablet separately for much less than that, and that may be the PadFone’s greatest undoing.

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