This is a long and detailed review of a gadget which might be more at home on a specialist tech blog than on Samizdata, but it serves also as a snapshot of the world of mobile electronics, a world that is perhaps less encumbered by regulation than is usual, which might explain the rate of improvement.
By far the most exciting developments in consumer electronics right now are in mobile devices, in particular smartphones. System-on-chip manufacturers such as Qualcomm and Nvidia are cutting prices and transistor sizes while increasing performance such that a new generation of devices with significantly improved capabilities comes along about every 18 months or so. A lot of learning is going on about what kinds of devices work best. The original iPhone had a 4-inch touch screen and only one button. Since then physical keyboards have somewhat gone out of fashion, tablets have appeared in various sizes, netbooks have disappeared, ultrabooks have appeared, and phones have got bigger, in contrast to a few years ago when everyone was trying to make them smaller. The point is that no-one really knows which kinds of devices fit in best with people’s lives and which do not. With formerly successful companies dying out, capitalism is mercilessly finding out.
No company is having more fun finding out than Asus. They pioneered the netbook — a small, cheap laptop — with their Eee PC. They combined the tablet with the netbook with their Transformer series of devices by making the screen detachable from the keyboard. And just recently they have taken this idea to a new extreme by sticking a smartphone inside the tablet. The Asus Padfone is a smartphone. It has a 4.3 inch touch screen, which may just turn out to be the screen size that most people prefer. It has one of the latest generation of systems-on-chip, the Qualcomm Snapdragon S4. This chip has two ARM CPUs, a graphics processor, and circuitry for all the various radio standards that smartphones must support integrated onto a single piece of silicone. The Padfone runs the latest widely available version of the Android operating system. You can do everything with it that one can do with smartphones: browsing the web, navigating with maps, taking, editing and uploading photographs to the Internet, finding out the train times, checking in to eating and drinking establishments, reading comics, taking notes, typing up blog posts and even making phone calls.
If some of these things seem frivolous or pointless, that is at least in part because people are still in the process of figuring out what is useful and interesting to do with a powerful computer that fits in your pocket and is permanently connected to the Internet. Some of the things people try are solutions looking for a problem, some of them are passing fads, some appeal to niche markets, and some turn out to have unexpected uses. For example, I always check-in to Foursquare when I go to a pub, and it turns out that browsing my own history of check-ins is very useful when someone asks me to recommend a venue because I can look up the exact name and address of a place rather than vaguely remembering a nice pub I went to once. In any case, a lot of people find playing with this stuff and figuring all this out extremely fun, and that is reason enough to do it.
Smartphones are now powerful enough to browse any web site, no matter how complicated. This includes things like online grocery shopping, filling in complicated forms to book plane tickets and composing blog posts for Samizdata. But the smartphone then starts to become a bit fiddly because of its small size. One starts to yearn for a big screen and a proper keyboard. It turns out that the phone is the ideal device for carrying everywhere and looking up specific information, the tablet is the ideal device for browsing, and the laptop or netbook is the ideal device for typing in text.
So one is resigned to owning multiple gadgets that best support each purpose. But there are overlaps between the various types of task, compromises in terms of which device is most convenient to use at a given time and place, and overheads associated with maintaining several devices, keeping their batteries charged up, updating their software and making sure the files you want to work with are accessible to the right device at the right time. Furthermore, if one is browsing a web page on a smartphone and decides that a bigger screen would be nice, one has to get out one’s tablet and navigate to the page all over again.
The Asus Padfone, with its accessories, aims to solve all this. The concept is simple: a single computer the size of a phone, that can be expanded into a tablet or a netbook by connecting these things to it, an action referred to as docking. The Padfone is supplied with the Padfone Station. It looks like a tablet, but contains little more than a screen and a battery. A hatch on the back opens to admit the Padfone. USB, HDMI and antenna connectors engage, enabling the computer in the phone to talk to the components of the tablet. The phone becomes a tablet. A second accessory, the Padfone Station Dock, is a keyboard that clips onto the tablet, turning the whole thing into a netbook.
The design has been received variously by critics as anything from the future of computing, to a stupid idea. I have been spending the last few weeks finding out where between these extremes the Padfone lies.
The bottom line is that it works very well. I am using the Padfone in netbook form to type this blog post into the note-taking app Evernote. When it is finished I will copy all the text and paste it into Samizdata’s web interface to publish the post. Recently I had a Twitter conversation with the Padfone in phone form, took a screen shot, cropped, resized it and emailed it to Perry with the Padfone in tablet form, and turned it into a blog post with the Padfone in netbook form.
Battery life is good because there are batteries in the phone, the screen and the keyboard. Last night I connected the single charger to the three parts assembled together and charged everything up to 100%, nice and easy. Now it is 8pm on Sunday and I have been using the phone all day for instant messaging, reading Twitter and browsing Facebook. There was a 90 minute video Skype call on the tablet involving my son and his grandmother, and now I am working on this post and I have 74% battery in the phone, 65% in the screen and 87% in the keyboard. When everything is connected charge is transferred intelligently between the batteries to maximise battery life when things are disconnected again. The end result is that I charge everything each night as is usual with a smartphone and do not worry about the batteries all day.
Performance is good. The CPU and graphics circuitry in the phone are powerful enough to drive the larger display. Everything beautifully responsive. The latest Android operating system is nice to use, too. I now feel able to recommend Android to non-techy friends and relatives, whereas before I might have said that an iPhone would be easier.
There are some compromises. While the Padfone in phone form is a current, top-of-the-range phone even better than the acclaimed HTC One S (it has the same screen and chipset with the addition of a micro-SD card slot), its tablet form is heavier and does not have as fancy a screen as the latest tablets, and its netbook form is heavier than most netbooks and not as powerful as the latest ultra books. However I find the advantages of only having to deal with a single computer far outweigh these.
When using the Chrome browser, for example, I can switch from phone to tablet configuration and all my web pages are preserved in their tabs. If I am lucky, even a partially filled in web form will be preserved across conversion between phone and tablet, though this is less reliable because sometimes the web page gets reloaded. We start to see here how the Padfone hardware is ahead of the software. Application programmers are used to their programs running on either a tablet or a phone. Many apps detect this at startup, optimise their user interfaces accordingly, and do not work properly after switching to a differently sized screen. The Padfone has options to deal with this; by default it will close apps when switching screens. This is not as bad as it sounds because in Android apps expect to be closed without warning anyway and usually save their state gracefully. I have managed to find apps in every category I am interested in that work well on the Padfone. I wrote up my findings in an article on a Padfone fan site.
The other advantages of the single computer with multiple form factors are associated with only having to manage and maintain a single device. I only have to install apps once, set up preferences once, log in to web pages once, install updates once. And I only get notifications about new emails or instant messages once. I have the phone’s 3G connection no matter what I am doing so I only pay for one data plan and do not have to fiddle about with tethering.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is how well Android works when it has a full keyboard and track pad. A mouse pointer appears and the experience is very close to using a real laptop. There are home and end keys, and here in Evernote I can use shift and cursor keys to select text and Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V to copy and paste, though this varies from app to app. A dual core ARM CPU running Android appears much more powerful and responsive than an Atom-based netbook running Windows or even Linux ever did. This means we can expect these low-power-consumption mobile devices to gradually replace laptops. Even software-wise things look quite good. There is an SD card slot and I have an app that will edit photos at full resolution, so I can use the Padfone to work on photos from my SLR. Google Docs suits my office application needs, and there are plenty of Android apps for working with Microsoft Office documents. I even have a selection of terminal emulators for working with Linux servers and various programming text editors including one that lets me compile and run Java code right on the Padfone.
My main fear now is that in a couple of years’ time when I inevitably find a two-year-old device not quite up to scratch, there will not be a replacement that works as well as this. If the device does not sell well, there may not be a Padfone 2. But who am I kidding? In two years’ time the world of mobile electronics will likely be unrecognisable. Perhaps Google Glass points the way to a future like that described in Rainbows End or Accelerando.
It is an exciting time for mobile electronics.
The Padfone is still not widely available outside of Taiwan and some European countries, but national boundaries are not so important any more. I imported the keyboard accessory from Taiwan and the rest of it from Italy via eBay.