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Asus Padfone

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.

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10 comments to Asus Padfone

  • In general, I love this idea. Only one operating system for everything. Bliss.

    But: What happens if you lose the phone?

    The logical thing might be to have it backed up in the tablet. But the tablet has no extra data storage, right?

    So, can you back the whole thing up onto a big, bad home computer, which operates from a bit suitcase, every night? That would make sense too.

    And that raises the question of whether it would make sense to include, as part of the package, a big bad home computer, again with the same operating system.

    I use Windows on my big home computer, and the same Windows on my netbook. I switch from one to the other, by switching SD cards. My phone is different and is very annoying because of that. I would only really want to use Android if I switched to Android for everything, and built my entire computing life around it, including my big, immobile, relatively safe, zillion gigabytes of storage for absolutely everything (plus daily backups, monthly backups etc.), home computer.

  • Gib

    On my current Android phone, I use many services to share my data between the phone and the outside world. Google itself takes care of keeping my mail, calendar, contacts, rss feeds synced. Simplenote/Mnote or evernote keeps my notes/tasklists synced. My SMSs are backed up to my gmail account with SMS+, Lastpass keeps my passwords synced. Google, or dropbox will happily upload all photos (and videos maybe) you take to the cloud. There’s also “Qik” for uploading videos as you take them.

    This is all done wirelessly.

    The only real worries I have with losing my phone are that the “finder” can access my data, (although there are security mechanisms I could use to reduce that), and that when I get my new phone I have to download all the apps again, log into all the different services with my password, redownload my podcasts, and copy back over onto the SD card the rest of the “Game of Thrones” episodes I haven’t watched yet.

    And, if you really want to back up everything on your Android device to a computer all in one go, then you can do that with things like Titanium Backup…

  • Asus have a desktop dock concept that would serve the role of the big home computer, still using the same phone for everything. This is not a real product yet: http://www.engadget.com/2012/06/07/asus-padfone-docking-monitor-hands-on/

    As for what if you lose your phone, the way that this should work is that everything gets backed up to a server on the Internet automatically. If you lose the phone you simply get a new one, sign in to your account, and everything is restored. This may be possible right now on Android but I am not sure.

  • Earlier this year, I upgraded from a first generation iPad to the current mode. I plugged the new iPad into my computer, iTunes started up, I was asked if I wanted to set up the new device from my most recent backup, and after letting it do its stuff for a while, I found that everything that had been on the old iPad was also on the new one, including all my applications and their data. I hadn’t really thought about backups, but I found that they had been taken care of without my thinking about them. (Backups are automatically done wirelessly when the computer and iPad are switched on at the same time and connected to the same WiFi network.

    Second experience: my phone (Android – Samsung Galaxy S2) recently developed a fault. I returned it under warranty, and I was given a replacement phone (new or refurbished “as new”) rather than the same one repaired. Everything provided by Google on the phone was trivial to restore, so e-mail, Calendar etc was there instantly. Re-syncing music and media could be done using the PC software provided by Samsung, which worked but was less automatic than what Apple had provided for the iPad. (My backup was an older one, for one thing). I had to re-download all my Apps from the App store. (Sorry, “Google Play”). I lost the data from some of my Apps. In practice, this was nothing worse than my Angry Birds scores, so no big deal, but the whole thing was messier.

    There are full backup solutions that I could use, but finding one and putting it in place is a nuisance. (I didn’t bother doing so because I had backups of everything important – it was only the small and unimportant stuff that I didn’t have). There are likely to be issues when I migrate to a new device, given that Android comes in a different customised version for every brand of device.

    This is likely just the price of using a fragmented operating system with software and hardware coming from all sorts of places, and this certainly has its advantages. (A high end Android smartphone can certainly be obtained far more cheaply than a current model iPhone, for one thing – competition does work). I think Apple’s experience remains smoother for the moment though, and I continue to recommend iPhones over Android to people who are going to ring me up and ask me for help later, even though Android phones are what I am using myself.

  • Having played with your Padfone a little, I was struck by how well it works as a smartphone, and also by how well it works as a laptop. (It’s nicer than a netbook, probably not as nice as a Macbook Air, but as nice as many laptops. It doesn’t run Windows, but that may not matter much if you are not running Microsoft Office. Microsoft is trying very hard to give us the same operating system for tablets and PCs with Windows 8, so Microsoft might be hoping this sort of device succeeds). I thought it was a bit heavy and clunky when working as a tablet, however. Whether this is due to the fact that the tablet is a less mature product in general than the smartphone or just whether the “tablet as a smartphone dock” issue puts undesirable constraints on the design of the tablet, I am not sure. I prefer my iPad for now.

    It varies from person to person, obviously, but upgrade cycles differ for the different devices. For smartphones, a typical upgrade cycle is around 18 months, and for a laptop it is maybe four years. I don’t think we are quite sure what a typical upgrade cycle is for a tablet yet, but the answer is probably “sometime in between”. I think there is a danger that for this Padfone type model, some parts are going to become obsolete before others. Does this mean you are going to want to junk the whole thing? or will there be a modularity situation in which you can swap the smartphone out and replace it with a newer and more powerful one.

  • Modularity would be the ideal. It will take time for standards to be developed. The current Padfone uses mechanical connections which will suffer as the thing needs to change shape because of fashions in industrial design. However I imagine we are heading towards a sort of “personal area network” where all our stuff communicates wirelessly.

  • Glad you found it, Marc!

  • Such a thing would be idea for me. Since smartphone have become more powerful I find myself using traditional computers less and less. My first smartphone was a Samsung Omnia running windows mobile 6. 1 and I still used the desktop a fair bit. Today I’m running android 4. 1 and even the laptop is too much of a bother to turn on and wait for it to boot, I can do pretty much anything I desire with my phone and that’s already on. If I could plug it into the telly and hook up a keyboard I’d probably only use proper computers to back up my data (and only that because this phone has no external storage).
    All the photos I take with it automatically backup to dropbox whenever the phone is connected to Wi-Fi, I sync documents to Box manually and if either of them fill up I still have Google Drive to explore before I have to pay for anything.

    Not to mention the fact that even my last smartphone massively outstrips both my laptop and desktop in terms of computing power and.vodafone give me a brand new top of the range device every two years to stay with them, something Sky have failed to do with my internet service.

  • Smitten!
    I think I may have used too many brand names in my comment…