Asus PadFone X: Two devices are still better than one

A smartphone that slides into the back of a tablet? Heroic idea, great battery life; but the clunky components of this ‘anti-phablet’ are no match for today’s standalone offerings.

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First there was the smartphone. Then came the tablet. It seemed simple enough -- two distinct devices with very different screen sizes. But then things got more confusing than the Kardashian clan: tablets got smaller, phones got bigger, and a new class of giant phones (or tiny tablets), known as "phablets", emerged to bridge the gap between the two.

And just when you thought you had it all figured out, Asus introduces the PadFone X -- a 5-inch Android smartphone that slides into the back of a 9-inch tablet. Think of it as the anti-phablet.

Making the smartphone the beating heart of another device has long been a tech Holy Grail -- remember the Motorola Atrix or the Palm Foleo? No? OK, so they didn't quite achieve the goal. But Asus stands a much better chance than those failed predecessors thanks to advances in software and hardware and a compelling price tag. The phone and tablet bundle, due later this month, costs just $US199 with a two-year AT&T contract.

However, like many buy-one-get-one-free deals, not everything is as great as it seems.

The "Fone" part of the PadFone (yes, spelled fonetically) is a lot like other high-end Android smartphones. It has a 1080-pixel screen, a quad-core processor and 2 gigabytes of RAM. It also has a 13-megapixel camera, though the photos I've taken with it are no match in colour balance and detail to ones taken with the Samsung Galaxy S5, HTC One or the iPhone 5S.

The phone has features that other premium phones don't, like AT&T's HD Voice. That might not seem like a must-have at the moment, but the improved voice quality feature is slowly being rolled out in select regions and will be coming to more phones. (The biggest catch: The other caller needs to have an AT&T HD Voice-capable phone as well.)

The phone and the PadFone Station (Asus' name for the "Pad" part) are in a co-dependent relationship: the tablet keeps the phone alive with power so the phone can provide the tablet its brains. Inside the tablet is a large battery, which can simultaneously charge the phone and power up the screen. I can go a solid 2.5 days without charging either of them.

When the phone isn't docked, the brainless tablet with the 1920 x 1200-pixel screen is little more than a cocktail tray. It's only when you slide the phone into the tablet's back pouch that it quickly comes to life. Within three seconds, whatever you were looking at on the phone appears on the 9-inch screen. The hand-off is seamless and impressive; the Android 4.4 phone interface quickly shifts to the expanded Android tablet interface.

It isn't perfect. Some Android apps, like Gmail and YouTube, show the tablet-optimised layout while others, like Facebook and Twitter, just display the enlarged phone app with too much white space. Some apps periodically crashed during use, and even in the middle of the hand-off between the phone and tablet. (The company plans to fix that in a future software update.)

The Android 4.4 software has been kept fairly clean, but Asus did meddle in spots. I had to disable the browser toolbar that looked like adware and replace the cluttered software keyboard. (Asus will sell a $US99 Bluetooth keyboard dock if you want to turn this contraption into a laptop.)

There are times when having the larger screen to read or type on was useful, and I really like getting texts and phone calls on my tablet. No, you don't have to hold the big tablet to your face. There is a speakerphone mode, though calls were muffled despite the front-facing speakers.

Yet those are the only scenarios where I found the PadFone's physical syncing to be better than the wireless syncing I have with my phone and tablet. Thanks to the cloud, I don't ever wish I could plug my phone into my iPad. Netflix lets me pick up right where I left off in a movie, the Kindle app saves the page I'm on in my book and Google. Docs does the same for an article I'm working on. Just this week, Apple announced call syncing, wireless file transfers and other new ways to keep Macs, iPhones and iPads in lock step.

And to provide this so-called convenience, the whole PadFone package turned out to be exceedingly bulky. The phone is so chunky and unsightly, I found it hard to size it up seriously against its closest competitors. The rounded black brushed-metal edges and bulky design reminded me of LG and HTC phones… from five years ago.

The humpbacked tablet has similar design shortcomings, but at least it has an excuse for its thickness -- that amazing battery. Though that doesn't explain the picture-frame-sized bezel surrounding the screen. At an inch thick on each side, it is far too wide for a modern tablet.

That's why the idea of the PadFone falls short for me. Our very slim and well-designed phones, tablets and laptops may be more expensive, but they're all far more portable and functional than Asus's heroic hybrid attempt. Yes, that even includes phablets like the Galaxy Note 3. Because, despite its singular name, the PadFone doesn't let me carry one less device in my bag. It's still a separate tablet and phone -- heavy and thick ones at that.

Contact Joanna Stern at joanna.stern@wsj.com and at @joannastern on Twitter.

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