REVIEW: Asus Fonepad

Asus raises the stakes in the "mine's bigger than yours" phablet race with this shoe-sized Android phone.

Graph for REVIEW: Asus Fonepad

Let's be honest, at 7 inches we're really beyond "phablet" territory here. Asus' Fonepad is simply a full-blown tablet which just happens to make phone calls -- although you'll look like Maxwell Smart holding his shoe up to his ear if you use the Fonepad to make calls in public. To preserve a little dignity you'd almost certainly want to combine the Fonepad with a Bluetooth earpiece when making calls.

The Fonepad's closest rivals are perhaps the 5.5-inch Samsung Galaxy Note II and the 6.1-inch Huawei Ascend Mate, both phablets designed to play the dual roles of phone and tablet. But if you're seriously contemplating the extra screen real estate of the Fonepad then you'd also have to weigh it up against 7-inch tablet rivals such as Google's Nexus 7.

The Fonepad obviously eliminates the need to carry a separate phone for voice calls, but you're not likely to carry this 7-inch tablet in your pants or jacket pocket where you'd normally keep your smartphone. If the Fonepad ends up in your carry bag then is there really any advantage to ditching the smartphone in your pocket? It's a question you'll need to answer for yourself before you get too excited about the Fonepad.

Battery life is obviously a concern, as relying on the one device for both phone calls and tablet features increases the chances of running flat before the end of the day (unless you want to lug around a portable charger). On the other hand, the Fonepad eliminates the expense of buying two devices and paying two monthly phone bills.

At this point it's worth mentioning that the Fonepad starts at an amazing AU$329 for the 8GB 3G-enabled model -- around the same price you'd pay for the 32GB 3G-enabled Nexus 7. Twelve months ago the Nexus 7 was groundbreaking in terms of price and performance, but now it clearly faces some serious competition. At these prices you could say that Asus throws in the phone features for free, but each device has its strengths and weaknesses so you'll want to weigh up your options carefully.

At first glance the two tablets are identical. Both the Fonepad and the Nexus 7 feature a bright, crisp 7-inch 1280x800 IPS display which do a reasonable job of handling outdoor glare. Both tablets tip the scales at 340gm and are almost exactly the same dimensions. There's a reason why they're so similar - it was Asus that built the Nexus 7 for Google in the first place. So the Fonepad and Nexus 7 are basically blood brothers, born of the same drawing board.

Look closer and you'll find little differences which generally tip the balance in the Fonepad's favour. Both feature a 1.2-megapixel front camera for making video calls, although the Fonepad adds a 3-megapixel rear camera with 720p video capture (a handy addition for mobile workers needing to document jobs with photos and videos). Both feature a micro-USB port, but the Fonepad adds a micro-SD slot to make amends for the lowly 8GB of onboard storage.

Both feature 802.11b/g/n wi-fi, although neither supports 5GHz networks. Both also support HSPA 21 Mbps mobile broadband networks, covering all the bands used in Australia.

The Nexus 7 does have some advantages over the Fonepad. The Nexus features a Near Field Communications (NFC) chip for close-range wireless interactions. It also runs vanilla Android 4.2, while the Fonepad ships with Android 4.1 with a few Asus customisations (although Asus says the Android 4.2 update is on the way).

If your primary concern is grunt then the Fonepad isn't going to set your world on fire. It packs an Intel Atom Z2420 1.2GHz single-core processor accompanied by 1GB of RAM, whereas the Nexus 7 is blessed with a NVIDIA Tegra 3 1.3GHz quad-core powerplant and 1GB of RAM. As such it's little surprise that the Fonepad is outgunned by the Nexus 7 in performance benchmarks, although it's not the trouncing you might expect. The Fonepad can certainly hold its own for day-to-day tasks and only serious multi-taskers who tend to push their devices to the limit are likely to feel the difference. In return the Fonepad offers excellent battery life, but you still might struggle if you spend every moment using the voice or tablet features (or perhaps both at once).

The Fonepad's use of an Intel chip is a little controversial, as it means there are a small number of Android apps which aren't compatible. To be honest that's a problem you encounter with any Android device, as the ecosystem is still far more fragmented than Apple's tight family. We didn't encounter any apps which wouldn't run, but if there are specific apps you can't live without, particularly business-focused apps designed for mobile workforces, then it's worth investigating further before you hand over your money.

So what's the verdict? If you treat the Fonepad's voice features as an added bonus it actually stacks up quite well against the Nexus 7 unless you're a power user who demands as much grunt as possible. The inclusion of voice features make it particularly intriguing if you're looking to separate your work and personal calls, an aspect which could be useful if you manage a fleet of portable devices for a mobile workforce.

The value proposition starts to change when you contemplate ditching your smartphone and only carrying the Fonepad. Is 7 inches an inch too far? Would the expensive Samsung Galaxy Note II or the budget Huawei Ascend Mate make a better compromise? Would you simply be better off carrying both a smartphone and a tablet? They're decisions you'll need to make for yourself when measuring up Asus' 7-inch Fonepad.