A rather pricey shapeshifter

Apple may be grabbing headlines for its amazing design, but when it comes to sheer hardware innovation, Asus has not been doing too badly for the past few years.

The company, like Motorola, seems out to prove that one can do a whole lot more with the form factors of tablets and smartphones. It made the headlines with the Transformer which parked a detachable keyboard alongside a tablet, giving it a notebook-like form factor and then followed it up with the sleeker and much better specced Transformer Prime. And with the PadFone, it has taken the Transformer concept to a whole new level.

The PadFone actually comprises four parts — a smartphone, a tablet (called the PadFone Station), a keyboard and a stylus. At the core of it all is the smartphone, with a 4.3 inch 960 x 540 Super AMOLED display, running Android Ice Cream Sandwich, with a 8.0-megapixel camera and powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon dual core processor. As a phone itself, it is very handy, being sleek and light, and with a button-free front (yep, not one hardware button on it). However, the real fun starts when you want a bigger screen.

All you need to do is open a hatch behind the PadFone Station and insert the phone into it, and voila, you have a fully functioning 10.1 inch tablet with 1280 x 960 display, which also gives the battery of your phone a boost. And well, if you want to do some typing, just jam the tablet on to the keyboard dock (which also comes with extra battery to juice up the tablet/phone), and you have something that is pretty close to a netbook.

And that’s not all, the stylus that comes in the pack can not only be used to make notes and mark items, but also as a Bluetooth headset. So what you have in essence is a shape-shifting phone, which is pretty good on its own, but when combined with others takes on an entirely new dimension.

On paper and in performance, the PadFone offers staggering utility. You literally get three devices in one, with a host of interface options — touch, keyboard, stylus, voice. And it all works pretty smoothly together, although there are occasions when some apps crash when you move from phone to tablet mode. Just imagine, you receive a call telling you that a file has been mailed to you.

You receive it on your phone, put your phone into the PadFone station to check out the file on the larger tablet screen, decide that it needs some changes, so pull out a stylus and mark the areas that you think need editing, and then to explain it all, attach the tablet to the keyboard and type out a mail. The displays are good quality, sound is pretty good, and the keyboard for the most part, comfortable to type. Now, how cool is that?

The problem is that it does not quite add up very conveniently. For one, the PadFone Station is not exactly lightweight — without the phone, it tips the scales at 724 g, and with it at slightly over 850 g, significantly more than the iPad or the 10.1 inch Galaxy Tab. Add the keyboard which weighs around 600 g and you are looking at a device that weighs more than many ultrabooks, without quite possessing the same level of processing power, although the battery life of the PadFone is staggering thanks to three battery packs (in the phone, in the tablet and in the keyboard).

And then there is the matter of price — at Rs 64,990 for the entire package, the PadFone costs a bomb. One can get a decent ultrabook and smartphone for less, or if one is obsessed with tablets, a smartphone, a better-specced tablet and a keyboard for less than that amount. They won’t blend together into a single unit, but will weigh about as much and for the most part, work just as well, and in some cases, even better. In fact, some cynics might even say that buying Asus’ own Transformer Prime and a middling smartphone would be better value for money — at least one would get a quad core processor device. 

All of which makes the Asus PadFone one of those products that seem perfect on paper but are tripped up by design and price tags. We love the whole idea of one device to control them all (so Sauron — as in LOTR), but not really at this price. Literally.  

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