Over the last year or so, you might have heard rumours of an impending ‘Padfone’ from Asus (video). An initially confounding combination of a phone, a tablet and a ‘laptop’. Asus have had a long-running line of Transformer devices, combining a dockable tablet with a keyboard for a while now, which has been met with moderate success. The question is two-fold: How well will the components of this multi-pronged device work together? More importantly, exactly what problem does it solve for us? Is it doomed to failure?
In the light of the above, being too focused on the specifications of the device is unimportant. Whether it’s created by Asus, or another manufacturer is irrelevant. Being the first of it’s kind, we need to look at whether combining the functions of all of the above is a good idea or not – a holistic approach, so to speak.
To do that, let’s look at what a typical (in my imagination of what typical is) user does. We’ll assume that at the very least, this user has a smartphone of some type (88% of American adults as of Feb-2012). They use it’s functions thoroughly, it gets charged daily, it’s the staple of the modern citizen. Let’s take that one step further. More than half own a laptop, and 19% own a tablet of some description. Let’s say you have (or want) all three – this is the market that Asus is aiming for.
How does having one device which can ‘transform’ into three help the situation? Your smartphone is indispensable, it holds your contacts, your communication hub, your applications, your location. Your entire mobile service plan is centred around this. Where people generally use tablets, is for extending the functions of this device onto a bigger screen – excellent for consuming large passages of text or watching media. These functions ‘can’ be done on a smartphone, but having a larger screen is more pleasant. On the other hand, there are laptops, which traditionally have been the workhorses, they do many things other devices can and can’t do – bar some smartphone functions, like making calls. It might be easier to visualise it, here’s my attempt:
Each circle is sized according to the proportion of people that own one. There are tasks which only the smartphone can do, ones which only laptops can do, and a small proportion which only tablets can do. There’s also overlap amongst all three. The sweet spot is the red dot – something that all devices can do. If you have all three devices, there might have been times when you’ve considered somehow simplifying all of the above clutter. What the Padfone is attempting to do is, grow that area to encompass all three. Ambitious then.
So how will it work? In theory, you use your 4.3″ smartphone like you always would. When you want a bigger screen, plug that into the dock on the tablet and it’s your smartphone, but with a bigger screen. Go one step further and plug the whole lot into a keyboard dock, and you have a pseudo-laptop. In each of these components lies no additional computing power (everything runs off the smartphone processor), but holds an ever-growing battery. What happens when you run a power-sipping smartphone off a 1520mah battery, with a 6600mah tablet battery and a further 6600mah in the keyboard? A comically large 102 hours of run time, according to Asus. In reality, we’re looking at closer to 20 hours of actual use with all three.
What’s different, then, about having this vs. three devices? The first is something that many tablet owners face commonly, having a separate set of applications and data on each device. If you’re in the middle of something on one, and you switch to another, you’ll need to rely on a cloud-syncing or some type of manual synchronisation process to carry your work across. Worse still, if you’re an iPad user, you’ll most likely need to purchase the same application again on the tablet, a tablet-optimised ‘HD’ version (Incidentally, the lack of a 15-minute trial period before purchasing apps should be criminal, especially when there’s so few free applications). This entire clunky transition across to a bigger-screen is clunky and barring connecting your phone to a keyboard and a TV, hasn’t been addressed to date.
That’s the phone and tablet parts taken care of, now the laptop. History has shown us that many things can be done when you plug a tablet into a keyboard dock – having a keyboard and trackpad isn’t just the old-way of doing things, it’s the most productive way to do it. Things like web-browsing beyond a few tabs or typing anything longer than a few sentences will see substantial benefits. The question is, does Android 4.0 (or iOS for the purposes of this argument) replace a laptop? Not entirely, apart from the simple tasks. There’s still a fair way to go before we see powerful Office applications, well-supported and extendible browsers or just the ability to truly run more than half a dozen things at the same time. Or if you’re using an iPad, any semblance of a file system.
This overlap between devices is a far bigger issue than just one device and one manufacturer. The ongoing cries of a ‘post-pc’ era may be seen as some as a pure marketing play, or optimistic at best, but we can already assess the current trend and market in this direction. For one, desktop sales are on the decline – with more and more powerful laptops exceeding the ‘fast enough’ threshold for most people, many of which contain discrete GPU components and the continuing migration towards cloud-based computing, the need for a standalone PC, apart from niche production uses, is falling. There is also a trend from desktop-replacement type laptops, towards thinner, but still capable Ultrabooks (which in itself is a marketing term coined by Intel – one which technically encompasses the Macbook Air). Finally, there is an ongoing transition from tasks which don’t require the keyboard and trackpad, to tablets and smartphones. The two opposite sides are overlapping more and more – for the simple Joe, they just want to run the applications, regardless of what’s happening under the hood.
The downsides – Physically at least, you have the 129g phone, a 724g tablet and with the keyboard, all up around 1.5KG of weight – around 20-30% above the weight of a standalone Ultrabook or Macbook Air. The physical component is the one which will most likely cause issue. What if you’re typing on your Padfone and you receive a call that you want to walk and talk with? What if you’re running out of the office in a hurry and you only brought the phone and the keyboard dock? Edge cases perhaps, but still considerations. There’s a high possibility that the other components will remain unused. There’s also a stylus pen with a microphone built in, just in case talking with a tablet held to your head wasn’t ridiculous enough.
The other issue, and this is where we have to bring up the specs, the Padfone itself isn’t ground-breaking by itself. The qHD screen resolution (960×540) on the 4.3″ screen is dwarfed by the upcoming Galaxy S3; the tablet has a similar screen to the TF300T – adequate but not market-leading; and there are omissions remarkable for a 2012 device. It’s very clear that Asus plans all three devices to be used in conjunction – If you find the resolution or screen size lacking, slap it into the tablet – likewise for the battery life. Costs can be saved. Android’s built-in support for mouse cursors, external storage devices (like HDD’s) and open architecture go along way to making such a device even possible in the first place.
There’s also the issue of application scalability. The same application you download for your Android smartphone will scale up to a bigger screen, but it either does so by stretching to fill the screen, or by rendering each element correctly for a bigger screen (as it should) – logically and flawlessly. When you visit the Play Store, it detects which device you have and the application you choose to download will either prohibit you from downloading it on your device (if it’s not compatible), or supply you with a device-specific version. Developers can provide a number of variations of the same application, with differing quality of assets and layouts, depending on which device it detects. Most of the time, things just work fine – I’ve transported applications ‘as is’ from phone to tablet and the vast majority of them will scale easily. But this is still a consideration for the seamless transition between the same application, but on differing resolutions.
It’s a step in the right direction, but there are still a few things to work out. Much of the success will come down to three things – the price point, appealing to those who can’t easily afford to buy all three devices, but want the convenience of each; the adaptability – appealing to those who don’t want the clutter and headaches of maintaining three separate sets of information; and finally the portability – for those who are going travelling, a 1.5KG weight for effectively three devices, is lighter than the 3KG+ weight otherwise, not to mention battery life.
There are remnants of traditional thinking with the Padfone that Asus is attempted to address – that for specific tasks, you need specific devices. In that sense, the Padfone presses the right buttons. But what if the solution is something else? What if we thought one step further, like improvements in interfaces to make it much easier to do laptop-style tasks on our smartphones much more easily? Or what if, when required, we remotely accessed desktop-type sessions (see Onlive’s existing solution). These are issues which software and unique thinking can solve, ones which don’t require a transforming device to address.
I want to live in a world where I just carry one thing and it does everything, and it does it perfectly.
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