What is the Asus Fonepad?

Can a name alone trip up a gadget? The Asus Fonepad sounds silly. Who wants a 7-inch phone, right? The truth is quite different. The Asus Fonepad is roughly based on the Google Nexus 7 tablet, but tweaks the winning formula by adding a memory card slot and including 3G as standard. What’s not to like? Very little apart from the unremarkable screen. And that is largely excused by the attractive £180 price.


Asus Fonepad – Design and Specs

The Asus Fonepad is a 7-inch screen tablet running the Android OS. Its dimensions and weight are similar to those of the Google Nexus 7, one of our favourite Android tablets of last year.

The similarity is no surprise because Asus produced the Nexus 7 tablet for Google. The Fonepad is its own stab at the design, and despite adding 3G connectivity as standard, it costs £10 less than best price for the 32GB Nexus 7, at £179.99.

At 340g and 10.4mm thick, the Asus Fonepad isn’t desperately slim or light for its size, and the generous screen bezel has a whiff of 'last-gen tablet' about it. However, a solid bezel gives your thumb a place to rest without touching the capacitive touchscreen, it's light enough to hold one-handed and aluminium rear gives the _phone_ a cool, hard feel that plastic can’t provide.
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There’s just one bit of the Fonepad’s rear that isn’t covered in aluminium. Up at the top sits a strip of darker plastic. It is removable, and hides the 3G SIM card slot and the microSD memory card slot. It’s the memory card slot that means we’re not too bothered that the Fonepad has only 16GB of storage where the Nexus 7 offers either 16GB or 32GB.

So far we’ve covered three things you don’t get with the similarly-priced version of the Google Nexus 7 – 3G, expandable memory and a metal (rather than plastic) rear.

Other than these extras, the two tablets have similar connections. The main one is a microUSB port on the bottom edge, sitting next to the headphone jack. You get Android staples GPS, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth, but there’s no NFC and no dedicated video output.
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Asus Fonepad – Screen

A lack of NFC may be seen as a bit behind-the-times, as it’s continually being incorporated into more and more super-portable devices. The Asus Fonepad’s screen is also not quite cutting edge.

Its display is near-identical to that of the Nexus 7 – it may even use exactly the same core panel. It is seven inches across and has a resolution of 1,280 x 800.
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Viewing angles are good thanks to the IPS tech used in the screen – the same screen technology used in iPhone and iPads – but otherwise this is a distinctly low-mid level display. Colour reproduction and contrast are fine but well below what you’ll find in a pricier tablet and the screen surface is highly reflective.



That the display layer is recessed a little behind the top-most screen layer also reduces the immediacy of the Fonepad’s display. It lacks the pop of the iPad mini screen, although it is slightly sharper than Apple’s small tablet with 215 pixels per inch against the iPad’s 162.
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Low-cost tablets released later this year are likely to provide higher resolutions and superior image ‘pop’. However, you can tweak this with the Asus Splendid app, which lets you alter colour saturation and tone.

Asus Fonepad – Software and Performance

The software at the heart of the Asus Fonepad is a little more up-to-date than its screen. The tablet runs Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean, just one release behind the current 4.2 version.

You don’t miss out on anything too drastic, the most eye-catching addition being the 360- degree photo panorama app Photosphere, which wouldn’t be of much use on a tablet without a rear camera.
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Asus has made only minor changes to vanilla Android in the Fonepad. The virtual soft key panel – needed as there are no hardware nav buttons - uses Asus’s own icons and there’s a bunch of pre-installed Asus apps. But just about everything else is stock Android.

The Asus Fonepad uses a fairly uncommon Intel processor, the single-core 1.2GHz Intel Z2420. Although its one cores sounds meagre, the performance of this cores is good.  

It whips the Google Nexus 7 in some benchmarks, scoring 1266ms in the Javascript Sunspider bench against the Nexus 7’s 1700-odd. And, yes, the lower the score the better for this one.

The AnTuTu benchmark is quite the opposite, though. The Fonepad comes out with a far worse score than the Nexus 7, scoring between 5500-6500 points where the Nexus manages around 12,000.
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Its CPU may be powerful, but this benchmark disparity highlights the difficulty of using a processor with such a different architecture. Some apps and games will not be all that well optimised for the Intel chipset.

This becomes pretty clear when running the snazzy racer Real Racing 3. Its frame rate is perfectly playable, with just occasional dips, but the PowerVR SGX540 GPU doesn’t provide as impressive visual effects or textures as you’d get with – for example – a Tegra 3 tablet.

To put the Fonepad’s GPU into chronological context, it’s the same GPU used in the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, which was released in 2011. Ouch. All of our standard 3D test games ran though – you’ll just have to made do with slightly less flashy visuals than the top tablets in some games.

Day-to-day performance is good, although there is some minor lag and slightly longer pauses in loading apps than you might see in a top tier tablet. Given these tablets cost twice the price, it’s a minor grumble.

Asus Fonepad – Apps, Music and Video

Asus has pre-installed a bunch of additional apps on the Fonepad, but they’re largely inoffensive passive extras rather than the sort of bloatware that tries to sculpt how you use the tablet day-to-day.
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There’s an ebook reader, a note-taking app, a to-do list, an app that connects to Asus’s cloud storage service, a dictionary, chat app, file browser and backup tool. These are all base line utilities that you could easily replace after a quick trip to the Google Play app store. However, you can’t simply delete them, which is an annoyance.

There are two other apps with greater aspirations. Asus Story and Asus Studio are image-led apps that let you edit photos and weave them together into a visual narrative. Photographers may like them, but as there’s no decent camera built into the tablet, they seem on the verge of becoming entirely redundant for most people.

However, these apps are all part of the standard Asus roster. They’re part of the deal.

We could happily live without any of these extra apps, most of which are apps menu litter. However, there is one additional app that is quite excellent – Asus Splendid.

This lets you control the colour temperature, saturation and hue of the screen – letting you make the display a little more colourful if that’s your bag.

What the Fonepad lacks is a particularly good video player app. There’s an additional Asus-made one, but it doesn’t seem to offer extra video codec support. It tripped over almost all of our video files, refusing to play them outright or giving up half-way through.

Using popular third-party app MxPlayer, all types played but a 1080p MKV test continued to stutter along at less than full speed. This is likely down to limited optimisation for the Intel processor used - as we saw when playing games.

Asus Fonepad – Internal Speaker

The Asus Fonepad is a good, rather than great, portable movie player – although the microSD card slot is a massive bonus if a media jukebox if what you’re out for.
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We’d recommend using headphones or external speakers, though, as the internal speaker is fairly poor. It’s a mono setup, with the speaker grille drilled into the bottom of the tablet’s aluminium rear. The Fonepad’s speaker doesn’t get particularly loud, has no bass whatsoever and is fairly lo-fi all-round.

The headphone output is not particularly loud either, although its signal is at least clean.

Asus Fonepad – Camera

Like several low-cost tablets the Asus Fonepad has just one camera, and it’s not on its rear. There’s no ‘photo-taking’ camera, just the one for video chatting.

It’s a 1.3-megapixel sensor that sits up in the top part of the screen bezel, when the Fonepad is held portrait.
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TrustedReview photo maestro Andrew gets up close to the Fonepad camera

Asus hasn’t ripped the standard camera app out of the Fonepad, so you can take standalone video and photos with the front camera, but as you’d expect photo quality is poor. It can capture 720p video of reasonable quality, though, which is its main duty.

Asus Fonepad – Calling

More unexpected duties for the budget gadget - it feels strange, it feels unnatural, but the Asus Fonepad is – technically – as much a _phone_ as a tablet. Put a phone SIM in the slot under the rear plastic flap and you can take calls and use mobile data as you would with a mobile phone.


Although Asus is happy to admit that it’s not the most convenient straight swap for a phone, suggesting you might want to use a Bluetooth headset, the Fonepad does have active noise cancellation for calls. There’s a second microphone underneath the plastic flap on the rear, which monitors ambient noise and cuts it out of the call signal to make your voice clearer in noisy environments.

Sound quality through the integrated earpiece speaker is unremarkable, with limited treble clarity, but will do the job for the occasional emergency phone call.
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Asus Fonepad – Battery Life

As with most tablets, the Asus Fonepad gives you no access to the battery. It’s a 4,270mAh unit – which doesn’t sound all that impressive. However, battery performance is decent.

It will last for around eight and a half hours when playing video, providing all-day use and enough juice for long journeys aboard planes, trains and... cars. The battery efficiency is down to both the relatively low screen resolution and the Intel Atom CPU, which is fairly power-frugal.
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Asus Fonepad – Value

The Asus Fonepad isn’t a perfect device. Some may say it’s a wee bit portly, that its screen is just so-so compared to the competition and that the whole phone aspect of the tablet is a little silly. But it is stonkingly good value if a low-cost portable tablet is what you’re after.

It’s the best alternative to the Nexus 7, and while we like the Google tablet’s lack of non-removable pre-installed apps, it’s outweighed by the Fonepad’s expandable memory and 3G SIM slot. It may have some problems, but the Asus Fonepad is a fantastic package for under £200.

Verdict

A 7-inch tablet that also wants to be a phone sounds like a silly idea. But the Asus Fonepad is, in use, entirely sensible. It’s a lot like the Nexus 7, but has a metal rear, 3G and a memory card slot – and all for less cash than the 32GB Nexus 7. Its screen isn’t great and the processor doesn’t perform well in all conditions, but this is a top-notch budget tablet.