It’s true. For whatever reason, Asus has decided to create the inverse of its PadFone — a phone that is also a tablet — and introduced the FonePad, which is a 7-inch tablet that is also a phone. After spending some time with the device at MWC, we can tell you that it’s every bit as impractical as it sounds and that’s a shame, because the hardware is good. It’s just that its intended use completely misses the mark.
Right off the bat it’s hard not to notice how much the FonePad’s build resembles that of the Nexus 7 (Google’s tablet was designed by Asus). The dimensions are almost exactly the same — the only difference is that the FonePad is slightly longer — though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s small, it’s light, and it has a simple design that makes it comfortable to hold.
The same slightly uncomfortable button placement that’s found on the Nexus 7 is found on the FonePad as well, with the power button and volume rocker on the left side placed on the slope where the edges curve to the device’s back. Combine that with the fact that the buttons are very low-profile and it’s easy for your fingers to miss their intended targets.
Unfortunately, one good aspect that did not carry over from the Nexus 7 was that of the textured back. We loved the rubberized back of the Nexus 7, but for whatever reason, Asus opted for a slick plastic back for the FonePad. This seems especially confusing that this device is expected to be used as a phone, however absurd that may seem. Users are going to have enough trouble trying to hold a 7-inch tablet up to their ear, so wouldn’t the company want to make it as easy to hold onto as possible?
One thing the FonePad did have going for its design, however, was that it had a microSD card slot for expandable memory, which could come in handy if you opt for the 8 GB version (there is also a 16 GB model) and decide later that you need a little extra space. It can be accessed by pulling off a small cover on the top of the device’s back, which also exposes its micro SIM card slot.
And therein lies the biggest problem with the FonePad. Yes, it’s equipped with a SIM card and a speaker directly above the display because it can make phone calls, and no, it’s not a very good idea. Aside from the fact that you would look ridiculous using a tablet as a phone, it wasn’t comfortable against our head, the speaker was about as far away from our mouth as it possibly could be, and it’s virtually impossible to hold this thing with one hand like you would, say, a phone.
Other aspects of the FonePad are just fine, even if they are awfully similar to the specs of the Nexus 7. Performance on the Android 4.1 device was admirable. The 1.2 GHz single-core Intel Atom processor is a great fit for a budget tablet, balancing performance and affordability, and the 1280 x 800 display looks fine. Some models even have a rear-facing camera, which the Nexus 7 lacked, though the model we handled didn’t have one.
The point is, almost everything there is to love about the Nexus 7 is here, plus a little more. The unfortunate issue is that part of that “little more” includes phone capabilities that nobody asked for and, most likely, nobody will enjoy. If anything, if Asus was really bent on giving this tablet the ability to make calls, it should have done what it did with its early PadFone model and offered an optional dual stylus-headset for making calls.
Given that the one element that sets the FonePad apart from other 7-inch tablets — its ability to make phone calls — doesn’t work well and tacks on a few extra bucks, it kind of begs the question of why users wouldn’t just opt for a different tablet. But thankfully, if customers are still bent on picking it up, the FonePad is still relatively affordable, with the base model going for 179 pounds when it launches in the UK sometime in Q2. Asus supposedly has no plans to release the FonePad in North America, and it seems unlikely that any sort of overwhelming success in international markets will change those plans.