After having spent a few days in Barcelona at this year’s Mobile World Congress, I have had the chance to play around with a few mobile “toys”. A few of these devices caught my eye and the Asus FonePad was interesting not in form factor, but utility. The FonePad is essentially a 7″ Android tablet that makes phone calls. The phone usage model has been the butt of jokes, particularly when holding the tablet u to your face to make a phone call. After seeing the tablet and thinking of future applications, it’s not as silly as it seems.
As a tablet alone, the Asus FonePad is relatively straight forward 7″ Android Jelly bean tablet. The graphics resolution isn’t spectacular at 1,280×800 but in line with other low cost tablets. It also offers storage upgradability, which is a nice feature the Nexus 7 doesn’t offer. The biggest differentiator is the inclusion of a 3G phone, and when priced at $249, provides a real interesting value proposition. This is particularly true as 5″ smartphones can cost $699 unsubsidized.
Let me drill into the phone functionality.
Too many people focus on the phone functionality as a primary phone…. but it doesn’t have to be the primary phone. The PadFone could make a decent backup phone if your primary has run out of batteries. When I travel, I undoubtedly run out of battery power on my primary device and scramble for a Mophie charger or a power cord. I’d prefer to eject my SIM and put it into my tablet. Sometimes while on a call and while charging, the phone will run out of power and interrupts the call. I’d much rather put my SIM in my tablet.
It is a little harder to think of the PadFone as your primary device, but there are certain use cases, phone features, and demographics where it cold make sense. Let me dive into those.
Headphone user– Many people don’t put the head up to their ear and opt for a headset. I am one of those. I use a high quality cabled headphones. Others prefer Bluetooth enabled headsets. The worst case is that if they lose their headphones they can put the PadFone up to their ear.
Purse or murse carrier– A 7” tablet for most people puts it out of range to comfortably place in a pocket. Some carry 7” in their back pockets or put it in their coat pocket, but most don’t. Anyone who carries a purse or murse (man purse) won’t have an issue, though.
Battery life– Tired of your smartphone running out of batteries? The PadFone gets 9 hours of continuous use, more than a phone, and it makes sense because it has a much larger battery. It could even get more battery life in usage models where the display isn’t lit up because essentially the guts are a phone.
Speakerphone- A good speakerphone typically has two microphones that are spread out to do noise and echo cancellation. The PadPhone is wider than a phone and theoretically could make a much better speakerphone. Tablets also have more area with louder speakers, too, which is better for a speakerphone.
Price– At $249, this is cheaper than almost every smartphone without a subsidy. You would think a larger 7” tablet costs more than a 4-5” phone, but in some cases, it’s the opposite. With more surface area, manufacturers can use less expensive components that are less integrated, cheaper thermal solutions, and even cheaper glass. Smaller and integrated is more expensive. It’s similar to the way desktops were back in the 90’s. They were cheaper than laptops because they could use larger components and were cheaper to assemble.
More tablets like the Asus PadFone will emerge that blend voice with tablets. Samsung launched the Galaxy 8 that had voice, too. As consumers and business people get more comfortable with this usage model, it will start to become pervasive, particularly as vendors are looking to differentiate their tablets. Just as some said video was to be watched on TVs, not personal media players like the iPod, consumers want to do most of their usage models on multiple devices and not limit themselves, more people will make calls with their tablets. They already make Skype, FaceTime, and Google Hangouts on tablets, so what makes a phone call any different?