Does the Asus PadFone/Tablet combo represent the future of personal computing?

on November 28, 2014

All of us know our smartphones are actually powerful personal computers that fit into our pocket. I have been in the PC industry for 35 years and my first PC had an 8088 Intel processor in it and sported a 4.77 MHZ processor speed. The processor in my iPhone 6 Plus runs at 1.4 GHz and has two billion transistors in it.

One of the more interesting comparisons of computer speeds often uses the Apollo Mission computer in 1969 vs the computing power in smartphones today.

The folks at The Daily Grate actually compared how much more powerful your phone is compared to the computers that tracked ALL the Apollo missions and flew men through the narrowest event windows while guiding a tin can in the infinite reaches of space:

Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC)

Dimensions: 24 x 12.5 x 6.5 inches

Weight: 70 pounds

Processor speed: 1 MHz

Memory: 2,048 words (32,768 bits or roughly 4kB)

Display: Seven-segment numeric

Price: $150,000 (est.)

Apple iPhone 5s

Dimensions: 4.87 inches x 2.31 inches

Weight: 3.95 ounces

Processor speed: 1.3GHz, dual-core

Memory: 64GB

Display: 4-inch diagonal Multi-Touch display, 1136 x 640 pixel resolution at 326 ppi

I am not sure if the Apollo crew actually understood how underpowered the computers were that guided them to the moon but thankfully they did not question it and made their historic journeys and came back in one piece.

However, the idea we have this kind of computing power in our pocket is, I believe, a significant fact and one that could make a smartphone the most important computing device we have and eventually be used to power all types of personal computing products.

About 23 years ago, I wrote a research paper on what I called “a vision for modular computing”. I have had to travel a great deal in my career and, in the early days, I carried around portable computers that looked like Singer sewing machines. Once clamshell based laptops came out, I started carrying them but even they weighed six to nine lbs and had short battery lives. But I envisioned (actually, longed for) a time when I could carry a small modular computing core with me and plug in to a TV in my hotel room or in to a connector on a plane where a keyboard would be on the flip side of a seat tray and the screen was on the backside of the seat in front of me. Or plug in to a connector at my office where it would be connected to a display and keyboard. You get the idea. I wanted the full power of a personal computer in a small device that could connect to all types of stationary devices. Now I know I was describing what smartphones have become today although they have the screen and keyboards built in as part of their design.

In one of the more interesting products I have seen come to market this year, Asus created something that embodies that original vision I had for modular computing. The Asus PadFone X Mini is a unique product that includes a smartphone that slides into a tablet and powers the actual tablet. The idea is all of the intelligence and computer power is based in the smartphone and the tablet becomes kind of a slave that mirrors what is on the smartphone. The tablet has a 7″ screen as well as another battery in it. That means you can power it off of the phone’s or the tablet’s battery or can charge both at the same time. You can even charge the phone in the docked tablet.

However, if you undock the phone from the tablet it does nothing. All you get is a blank screen since the actual computer power comes from the smartphone when it is docked. Here is a video of how the docking works.

Actually, this is one of the great bargains I have seen for the holidays. The smartphone and tablet together cost $199 without a contract. It works with AT&T’s Go prepaid program where you can get unlimited talk and text for $60 a month. The unlimited texting covers 2 GB of data using ultra fast LTE and all other unlimited data uses the slower 2G. They also have a cheaper plan for $45 that has 1 GB of data using LTE and all other unlimited data using 2G. This is one of the best combo deals you can buy.

But the idea the computing power is in the smartphone and can be used to power other things like a tablet is quite interesting and very modular in design. I am hearing another angle on this in the works coming out of the China supply chain that takes a smartphone and lets you pop it into a laptop clamshell design and use the smartphone as the core CPU. It mirrors the OS and the apps on a 12″ laptop screen with a full keyboard.

Motorola had a product like this on the market a few years back called the Atrix Smartphone with LapDock. However, it never took off for a number of reasons, the main one being smartphones in 2011 weren’t powerful enough to actually deliver a full laptop experience. Even though Motorola was early with this concept, now that smartphones are getting as powerful as some of the laptops on the market today, this concept of using a smartphone docked to a laptop shell is being tossed around in design shops in Asia. We could see new versions of this idea sometime in 2015.

Since I have been researching this concept for decades, I still think this idea has a lot of potential. What Asus delivers with the PadFone could just be scratching the surface of this design concept. It would not surprise me if, someday, my original modular computing vision finally plays itself out in ways that make the smartphone the center of our computing experience as it becomes docked into tablets, laptops and desktops that power our future computing experiences.