The best smartphones and tablets all share the same recipe – they are a potent mix of good hardware and software engineering, with the latter sometimes taking longer to reach maturity, often due to the inevitable rushed market introductions. Two months on from its official inception, do the recent Android Jelly Bean 4.1 updates propel the Asus PadFone 2 convertible hybrid straight to the top of the food chain?
"Good things come to those who wait"
The development cycles of mainstream smartphones and tablets have been so aggressive that we're seeing new releases almost every 6-12 months, which is an impressive feat when you consider the behind the scenes design, engineering and marketing processes that goes into the making of each product. This neccessitates taking some inevitable short cuts to keep within the release schedule, with the usual one being an accelerated time-table for QA efforts.
Much like the birth of a premature infant, obvious consequences are the deployment of unoptimized software during media sampling/shipping or worse still, prolonged PR bloopers like the recent iOS 6 Maps fiasco.
Normally. a skeleton team of engineers is tasked to take care of the product upon release, with the actual big guns whisked away to concentrate their talents on the next big thing. If the vendor has any measure of decency (some big names come to mind), software updates will be released on a regular basis to provide patches for failings and to improve the overall user experience. Sometimes the vendors themselves have to depend and wait on upstream component suppliers like Qualcomm to deliver updated blobs of drivers/firmware which have the low-level fixes.
My initial experience a couple of months back with the Asus Padfone 2 was that of disappointment. Back then I was given an purported final production sample loaded with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich to publish a review in tandem with the December retail launch in Singapore.
For its relatively cutting-edge hardware (Qualcomm S4 Pro with Adreno 320 GPU and 2GB of RAM), the Android user experience was disappointing, and not surprisingly too it performed way below par in the synthetic benchmarks. Menu transitions/rotations were laboured and unresponsive, and there were visible GPU texture artifacting even when doing innoculous tasks like web browsing. A factory reset helped bring back the anti-aliased fonts and some measure of smoothness, but over time as typical applications like Angry Birds and WhatsApp were loaded in, the stutter fest came back again and it didn't felt like the rocket it was built to be. Worse still, docking the phone with its tablet companion was anything but smooth – even running the purpose built applications would (randomly) crash or fail to properly resize to a phone/tablet optimized layout.
A few days before which I would have published a very damning review piece (still before actual retail release and the exclusive hands-on session for our forum members), I received a manual OTA update which eradicated many of the show-stopppers and elevated the phone to a state that it could be deemed usable… but still not great. Nevertheless this rendered many of the points in that review moot, and I then set upon rewriting a new piece that would put the Padfone team from Asus, who have been most earnest and co-operative in soliciting and acting upon feedback, in a fair and honest light for their considerable efforts.
One thing led to another and before I could complete the re-review, I was distracted by the year-end holiday festivities/H3N2 and my 3-week long vacation to San Francisco which cumulated at the very lackluster CES in Las Vegas. When I came back to the office, I was duly informed by the friendly local Asus PR representative of the imminent release of a Jelly Bean 4.1.1 update, which was then applied to the media sample.
The ugly duckling then turned into a swan…
Everything worked like a dream. The user interface became buttery smooth (slightly modified from the stock Android launcher). Web browsing felt like an Apple iOS device (yeah, its a valid compliment). Photos from the 13-megapixel Sony BSI sensor appeared razor sharp. Docking with the tablet companion became, as proudly advertised, "It's Intuitive!". Even the previously abysmal battery life now lasted more than a day on abusive 4G LTE streaming/tethering usages. A quick check on the synthetic benchmark scores also showed that it has leaped in front of its illustrious quad-core competitors, including the Samsung Galaxy S III/Note 2, LG Nexus 4 and the Xiaomi 2.
To address the more geeky developer/hacker crowd, Asus provides the latest full source code dump together with an unlocked bootloader on their support portal for those who want to cook their own ROMs. The Padfone 2 doesn't have a presence in the major OSS places like XDA yet but this is bound to change once the phone makes its debut in America.
The Jelly Bean software update has transformed the Padfone 2 to a device that I'll recommend to our readers over similarly priced competition in a heartbeat. Other than the lack of external SD storage facility, I'm still not totally sold on the usefulness of the tablet companion, which is a optional SGD$300 add-on. Its 10.1" 1280×800 (16:10) display is lacking in sharpness compared to contemporary high 300+ PPI counterparts, and without a stylus or keyboard attachment for productivity usages, it just is an expensive magnifying glass for media consumption.
So Asus, what's next?
Recommended Retail Price (RRP) in Open Channels
PadFone 2 + PadFone 2 Station
PadFone 2 Station