Asus Fonepad, An absolute bargain of a compact tablet

The Asus Fonepad is a curious mix of devices. At first glance, it’s a standard 7in tablet, but look closer and it also includes 3G and a fully integrated smartphone; it’s basically a giant phone handset, so you can go all Dom Joly on the bus home. Gimmick or genius, it certainly stands out.

The chief appeal, aside from being a talking point at the pub, is its great value. It will set you back only £180, and when you think of what you’re getting for that money – a smartphone and a 7in 3G tablet similar to the Nexus 7 in one handy package – it’s a pretty remarkable buy.

The physical similarity between the Fonepad and the Nexus 7 is striking, which is not all that surprising given that both are built by Asus. The bezel is the same width, and the screen itself had the same size and 800 x 1,280 resolution as the Nexus 7, until Google released its higher-resolution 2013 update. In the UK, the Fonepad is available with only a front-facing 1.2-megapixel camera – just like the original Nexus 7.

However, there are big differences. T a k e the rear panel: the Fonepad is made of smooth, matte plastic, while the Nexus 7’s was textured and rubbery, and there’s a pop-off panel at the top for access to the tablet’s SIM and microSD card slots. The Nexus 7 had no way of expanding storage, but the Fonepad can accommodate another 32GB on top of its internal 16GB.

The other big difference lies inside the Fonepad: you might think its single-core 1.2GHz Intel Atom processor would fall behind the quad-core of the Nexus 7, but benchmark performance is actually comparable. In general use, the Fonepad feels fluid and responsive. Swiping between homescreens and panning and scrolling pages proved a pleasant experience, and it handled all the demanding games we threw at it, from Real Racing 3 to Modern Combat 3: Fallen Nation, with few dropped frames.

Plus, it has a very big battery. Curious as to its mobile credentials, we first ran some standard smartphone tests on the Fonepad to see how long it would last, and it proved right up with the very best of today’s mobile batteries. And back in our more familiar video-looping tablet test, its result of 12hrs 58mins was the best we’ve seen from a tablet of its size.

Even the screen quality is good. Its maximum brightness is better than all the compact tablets except the Nexus 7, and colour reproduction is okay, albeit a touch less vibrant than the best. Our only serious complaint is that the glass picks up greasy fingerprints all too easily, hindering readability outdoors.

The Fonepad is a solid tablet and, technically, a perfectly adequate smartphone, and since it uses a near-stock Android 4.1.2 there’s very little wrong with the dialler or contact management side of things, either. But, of course, it has its practical limitations. It’s far too wide to be comfortably used in one hand, and the matte rear of the device is slippery, making it difficult to get a secure, one-handed hold on it. Without the usual Gorilla Glass on the front, it’s likely to pick up scratches, too.

Its size also means it simply isn’t as practical as a phone to keep on or around you at all times. In the car, you can’t place it into any old cubbyhole, and you’ll need large pockets if you want to carry it to the shops. Still, a tablet that also doubles up as an occasional phone may appeal, and even if you choose not to make calls the 3G data capability is well worth having.

The Fonepad does have weaknesses, not least the fact that you’ll have to wait on Asus for OS updates. But there’s no denying the Fonepad packs a hell of punch for a budget tablet.