ASUS has big ambitions with its PadFones, a unique phone-to-tablet convertible concept that was first introduced back at Computex 2011. While these devices are barely nibbling on the global mobile market (let alone entering the US), the company still stands by its "N+1" philosophy: "to add on a simple change which allows the product to evolve beyond its current capability." This is evidenced by its five iterations of transformable phones, including the new PadFone Infinity (A86) and the upcoming PadFone Mini. The question is: when, if ever, will the PadFone break out of its niche? CEO Jerry Shen reckons now is the time. What's more, he's going for a dual-series strategy, henceforth, with a high-end line for Europe and the US, and a "mainstream" line for Asia.
In the past, ASUS has intentionally played it safe with its mobile products, using its hometown, Taiwan, as a testbed. According to Shen, his company sold over 10,000 PadFones on its home turf monthly between April and August. The company launched the original PadFone Infinity (A80) there in May and that model alone reached a daily sales figure of over 200 -- and sometimes 300 -- units between June and August. For Shen, this was a significant milestone.
"Without knowing our customers' acceptance, I did not dare to go mainstream."
"The fact that such an expensive device still managed to sell nearly 300 units per day in Taiwan means the user base is quite stable," Shen said proudly. "So in June, I was confident enough to tell my team that it's time to go mainstream. Without knowing our customers' acceptance, I did not dare to go mainstream, because going mainstream requires [a bump in] volume."
The first result of this move was the new PadFone Infinity, and as of today, it's available in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Russia, UAE and a good part of Europe (not including the UK and Spain). While it looks almost identical to its predecessor, ASUS engaged its team of more than 300 Android engineers to imporve the user experience. The new UI, which has already been applied to its latest Android devices, features simplified icons and a more consistent design language.
"You picked up on every single detail, even the UI improvements," Shen said, referring to our in-depth hands-on. "UI is very important for us. Our tablets and phones... their UI needs to give consumers a good first impression, which is why we spent most of our time on the UI this time."
While UI was its first priority, that's not the only enhancement to the PadFone Infinity. ASUS also has a team dedicated to optimizing camera performance across its range of portable devices. In the case of the new PadFone Infinity, the most significant addition is something called Hi-Light Mode, or "Owl Mode." When toggled, this combines four sensor pixels into one to simulate a larger pixel site, thus dramatically improving the camera's sensitivity before shooting. While this mode produces much smaller images at just 3 megapixels, the image quality is actually very fine, and users have the option to revert to the original resolution.
"HTC's [UltraPixel] only gives you 4 megapixels, so it's always just 4 megapixels even in daylight," Shen said. "But ours is different: when you're in a dark environment, an owl [icon] pops up, you tap on it to toggle [Hi-Light Mode] quadrupled light sensitivity. When you're outdoor, you can go back to 13 megapixels."
Some of these software features will eventually trickle across ASUS' Android portfolio, and this includes the new PadFone Mini that marks the beginning of ASUS' dual-series strategy. This smaller and more affordable device represents the new "mainstream" PadFone line, which is currently planned for the likes of China, Russia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Indonesia. Despite its lower specs, Shen said its user experience will match that of the PadFone Infinity, and the camera performance won't disappoint, either. As for the high-end PadFone line, we'll be seeing it in Taiwan as well as Europe and, for the first time, the US. The CEO told us his company is already developing a product for a "big operator" for a Q2 launch.
"Once this product is launched [in the US], we will definitely have no problem tackling Europe with the same product, because this US operator is very big." Shen said confidently.
For obvious reasons, Shen didn't reveal much about what to expect from the next-gen PadFone. We did, however, bring up the lack of a keyboard dock since the PadFone 2. While the original PadFone had a very bulky keyboard dock, Shen seems positive about bringing back an improved version.
"For me, the technology today is a lot better than before, so if I want to add a keyboard while keeping it light, slim and pretty, I can already do that," Shen said.
Shen estimates that 20 to 25 percent of PadFone users would want a keyboard dock. This is based on the fact that at the moment, about 50 percent of the PadFones are bought with a tablet dock, and within that sub-group, Shen thinks about half of them would want a keyboard as well. So if all goes well, our guess is that this special lot of PadFone fans will get a nice treat around summer time next year.
"We are determined to perfect this product," the CEO said. "We will keep improving it, and then bring most of its goodies to our other mainstream products. The PadFone will set the standard for our devices."