Asus brings voice calls to its 7-inch FonePad tablet, but not likely for the US

ASUS FonePad

It was just a few months ago that I suggested voice-enabled tablets would eventually replace smartphones. To some degree, they already are if you consider the 5 to 5.5-inch smartphones such as Samsung’s Galaxy Note 2 to be small tablets. What I had in mind, however, is exactly what Asus debuted at the Mobile World Congress event Monday: The Asus FonePad is a 7-inch Android tablet with cellular voice capabilities.

ASUS FonePad rearAt first glance, the FonePad looks extremely similar to the Google Nexus 7 tablet. It has the same 1280 x 800 resolution 7-inch touchscreen, an optional rear camera — only 3 megapixels, however — and the Google Android Jelly Bean software. Two key differences stand out though: The speaker atop the display and the Intel Inside message on the tablet’s back panel. Yes, this is an Intel Atom tablet, running at 1.2 GHz and paired with 1 GB of memory. Battery life is expected to be nine hours.

The choice of Intel Atom over an ARM-based chip likely won’t matter much to consumers as most Android apps now work with chips based on the x86 architecture. The bigger difference then is that speaker on the front of the device and the integrated support for cellular voice calls.

Asus isn’t the first to try this approach of merging a cell phone and 7-inch tablet though. The original Samsung Galaxy Tab I bought in Dec. 2010 had the same functionality. There was only one problem with it: Voice calling software was stripped out of the Galaxy Tab for the U.S. market on all four major carriers. I suspect the same will happen with the new FonePad as well.

So while my overseas friends were chatting away on their Tabs — either handsfree or with a Bluetooth / wired headset — I had to root and install custom modem software on mine as a voice hack. Unfortunately, when voice calling was active, the 3G data connection wasn’t and vice versa. The “solution” was never fully baked and I ended up using the tablet with a data-only SIM card for VoIP calls, giving me the best of both worlds. U.S. carriers never embraced this though and why would they when they can sell you two devices with fees for both?

Indeed, there’s no indication of the Asus FonePad even coming to the U.S. market. CNET notes the price and availability as limited:

The FonePad will be landing in the U.K. between April and June, likely toward the end of June and costing £179, or 219 euros in the rest of the continent. That’s a tad more expensive than the Nexus 7, so it’ll need to impress in terms of performance and battery life.

It’ll reach Asia-Pacific around the same time for $249. Unfortunately there’s no word on a release in the U.S., but Asus does have a habit of bringing its devices stateside. Fingers crossed, folks.

Yup, we can cross our fingers but I doubt it will do any good. Not until we move to Voice over LTE do I expect a traditional small tablet to include carrier support for voice calling in this country. And that’s a huge disappointment when there’s really no good technical reason for carriers to not support this functionality.

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