ASUS TAICHI 21 review: are two screens better than one?

It's tough to forget the ASUS TAICHI: out of all the Windows 8 convertibles we've seen (and we've seen a lot) this is the only one with two screens on board. In particular, it's got one on the inside, which you'd use in regular notebook mode, along with a touchscreen on the outside that allows you to use the PC as a tablet. If you like, you can shut the lid completely and turn the machine into a slate-type of device, but you can also leave the lid open so that you're mirroring your desktop, or displaying something different on each one (imagine the possibilities for presenters!). As an added trick, that outer screen also accepts pen input, though you'll have to splurge on the highest-end configuration to get it with a stylus.

For now, ASUS is selling the 11.6-inch TAICHI 21 ($1,299 and up), though a 13-inch version is going to start shipping later this month. Hopefully, though, our review after the break answers questions you'd have about either model. Namely, what's it like to use a machine with two screens, anyway?

Gallery | 26 Photos

ASUS TAICHI 21 review

Look and feel


DNP ASUS TAICHI 21 review are two screens better than one

Until now, our reviews of ASUS Ultrabooks were starting to get a bit repetitive. Sure, the company slapped a touchscreen on one of its older models, but the core design otherwise hasn't changed much in the past year or so. Its Zenbooks have always been flashy, with spun-metal lids and brushed-metal palm rests that contrast with the keyboard. The TAICHI is also eye-catching, but in a different way. Obviously, for starters, there's no spun-metal cover here -- the "lid" is actually that secondary display. On the inside, the keyboard deck is done up in a putty color that blends in against the black keyboard. Even the brushed-metal detailing seems a bit finer here. All told, it's an attractive, tasteful design. Inoffensive, even. Which makes sense when you consider ASUS is mainly marketing this toward business users.

With the lid shut, it actually doesn't look that different from the HP Envy 14 Spectre, or the Acer Aspire S7, or any other laptop with a glass lid. The difference is that you can see the faint outline of the bezel -- the sort of thick bordering you'd find on a typical tablet. There's also a touch-sensitive Start key that glows white when the machine is powered on. Ditto for ASUS' logo, which sits in one of the corners.

The effect is sort of neat -- until you start using the TAICHI as a tablet. Because most other laptops with glass covers have them purely for decorative purposes, you're not likely to touch them as often. Here, it's a necessity. And man, are those fingerprints an eyesore, especially when the machine is powered off. Since that's the only piece of the laptop you can see when it's closed, you'd better be prepared to keep it looking like thirteen hundred bucks. On the bright side, ASUS used a custom glass (not Gorilla) that's proved resilient in our testing. Even after we tossed it in a bag to shuttle to and from the office, it didn't pick up any nicks or scratches.

DNP ASUS TAICHI 21 review are two screens better than one

We have mixed feelings about the inner display, too: though the viewing angles are good, it's not touch-enabled, which means you don't have the option of reaching up to tap it when you're using this thing as a regular notebook. What's more, the panel is ringed by a thick, 1-inch bezel that makes the interior feel a little fuddy-duddy; something closer to an edge-to-edge screen would've gone a long way in making the machine look more modern. Then again, even with one touchscreen this is heavier than other 11-inch laptops, at 2.75 pounds. To put that in perspective, that's midway between the 11- and 13-inch MacBook Air, weight-wise, so we can't imagine how stocky this would be if there actually were a second touchscreen on board.

The good news is that the TAICHI is fairly thin, at 0.69 inch -- not bad considering it has not one, but two displays on board. That chassis is just thick enough that it makes room for two USB 3.0 ports, along with micro-HDMI, mini-VGA, a volume rocker, an audio jack, a screen lock and a slider for powering the machine on. Additionally, the TAICHI ships with a USB-to-Ethernet adapter, a micro-HDMI-to-VGA dongle and, on select models, a pressure-sensitive pen. Like other high-end ASUS machines, it even comes with a pouch for the adapters and a matching case for the computer, which wins extra points on account of its leather detailing, magnetic closure and slot for holding the pen.

Keyboard and trackpad


DNP ASUS TAICHI 21 review are two screens better than one

We didn't get off to a great start with the TAICHI's touchpad.

The keys on the TAICHI have more or less the same shape as the ones on ASUS's other Ultrabooks, which is to say they're a bit wider than they are tall. Still, it appears ASUS has done some retooling behind the scenes; typing on this keyboard doesn't feel quite the same. Aside from the fact that the layout is more cramped (this is an 11- not 13-inch machine, after all), the buttons here feel slightly less springy than the ones on the UX31A.

In a way, though, that's just inside baseball: to someone who's never played with an ASUS laptop before, they should be just fine: even if the keys are a bit flatter, they still offer more travel than what you'll find on most competing ultraportables. We were also relieved to find that although this is a fairly small system, ASUS kept most of the major keys intact -- Enter, Backspace and the right Shift key are all amply sized, though the Caps Lock and Tab buttons are admittedly small. Additionally, the buttons have a pleasantly soft finish that makes them a comfortable resting spot for the fingers. As a side note, the backlighting is adjustable, which we can't say of every laptop we've ever reviewed.

We'll admit we didn't get off to a great start with the TAICHI's touchpad. Initially, we ran into lots of problems with the cursor stopping short on the screen before it got where we wanted it to go. At one point, as a matter of fact, we were writing this review in SkyDrive, and an errant touchpad gesture caused us to close out of the site, losing some of our work in the process. It wasn't as bad as that time we were testing the original UX31 and almost threw it against a wall, but it was close.

As you may have surmised, though, we've made peace with it. Mostly, anyway. Even after re-installing the driver, the cursor can still be tough to drag, but we can reliably scroll with two fingers, as well as use pinch-to-zoom to magnify text. As we've often found with Windows 8 laptops, some of the smoothest gestures are those that are native to the OS. That is to say, we had an especially easy time swiping in from the right to expose the Charms Bar and swiping in from the left to toggle through open applications.

Displays, pen input and sound quality


DNP ASUS TAICHI 21 review are two screens better than one

Obviously, using the TAICHI as a regular notebook or even a tablet doesn't require any instruction -- you can either close the lid or, uh, not. You will need to do a little configuring to either mirror your desktop on the outer screen or enter the dual-display mode. Just press the fourth button from the right on the Function row of the keyboard -- the key with the dual-display graphic on it. That'll launch Taichi Home, a full-screen app that also shows things like battery capacity and shortcuts for mastering things like Windows 8 gestures. In any case, just tap that Function button again to cycle through the different modes.

By default, the TAICHI enters tablet mode as soon as you shut the lid, but you can lock the settings so that that doesn't happen. Oddly, though, there doesn't appear to be a way to lock your mirroring / dual-display settings. That is to say, if you have the machine set to mirror your desktop and then you shut the lid, it'll go back to regular notebook mode when you lift the lid again, with nothing showing up on the rear screen. It would be nice to control that, though ultimately we think ASUS made the right call in designing the TAICHI this way: can you imagine the battery drain if there was a chance the exterior display could be left on accidentally?

Now about those modes. We can definitely see a use for mirroring. If you're hosting a presentation on your laptop, it'd be nice to show off a page in IE10 or play a slideshow in PowerPoint without having to turn your laptop around for others in the room. This way, you get a good view and so does everybody else. What's disappointing, though, is that dual-display mode only works with specific applications like PowerPoint, which allows you to display, say, Presenter View on just one screen. We're not sure what else we were expecting -- the ability to drag and drop an app onto the outer screen somehow? -- but now that we've played with it, we'd say that dual-screen mode isn't as big a selling point as the mirroring, which has more real-world use cases.

DNP ASUS TAICHI 21 review are two screens better than one

The inner display offers good viewing angles. In fact, both screens do.

So far, we've talked an awful lot about what it's like to use a notebook with two displays, but we haven't actually said much about the panels themselves. As we alluded to earlier, the inner display offers good viewing angles. In fact, both screens do. According to ASUS, they each make use of IPS technology, even though the outer one has a markedly glossier finish than the other. Regardless of the one we used, we had no problem watching movies from off to the side; the contrast and color balance stayed even. In the case of the interior display -- the one you'd use in notebook mode -- we were still able to follow along with an episode of South Park even after dipping the lid almost halfway forward. That means if you're working with the machine in your lap, you don't have to be too finicky with the screen angle; most should work.

As for pen input, the outside screen has an N-Trig digitizer. The accompanying stylus is pressure-sensitive and is powered by a single AAA battery. It also has a button for erasing (not like the Surface Pro pen, where you can flip it over and use the opposite end as an eraser). Without a side-by-side comparison, it's tough for us to say which makes for a smoother experience: the Surface's Wacom-based tech or the N-Trig panel on offer here. Either way, we found we didn't have to apply much pressure while scribbling in SuperNote; we felt like we were pressing about as hard as we would if we were writing on an actual pad.

On the audio side, the TAICHI features an improved version of the Bang & Olufsen ICEpower setup used on the company's Zenbook lineup. As you might expect of a small laptop, the volume coming from the speakers isn't the loudest -- we very rarely lowered the sound below the 50 percent mark. In terms of quality, though, the TAICHI 21 holds its own. It's not without tinniness -- this is a laptop, after all -- but in general the listening experience was more pleasant than on other Ultrabooks we've tested. Songs that would normally sound distorted on other machines -- rap tracks, Nirvana singles -- were fairly balanced here.

Performance and battery life


PCMark7 3DMark06 3DMark11 ATTO (top disk speeds)
ASUS TAICHI 21 (1.9GHz Core i7-3517U, Intel HD 4000) 4,998 4,818 E1137 / P610 / X201 516 MB/s (reads); 431 MB/s (writes)
Acer Iconia W700 (1.7GHz Core i5-3317U, Intel HD 4000) 4,580 3,548 E518 / P506 542 MB/s (reads); 524 MB/s (writes)
Lenovo ThinkPad Twist (1.7GHz Core i5-3317U, Intel HD 4000) 3,113 4,066 E1033 / P549 136 MB/s (reads); 130 MB/s (writes)
Acer Aspire S7 (1.9GHz Core i7-3517U, Intel HD 4000) 5,011 4,918 E1035 / P620 / X208 934 MB/s (reads); 686 MB/s (writes)
Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 (1.7GHz Core i5-3317U, Intel HD 4000) 4,422 4,415

E917 / P572

278 MB/s (reads); 263 MB/s (writes)
Toshiba Satellite U925t (1.7GHz Core i5-3317U, Intel HD 4000) 4,381 4,210

E989 / P563

521 MB/s (reads); 265 MB/s (writes)
Dell XPS 12 (1.7GHz Core i5-3317U, Intel HD 4000) 4,673 4,520 N/A 516 MB/s (reads); 263 MB/s (writes)

By all metrics, the TAICHI 21 offers similar performance to other machines with these internals -- namely, a 1.9GHz Core i7-3517U CPU, integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics and a 1080p display. Those are the same internals as the Acer Aspire S7 we reviewed and indeed, its scores are mostly in line (save for read / write speeds -- the S7 has a RAID 0 SSD setup). Booting up the machine takes nine seconds, which is slightly faster, even, than some other Windows 8 Ultrabooks we've tested recently.

It does seem, though, that that high-octane performance comes at the cost of heat management. After leaving the system idle for a few hours and then picking it up to use Evernote, we noticed it was slightly hot around the vents on the bottom side. If you can find a place to put this other than your lap, you should be set, but you might run into a problem if you're using it in tablet mode -- it's hard not to put your fingers on the back cover in that scenario.

Battery Life

ASUS TAICHI 21 3:54
Acer Iconia W700 7:13
Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, 2012) 7:02
MacBook Air (13-inch, 2012) 6:34 (OS X) / 4:28 (Windows)
Dell XPS 14 6:18
Sony VAIO T13 5:39
Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 5:32
Dell XPS 12 5:30
ASUS Zenbook Prime UX31A Touch 5:15
ASUS Zenbook Prime UX51Vz 5:15
Toshiba Satellite U845W 5:13
Toshiba Satellite U845 5:12
Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 5:11
Toshiba Satellite U925t 5:10
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon 5:07
Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M5 5:05
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch 5:00
Sony VAIO Duo 11 4:47
Acer Aspire S5 4:35
ASUS Zenbook Prime UX21A 4:19
Acer Aspire S7 (13-inch) 4:18
Acer Aspire S3 4:11
HP Spectre XT TouchSmart 4:00
Vizio Thin + Light (14-inch, 2012) 3:57
Microsoft Surface Pro 3:46

ASUS rates the TAICHI 21 for up to five hours of battery life, but our test machine lasted even less time in our standard rundown test. With a video looping, WiFi on and brightness fixed at 65 percent, the TAICHI lasted three hours and 54 minutes, making it one of the shortest-running Windows 8 laptops we've seen. (Note: that's with just one of the two screens turned on.) And that's saying a lot: almost all of the touchscreen systems we've tested recently have been disappointing on the battery life front.

In a weird way, this poor showing makes us glad there weren't two touchscreens after all -- we doubt it could have efficiently driven both of them. That very slim silver lining aside, the TAICHI's battery life could be a dealbreaker for many, considering this is aimed at business users and business people often like to work on their laptops in coffee shops, airplanes, terminals... places where there aren't necessarily outlets around. For now, you just might have to keep looking if long endurance is what you're after, but hopefully in the future Haswell will help improve runtime on machines like this.

Software and warranty


DNP ASUS TAICHI 21 review are two screens better than one

So how's the bloatware load here? Not bad, actually. Not bad at all. Starting with Metro-style apps, there's World Clock, ASUS Calculator, ASUS Converter, Skype, SuperNote and Fresh Paint. Surprisingly, this business machine also comes with a few Xbox Live games, including Adera, Taptiles, Microsoft Solitaire Collection and Wordament. Other than that, it's mainly a bunch of utilities designed to either show you how to use the TAICHI, or to tweak certain settings like power management profiles. These apps include ASUS Taichi Essentials, ASUS Tutor for Taichi, NB Guide (for learning Windows 8 gestures), ASUS Power4Gear Hybrid, Waves MAXXAudio, ASUS Install and ASUS Taichi Home, which we described earlier.

Gallery | 6 Photos

ASUS TAICHI 21 screenshots

Like most other PCs we test around here, the TAICHI comes with a one-year warranty, which includes 24/7 tech support and a 30-day zero-bright-dot guarantee.

Configuration options


In the US, at least, the TAICHI 21 is available in three configurations. Starting at the entry level, the cheapest option is a $1,299 model with a Core i5-3317U CPU, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB solid-state drive. For $1,499, you can get one with essentially the same specs, but double the storage space. Finally, there's the model we tested: a $1,599 machine with the works (Core i7-3517U, a 256GB SSD and an included stylus).

Additionally, ASUS is about to start selling a 13-inch version (the TAICHI 31, natch), which will become available this month, says the company. According to an ASUS spokesperson, that model is expected to start around $1,399, though that's still subject to change.

The competition


DNP ASUS TAICHI 21 review are two screens better than one

If you're looking for a dual-screened laptop specifically, well, we hate to disappoint you but the TAICHI, as imperfect as it is, is it. If all you want is a notebook that can be used in tablet mode, though, we can think of several better options. We'll begin with the Dell XPS 12, whose 12-inch screen is only modestly larger than the TAICHI 21's. That, too, has a 1,920 x 1,080 display, which pops out of the hinge and flips around into tablet mode. We do like that 1080p IPS screen, we have to say, but we're also fans of the comfortable keyboard, attractive design and decent battery life (at least as far as touchscreen laptops go!). That starts at $1,200 -- so, it's a little less expensive than the TAICHI 21. The only thing you're giving up is the ability to interact with it using a pen.

We're also fans of the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13, whose screen you can fold all the way back into tablet mode. Alternatively, you can fold it only part of the way so that the machine is in "Tent" or "Stand" mode. All told, it's about as versatile as the TAICHI, though for now it's only available with a 13-inch screen, which may or may not be too big if you were considering buying the TAICHI 21. (For what it's worth, the Yoga 11S is coming this summer.) This one starts at an even lower price -- $1,000 -- with slightly lower-end specs, including a Core i3 processor and 1,600 x 900 display. There's no 1080p option, unfortunately, but you can step up to a Core i5 or i7 CPU, along with 8GB of RAM. In our experience, this too offers a comfortable keyboard, and the battery life is slightly longer than the XPS 12's.

We'd also be remiss if we didn't mention the Surface Pro tablet ($899 and up), which also has a Core i5 CPU, pen support and 1080p display. Unfortunately, though, stepping down to just one 1,920 x 1,080 screen won't get you longer battery life: in our review it fared even worse on our standard battery test.

Wrap-up


DNP ASUS TAICHI 21 review are two screens better than one

Around the time I wrote this review, I was also working on Engadget's first-ever laptop buyer's guide. I was sure the TAICHI would be a shoo-in for the convertible section, what with its innovative design and sterling spec sheet. Unfortunately, as inventive as this is as a concept, the finished product isn't quite what we all thought it would be. The battery life is short, even for a touchscreen laptop, and it could be a dealbreaker for the business travelers to whom this is being marketed. And now that we've gotten comfortable with Windows 8, we wish the inner screen were also touch-enabled (that might not have bothered us back in June, when touchscreen laptops hadn't yet become the norm, but it's a bigger turnoff now). To be fair, there isn't really a chipset right now that can effectively power two 1080p touchscreens at once -- not without ruining the battery life, anyway. But if we had to have just one touchscreen, then, we would have preferred to use it in both tablet and notebook mode (see: the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 or the Dell XPS 12).

The good news is that for an experimental product, the TAICHI gets a lot of things right: both displays offer wide viewing angles, the performance is fast and the audio quality is surprisingly robust. It even supports pen input, which isn't true of most Ultrabooks. Needless to say, we do hope ASUS goes back to the drawing board and takes this criticism to heart -- we'd say it has the foundation for a bangin' follow-up product. It's possible you'll want to buy this now if battery life isn't a concern, you want that outer display for giving presentations and you're already used to navigating Windows 8 using keyboard shortcuts. Otherwise, though, we're having trouble recommending this when there are other convertibles that offer longer battery life and deliver similar speed for a lower price.

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ASUS TAICHI 21

Pros

  • Innovative design
  • Great viewing angles on both displays
  • Fast performance
  • Supports pen input
  • Good sound quality

Cons

  • Short battery life
  • Interior screen doesn't support touch
  • Runs hot
  • Some touchpad issues
Summary

The TAICHI has an inventive dual-screen design with fast performance, wide viewing angles and decent audio. But we'd rather wait for a second-gen model with better battery life.