Look and feel
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.