ASUS Taichi 21 Windows 8 hybrid Ultrabook review
The ASUS Taichi 21 makes the notebook-to-tablet conversion as easy as closing the lid
- Easily use it as a notebook or as a tablet
- Dual Full HD screens
- Solid build and firm keyboard
- Top-heavy design
- Can get noticeably warm
- Touchpad not great
The ASUS Taichi 21 is a hybrid Ultrabook that ships with two Full HD screens. Open the lid to use it as a laptop, close the lid to use it as a tablet. It's easy to use and it provides a very good tablet experience. It's not perfect though: we think it needs some tweaks to the hardware and software. But overall, it's a unit worth considering if you're after a Windows 8 hybrid unit.
Price$ 1,599.00 (AUD)
When we first starting testing the ASUS Taichi 21, we hated it. It came to us without its proper drivers installed, which meant that it was a major chore to effectively use the two screens on this unique, 11.6in, hybrid Ultrabook. However, ASUS dropped in to our office to manually install the proper drivers and update the system, and after we used the updated Taichi 21 for an extended period of time, we grew to like it. A lot.
A dual-screen hybrid
The ASUS Taichi 21 has a minimal amount of moving parts for a hybrid Ultrabook. It's built using a traditional clamshell laptop form factor, but the differentiating factor is that it comes with a second screen built in to it. You get two screens with this hybrid laptop: a regular in-facing screen for laptop mode, and an out-facing touchscreen on the other side of the in-facing screen, which is for tablet mode.
The out-facing touch panel is glossy thanks to its scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass surface, while the internal screen has more of a matte finish, although it is still susceptible to some glare. Both screens are 11.6in and they both have a native resolution of 1920x1080 pixels. Furthermore, their viewable angles are wide from the sides, as well as from above and below, which makes the screens comfortable for viewing images and videos. They are also quite bright and they possess very good contrast. We did notice some backlight bleeding on both screens when watching movies though.
In its most basic form, the ASUS Taichi 21 can be used with minimal user interaction. There is a physical toggle for the screen on the left side of the base. If it's set to 'on', then when you close the lid of the laptop the out-facing screen will switch on and you can then start using the laptop as a tablet. The touchscreen's accuracy is high and it provides a very enjoyable user experience for Windows 8 and its swipe-in gestures. The screen will auto-rotate depending on the way you hold it, but you can also easily disable this from the Charms' menu settings. Once you're done using the Taichi 21 as a tablet, you can open the lid and it will switch on the internal screen so that it can be used as a regular laptop once again.
But there are more scenarios that are available for this laptop, and they can be selected through the blue Taichi key on the keyboard. Pressing this key will bring up the Taichi software, which is a full-screen app that allows you to change many system settings, including brightness and ambient light sensor settings, but most importantly, it will allow you to select from up to four different scenarios for the two screens.
We've already covered off on two of those scenarios: you can use one screen at a time, the internal one as a laptop, and the out-facing one as a tablet. There is a 'seamless switch' that can be enabled in the software, which means that when you switch from one mode to the other, you won't be faced with a lock screen and have to log in each time — whatever you are working on will just show up immediately on each screen as you open and close the lid.
There are two other scenarios you can use, which are as follows: the out-facing screen can be set to mirror everything that is shown on the in-facing screen, and the out-facing screen can be used as an extended screen to display content that is different from what is being displayed on the in-facing screen. This is an extended monitor mode that works with ASUS' own software. It's said to be convenient for giving presentations while siting at a boardroom table, for example. In our line of work, we often have small meetings in which we sit at tables where presentations are made across from us. The presenter usually has to turn the laptop around to show us the screen. We think a laptop with the capabilities of the Taichi will be useful in such a meeting scenario.
Design and usability
As far as the design of the Taichi 21 goes, it has a slim base that tapers towards the front and it feels solidly constructed. One thing that we noticed on our test model though, was that the screen's hinge was a little loose. This meant that the screen tilted all the way back on its own sometimes when we moved the laptop around. It also meant that when we used the Taichi as a tablet, holding it with the spine downwards meant that the screen and base came apart a little bit. This was annoying.
Because the Taichi 21 has two screens in its lid, each with its own backlight, it's a top-heavy unit. This means that it can be awkward to handle if you use it on your lap. Depending on how you sit, the unit might have a tendency to fall back. The relatively small size of the unit, and the very smooth palm rest finish, can add to this awkwardness when not using the laptop on a desk. We would have preferred a more resistive texture for the palm rest. Furthermore, the smooth texture of the base, coupled with the outer glass screen, can make the unit feel a little slippery when it's closed.
The good thing is that despite having two screens in its lid, the Taichi 21 is not necessarily a heavy unit. It weighs almost 1.3kg and it's easy to use as a tablet when you want to read, view photos, browse the Web or take notes. Carrying it around on an everyday basis is not a chore and its power adapter is a neat little wall wart rather than a power brick. ASUS also supplies a protective sleeve with the unit, as well as a microfibre cloth, which you will need to use regularly to clean the out-facing screen.
Typing on the Taichi 21 can feel a little cramped compared to typing on a 13.3in Ultrabook, for example, but it does have a good keyboard and we got used to the units size after a short while. The keys feel solid, they have good travel, and they are backlit. The touchpad is 105x63mm, which is huge considering the size of the laptop, and it feels very smooth. It supports swipe-in gestures for Windows 8 and it was quite sensitive during our tests — if often registered unintended taps and double-taps. The ASUS Smart Gesture software that controls the touchpad isn't great, with very limited scope for adjusting its settings. We also couldn't get the three-finger sideswipe gesture to work properly, even though it was enabled in the driver.
There are some omissions when it comes to built-in connectivity. You don't get an Ethernet port in the chassis, for example, but an external USB dongle for this is provided. There is also a dongle for a VGA port, which plugs in to the unit's mini-VGA port. Two USB 3.0 ports are present, one on either side of the chassis, there is a combination headphone/microphone port, and you also get a micro-HDMI port (you'll need to buy an adapter or a micro-to-full-sized HDMI cable to use it). There isn't a built-in SD card slot unfortunately, so you'll have to use a USB-based SD card reader if reading photos off an SD card is a requirement for you.
There are dedicated tablet buttons along the left side of the chassis, which include volume and the aforementioned toggle for the second screen. This toggle is handy if you want to make sure that the second screen is locked and won't switch on when you close the lid of the laptop. The right side has the power switch and we like the fact that it is placed separately to the other buttons on the chassis. On models such as the Toshiba Satellite U920T, for example, the power, volume and auto-rotate buttons are all in a line, which means there is a chance of pressing the power button by mistake.
Stereo speakers are built in to the ASUS' chassis, their grille slits visible on either side, and they actually provide decent sound for such a small laptop. You'll still need to plug in a pair of headphones if you want a loud listening experience, but for YouTube videos and casual music playback while you work, they are fine.
Wireless networking is handled by a dual-band Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6235 adapter, and you also get Bluetooth and two cameras (in-facing and out-facing).
Performance and battery life
On the inside, the Taichi 21 features an Intel Core i5-3317U CPU, 4GB of DDR3 SDRAM and a 128GB solid state drive. It boots up in about 10sec (the time it typically takes to get to the login screen) and system resume time from sleep is about 3sec (with the ASUS Instant On software enabled). The overall performance of this configuration is on par with other systems we have seen that use the same CPU as well. In the Blender 3D rendering test it recorded 19sec, while in the iTunes MP3 encoding test it recorded 1min 8sec. A 3DMark06 score of 4446 shows that this laptop isn't ideal for running taxing 3D shooters, for example, but it will do just fine when running games such as Riptide GP from the Microsoft store.
The solid state drive in the Taichi 21 is a quick one overall, but it only offers 94GB of formatted space for your programs and data. It recorded a read rate of 486 megabytes per second (MBps) in CrystalDiskMark, and a write rate of 336MBps. That's one of the quickest write rates we've seen recently; it's second to the Acer Aspire S7, which recorded 366MBps in the same test. In our file duplication tests, the ASUS recorded 132MBps, which isn't the fastest rate we've seen, but it's still more than acceptable.
With up to two screens capable of drawing power at the same time, the battery life of the Taichi 21 is of concern. In our rundown tests, in which we disable power management, enable Wi-Fi, maximise screen brightness and loop an Xvid-encoded video, the Taichi 21 lasted a similar time to a 13.3in Ultrabook using the same Core i5 CPU (the Toshiba Satellite Z930, for example, got 3hr 13min). In tablet mode the batter life is shorter — we clocked it at 2hr 34min with only the out-facing screen enabled. When we enabled both screens at the same time in mirror mode, the Taichi's battery ran out of juice after 1hr 57min. You won't want to use both screens at the same time while on the road.
We noticed that the Taichi 21 often ignored our preselected power scheme and set it to the special ASUS power saving scheme instead. During testing, this was annoying. It also meant that the performance of the Taichi 21 was reduced and this manifested in jerky scrolling, both in a Web browser and when using the Windows 8 Start screen, for example. At the same time, it also meant that we could use the Taichi for about five hours when browsing the Web and doing basic document creation tasks. That was also with the ambient light sensor controlling the in-facing screen's brightness and with the keyboard backlight disabled. You'll want to play with the power schemes to get the right amount of performance and longevity out of this unit.
ASUS is no stranger to innovation (after all, it's the company that brought us the Eee PC, the Transformer tablet and the Padfone) and it has produced one of the most interesting hybrids that's available in the Australian market. We were skeptical of it at first, mainly because it wasn't configured correctly, but once the proper software was installed we had a lot of fun using. We found it very easy to switch between notebook and tablet mode and we think it's a good unit to consider if you're currently in the market for a hybrid Ultrabook device.
That said, it still isn't perfect: the top-heavy design can make the unit uncomfortable for laptop use, the hinge could stand to be a little stronger, the base warms up quite a bit, and the touchpad could be better. We also experienced some other annoyances, such as the on-screen keyboard disappearing as soon as we stated typing our password to log in to the system in tablet mode, the screen brightness not always being set correctly until we moved the slider in the Charms' settings, and there were constant McAfee pop-ups (but you can get rid of those easily by uninstalling or buying the full version of the software). These are things that will probably get fixed as the Windows 8 platform matures.
If you're interested in this type of Hybrid device and want to learn a little bit more about Windows 8, be sure to check out our beginner's guide to Windows 8, which shows you how to use the Start screen a lots of other features.
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