The tablet has a switch on its side so you can quickly put the Taichi into notebook-only mode (closing the lid will put the machine to sleep) or hybrid mode (closing the lid turns on the outer display for tablet use and turn off the inner display). There's a dedicated "Taichi" key (on the top row with a blue Yin-Yang symbol) that launches Asus' utility for basic settings and info along with the more important 4 display options: laptop mode (inner display only), tablet mode (outer display only), mirror mode (both displays show the same content) and extended desktop where the inner and outer displays function as primary and secondary monitors that show different content and can run different apps. For example, you could have email and the web browser running on the inner panel while someone else watches a movie or plays a game on the outer display (assuming that doesn't destroy your concentration). Asus also includes a utility that you can use in laptop mode where you can drag a PowerPoint file, video or PDF into the app window to play it on the outer display. Switching between the displays takes 1-2 seconds.
The Best Zenbook Prime Yet
Happily, Asus improves quickly and the weaknesses we've seen on Zenbook Prime models have been addressed: light bleed is minimal and the large trackpad actually works reliably even for Windows 8 multi-touch gestures. There is a little bit of light bleed along the bottom edge of the inner panel and virtually none on the outer panel. The Sandisk 256 gig SSD drive in our Taichi earned high benchmark numbers and is a totally new model compared to the slower Sandisk SSDs used in older Zenbook models. The machine is assembled with excellent fit and finish, materials are top notch and there are no fatal flaws.
Though not wildly bright like some Asus products, the inner 1920 x 1080 IPS matte display is superb. With nearly no reflections, even illumination, good color reproduction and excellent sharpness, it's a pleasure to use. Likewise, the outer display is extremely sharp, has pleasing colors and adequate brightness, though the Gorilla Glass glare does reduce usability in bright light. At 250 and 280 nits, the displays aren't well suited to outdoor use, though the matter inner display is passable even in bright direct light since it doesn't reflect and glare.
Keyboard and Trackpad
The backlit island style keyboard is quite good for a small machine and we required no adjustment period to type at our usual 80wpm. An ambient light sensor controls backlighting, but you can override this if you wish (the auto function worked fine for us). Windows 8's auto display brightness on the other hand never works well except on the MS Surface RT, and we found it dimmed the passably bright displays (250 and 280 nits) too much. Turn off display auto-brightness under general settings in the Charms settings zone and use the Fn row brightness controls instead for a better experience. Speaking of the Fn row, you must hit the Fn key to use brightness, volume and other controls and there's no setting in BIOS to make these the default rather than the F1 through F12.
The multi-touch trackpad is very large for an 11.6" machine, and it worked flawlessly with Windows 8's multi-touch gestures and swipes. That's especially important since there's no touchscreen in laptop mode so the trackpad is all you've got. And that leads to our pet peeve: Windows 8 is a pain without a touchscreen unless you spend all your time in desktop mode. It's simply painful that the inner display doesn't support touch. I know that Asus wanted to give us a matte inner display for better viewability rather than a glossy touch screen, but the unnatural divide in user experience created by having a touch and non-touch panel in the same computer is awkward. Yes, the trackpad works properly for gestures, but it's not as easy as using the touchscreen, and you will forget and touch the inner panel.
Digital N-Trig Pen
Graphic artists have strong opinions on N-Trig vs. Wacom, the two big players in the active digitizer and digital pen space. N-Trig has come a long way with their tech and the DuoSense 2 pen and latest generation digitizer offer excellent edge response that beats Wacom, good pen response with little lag and fairly good straight line tracking with little jitter. Subjectively, it still lacks the buttery feel of a Wacom pen and digitizer, but that didn't stop me from spending many hours of enjoyable drawing and digital painting time in Corel Painter 12, ArtRage Pro and Alias SketchBook. Note taking is very responsive for those whose needs lean more towards business and school tasks. But graphic artists who require pressure sensitivity in Adobe Photoshop are out of luck because there's no WinTab driver for N-Trig. Why? N-Trig tells us that Adobe's WinTab code is huge and ancient, and updating it for new digitizers is a near impossible feat that's taken a great deal of time. I suspect that Adobe will finally move away from WinTab drivers some time in the future and shed their dependence on the legacy WinTab architecture, but for now that means no pressure sensitivity on the Taichi in Photoshop. N-Trig says to expect WinTab drivers in the summer of 2013.
For those who are wondering, this is the same digital pen (with minor cosmetic changes) as the Sony Vaio Duo 11 pen and they are interchangeable. The pen is pleasingly thick and has good weight, and it uses a single AAAA battery that N-Trig says is good for 18 months of use. There is no silo for the pen in the Taichi, which means you'll have to keep track of it yourself.
Performance and Horsepower
In terms of internals this is a standard Ultrabook with third generation Intel Ivy Bridge ultra low voltage CPUs and Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics. You can get the machine with a 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U or a 1.9GHz Intel Core i-7-3517U (the same CPUs used in most Ultrabooks). Our review unit came with the i7 and a 256 gig SSD for $1,599. Both versions have 4 gigs of DDR3 1600MHz RAM soldered to the motherboard and a SATA III SSD. It's not hard to remove the bottom panel by unscrewing several tiny Torx screws, but there's little to upgrade inside.
The laptop's scores are right where we'd expect a ULV Core i7 with a fast SSD. It has very good Windows Experience Index numbers and a healthy PCMark07 score. The machine can handle everyday office tasks, browsing with multiple tabs open, 1080p video playback, casual and light 3D gaming (not Crysis), Adobe Photoshop and developments apps perfectly well.
PCMark07: 4952 (1.9GHz Core i7, 4 gigs RAM and 256 gig SSD)
Windows Experience Index (scale of 1.0 - 9.9):
Desktop Graphics: 5.6
Gaming Graphics: 6.4
Primary Hard Disk: 8.1
Benchmark Comparison Table, Windows 8 ULV Notebooks:
This isn't the pretty part of our story: battery life is thoroughly mediocre. That's been the case with many small Windows 8 convertibles running on Intel Core processors. Simply, there's little room for a big battery and the drive towards thinness and lightness means that manufacturers aren't leaving room for large power cells. The 35 Whr Lithium Ion Polymer battery is sealed inside, as per usual for Ultrabooks. Asus claims up to 5 hours of use on a charge, which isn't very high and in our real world tests with one display turned on and set to 50% brightness, WiFi on and active in a mix of MS Office, email, web and playback of a few streaming HD video clips, the Taichi 21 averaged 3.4 hours on a charge. That's worse than the Sony Vaio Duo 11 (4 to 4.5 hours) and the Dell XPS 12 (4.5 hours). Using both displays simultaneously will significantly drop runtimes. As a consolation, the Taichi ships with Asus' usual small wall wart charger that's small and light--you won't want to leave it at home.
After the June announcement's shock and awe wore off, the Asus Taichi seemed flashy rather than brilliant. After all, few of us really have use for two displays and those displays add weight and reduce durability (the lid is a piece of glass). Sure, it's novel and allows us to stick with the comfort of a traditional notebook hinge and form factor, but is it worth the $100 premium over single display models? That said, Asus managed to keep the machine's weight way down so poundage isn't an issue, and Gorilla Glass makes us worry a little bit less. And once we saw and handled the machine, we started to fall in love with it because it's so darned good looking and well put together. No doubt, it's a premium piece of hardware and the matte inner display is a welcome break from eyestrain inducing gloss displays. Performance is excellent, the trackpad works well, dual band Intel WiFi with WiDi behaves well and port selection is adequate. But the lack of an inner touchscreen can be maddening and we'd just as soon go with a single full HD touchscreen machine like the upcoming Lenovo ThinkPad Helix and current Vaio Duo 11.
Price: $1,299 for the Core i5 with 128 gig SSD, $1,599 for the Core i7 with 256 gig SSD