Since Windows 8's debut last October, PC manufacturers have all followed pretty much the same playbook. Build a laptop with a touchscreen? Check. A docking laptop / tablet hybrid? Check. A strange, hinged device that twists and turns from tablet to laptop modes? Check. The PC market as a whole may look very different than it did a year ago, but the currently available devices don't vary much. Except for this one Asus device that crossed my desk a couple of weeks ago, that is.
It's called the Taichi, it starts at $1,299, and it has two screens. That's pretty much everything you need to know. Rather than create a way to convert the device from a tablet to a laptop via a flexible hinge or rotating display, Asus instead just stuck a screen onto the lid of an otherwise fairly uninteresting notebook. Points to Asus for thinking of a new way to take advantage of all that Windows 8 offers, but does it work? Do more screens equal more fun? I've wondered that ever since the Taichi was first shown off at Computex back in August, and I finally got to take the device for a spin over the last few weeks.
Suddenly I want all laptops to be glass
Closed and turned off, the Taichi is a pretty beautiful laptop. The glass lid is actually a screen (I'll get to that), but even when it's not illuminated the sheer, reflective black surface gives the Taichi a seriously cool and futuristic vibe. Suddenly I want all laptops to have glass lids, the same way I felt after seeing the HP Envy 14 Spectre. As long as you keep the lid clean of fingerprints, you're going to look pretty cool using this in a coffeeshop — I was asked a number of times what laptop I was using.
Unfortunately, beauty's only lid-deep. Once you open the Taichi, you're greeted by a distinctly average-looking laptop with no design touches, no flourishes, no indication that Asus's unique thinking extended beyond the lid. The brushed-aluminum chassis hasn't changed much since the Zenbook Prime UX31A, and is similarly durable and sturdy. The matte black, backlit keyboard stands out against the rest of the body, which is either purplish brown or brownish purple depending on how the room is lit. Ports line the wedge-shaped edges of the 0.7-inch-thick, 2.75-pound device, so as to be accessible whether the lid is open or closed. It's a fairly normal complement — two USB 3.0 ports, Micro HDMI, Mini VGA, a headphone jack, volume controls, and a switch for swapping screen modes. The power button sits on the right edge as well, which is strange to get used to on a laptop, but since it's a sliding switch it's at least hard to knock accidentally.
It's really busy, aesthetically: I counted nine different colors and textures on the device, and the silvers and blacks and purples don't blend especially well. The real eyesore is the bezel, though: it's almost an inch wide on every side of the display, and in addition to making the screen look even smaller than it already is, it makes the whole device look cheap, like a toy. It certainly seems like Asus could have used a 13-inch panel without making the chassis much bigger — oh wait, it definitely can. It's called the Taichi 31.
The two stereo speakers on the Taichi rest on the bottom edges, angled slightly outward. Supposedly they're Bang & Olufsen speakers (or tuned by B&O, or something), but they're not exactly mind-blowing in their quality. They do have better bass response than most laptop speakers, which is something of a B&O specialty, but they're not loud enough or dynamic enough for me to not instinctively plug in headphones or external speakers.
Rather than find some clever way to contort the Taichi so that it can be used as both a laptop and a tablet, Asus basically just grafted a Transformer Pad onto its lid. You get not one, but two 11.6-inch 1080p IPS displays on the Taichi, which can be used in a handful of different ways. The simplest: one is on when the laptop is open, the other when it's closed. But you can also set the two displays to mirror each other, so you can show someone what you're doing (be careful to turn this one off when you're done with it); the outside display can also be used as a secondary screen, or in presentation mode. The display mode is controlled by an on-screen menu called Taichi Home, which you can access via a dedicated button on the keyboard's function row. It's actually a lot of fun to experiment with ways to use both displays together, but most of the time you'll just use the one screen when you're using the Taichi like a laptop, and the other when you want it in tablet mode.
Then there's Dual Screen mode, which Asus describes as essentially creating two devices, usable at the same time — theoretically one person could use the laptop while the other uses the tablet. Technically this is true, but it's not exactly "two devices." What the Taichi creates is no different than if you carried a touch-enabled external monitor with you everywhere – you can do more than one thing at a time, sure, but you're not using multiple devices, you're just multitasking.
Must. Not. Make. "Yo Dawg..." joke.
I'd rather have one do-it-all screen than two crippled ones
The panels themselves are both excellent – great viewing angles, good color reproduction, and plenty of pixels to fill all 11.6 inches — but this doesn't seem like the right way to marry a tablet and a laptop. For one thing, it means the laptop doesn't go to sleep when you close it by default; it just pauses for a second and then illuminates the external display. You have to turn it off using the power slider every time, and the close-the-lid-and-walk-away muscle memory took a long time to undo (you can change this in settings, but then it's awkward to switch between modes since everything goes to sleep). And lest we forget, adding a screen to the chassis means there's a screen on the outside — I can't overstate how unconsciously precious I became about caring for the Taichi while I was testing it. There's no good reason for my OCD, as far as I can tell — I used the device as I would any other, and the outside screen has no scratches or dings to show for it — but I can't stop being overly careful with the Taichi, because it just seems like something I need to be careful with.
The part that really kills me, though, is that the internal screen isn't a touchscreen. Every single time I opened the Taichi, usually because I needed the keyboard for one reason or another, I tried to touch the screen. I'd tap three or four times before remembering that this screen doesn't work via touch, and then get used to mouse and keyboard again. Of course, then I'd close the machine, get used to touching it again, and have the same problem all over. I'm sure touch was sacrificed in the name of weight and thickness, but that was a bad call on Asus's part.
One good call Asus made was to add pen support to the outside screen, which quickly became the primary reason I used that display. The implementation is a lot like the Surface Pro — it works for gestures and pointing, and has an on-screen indicator when you're nearby so you can tap exactly the right spot. It's a little laggy on the Taichi compared to the Surface Pro, and took a beat to catch up to me whenever I drew or wrote quickly, but it still worked fine. There's nowhere on the device itself to put the pen, which means I'm going to lose it sometime in the next 45 minutes or so, but until then it's a nice thing to have.
Asus makes you need both screens by only giving you certain functionality with one display or the other. But if the Taichi just had a single screen, with touch and pen functions built in, it would be far more useful and far less frustrating. I spent an inordinate amount of time switching display modes so I could draw on the screen, then switching again so I could type, then accidentally closing the laptop and resetting the display modes again. This whole infuriating process could be solved by just having one screen, and aping Lenovo's or Dell's way of letting you transform the device from laptop to tablet. This feels like lazy design, the result of Asus's inability to figure out how to design an actually transforming product.
Keyboard and touchpad
I've grown fairly comfortable with Asus's tablet keyboards after using a half-dozen of the company's Transformer tablets, so I got used to the Taichi's setup pretty quickly. It's almost exactly the same experience — flat keys that are slightly smaller and have a bit less travel than I'd like — only slightly better, thanks to the extra room afforded by the 11.6-inch frame. It's backlit, which I like, but forces you to hit the Fn key before adjusting volume or brightness, which I don't. All in all it's a rather unremarkable keyboard: I had no particular problems using it, but I'm not exactly thrilled either.
The touchpad, on the other hand, has plenty of "particular problems." Like the fact that about half the time, when I tried to simply slide my finger from the left side to the right side to move the cursor, the Taichi interpreted the motion as an edge gesture and excitedly jumped me back to my previous app. Instead of just moving the cursor, then, I had to move the cursor, alt-tab back to the app I was actually trying to use, and then carefully and slowly move the cursor so as not to disturb the overly excitable gesture recognition. It made me want to turn off gestures altogether, though that's of course a terrible idea since the internal screen isn't touch-capable.
The silver lining, I suppose, is that gestures work perfectly when you're actually trying to engage them. The Taichi handles the edge swipes better than any Windows 8 computer I've used, which does mitigate the pain of the non-touchscreen a bit. Pinch-to-zoom and two-finger scrolling work well, though it's not "natural" scrolling by default — you move your fingers down to go down, unlike every other Windows 8 computer I've tried. It's not a problem, and can be changed in settings, it's just surprising. The touchpad itself is big and smooth, and could be really good, were it not so difficult to move the pointer left to right. Turns out that's something I do a lot.
Software and performance
Windows 8 has proven an impressively versatile operating system, running capably on almost any hardware manufacturers force upon it — and the Taichi's spec list is actually pretty competitive for an ultrabook. It comes with either an Intel Core i5 or i7 CPU, plus 4GB of RAM and integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000, plus either 128GB or 256GB of solid-state storage. (My review unit has a 1.7GHz Core i5-3317U and 128GB of storage.) In general, the computer runs just as you'd expect: the interface is smooth and fast, touch response is excellent (on the one screen, anyway), and I had almost no crashes or stalls in my time with the Taichi. It's an ultrabook with integrated graphics, which means playing games is something of a fool's errand unless your definition of "games" stops at Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja, but otherwise it works just as capably as any Windows 8 ultrabook I've tested, when doing normal Windows things.
But the Taichi does a lot of not-normal Windows things, and they don't tend to work as well. It always takes two or three seconds to switch between screens, which is perfectly normal when you're plugging in an external monitor but feels like an eternity when you're just closing the laptop and waiting for the tablet screen to turn on. Switching between display modes, something you'll do a lot, also involves a lot of waiting and screen-flickering. These are kinks that can likely be ironed out, but they add to the feeling that Asus just slapped the Taichi's parts together without giving enough thought to how they interact.
The most egregious error from Asus, however, is the dump truck of bloatware the company loaded onto the machine. Windows 8 laptops have thus far tended to be lighter on the nagware and pop-ups, opting to simply install third-party apps and services on the Start screen; Asus breaks that trend in a big way. Asus Instant On Config lives on the desktop at all times; Asus Instant Connect Installer, Splendid Utility, Asus Live Update, Asus Tutor for Taichi, and far too many other apps lie in waiting and launch at times I'd really rather them just go away. The bloatware clutters the desktop, nags and annoys you as you use the machine, and is generally just a pain. A few of the apps are necessary and even useful – Taichi Home lets you manage the display modes, for instance — but most are just intrusive and obnoxious.
When I first ran the Verge Battery Test on the Taichi, I assumed the result was a mistake. I must've left the second screen on, or put the computer in the freezer while it ran down, or something. But I wasn't wrong — the Taichi's battery is just terrible. On my first test — our suite cycles through a series of popular websites and high-res images with brightness set to 65 percent — the Taichi lasted three hours and seven minutes. That's the worst score I've gotten on a recent ultrabook by a considerable margin, and my second test didn't change anything: I got three hours and three minutes on a second run. That's unacceptably bad on an ultrabook, period.
In everyday use, the Taichi runs cool and silent, even when you're doing semi-intensive things or using both screens at once. The fans in the bottom and near the hinge do kick in when you're playing a game, and they're occasionally audible when you're streaming movies or running Flash, but for the most part you'll never notice this machine chugging along.
Too much bloatware, way too little battery
Originality does not a compelling product make
I'm all for trying new things, so kudos to Asus for actually shipping a design straight out of some crazy blue-sky-solutioneering brainstorming meeting. But as much fun as the Taichi is to show people ("guys, look at all the screens!") it's a gimmick that just falls kind of flat. I'd much rather Asus just build a laptop about this size with a single, touch- and pen-friendly screen — that would probably trim some of the weight off of the Taichi, too, and it could be a downright svelte machine. As Lenovo, Dell, and others have proven, there are good and useful ways to give a single screen multiple use cases.
But as it stands now, the dominant use case (as a laptop) is crippled in the name of a gimmicky add-on that subtracts from this device's appeal more than it adds. When you factor in the sub-par trackpad, the miserable battery life, and the $1,299 starting price tag, I can't think of a single person to whom I'd recommend the Taichi. A lot of other ultrabooks offer better performance and better battery life, many for a much lower price — and two screens really isn't any better than one.