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Asus Taichi 21 review: Dual screens, but only one does touch

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The Good The Asus Taichi 21 offers a clever implementation of a dual-screen design in a slim Core i7 chassis.

The Bad Only one of the screens is touch-enabled, which feels like a major oversight. There are probably only a handful of situations where you'd need an outward-facing display.

The Bottom Line More of a clever proof-of-concept than a practical product, the Asus Taichi still delivers on its basic promise, combining two displays for a unique take on the laptop/tablet/hybrid genre.

7.5 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 7
  • Performance 8
  • Battery 7
  • Support 7

One of the most unusual Windows 8 systems seen to date is the Asus Taichi. And that's saying something, as we've already seen laptops with screens that flip, fold, rotate, slide, and separate completely from the bottom half of the clamshell.

Available in both 11.6-inch and 13.3-inch ultrabook-branded models, both versions of the Taichi share one notable feature: a double-sided LED-backlit IPS display. That means there is a standard clamshell laptop screen, and then a second screen pointing out from where the back of the lid would normally be. The model we tested was an Intel Core 7 version with 11.6-inch displays that costs $1,599 (a Core i5 version is available for $1,299).

While you can choose to use one screen or the other, you can also use both in tandem, with the outer screen acting as a secondary display, able to either duplicate or extend the interior display. That could be useful for sharing a presentation, for example, or for putting some distracting video content on the outer screen for the kids, while you're working on something productive on the interior screen.

The actual real-world usefulness of this feature is admittedly a question mark, and nearly everyone I've shown the system to has expressed doubts about its practicality, especially with so many high-quality thin, powerful, ultrabook-style laptops available for less. The truth is that it's probably only really useful in a handful of very specific situations, but if you happen to find yourself in one of those on a regular basis, it may feel as if Asus has been reading your mind.

While the dual-screen setup does indeed work as advertised, the system as a whole suffers from one nearly fatal flaw. The outer 11-inch screen is a standard Windows 8 touch screen, but the interior screen, where you'll likely spend most of your time, is not touch-enabled. It's a hugely frustrating oversight, especially as nearly every new Windows 8 system we've seen has a touch screen, and certainly everything in this price range. Even after several days, I still found myself trying to swipe and tap on the screen, making the Taichi much less fun to use than it should be.

Price as reviewed / Starting price $1,599 / $1,299
Processor 1.9GHz Intel Core i7-3517U
Memory 4GB, 1600MHz DDR3
Hard drive 256GB SSD
Chipset Intel HM77
Graphics Intel HD4000
Operating System Windows 8
Dimensions (WD) 12.0 x 7.8 inches
Height 0.6 inch
Screen size (diagonal) 11.6 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 2.8/3.2 pounds
Category Ultraportable

Design and features
At first glance, the Asus Taichi 21 looks and feels a lot like other 11-inch ultrabook-style laptops, with a relatively thin body, an interior tray dominated by a large touch pad, and a surface dominated by brushed metal and glass.

While the idea of having a second screen built into the back of the lid may seem like the kind of thing that would be hard to miss, when the screen is off, it's virtually invisible. The only difference between this and a laptop such as the 11-inch Asus X202E is that the back of the lid appears to be made of shiny glass. That's a look we've also seen in the original HP Spectre and the more recent Acer Aspire S7, so it's not as visually jarring as one might think.

That external screen is actually the nicer-looking of the two, feeling like an upscale Windows 8 touch screen covered by edge-to-edge glass. When the lid is closed, it operates like a thick Windows 8 tablet (but a powerful Core i7 one at that).

The interior screen, where you'll be spending most of your time, is less impressive. It's surrounded by a thick black bezel and feels a bit too small for the chassis. But the biggest problem, and the Taichi's fatal flaw, is that this is not a touch screen. That's right, you've got a dual-screen laptop, with one touch display and one non-touch display.

Needless to say, this can get confusing pretty quickly. Even after several days of heavy use, I kept reaching for the main screen to scroll and swipe, a problem exacerbated by the fact that nearly every new Windows 8 laptop has a touch screen, and the OS itself is unambiguously a pain to use without touch.

With Intel's new rules for next-gen ultrabooks including a touch-screen requirement, I'd bet that the next iteration of the Taichi will include dual touch screens, and frankly, that one small change will make this a much more useful system.

You control the two screens, both of which have a 1,920x1,080-pixel native resolution, via an Asus app, which is itself controlled by a button just to the right of the F12 button on the keyboard. From the Taichi control app, you can monitor free hard-drive space, adjust power settings, and control what happens to the outer screen when you close the lid. More importantly, you can scroll through the four different screen modes: interior screen only; exterior screen only; mirror image on both screens; or dual-screen mode, which treats the outer screen as an external monitor.

A favorite parlor game at our office has been inventing scenarios where the dual-screen Taichi would be useful. These include sharing a video or presentation without flipping your entire laptop around to show someone; playing media content on one side while you work on another; or maybe an excellent dual-screen version of the classic game Battleship.

There are definitely a handful of promising scenarios, but I'm not sure how many potential Taichi owners encounter these specific situations on a regular basis. All that said, the dual screens work as advertised, and it's an impressive tech demo, if nothing else.

Fortunately, the input tools provides help make up for the lack of an interior touch screen. The island-style, flat-top keyboard is similar to what you'd find on most ultraportable laptops, with keys that are large enough for comfortable typing, and especially large Shift, Enter, and Tab keys. The touch pad is of the large, button-less, clickpad style that's become popular in the past year or so. For an 11-inch laptop, it's a good size, and multitouch gestures, such as two-finger scrolling, worked well.

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