We've already seen ultrabooks that can flip, rotate and slide. Asus's new convertible, the Taichi 21, can do none of those things -- instead, it's got two screens. So, dual-display laptops -- gimmick, or genius?

 

What is it?

An 11.6-inch ultrabook with another screen bolted on the back. Like every other Windows 8 convertible out there, it's meant to be a laptop that you can also use as a tablet.

 

Who's it for?

A well-heeled individual who wants something that's mainly a thin-and-light laptop but sometimes a tablet, and is always a talking point because of the zany design.

 

Design

The Taichi is basically a Zen-series ultrabook, but with an all-glass back housing a second screen. This means that you get super-sturdy aluminium construction, with nary a flex or squeak from the frame.

The conventional laptop screen is matte and non-touch, while the rear is glossy and just begging for you to touch it. They're both 11.6-inch 1080p IPS panels, and cranked up to max brightness, look pretty decent. Detracting slightly, however, is the over-sized bezel that runs around the edge. Although 11.6 inches is on the larger end for convertible ultrabooks, the big bezel conspires to make the screen feel really quite small. In fact, I reckon Asus could happily have fitted 13-inch panels without adding much physical size -- oh wait, yes, that's called the Taichi 31.

In terms of ports, the Taichi's got a fairly average loadout -- two USB 3.0 ports, well located on either side of the machine; Micro HDMI, Micro VGA, a headphone jack, and volume and screen-lock buttons.

Internally, it's packing standard ultrabook internals -- a Core iSomething processor (my review unit had a Core i7), a 128 or 256GB SSD, and 4GB of RAM. Intel's integrated graphics does the not-very-heavy graphical lifting.

The final quirk -- because we hadn't had enough of those already -- is a digital stylus. It's actually pretty decent -- remarkably similar to the one on the Surface Pro, in fact -- and was one of the main reasons I ever used the outside display. (It's worth noting that the inside screen is not only non-touch, but doesn't work with the pen either.)

The stylus is pressure-sensitive, with a couple of buttons and a AAAA battery for power (to be honest, I never even knew AAAA batteries existed before); it makes working with fine detail as in Photoshop much easier. At the end of the day, though, it's still a pen. At least Asus included a good place to carry it around -- it's got its own slot in the case for the Taichi.

 

Using It

Asus thinks that a laptop with two screens is better. It isn't. Having two screens is pointless at best, and annoying at worst. Yes, it does what it says on the tin -- you use the interior screen when you're working in laptop mode, and the outside screen when you close it and poke it like a tablet.

But then when you're finished using it like a tablet, and you want to chuck it in your bag, you can't. The screen is on the outside. It's glass. Gorilla Glass, admittedly, but if you chuck it in a bag with keys and power chargers and crap like that, it's still going to get an ugly scratch down the middle. To mitigate this, Asus supplies the Taichi with a rather sturdy envelope-style slip cover, but then you end up carting your svelte ultrabook around in a case that hides its svelteness and adds to the bulk, which kinda defeats the whole point of splashing out on an ultrabook in the first place.

But enough of the whining -- let's talk about actually using the dual screens. You've got your choice of four modes, controlled by some proprietary Asus software: laptop mode (speaks for itself); tablet mode (outside screen only); mirror mode (shows the same thing on both displays, and no, I haven't really thought of any good uses for it either); and extended mode. In theory, this lets you do two different things on each monitor (like watch a film on one screen, and lets someone else browse the internet on the other screen), but in reality it's like having a secondary display, only you can't see the secondary display so it's pointless.

Quite honestly, I can't see a situation where two screens are better than one. The only real point of having the dual screens is that it lets you use it as a laptop and a tablet, but frankly, there are form factors out there -- like found on the Lenovo Yoga or Dell XPS 12 -- that do the same job, with fewer trade-offs. Adding a second screen adds cost, weight, low battery life, and the aforementioned problem of needing to cosset your machine in cotton wool. In return, you get the advantage of....nothing, really.

Oh, and as an upshot of having proprietary software to control the two screens, trying to use the Taichi with a secondary display is nigh on impossible. Seriously, I had to set up third-party software just to be able to connect my normal second monitor, which sucks.

Otherwise, using it is like using any other convertible ultrabook. In laptop mode, it's just a bog-standard Intel-powered ultraportable -- great for day-to-day stuff, a bit lacking for heavy-duty applications. And, of course, it's running Windows 8, so it's usable as a tablet -- check out our full Windows 8 review for more details.

 

The Best Part

The design and screens. Make no mistake, if you're hogging a table in Starbucks, sipping your fat-free soy latte, your laptop is going to turn heads. Even without a screen hiding on the backside, the glass lid and wafer-thin base make this an aestetic masterpiece. And those dual 1080p screens -- especially the matte inner screen -- are things of beauty to behold.

 

Tragic Flaw

Battery life -- there isn't any. In normal use -- browsing the web, maybe while listening to music -- the Taichi struggles to get to four hours of battery life. That's mid-range laptop territory, not ultrabook and certainly not tablet-level battery life.

 

This Is Weird...

Asus chose to make the outer screen touch-sensitive (duh), but not the inner screen. Every time you open the laptop up to the Start screen, you'll find yourself reaching forward to touch an icon, before realising that you have to use the godawful trackpad.

 

Test Notes

- Crappy ultrabook trackpads have (sadly) become part of life, but the Taichi's deserves a mention for its singular inability to work. The tap-to-click is insanely sensitive, to the extent that you can't scroll across the screen without it randomly clicking on something. Oh, and the Taichi has a fetish for interpreting any finger movement as an edge gesture, and jumps you back to the previous app -- I spent half my life alt-tabbing back to the desktop. Eventually, you'll want to disable gestures, but since the inner screen's not touch-capable, that's a bad, bad idea.

- The keyboard is the best on any ultrabook tested thus far -- a good, responsive chiclet, well laid out, and backlit to boot. Full marks on this.

- Performance is pretty much in line with any other ultrabook -- apart from the battery life, which as mentioned above, sucks. Your choice of Intel Core iSomething and integrated graphics are enough to deal with most day-to-day tasks, and even some older games. Beware, though, that powering up a game will kick the fan on the back into a hurricane-level overdrive mode.

- Asus put so much bloatware on the machine that it comes close to crippling it. Bloatware is normally something that runs in the background, a minor irritation. But on the Taichi? Oh, no sirree. Asus "Instant On", which does something to do with the sleep function, lives constantly on your desktop; Instant Connect Installer, Splendid Utility and a patronising software nanny called the "Tutor for Taichi" all leech off the system's performance. Oh, and to add insult to injury, there's an auto-update program that exists purely to keep the bloatware up-to-date, and restarts the machine at random and ill-timed intervals

- In an effort to justify the stratospheric price tag, the Taichi comes with a faux-fancy "Asus Taichi Prestige card", which tries to make you feel better about wasting vast sums of money on a gimmick. But it doesn't. Because it's a piece of plastic.

 

Should You Buy It?

No. Dear God, no. If the price were lower than the alternatives, then perhaps we could overlook some of the more gaping flaws. At £999 for the basic Core i5, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD model, though, you're paying a stonking great premium ( a good £100-200 over the competition, at least) for poor battery life and a form factor that, at the end of the day, is a total gimmick.

Even setting aside the dubious usability of these sort of Windows 8 hybrids at all, there are precisely zero advantages to having the dual-screen setup over a transforming convertible like the Dell XPS 12 or Lenovo Yoga. In fact, I can't really envisage a single situation where the dual-screen capability provides any real benefit. While Asus' fearless approach to new form factors is to be applauded, this is one idea that should never have left the drawing board.

Asus Taichi
- £999 (for base i5 model)
- Core i5 or i7
- 4GB DDR3 (non-upgradeable)
- 128/256GB SSD
- Intel HD Graphics 4000
- 5MP front-facing camera, 720p webcam
- 802.11 Wifi; Bluetooth 4.0; Ethernet (using integrated cable)
- Battery life: 4 hours
- Weight: 1.25kg
- Gizrank: 2