The Asus Eee PC T91 is the first convertible touchscreen netbook from Asus. In other words, you can fold the screen down over the keyboard and use the netbook as a tablet. At launch, it ships with Windows XP Home Edition, not Windows 7 or Windows XP Tablet Edition, which are optimized for use with touchscreen displays. Instead, Asus has created a suite of touch-friendly applications and optimizations to make the netbook easier to navigate with a finger or the included stylus.
Unfortunately, the netbook’s sluggish processor makes the Eee PC T91 too slow to perform some tasks like playing HD video or even viewing some web pages in Internet Explorer, which Asus has optimized for touchscreen navigation. Still, this netbook is one of the only tablet PCs you’re likely to find for under $499, so if you’re looking for a touchscreen on a budget, it might be worth checking out.
Asus is primarily targeting the T91 at educational and business markets, although it will be available for purchase by the general public starting today as well. Later this year the company will launch a 10 inch model for mainstream customers, called the Eee PC T101H.
The unit features in this review has an 8.9 inch, 1024 x 600 pixel display, a 1.33GHz Intel Atom Z520 CPU, 16GB SSD, and 1GB of RAM. It’s available from Amazon for under $500.
Update: Asus has launched the Eee PC T91MT, which is a minor update to this netbook. The new model runs Windows 7 Home Premium and support multitouch gestures. It also ships with a 32G SSD instead of 16GB. The Eee PC T91MT is also available for under $500, and generally runs just a little more than the Windows XP, single-touch version.
There are two things that set the Eee PC T91 apart from other Asus netbooks (and most netbooks in general). First, it’s tiny, measuring just 8.9″ x 6.5″ x 1.1″ and weighing just over 2 pounds. In fact, the netbook is a little smaller than the company’s first netbook, the Eee PC 701, even though that model had a 7 inch display while the Eee PC T91 has an 8.9 inch screen.
But the computer’s most distinguishing characteristic is it touchscreen display. You can tap on the screen with your finger or the included stylus while using the netbook in clamshell mode. Or you can swivel the screen and fold it down over the keyboard to use the T91 in tablet mode. While the computer runs Windows XP Home Edition (as opposed to Tablet Edition), Asus has included a number of software utilities to make touchscreen navigation easier. But we’ll get to that a bit more in the later sections.
The screen is connected to the base of the computer with by a swivel. Overall the screen feels pretty solid, but it does wobble a tiny bit when you poke at it. The swivel also allows you to use the netbook in a variety of configurations, not just clamshell and tablet modes. For instance, you can fold the screen backward and use the rest of the computer to prop it up for use as a digital media player or picture frame.
Around the sides of the T91 you’ll find 2 USB ports, an Ethernet jack, mic and headphone jacks, a hole for holding the included stylus, a VGA port, and 2SDHC card slots. Asus ships the netbook with a 16GB SDHC card, which essentially doubles the amount of available storage thanks to the computer’s small 16GB solid state disk.
At the top of the display you’ll find stereo microphones and 0.3MP webcam. Below the display is the power button and a dual-purpose button that lets you rotate the screen or launch the Asus Touch Gate software suite. (More on Touch Gate in the software section of this review).
On the bottom of the computer you’ll find a RAM access panel which can be opened by removing 2 screws. The computer’s speakers are also on the bottom of the unit.
The combination of a solid state disk and a low power Intel Atom Z520 processor allows the T91 to run reasonably cool most of the time. So Asus made the decision to make the netbook fanless. This means the computer is pretty much silent when it’s running, although the bottom does get a little warm when performing CPU-intensive tasks like watching video.
The computer’s plastic case has a glossy finish, which is attractive, but which also makes it a fingerprint magnet.
Touchscreen and Display
The Eee PC T91 features an 8.9 inch, 1024 x 600 pixel resistive touchscreen display. The screen features a glossy finish, which means that it turns into a mirror when used in bright sunlight. But indoors the screen looks about as good as any netbook display and shows colors pretty well.
The screen is relatively responsive whether you’re using a a stylus or finger. If the touchscreen doesn’t appear to be aligned properly, there’s a 9-point calibration utility that works pretty well. The netbook doesn’t feature an accelerometer, so the display doesn’t automatically rotate as you move the computer around. But you can use the screen in tablet or landscape mode by holding the rotate button below the screen. Just keep in mind that some applications and web sites that look perfectly fine on a 1024 x 600 pixel display are difficult to use on a 600 x 1024 pixel screen.
The model I tested does not support multi-touch capabilities, although it’s possible that Asus will release a multi-touch capable version when Windows 7 is released this fall.
Keyboard and touchpad
The touchpad is fairly wide for a netbook this small, and has a nice texture to it. The button below the touchpad is responsive and easy to use. While I personally prefer having separate buttons to register right and left clicks, there’s no question that the single button with a rocker dial looks much nicer than two distinct buttons.
The keyboard leaves a bit more to be desired. Not only is it about the same size as the Eee PC 701 keyboard, but it has the same layout. That means you’re stuck with a small shift key on the right side that’s to the right of the up/PgUp key. If you’re a touch-typist, there’s a good chance that you’ll find yourself accidentally hitting the up arrow when you mean to hit shift. Instead of capitalizing a letter, you’ll find yourself typing on the wrong line altogether.
Asus addressed the right-shift key placement on its 10 inch netbooks with a new keyboard layout, but the company apparently hasn’t rolled out a new keyboard for its smaller laptops yet. I’ve been told that the upcoming Eee PC T101H touchscreen tablet with a 10 inch screen will have a newer keyboard with a better placement for the shift key.
While typing on the Eee PC T91 keyboard is certainly more comfortable than pecking away at a thumb-keyboard on a BlackBerry or other smartphone, it’s not as easy as typing on a larger netbook. If you have large hands or an aversion to small keyboards, this might not be the netbook for you — unless you plan to primarily use the Eee PC T91 in tablet mode.
The model featured in this review ships with Windows XP, which isn’t exactly optimized for touchscreen use. While you can certainly use a stylus a bit like a mouse and tap on the screen, that’s about all the functionality you would get if Asus hadn’t included a suite of programs to make the Eee PC T91 more touch friendly.
The most noticeable optimization is a suite of applications called Touch Gate which replaces the Windows XP desktop with a group of large, touch-friendly icons for touch-enabled applications. This includes a photo organizer, notepad, memo application, and a large calculator application.
The Touch Gate menu is customizable… but only a little customizable. If you never use the notes application but frequently need the calculator, you can swap one for the other. But there are only a handful of applications available for the Touch Gate interface. You can’t, for example, add Firefox or another web browser to the menu. The only web browser available from this menu is Internet Explorer, and that’s because Asus has tweaked the browser with a few touch-friendly features:
- You can click an icon to bring up an on-screen keyboard/handwriting recognition application every time you click on a text box.
- Another icon brings up a menu that lets you zoom in or out of web pages.
- The third icon makes it easy to flip between open browser tabs.
- You can also scroll through web pages by clicking anywhere on the screen, not just on the scrollbar at the side of the browser window.
These features won’t be available in any other web browser you install. While the Eee PC T91 ships with Internet Explorer 7, it keeps this functionality if you upgrade to Internet Explorer 8. On the downside, the browser freezes up on me constantly, especially when using more resource-intensive web applications like Google Reader. You can see what I mean in my video overview of the Eee PC T91’s software:
I installed Firefox 3.5 on the Eee PC T91, and noticed no lag at all when viewing Google Reader or other web pages. I can’t say for certain whether the problem is with Internet Explorer or the tweaks that Asus made to the browser, but I found it very difficult to use. I contacted Asus about the problems with Internet Explorer performance, and was told that less complex web pages should work fine unless you swipe quickly and repeatedly on the screen. Overall, Asus deems that the performance is acceptable and there are no plans to make any major changes to the software.
The Touch Gate interface also lets you populate a screen with widgets from Yahoo! Widget engine. You can use this screen to monitor your battery life, local weather reports, and other information. The only down side is that it takes a while for this page to load properly, and while it’s loading you’re kind of stuck on this screen. There’s no way to move to the Touch Gate quick launch screen or the Windows XP desktop while the widget engine is loading.
There’s also a program that lets you simulate a right-mouse-click with a stylus to bring up Windows context menus. What you’re supposed to do is press and hold the stylus for a few seconds until a mouse icon shows up, flashes, and then stops flashing. When you release the stylus from the screen you should see the context menu. That’s what it’s supposed to do. The truth of the matter is you need to hold the stylus very steady for this to work. I found this feature to be nearly useless, but you may find it helpful if you have a steadier hand.
In addition to the touchscreen-friendly software, Asus has loaded the Eee PC T91 with Eee Tray, a utility that makes it easy to change the screen resolution, Super Hybrid Engine, which lets you adjust the 1.33GHz Intel Atom processor clock speed to run at 1GHz, 1.33GHz, or 1.4GHz, Eee Storage, which lets you access 20GB of online storage space, and Data Sync, a utility that lets you synchronize files between your Eee PC and another computer.
The computer also has the “Eee Dock,” which hangs out near the top of the screen and provides quick access to some of the touch-friendly applications, tools, and Eee Vibe, a soon-to-launch service that will let users access online music and videos.
This netbook is equipped with a 1.33GHz Intel Atom Z520 CPU and Intel GMA 500 graphics. Asus chose this processor and chipset partially because it uses less power than the Intel Atom N270 or N280 chips found in most netbooks today. This helps provide better battery life while allowing the computer to run cool enough to operate without a noisy fan.
But the T91’s performance isn’t quite up to par with netbooks that have the N2xx series chips. While most of those machines have no problem playing 720p videos, the Eee PC T91 choked on sample videos I downloaded from Microsoft’s WMV HD showcase. I’m not sure if that’s solely due to the processor/chipset or if the relatively slow solid state disk came into play.
The netbook handled standard definition web video from sites like Hulu and YouTube just fine. But if you try playing Hulu videos in full-screen mode, they start to look choppy.
The built in 0.3 megapixel webcam is good enough for making video calls over Skype. But the built-in stereo speakers were subpar. The person I was talking to during a test call said I sounded like I was talking in a tunnel. I switched to using a USB headset and the sound was much better. If you plan on using this machine to make VoIP calls you might want to invest in a headset.
If you don’t care about high quality video playback or the built in mics, the Eee PC T91 has enough oomph to perform basic computing tasks, as long as the Super Hybrid Engine is set to “high performance” or “super high performance.” When it’s set to “power saving” mode the CPU runs at 1GHz. And while this may be great for battery life, it tends to make the whole machine feel very sluggish.
In high performance mode I had no problem opening multiple tabs in the Firefox web browser or editing images using the light-weight Irfanview. But as I mentioned, you may experience some lag or freezing if you try surfing the web using Internet Explorer.
The Eee PC T91 has a built in battery that is not user replaceable. Fortunately, it runs for a reasonably long time and most users won’t feel the need for an extended or spare battery very often.
I ran the same Battery Eater test on the Eee PC T91 that I’ve used on every netbook I’ve reviewed. But this time I made sure to run it twice: Once with the CPU set to 1GHz, and again with the CPU adjusted to 1.33GHz.
In Power saving (1GHz) mode, the computer ran for 4 hours and 25 minutes. But as I mentioned, the system feels quite sluggish in this mode unless you’re performing very simple tasks. In high performance mode (1.33GHz), the battery ran for 3 hours, and 45 minutes.
Keep in mind, the Battery Eater test is designed to put constant strain on the CPU, so in real world conditions, I’d say you should be able to get 4 to 5 hours of use out of the netbook in high performance mode, and possibly a little more time in power saving mode.
In many ways the Eee PC T91 is one of the sexiest netbooks to hit the market to date. It’s thin, light, and has a feature that few competitors can boast: a touchscreen and tablet mode. The netbook is primarily being targeted at business and educational markets at launch, which means it will go head to head with the CTL 2Go PC convertible tablet I reviewed earlier this year, as well as other netbooks based on the Intel Classmate PC reference design. And between the T91 and the Intel Classmate, the T91 is smaller, better looking, and overall has a more professional look.
The Classmate PC, on the other hand is more rugged, and has a faster Intel Atom N270 CPU and larger hard drive. It handles video and other CPU-intensive tasks better. But it looks like it was made for kids, because it was. Both netbooks have small, cramped keyboards, but I’m happier to put up with the small keyboard on the T91 since the overall netbook is so much smaller.
The T91 is a mixed bag, while I don’t love the small keyboard and slow processor, you’ll be hard pressed to find another small form-factor tablet-style notebook for this cheap. The netbook has a starting price of $499, which is about what the CTL 2Go PC goes for. If you’ve got your heart set on a tablet, the T91 is certainly worth checking out. But if you need better speed or performance, you might want to opt for a netbook with an Intel Atom N270 or faster processor like the more expensive Gigabyte T1028M TouchNote.
Below are more photos of the Eee PC T91. And just for kicks, I shot an unboxing video as well. You probably won’t learn much from the video that isn’t already in the 2600 word review above. But hey, it’s a video. Click on it and it shall play.