by Jerry Jackson
The idea of a compact convertible notebook tablet might not be anything new, but ASUS found a way to create a mini tablet that sells for just $500. Since similar tablets cost at least twice the price, what makes the new ASUS Eee PC T91 so special? I spent a week putting the T91 through its paces and what I discovered was a convenient little companion PC that might actually be more impressive than the specs suggest. Let's take a closer look.
ASUS Eee PC T91 Specifications:
Observant readers will probably notice I did not mention three features that ASUS mentioned when the T91 was announced at Computex: optional GPS, TV Tuner, and 3G (HSUPA). That's because this release of the T91 doesn't include any of those features. That said, knowing ASUS' track record with Eee PC releases, I wouldn't be surprised if ASUS releases another version of the Eee PC Touch that has additional features at a later date.
Build and Design
The Eee PC T91 is the first touchscreen netbook from the company that created the netbook category of laptops. It's too early to tell whether consumers will go crazy for the T91 the same way they have for all the other Eee PCs, but it's safe to say this mini tablet is quite unique. The Eee PC T91 features a thin and light chassis design weighing in at just two pounds and measuring no more than one inch thick. The integrated lithium polymer battery certainly helps keep thickness to a minimum, but the lack of an extended life battery option may bother some shoppers (more on that later).
Our review unit of the T91 features an all-black exterior, but ASUS also offers the T91 in white as well. Build quality is quite good despite the mostly plastic construction. The glossy black plastics suffer from minimal flex, the keyboard is very firm, and the screen hinge provides excellent tension. The swivel hinge was one of the first things I wanted to examine when our review unit arrived because budget tablets usually suffer from weak hinges that are loose and don't keep the screen firmly in place. Thankfully, ASUS did a fantastic job with the hinge on the T91. Just swivel the LCD around and fold it down and you've got a compact touchscreen computer and electronic notepad.
The bottom of the netbook chassis shows a simple RAM access cover. If you want to upgrade the RAM in your T91 all you have to do is remove two screws on the access panel on the bottom of the netbook. I would have also liked to see an easy-access panel for the SSD, but since the T91 includes a second SD card slot just for storage expansion I suppose I can live without easy access to the internal SSD.
ASUS was also kind enough to include a soft slipcase to keep the glossy T91 looking like new when you toss it inside your backpack, briefcase, or purse. The sleeve doesn't offer much in the way of padding but it should protect the T91 from damage from loose change or car keys.
Screen and Speakers
The new Eee PC T91 uses a nice and bright 8.9-inch LED-backlit display panel with a 1024x600 native resolution. The glossy screen offers good color and contrast, but glare and reflections indoors under strong lights or outdoors under direct sunlight can be a problem. The touchscreen accuracy seems good, though our review unit required recalibration after it arrived since the touchscreen was showing activity about a half inch to the right of where we touched the screen. After calibration everything worked fine.
The only issue I had with the 8.9-inch screen is that the small size makes if difficult to use your finger to highlight text or perform other precise tasks. Vertical viewing angles are average, with obvious color inversion when viewing from below and some over-exposed colors when viewed from above. Horizontal viewing angles are less than impressive with colors starting to shift at wide viewing angles (possibly a result of the touchscreen layer).
The built-in speaker performance on the Eee PC T91 is pretty good for a 8.9-inch tablet netbook. I'm not a fan of the location of the built-in speakers since they're located on the bottom of the chassis, but the audio quality is fine for netbook speakers. The speakers produce good volume (enough to fill a small room) and there is minimal distortion until you get to higher volume levels. The speakers lack any real bass, but the range of highs and midtones are fine. That being said, the audio output from the headphone jack is probably the best solution when paired with earphones or a good set of external speakers.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The T91 uses a new keyboard that feels akin to the first-generation Eee PC keyboards with slightly larger keys. Granted, ASUS wasn't able to use a larger keyboard since the T91 uses a smaller 8.9-inch display, but I personally prefer the "chicklet" style keyboard used on the ASUS Eee PC 1000HE since there is more space between the keys to prevent me from accidentally hitting the wrong key. If you just need to hammer out a quick email the keyboard on this netbook is perfectly usable ... just don't plan to make this your primary PC.
The Synaptics touchpad used on the T91 is surprisingly large considering the 8.9-inch form factor of this netbook. The touchpad surface is covered in a simulated brushed metal finish that provides smooth movement and good sensitivity. The left and right touchpad buttons are located beneath the touchpad under a single rocker-style button. Unfortunately, with no separation between the left and right side it's easy to accidentally press the middle of the touchpad button when you're trying to press the left or right side. The touchpad buttons have extremely shallow feedback with sharp yet quiet clicks.
The T91 quickly converts into tablet mode with a twist of the screen and a press of the dedicated screen rotate button. The included pen stylus isn't very large and actually collapses to half its size for east storage inside the pen silo at the front of the T91. The biggest problem I have with this pen (other than the small size) is the fact that it often collapses to the smaller size when you're using it to write notes.
The Eee PC T91 uses a resistive touchscreen rather than an active digitizer, so don't expect advanced WACOM pen features in this $500 tablet. You can touch the screen directly rather than use a mouse or take notes on the screen with the included pen. However, because of the small screen it's easy to accidentally trigger the wrong icon on the screen when using your finger.
The T91 also features a revised version of the ASUS "Eee Docking software" located on the Windows desktop. In much the same way that the Apple OS X dock or ObjectDock from Stardock software allow you to use quick shortcuts to utilities and applications, the Eee Docking software provides an easy way to locate utilities, software and digital content. It consists of the following: Eee Vibe (music/media application and Eee download website), Sharing (Data sync, messenger, and Eee Storage), Xperience (Voice Command) and Tools (Parental Control, Font resizer, and Settings), and all of these suites are easily accessed as the software “docks” to the top of the screen and is semi-hidden when not in use. The new addition to the dock is the icon for the ASUS "Touch Gate" interface
Touch Gate is an alternative desktop environment to Windows XP ... essentially a new, simplified touch interface that sits on top of Windows XP. From the Touch Gate screen you can press large customizable icons to activate applications, access files, or manage settings like wireless access or volume. Adding new shortcut icons (limited to no more than five at one time) to the Touch Gate interface is as simple as drag and drop. Touch Gate also offers "Widgets" similar to the sidebar widgets in Windows Vista -- a nice feature if you want to constantly monitor stocks or multiple clocks for different time zones. Unfortunately, like Windows Vista, the more widgets you have running at the same time the more it negatively impacts system performance.
Touch Gate also includes simple notepad and memo applications in case you need to scribble a few quick notes during the day.
Input and Output Ports
The Eee PC T91 does an okay job with ports, but I would have liked to see at least one more USB port. The T91 only gives you two USB 2.0 ports compared to most netbooks that offer three. Even the original 7-inch Asus Eee PC 4G (701) included three ports, so I hope ASUS adds at least one more to the next model. As if to make up for the lack of USB ports, the T91 includes two media card readers: one for storage expansion and the other for reading the memory card from your digital camera. The T91 also includes the standard headphone and microphone jacks, Ethernet port, and a standard VGA out port.
Here is a quick tour around the Eee PC T91:
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