ASUS Eee PC T91 Review

by Jerry Jackson Reads (96,480)
  • Pros

    • Low-priced tablet
    • Good battery life
    • Slick touchscreen interface
  • Cons

    • Small screen
    • Integrated battery
    • Weak stylus/pen

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:

  • Windows XP Home
  • 8.9″ LED-backlit display with resistive touch panel
  • CPU Intel Atom Z520 (1.33GHz, 533MHz FSB)
  • Intel US15W chipset
  • Graphics: Intel GMA 950
  • LAN onboard 10/100 Mbps Ethernet controller
  • Wireless: 802.11b/g/n and Bluetooth V2.1
  • Memory 1GB (DDR2 533MHz)
  • Storage Total 52GB (16GB Solid State Drive + 16GB SD Card + 20GB Eee Storage)
  • Webcam: 0.3 Megapixel (VGA)
  • Media Readers: 3-in-1 MMC, SD, SDHC flash card slot and SD card expansion slot
  • Dimensions 225mm (W) x 164mm (D) x 25.2 ~ 28.4mm (H)
  • Weight 2lbs (0.96kg)
  • Battery: Integrated Lithium Polymer (estimated 5 hours battery life)
  • Warranty: 1-year
  • MSRP: $499.99 USD

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 1024×600 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.

Tablet Features
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:


Front view: Media card reader (left) and pen stylus silo (right corner).


Rear view: Security lock slot and VGA out.


Left side view: Power jack, USB 2.0 port, and media card reader storage expansion slot.


Right side view: Pen stylus silo, headphone jack, microphone jack, USB 2.0 port, and Ethernet.

Performance and Benchmarks
This is the section that I hate the most whenever I write a netbook review. There isn’t much to say about performance benchmarks in a netbook review because most netbook have virtually identical specs (thanks in large part to the limitations Microsoft enforces for Windows XP licenses). All Intel Atom-based netbooks have nearly identical performance in terms of actual real-world use. Overall performance with the Intel Atom platform is very reasonable for daily activities like Web browsing, email, using Microsoft Office, listening to music, and watching DVD-quality movies. If you’re in a bind you can even use photo editing software like Photoshop or GIMP for basic image editing.

In order to keep heat under control the T91 uses the Intel Z520 processor with a slower clock speed of just 1.33GHz compared to 1.60GHz or even 1.66GHz used in most other netbooks. Still, despite the lower clock speed the real world performance of the T91 is on par with other Atom-based netbooks.

The use of Intel GMA 950 integrated graphics continues to be a mixed blessing for netbooks. This integrated graphics processor (IGP) is powerful enough to handle displaying a PowerPoint presentation on a projector or watching DVD quality movies, but if 720p and 1080p video playback is your primary concern then you’ll want to look elsewhere. We selected a family-friendly movie trailer and downloaded three different versions in 480p, 720p, and 1080p resolutions. We used the CCCP Codec Pack for decoding and Media Player Classic Homecinema (version 1.1.796.0) for playing all of the video files.

Video Playback Performance:

Video Resolution CPU Usage Playback Comments
480p 25%-35% (hyperthreading) Plays flawlessly
720p 50%-55% (hyperthreading) Plays with an occasional dropped frame and some audio sync errors
1080p 60%-70% (hyperthreading) Plays with severe stutter, dropped frames and audio out of sync


wPrime processor comparison results (lower scores mean better performance):

Notebook / CPU wPrime 32M time
Sony VAIO TZ (Core 2 Duo U7600 @ 1.20GHz) 76.240 seconds
HP Pavilion dv2 (AMD Athlon Neo MV-40 @ 1.60GHz)
103.521 seconds
ASUS Eee PC 1000HE (Intel Atom N280 @ 1.66GHz) 114.749 seconds
ASUS Eee PC 1008HA (Intel Atom N280 @ 1.66GHz) 116.030 seconds
ASUS Eee PC 1005HA (Intel Atom N280 @ 1.66GHz) 116.421 seconds
HP Mini 2140 with HD screen (Intel Atom N270 @ 1.60GHz) 123.281 seconds
Acer Aspire One (Intel Atom @ 1.60GHz)  125.812 seconds
Lenovo IdeaPad S10 (2009) (Intel Atom @ 1.60GHz) 126.406 seconds
ASUS Eee PC T91 (Intel Atom Z520 @ 1.33GHz) 141.031 seconds
Samsung NC20 (VIA Nano ULV U2250 @ 1.30GHz) 173.968 seconds

 

PCMark05 measures overall system performance (higher scores mean better performance):

Notebook PCMark05 Score
Sony VAIO TZ (1.20GHz Intel Core 2 Duo U7600, Intel GMA 950) 2,446 PCMarks
HP Pavilion dv2 (1.60GHz AMD Athlon Neo, ATI Radeon HD 3410 512MB) 2,191 PCMarks
ASUS N10 (1.60GHz Intel Atom, NVIDIA 9300M 256MB) 1,851 PCMarks
Toshiba Portege R500 (1.20GHz Intel Core 2 Duo U7600, Intel GMA 950) 1,839 PCMarks
ASUS Eee PC 1005HA (1.66GHz Intel Atom N280, Intel GMA 950) 1,637 PCMarks
ASUS Eee PC 1008HA (1.66GHz Intel Atom N280, Intel GMA 950) 1,564 PCMarks
Acer Aspire One (1.60GHz Intel Atom, Intel GMA 950) 1,555 PCMarks
ASUS Eee PC 1000HE (1.66GHz Intel Atom N280, Intel GMA 950) 1,535 PCMarks
Samsung NC20 (1.30GHz VIA Nano ULV U2250, VIA Chrome9 HC3) 1,441 PCMarks
HP Mini 2140 with HD screen (1.60GHz Intel Atom, Intel GMA 950) 1,437 PCMarks
ASUS Eee PC T91 (1.33GHz Intel Atom, Intel GMA 950) 1,292 PCMarks

 

HDTune for the internal SSD:

Heat and Noise
Temperatures on the new Eee PC T91 are in line with what we’ve come to expect from netbooks with Intel Atom processors. Temperature readings taken from the outside of the plastic chassis remained mostly “lap friendly” during normal use with only one particularly hot spot around the RAM.

Below are images indicating the temperature readings (listed in degrees Fahrenheit) taken inside our office where the ambient temperature was 74 degrees Fahrenheit.

Battery
Battery life with the integrated 3-cell lithium-polymer battery is reasonably impressive for a compact travel tablet. In our test with the screen brightness set to 70%, wireless active, and XP set to the laptop/portable power profile the system stayed on for 4 hours and 31 minutes of constant use. Although it’s frustrating that you cannot replace the battery or use an extended life battery, the fact that the Eee PC T91 delivers more than 4 hours of battery life with constant use is pretty impressive.

Conclusion
The new ASUS Eee PC T91 deserves serious praise for being the first budget-priced tablet netbook on the market. The closest direct competition to the T91 is the Fujitsu U820, but with the Fujitsu retailing for more than $1,000 the Eee PC T91 essentially stands alone in the marketplace at half the price.

The hardware specs might not seem too impressive at first glance, but if you’re in the market for a low-cost tablet this is indeed your only real option priced below $700 without rebates or coupons.

What really makes the Eee PC T91 so compelling is the new Touch Gate interface that ASUS developed exclusively for the Eee PC Touch series of netbooks. Sure, it might just be an attractive, touch-friendly skin over Windows XP, but it’s also one of the most consumer-friendly touchscreen interfaces I’ve seen on a tablet PC … and it’s a great way to show new owners what makes a touchscreen computer so unique.

Is the Eee PC T91 a better choice than lower-priced netbooks with bigger screens and better specs? Possibly. Is it a good tablet to buy if you just want a cheap secondary computer to carry with you for taking notes, staying connected, or sharing video, photos, and music? Absolutely.

Pros:

  • Low-priced tablet
  • Nice build quality
  • Good battery life
  • Slick touchscreen interface

Cons:

  • Small screen
  • Integrated battery
  • Weak stylus/pen


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