Thursday, July 16, 2009

Hands On with the eeePC T91 Touch Netbook

It seemed like ages ago, but earlier this year at CES 2009, Asus had a touch-enabled netbook prototype on display. Rumors swirled as onlookers debated whether this little convertible supported multi-touch functions.

On Wednesday, Asus officially unveiled the eeePC T91 tablet, and though it doesn't have a multi-touch panel, it is the first touch-enabled netbook to hit the U.S. market. While most of the single-touch gestures were fluid and responsive, the T91 basically took the first generation eeePC 4G and slapped a rotating touch screen on it. That, and the fact that it's expensive ($500), is likely a deal breaker for those who were looking forward to this netbook tablet.

I spent the majority of the time playing with the T91's touch functions. Surprisingly, it's not using Windows XP's Tablet Edition, as that''s usually the go-to operating system for tablets. Instead, Asus developed a layer that works on top of Windows XP's Home Edition, called Touch Gate. There are a couple of ways to enter the Touch Gate interface – via a desktop icon, a physical button next to the display or through Asus's virtual dock – and, once inside, you are presented with four customizable touch icons.

TouchSuite, as Asus calls it, is just one of three panels arranged as a three-sided cube. The other two panels consist of a widget dock, which looks something stolen right out of the Apple operating system, and Windows XP's desktop environment. You can flick the screen to navigate from one pane to the other. Touch one of the icons, and it'll do a rotating dance and launch the application. You can drag and drop different icons into TouchSuite by pulling up a ribbon of icons right below the four main ones.

Most of the touch applications were developed in-house. There's a photo application that does everything that it should do from a touch perspective, including rotating, zooming in and out, panning, and flipping through album pages. Again, it's just a single-touch panel, so you won't be able to pinch and enlarge an image with two fingers – just one. A memo and a notepad application are present as well, both enabling the ability to take simple notes.

Since it isn't based on XP's Tablet OS or Wacom's pen technology, handwriting recognition is very limited. Doodling and jotting simple notes are fine and fun, and there is a virtual onscreen keyboard that you can launch (I didn't try this feature), but this is clearly not a netbook for serious tablet users.

It gets worse from here, unfortunately. Asus had the right idea by making it a convertible, exposing a keyboard with a swivel screen. The 83% keyboard, though, is as small as the one in the original eeePC 4G. Meanwhile, popular netbooks like the Toshiba NB205, the Acer Aspire One (D250-1165) and the Asus eeePC 1000HE have keyboards that range from 92% to full size.

The T91 uses an 8.9-inch widescreen, while others in the netbook category have already standardized on 10-inch ones. A 16-GB solid state drive is the only part that will fit into an eeePC 4G body. Asus attempted to soften this blow by including a 16-GB SD card and 20 GB worth of online storage. Added up, 52GB of "hybrid" storage still pales in comparison to capacities from spinning drives.

In parts, the 1.33GHz, Intel Atom Z520 is the same processor found in the Acer Aspire One A0751h, and we already know that there's some performance degradation compared to more common Atom processors such as the N270 (1.6GHz) and the N280 (1.66GHz). I think the biggest blow to this touch netbook is its $500 price. You're basically paying an obscene amount for a 2 year old netbook with fancy touch inputs.

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