January 30, 2011

Asus EP121 Review

I bought EP121 tablet pc a week ago for life drawing and boy do I love it. I even took some videos of it (YouTube - Asus EP121 vs Cintiq21UX) and wrote this review. Hope you find it useful and join me in digital sketching glory. :)

ASUS EP121 is an eye-catcher. It looks like an oversized iPad, runs full Windows 7 with ease, supports multitouch and doubles as a digital sketchpad. While that sounds impressive on paper, in practice it's usefullness varies from one consumer to another. I've used countless tablet pc's in the past and this is the first that has me fully satisfied. My fiancee, on the other hand, prefers her cheap Dell laptop for day-to-day use.

EP121 comes with 3 text input devices, none of which are as comfortable as using a standard laptop. You can use the supplied Bluetooth keyboard for typing, but it is hard to balance on your lap while holding the slate upright. You can use the onscreen keyboard and 2-finger multitouch to input text, but that is much slower than using a physical keyboard. Finally, you can input text by writing it with the supplied pen. That is time consuming and can be frustrating for some handwriting styles.

I recommend that you consider what it is that you need the EP121 for. If you plan to use keyboard shortcuts, type, and surf the web 80% of your time, it is very likely that you would find a conventional or a convertible laptop more convenient in the long run.

With this disclaimer out of the way, EP121 is fantastic when it comes to it's bread and butter: on-screen productivity.

The display offers great saturation, contrast, viewing angles and outdoor performance. The pen is responsive and accurate. OneNote support for both pen and multitouch is joy-worthy. Performance in Photoshop and Sketchbook Pro is more than sufficient for sketching and light retouching, though you might want to save more taxing work for your desktop. The computer boots in under 15 seconds, drains its battery in under 3 hours and charges back up in about an hour. With a super thin profile and lightweight 2lb heft, it feels comfortable and responsive. The AC adapter is about the size of my Samsung Focus phone and has long cables, making the short battery life more bearable. The AC adapter also includes a USB input for charging other devices while also charging the pc.

All this comes not without some quirks. You will need to install the latest Wacom drivers for pressure sensitivity to work in Sketchbook Pro and Photoshop. The cursor remains admirably close to the pen tip as long as you hold the pen perpendicular to the screen, but strangely enough it shifts further away from the tip the more you tilt your pen. The multitouch often misbehaves: sometimes it shuts itself off and requires a reboot. Many Windows buttons are too small to be accurately pressed with fingers. Right clicking is somewhat cumbersome, as you have to either press and hold with the pen for two seconds, or tap the desired icon with one finger and then tap again with another finger next to it. The palm rejection takes some getting used to (you'll learn to lift off your entire hand when you lift off the pen more than an inch away for the screen in Photoshop). Multitouch gestures do not work in most 3rd party software, but they are useful for scrolling through webpages and flicking back to the previous sites, though you will accidentally zoom into webpages on occasion. Installing the latest ASUS firmware for multitouch interface seems to have made things better, but I've had a blue screen of death during boot time twice since then. The promise of good software support is supplied in form of ASUS Control Panel application, which is wonderfully simple and lets you adjust such things as screen brightness, volume, Bluetooth and WiFi. All in all, the majority of complaints about EP121 so far are software-related and hopefully will be addressed over time.

Ergonomically, EP121 is wonderful. The latch over the USB ports wear in with time and become easier to use. The webcam and microphone come standard in case you use Skype. The speakers offer surprisingly good sound. The size and weight of the slate is perfect: I wouldn't want it any smaller, bigger, heavier, or lighter. The hardware buttons are useful and well thought out, though they can not yet be customized. You have the volume rocker, gyroscope auto-screen orientation lock switch, a button that brings up the onscreen keyboard and serves as Esc key when you hold it down, and a button that doubles as Alt-Tab (press) and Ctrl-Alt-Delete (hold). During boot time, the volume rocker functions as up and down keys, while the Alt-Tab button serves as Enter. The slate runs light and remains surprisingly cool. The sharp edge of the aluminum frame cut into my hands at first but I've grown to like the grip it allows you. The screen is glossy and smudges easily, but is also scratch resistant, pleasant to draw on and incredibly easy to see outdoors. Just make sure to carry the provided microfiber cloth with you everywhere you go.

The accessories that come with the slate are a mixed bag. The pen is comfortable and stows away nicely inside the computer but you'll likely want to replace it with one that actually has buttons (sold at Amazon and Wacom eStore). The keyboard is pleasant to type on but is two inches longer than the slate and is hard to use in the dark due to it's curved shape. The Windows restore CD will leave you puzzled if you do not own an external CD drive. Finally, the free portfolio case is nice, but I've put mine away in a closet. It adds a lot of unnecessary bulk and weight to protect an already scratch resistant screen. Arguably, the case is most useful as a stand; however, you need to have a light touch and a flat surface to take advantage of that feature. The case is a nice bonus but less useful in practice than one might expect.

All in all, EP121 is a fantastic piece of hardware that is somewhat held back by buggy or archaic software. It is not for everyone. In fact, it is designed for a rather specific demographic: artists, engineers and people who want full windows experience on the go. If you are a part of that crowd, likely you have already pre-ordered EP121 and rest assured, you won't be disappointed. If you are still on the fence about EP121, the main question you need to ask yourself is whether or not you are prepared to sacrifice a built-in keyboard for pen and touch capability. Do not put too much faith in the standalone Bluetooth keyboard. Until a keyboard dock is released by ASUS, EP121 will not replace your laptop fully. It is, after all, only a slate Windows PC; though, perhaps the first of it's kind to warrant mass appeal.