The EP121 Product Tour
The main items included in the EP121 package are the slate pc, the keyboard, the folio and the power supply (see the specifications page for a complete list of included items). Let’s explore each of these items:
The Slate PC
The EP121 is almost all display. With the power off, one is presented with a black sheet of glass framed in a remarkably thin aluminum bezel. A subtle accent hints at the presence of the front panel button and under certain lighting, the presence of the webcam is revealed in the top center area.
The machined aluminum bezel feels very strong and solid in the hands. The smooth bevelled edges and finely detailed patterns show a great attention to detail. This is where art meets engineering.
Flipping the slate over reveals a wonderful treat – no product stickers! Absolutely none. No certification labels, serial numbers, product codes, etc. Just a very elegant representation of the Asus logo centered on a striking white surface.
The finish is a pearl white shell that interacts nicely with the surrounding light. A closer look reveals a pattern of waves and circles that not only adds an esthetic value but also serves a practical purpose in providing extra grip.
There is never a feeling that the slate will slip from the hands. The strong aluminum bezel combined with the patterned back shell allow for a very solid and comfortable grip.
The left edge of the bezel is where you will find all of the system inputs and some button controls.
The top edge of the bezel houses 3 more buttons.
The pen is stored in a compartment located in the upper right corner of the slate.
The pen pops up when the compartment door is opened.
The top of the pen acts as an eraser for applications that support that function (i.e. ArtRage, OneNote).
The EP121 comes bundled with a wireless bluetooth keyboard. The keyboard is slightly curved to provide a more natural ergonomic feel when both hands are placed on it. It runs on 2 AAA batteries which are included in the box.
Pairing it with the EP121 is a very simple matter. The user’s guide contains step by step instructions but it follows the same process as pairing any bluetooth device – namely discovering the device and entering a PIN code. That process only needs to be done once and the keyboard will remain paired from that point forward.
Although the keyboard sports the Asus logo in the top left corner, flipping it over reveals that the keyboard is in fact a Microsoft Bluetooth Mobile Keyboard 6000 (minus the number pad). Also on the back side of the keyboard is the Microsoft Certificate of Authenticity label which contains the product key code for the Windows 7 software installed on the machine.
The keyboard is very thin and light and easily slips into a laptop bag. The keys feel very spacious and typing on it feels very comfortable. Although it has a power switch on the back, if it is not used for a while it goes into a sleep mode to preserve battery life. Touching any key wakes it back up. When the keyboard is powered back on, it only takes a second to re-establish the link with the PC. What I’ve found this means in practical terms is if I haven’t used the keyboard for a while, I simply press any key – wait a second – and commence typing at full speed. This is the same keyboard that won the I4U Editor’s Choice Award in 2010 . A quick search finds many positive reviews for this keyboard but my favorite quote comes from Engadget’s review:
“The typing experience on the 6000 was nothing short of fantastic”
I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment. You can read the full review yourself on Engadget: http://www.engadget.com/2009/12/16/microsoft-bluetooth-mobile-keyboard-6000-the-perfect-travel-key/
This is a handy cover/carrying case that the EP121 slips into.
The front cover flips over the display and provides a sharp looking accent with the embossed Asus logo.
The folio is designed to support the EP121 in 3 different orientations – low angle Landscape and Portrait using the flip out stands like this:
Or upright Landscape like this:
If you are curious as to how the slate stays up in this mode without falling over, that little trick is accomplished by two strips of non-slip material that line the long edges of the folio. The downforce of the slate pushes the non-slip material onto the table surface while keeping the rigid folio cover upright. Of course – poking at the display with excessive force could topple it over but for typing with the keyboard or watching videos, this mode comes in very handy.
The inner spine of the folio has an elastic band which can store the Wacom pen for quick and convenient access.
The Power Supply
Forget the big, black, bulky bricks that have adorned so many laptops of the past. The EP121 comes with a slim, stylish, white power supply that’s easy to pop into a laptop bag and carry around.
And if that wasn’t enough, it also has a USB charging port that can be used to charge your mobile phone, music player, etc. If you have ever travelled for business, you know just how incredibly handy something like this is. That’s one less charger to carry!
The DC end of the adapter has an L-shaped connector. When connected to the EP121, the power indicator on the slate will glow amber to indicate it’s charging and then change to green when it’s reached 95%.
The crowing jewel of the EP121 is the gorgeous 12.1″ display. Watching a movie, browsing photos, surfing the web and reading e-books are a treat. The colors are crisp and vibrant and the viewing angle is an amazing 175 degrees any way you hold it.
The display achieves this remarkable feat using a technology developed by BOE Hydis called AFFS+. It is similar to the IPS technology developed by LG Display. The end result is display nirvana.
The User Experience
Up to this point, the focus has been on the hardware design of the EP121 – but how does it perform as a PC? After all – good design is one thing (and the EP121 has plenty of it) but at the end of the day it’s all for naught if the Windows experience suffers. The next section will focus on the user experience.
The EP121 comes in two possible configurations: 2GB RAM / 32GB SSD or 4GB RAM / 64GB SSD. The 4GB/64GB configuration was used for all the demos below.
One short administrative note: The videos below were all created at 30FPS. If they appear a little choppy when viewing here, you can watch them on YouTube where they will play at the full frame rate. I created a channel there and put all the videos in one place for convenience. You can even subscribe to the channel so you will get a notification when I put more videos up. The link is: http://www.youtube.com/user/ep121wordpress
Asus put an SSD (Solid State Drive) in the EP121. SSD’s typically perform faster, are much lighter and are more resilient than conventional magnetic hard disk drives that are found in most notebooks and desktop systems today. These benefits come at an increased cost – but the EP121 is not a system where corners were cut.
So how fast does the system boot? There are many ways to measure boot time but I use a very simple metric: How long does it take for the system to start Windows, connect to WiFi, start the web browser and load a web page? For me that’s when a system is generally usable. The EP121 does all of this in an unbelievable 28 seconds! And this wasn’t accomplished by doing any tweaks or special settings or optimizations within Windows. This is how fast the EP121 is using the default software configuration that ships from the factory. Hard to believe? I captured it on video:
The EP121 uses Intel’s HD Graphics technology along with the dual core i5 processor. By simply rotating the slate, the display will switch between portrait and landscape modes using the built-in motion sensor. Alternatively the display can be locked into a position by using the rotation lock switch located on the top bezel. Here’s a peek at how that works:
Windows 7 has an excellent and often un-noticed feature that allows a user to visually scroll through all the open windows in a flip chart fashion. This feature is called Flip 3D and the EP121 has a dedicated hardware button on the front to invoke it. And if you are a business user that needs to log onto a domain, that same button will act as a Ctrl-Alt-Del key combination by simply pressing and holding it. The EP121’s graphics system is more than capable of performing this feature with speed. This video shows what I mean:
Since the EP121 has a multi-touch capacitive display, users are able to take advantage of a Windows 7 feature called finger panning. This features allows a user to simply slide their finger in any window to scroll the contents up and down. This makes scrolling much easier and quicker than trying to drag the scroll bars. On the EP121, the touch response is very snappy as demonstrated in this video:
Web Browsing and the Software Keyboard
In addition to finger panning, Internet Explorer supports pinch zooming. The EP121 has a dedicated hardware button on the top bezel which will launch and dismiss the software keyboard. Using two fingers for touch typing, the responsiveness is excellent. And the keyboard is smart enough to know when you are typing in a web address and will pre-populate some keys with common terms like “.com”. Here’s a look at the experience:
The physical keyboard button also acts as an ESC key. This is useful for times when using applications in full screen mode that require an ESC key to exit. To invoke the ESC key, simply press and hold the keyboard button.
The EP121 has an embedded Wacom EM digitizer. This means a user can use the included pen to interact directly with the display. Since the pen works by using eloctromagnetic fields, the display can detect the pen’s presence before it even makes contact. This allows for very precise targetting – much more so than can be had with a finger. And it also allows for pressure detection. This is critical for artists or graphics designers. Wacom enjoys a stellar reputation in the professional digital artists community and many have been dreaming of the day they could aquire a great performing slate PC with Wacom technology. While the Wacom digitizer in the EP121 doesn’t support thousands of levels of pressure sensitivity like Wacom’s high end (and very expensive) professional displays, it does support a respectable 256 levels of pressure. Great for professionals who want to visit client sites and draw up some quick mockups or for the budding artists among us who want some finer control in our hobby painting. So can the EP121 fulfill this dream of a high powered PC in a convenient slate form factor? See for yourself:
Did you notice the eraser function? Not all applications support that feature but ArtRage (full version is pre-installed for free) and OneNote do.
Another great pen feature in Windows 7 is digital ink. Simply writing either in print form or cursive will yield impressive results. The handwriting recognition amazes me every time. Windows 7 supports 26 languages for ink recognition. But that’s a huge topic in and of itself and worthy of a separate post. However to give you an idea of some of the cool ink features, check out this video. Note that this video was not created on the EP121. I just happened to come across it on YouTube:
Smartphone users today enjoy a very fast and fluid touch experience. So it’s not a stretch for users to expect that same experience on all of their touch devices. But implementing a great touch solution on a 12.1″ PC system is a very different challenge than implementing it on a 3, 4 or even 10 inch device. Doing it well requires a fast processor, fast graphics and well tuned digitizer. Using the included Microsoft Surface Collage software (yes – that Surface), I put the EP121 through the paces – and well – seeing is believing…
Yes – the EP121 is a full PC and as such, Adobe Flash can run on it. It’s even pre-installed. But pre-installed doesn’t necessarily mean it can run it well. I took a trip to YouTube to check it out:
Besides the stellar performance, I was very happy with the loudness and clarity of the stereo speakers built into the EP121. They are located on the left and right bottom edges which means they won’t get muffled when the slate is resting on your lap – nice!
Once a user goes through the usual configurations prompts of a new PC (entering a date, time, user name, etc) the desktop appears. Normally we are exposed to a desktop that is covered with icons, a dozen or so trial offer popup messages, anti-virus warnings, etc. If you’ve ever purchased a PC before, you likely know the experience all too well. Get ready – this is what the desktop looks like on the EP121 at first boot:
It almost looks like a clean installation! There is no pre-loaded anti-virus software, no “special offers” or annoying prompts to wade through. Just Windows! Even the desktop background is the default Windows background! The only pop-up I received was a registration notice for the Asus support site (which I was happy to do). If you look closely, the only visual difference between this desktop and a clean Windows installation is the Windows Live Photo Gallery icon and Device Stage icon in the taskbar. Clicking on the Device Stage icon revealed a customised folder with relevant links for the EP121 like the User Manual and pointers to some of the included software – like ArtRage!
Incidentally, if you want a decent and free anti-virus program that won’t slow down your system, I suggest checking out Microsoft Security Essentials. I use it on all my personal machines – runs great and never bugs me to renew a subscription:
By this time you should have a sense of the performance of the Asus EP121. It’s a full featured, full powered, fast touch and pen PC in a beautiful slate form factor. But how does it rate with Winsat? The i5 CPU and the SSD scored a very good 5.5 and 5.9 rating respectively while the lowest scoring component was the desktop graphics which came in at 3.2. That’s pretty amazing considering my home theater PC with nVidia graphics scored a 4.0 in that category. And as the videos above show you – graphics performance and indeed system performance is not an issue. Here’s the full Winsat breakdown:
The EP121 packs alot of technology in a slender package that weighs only 2.5 lbs. There’s the big, bright and beautiful 12.1″ display, the capacitive touch and EM pen digitizers, the fast dual core i5 CPU, bluetooth and WiFi radios, the SSD and all of the expansion ports. And it even has a storage compartment for the pen. The result is there isn’t alot of room left over for a large battery. And all of those components need power. So as you might expect the battery life is not on par with the 10 hour netbooks we see today. But then again those netbooks are a mere shadow of the technology and performance the EP121 delivers. The EP121 is a full featured PC for folks who need it.
Given all of that, I was surprised that the battery lasted as long as it did. There are of course all sorts of benchmarks out there for measuring battery life. But like I mentioned earlier when talking about boot time, I use simple metrics. For me there are two battery life numbers I care about: First is the length of time the battery lasts when I’m doing work (email, web browsing, writing documents, powerpoint and the occasional video) and second is the length of time the batttery lasts when I’m watching a movie. Here’s how the EP121 has been measuring up so far:
For work related activities where I don’t leave the PC and work non-stop until the battery is depleted (5%), I get between 3.5 and 4 hours. The variation seems to be related to how much YouTube I consume. If it’s a heavy YouTube day, I lean to the 3.5 hour time and if it’s a light YouTube day I am closer to 4 hours. That works out just fine for me as I usually need a break at that point and plugging it in for an hour while I grab lunch gets me through the rest of the day more or less. And if I’m using it sporadically throughout the day, it pops in and out of sleep mode which greatly increases my “range”. Note that my work is a combination of using the bluetooth keyboard, pen and touch. So bluetooth and WiFi are on all the time.
For movie playback I watched an MPEG 2 (DVD) movie playing off the SSD in full screen mode and the battery lasted a full 3 hours. I wasn’t expecting that so I charged it up and tried it again. And it ran for 3 hours – again. For me that means I can get through a full movie on a flight without plugging it in. I was happy with that result.
Well what’s left to say really. The Asus EP121 doesn’t dissapoint and will be by my side for a long long time. Hope you found this tour helpful.