Vizio makes laptops? Yes, it does. This year, the TV company revealed a grand plan to shake up the Windows PC industry by creating its own computers. It began with a mysterious Super Bowl ad, but it wasn't long before the world got a glimpse of Vizio's first machines: an iconic series of three slim silver notebooks and two all-in-one PCs. Well-known for producing decent televisions at fantastic bargains, Vizio was expected to keep up that bang-for-the-buck trend in the laptop realm, and the company's price points seem to agree. Today, we're reviewing Vizio's top-of-the-line ultrabook, a 15.6-inch aluminum computer with a 1.9GHz Core i7 ULV processor, 256GB of solid state storage and a crisp 1080p screen... for a mere $1,249 MSRP.
What no one expected was Vizio's promise not to cut corners on quality. When we visited the all-American electronics company's headquarters last month, CTO Matt McRae explained: "We basically built a $2,000 PC for half the price — that's how we approached it. We didn't skimp on a single thing." There's no bloatware on these Vizio computers, no tacky stickers to remove, and most surprisingly of all, the company promised us that the trackpad — a pain point for Windows machines — would be nearly perfect when the laptops arrived at retail.
That balance of high quality and low price is a tall order for any laptop vendor, much less a company designing its very first PCs. Did Vizio pull it off? Let's find out.
Hardware / design
Seriously sharp design
If stark minimalism is your definition of beauty, Vizio's CT15 Thin + Light should definitely fill the bill. It's all about bare metal surfaces and sharp edges; sometimes literally, as my wrists can attest after using the laptop for a while. The only physical connectivity you'll find are a pair of USB 3.0 sockets on either side, a 3.5mm headset jack on the left, and an HDMI port on the right. Even the typically omnipresent Kensington lock slot doesn't come along for a ride, and you're out of luck if SD cards are your sneakernet of choice. Your first impression, though, will probably be how lightweight the CT15 is compared to its size. Mind you, the 15-inch Samsung Series 9 is lighter still, but at just under four pounds Vizio's machine is definitely respectable.
|Dimensions (in.)||Thickness||Weight (lb.)|
|Vizio 15.6-inch Thin + Light (CT15)||14.9 x 9.9||0.68||3.96|
|Vizio 15.6-inch Notebook (CN15)||14.9 x 9.9||0.86||5.28|
|Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, 2012)||14.0 x 9.3||0.58||3.51|
|HP Envy 14 Spectre||12.88 x 8.7||0.79||3.79|
|Lenovo IdeaPad U310||13.1 x 8.8||0.7||3.8|
|Dell XPS 14 (2012)||13.2 x 9.2||0.81||4.6|
|MacBook Air (2012, 13-inch)||12.8 x 8.94||0.11 - 0.68||2.96|
|Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A||12.8 x 8.8||0.11 - 0.71||2.86|
|HP Folio 13||12.54 x 8.67||0.71||3.3|
|Lenovo IdeaPad U300s||12.8 x 8.5||0.58||2.90|
|Dell XPS 13||12.4 x 8.1||0.24 - 0.71||2.99|
While the entire lid and hinge design is more or less lifted from Apple's MacBook Pro, it otherwise only bears a passing resemblance to that PC. As with the MacBook, the deck is all anodized aluminum, but here the keyboard, touchpad, speaker grille and even the power button are all flat and practically flush with the surface. Vizio told us that the original goal was to blend them right into the anodized aluminum deck, so as to accentuate the large screen, and even though the design department eventually relaxed that notion, you can still see the genesis of the idea. It definitely looks futuristic.
Meanwhile, the entire beveled aluminum base is coated in a black soft-touch plastic that accomplishes three goals with aplomb: it insulates the user's lap from heat (a la Dell's XPS 14), it makes the unit easy to grip, and it disguises the laptop's thickness as well. I'm not quite sure who came up with the idea first, but it's a great one: the shiny metal rim catches the eye, the beveled black edges don't, and the whole metal surface appears to float on air as a result. It's quite striking. It also doesn't hurt that Vizio fought and won a battle to remove the tacky Windows and Intel stickers from the palmrests. Huzzah! In fact, there are really only three points of flair that break up the symmetrical design: one Vizio logo at the bottom right corner of the screen bezel, a light-up Vizio logo on the back, and a glowing white power / sleep indicator at the very front, underneath the notch for the lid. Speaking of that notch, it's not quite big enough. The lid closes quite solidly and firmly, with what feels like a magnetic clasp to hold it down, and the notch doesn't give quite enough purchase to easily lift it back up.
Just because there's an emphasis on minimalism and materials, though, doesn't mean the build quality is top-notch. Unlike most aluminum-heavy designs I've used recently, the CT15 can flex and warp to some degree. It doesn't seem fragile or anything like that, but my machine came slightly warped out of the box, which doesn't inspire confidence in Vizio's quality control. It also came with ugly seams where the aluminum deck and soft-touch base meet, and a few of the keys on the keyboard were mounted slightly askew.
Screen and speakers
Just like a good TV: excellent picture, terrible speakers
Vizio has a history of negotiating with display manufacturers, and you can see that experience in the CT15 Thin + Light's beautiful screen. The 15.6-inch, 1080p IPS panel doesn't have incredible pixel density or a exceptional color gamut, but it is decidedly crisp and clear, blacks are noticibly deep, and the dark bezel (also see: Samsung's Series 9) can help give that screen the illusion of floating on air. The display also has great viewing angles, as you'd expect from IPS: you lose a lot of brightness when viewing off-center, but the colors don't wash out or invert even from extreme positions. It's also a matte display, so you can use it in a bright room without reflections disturbing your work. All told, it's superb for a $1,249 machine, and considering you get the same exact screen even on the entry-level $900 version, it's quite the steal.
In fact, it'd be fantastic for watching the occasional movie, if not for the CT15's audio quality. Vizio uses SRS audio enhancement softare on the Thin + Light, and it definitely improves the volume, depth, and field of the overall sound, but it's not nearly enough to compensate for the laptop's tiny, tinny drivers. Only songs with very little dynamic range and movie dialogue came through loud and clear: everything else gets distorted or compressed. It's also rather disconcerting to hear the SRS software control the volume in real time: solo singers will often be quite loud, but as soon as the band's instruments begin to play or the chorus picks up, you can often hear the entire song go quiet to avoid revealing how iffy the speakers are. For occasional listening, they'll be okay, but you'll want headphones before long.
Keyboard and touchpad
The moment of truth. Did Vizio satisfactorily fix the extremely shallow keyboard and iffy touchpad in time for retail? No, not quite. With days or weeks of practice, you could probably get used to either one, but that doesn't make them good.
Individually, there's nothing wrong with Vizio's UV-coated plastic keys. If you like flat keycaps, the non-stick surfaces actually feel pretty nice. When they're arranged tightly into a single flat layer, though, you run into a bit of trouble. Let's start with the easiest issue to overcome: Though each key has chamfers to theoretically help you discover their edges, in practice it's a little hard to tell some of them apart. While writing this review, I often hit the Caps Lock key when I meant to hit A, the Up arrow when I meant to press Down, and the Windows key when I was going for Alt. Realistically, you'll probably get used to the arrangement, but it can be jarring at first.
More troublesome is the way the keys actually work. They're shallow, yes, but it's not just about the height. You have to press a certain amount to overcome the key's initial resistance, and then it sharply bottoms out, with no padding beneath the mechanism to keep your fingers from getting a stiff (if tiny) shock whenever you do so. So, I could just learn to type more lightly and avoid the pain, right? Wrong. Vizio's keys don't all seem to reliably detect a press, either, unless you push them all the way down. The inverse is also true: if you let up on a button even the slightest amount, the laptop decides that you've stopped pressing it. I'm writing this entire review on the Vizio CT15 itself, and my finger joints are feeling very stiff right about now. There's also no backlight on this keyboard. That's not a huge issue, because the silver keys reflect some light from the screen, but backlighting is fairly standard on premium laptop keyboards these days.
The CT15's single-button touchpad is made by Sentilic, and while I don't know whether Vizio or Sentilic are truly responsible for the result, it's not ready to go head-to-head with the best trackpads on the market. The actual physical surface, a textured mylar, isn't bad. It doesn't take a lot of force to press the physical button, for one thing. I found my fingers could glide fairly well after giving it a nice coat of finger oil, but it can be a little sticky, too, which is even more problematic given how much desktop real estate the 1080p screen gives you. If you stop just short of your destination with the mouse cursor, the amount of force it takes to overcome friction can make you overshoot your goal. Two-finger scrolling is smooth... at least once it starts.
The problem is that gestures lag behind your inputs. Pages won't begin to scroll until a moment after you start dragging your fingers across the pad, and pinch-to-zoom (a more difficult gesture to detect) will seem to stop and start in fits because of the delayed reaction. The most noticible and annoying delay is with tap-to-click, though: it can take a third of a second for the touchpad to register a tap, a lot longer than an actual click. The software's a bit limited, too: there are no four-finger multitasking gestures, three-finger gestures are limited to paging and off by default, and palm rejection is a little bit lacking, too.
Just because the company's already shipping laptops doesn't mean Vizio intends to stop working on the touchpad, though: I got to try newer beta drivers, and there's some good news to report.
The newer drivers make two-finger scrolling smooth and responsive, and makes the cursor disappear when you begin typing to keep a stray touch from disturbing your work. Unfortunately, tap-to-click and pinch-to-zoom are still as unresponsive as before. Vizio also tried to fix the friction issue by reducing the speed the cursor moves when your finger slows down, but it overcompensates a bit; now, instead of overshooting my goal, I repeatedly fell short of it. It's heartening that work continues, though, and updates should be easy when they come, automatically prompting you via Windows Update rather than requiring you to go to Vizio's website for a download.
Performance and software
If you've seen one Intel Ivy Bridge ultra-low-voltage notebook with 4GB of RAM and integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics, you've pretty much seen them all. That's a very good thing, though. With a 1.9GHz Core i7-3517U processor (that turbos up to 3GHz) and a 256GB solid state drive, the CT15-A2 is only a little bit faster than other ultrabooks and lags behind standard-voltage machines with discrete video chips, but as we've seen time and again, the formula is quick and responsive for most things you'd want to do with a laptop. If you're looking for a day-to-day workhorse to do spreadsheets, websites, play HD video and some very light gaming, it should handle itself nicely, multitasking with ease. The 256GB Toshiba THNSNS256GMCP solid state drive aquitted itself particularly well, imbuing the laptop with super-speedy 16 second boots, two-second wake times, and maximum sequential transfer rates of up to 500MB / sec read and 330MB / sec write in an AS-SSD benchmark.
|Vizio 15.6-inch Thin + Light (CT15-A2)||11,087||P3,221|
|Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, NP900X3C)||9,173||P3,071|
|Acer Aspire S5||12,379||P3,407|
|Lenovo ThinkPad X230||8,269||P3,159|
|Dell XPS 14 (2012)||10,227||P4,373|
|Lenovo IdeaPad U310||6,916||P2,402|
|Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, NP900X4B)||10,404||P1,693|
|HP Envy 14 Spectre (early 2012)||9,121||P1,526|
|Dell XPS 13||10,242||P1,697|
And thanks to a deal with Microsoft, there's nary a spec of software bloat holding that hardware back. Every Vizio PC is a Microsoft Signature PC, which is a fancy way of saying it ships with a clean build of Windows 7 with just the barest of Microsoft tweaks. In this case, that means you'll start with desktop wallpaper that rotates between Bing images, see shortcuts to Windows Live apps on the toolbar, and find SRS audio and the benign Microsoft Security Essentials in the system tray. That's about it. It's refreshing to be free of Norton Internet Security pop-ups, among other things. Vizio's touting the clean software slate as a major selling point for its computers, but I hope it won't be a distinguishing factor for long: I'd like to see every manufacturer remove the cruft as Vizio has done.
If you need do quad-core processing, game-capable graphics and more space, Vizio's got another laptop worth mentioning here. For $50 less, the $1,199 CN15-A2 (not to be confused with this CT15-A2) has a standard-voltage Core i7-3610QM processor, Nvidia GeForce GT 640M LE graphics, 1TB of magnetic storage, a 32GB solid state cache, a larger battery, Gigabit Ethernet and an SD card slot. The notebook's also thicker and a good bit heavier at 5.3 pounds, so don't expect that one to be "Thin + Light."
Quick and clean
Battery life, heat, and noise
If it weren't for MobileMark 2007, it wouldn't meet ultrabook requirements
|Vizio 15.6-inch Thin + Light||3:24|
|Lenovo ThinkPad X230||7:10|
|HP Folio 13||7:07 |
|Dell XPS 14 (2012)||6:59|
|Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, early 2012)||6:01|
|Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A||5:46|
|MacBook Air (13-inch, mid-2012)||5:34|
|Lenovo IdeaPad U300s||5:33|
|Sony VAIO Z (2011)||5:27|
|Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, mid-2012)||5:19|
|HP Envy 14 Spectre (early 2012)||5:14|
|Dell XPS 13||4:55|
|Lenovo IdeaPad U310||4:32|
|Acer Aspire S5||4:24|
You'd probably think that a 15-inch laptop with a ULV processor would have longer battery life than the recent crop of 13-inch ultrabooks, simply because it has more space for the battery to go. That's how it was with the Samsung Series 9, at least. In the case of the Vizio CT15 Thin + Light, though, you'd be dead wrong. When I conducted our Verge Battery Test, which cycles through a series of popular websites and high-res images with the screen set to 65 percent brightness, the CT15 lasted only three hours and 24 minutes before the laptop died. In my real-world testing, which consists of actually using the laptop as my primary machine for a full work day, I got three hours and fifteen minutes before Windows notified me that the battery was at 10 percent. Just five minutes later, it gave up the ghost. Simply put, that's terrible. Forget all-day battery life or a long flight — with the CT15, you'd barely make it to lunchtime.
It must be particularly aggravating to Intel to see the CT15's performance, because the company's ultrabook marketing campaign requires that laptops have a minimum of five hours of battery life. Vizio promises 5.5 hours from this particular configuration. How can the company get away with that? It's measured using the dated MobileMark 2007 benchmark, which is extremely lenient about such things. It's an industry-standard tool, but it's really showing its age.
On the plus side, Vizio's Thin + Light does dissipate heat fairly well, and with a minimum of noise. The fan's audible, but just barely, and though both the upper-left-hand corner by the charging port and the area above the primary vent can get rather hot under load, the palmrests, keyboard, and rubber-coated base all feel fairly well insulated from the heat when it does so.
Believe it or not, Vizio wasn't the only company that tried to break into the Windows PC industry this year with a shiny new laptop. In March, we reviewed the Razer Blade, a gorgeous black beast of a laptop. What could Vizio's inexpensive ultrabook have to do with a $2000+ gaming PC? Both manufacturers were so laser-focused on design that they failed to address the primary need for their machines. With Razer, the raw performance of the Blade couldn't match up with its price tag and the expectations of the gamers it served. With Vizio, the price is right, but people buy thin and light computers looking for portability, and the uncomfortable keyboard, iffy touchpad, lack of ports, and disappointing battery life make it extremely difficult to use on the go.
All that said, this isn't Vizio's only new computer. We're looking forward to trying the smaller 14-inch model, the thicker, more powerful 15.6-inch model, and one of the company's slick all-in-one PCs as well.