Vizio, the company that sells millions of HDTVs at Costco, Walmart and Sam's Club every year, set its sights on cracking something different this summer: the Windows laptop market, and it didn't just want to be another player. It wanted to stick out in the sea of similar ultrabooks (a term coined by Intel to describe a new category of thin and light Windows laptops).
Vizio focused on design, struck a deal with Microsoft to preload a clean version of Windows and perhaps most important, figured out how to offer what it does best in TVs: a good array of specs at an affordable price (the 14-inch version starts at $898, $948 for the 15-inch model).
But I had one question when the Vizio Thin + Light 14" Laptop arrived on my doorstep for review: Can a company that has been so successful at creating and selling affordable televisions really hack it as a computer maker?
It was when I was getting the laptop out of the box or my bag at work that I was the most impressed with the machine. The design is striking, with chiseled edges that give it a distinct look from all the other thin and light laptops out there that are just aping the MacBook Air design.
But even better than the look is how it feels. The aluminum body makes it very solid, but the soft-touch black bottom is smooth and easy to grip. And because the 0.7-inch thin laptop is so lean and weighs only 3.4-pounds, it's really easy to grab out of a bag or grab off a desk and port around in one hand.
My one design complaint, though, is that the edges are a bit too sharp, making it very hard to open the front of the laptop. You have to really dig a nail in between the bottom and top lid to pry it open. Speaking of edges, Vizio made room on this laptop for two USB 3.0 ports, a headphone jack and a full-sided HDMI jack. Sadly, there is no SD card slot.
Once you get that lid open and start using the keyboard and trackpad, though, things take a turn for the worse. While the palmrest and the rest of the laptop is made of metal, Vizio went with a plastic keyboard and touchpad, and the result is a subpar experience. The keyboard is mushy, and the keys are just overly plasticy. It's also not backlit, so it's hard to see in the dark. (Vizio does say it is working on a special backlight technology for its next laptops.) The touchpad's texture is less problematic, but it's flakiness is the biggest problem plaguing this laptop.
The mouse buttons are integrated into the pad, and I consistently saw the cursor get stuck or worse jump to a different position on the screen when I was trying to navigate around. Multitouch gestures, like two-finger scrolling and pinch-to-zoom, are actually better than on some other Windows 7 laptops. But the trackpad experience sums up what I said in a previous column: It has been difficult for laptop makers to get the touch right. Vizio says it is currently fine-tuning the drivers to improve the touch area, but as of right now it puts a damper on the entire experience.
The screen, on the other hand, is better than most laptops in this price range: It has a higher 1600 x900-resolution and a better quality panel. While I appreciated the resolution for fitting more on the screen, there's a bit of a graininess that's visible. (The new Lenovo X1 Carbon has a much nicer 1600 x 900 screen, but that laptop starts at $1,299.)
Thanks to the Core i7 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 256GB solid-state drive inside my unit (cheaper units have lower-grade processors and less hard drive space), the laptop proved very speedy. It boot up in just under 20 seconds and resumed from sleep in three seconds. Even better, the laptop isn't slowed down by preloaded software.
It runs a Signature version of Windows 7, so there's no "crapware," including ads or promotional apps, polluting the desktop. I had no problems doing my everyday tasks on the machine, which consists of streaming music while simultaneously writing in Microsoft Office, surfing the web with more than 15 tabs open in Google Chrome, and checking my Twitter feed in MetroTwit. It also streams HD video smoothly.
But I found out early on that I wasn't going to be able to do all that away from a socket for long. The battery in the laptop lasted for four and a half hours during regular use. On a video rundown test, which loops a high-definition video with brightness set at 65 percent, the laptop lasted three hours and 50 minutes. That's shorter than the MacBook Air's six and a half hours and the Samsung Series 9's five hours and 30 minutes.
So, can a company that has been so successful at creating and selling affordable televisions really hack it as a computer maker? It certainly shows promise.
Vizio's first laptop entry gets a lot right -- a nice design, clean software, good performance. However, the vitals -- a good keyboard and touchpad -- hold it back from standout status. Those looking for a larger screen, Windows 7 ultrabook should go for the Samsung Series 9. The MacBook Air is also a great choice for those in need of a thin and light laptop that can do it all.