The major players in the laptop business are well-established. Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Toshiba, and others have all been making portable computers for 20-plus years. That's why it's surprising that we've seen not one, but two fresh takes on laptops from first-time PC makers in 2012. First was the Razer Blade, from the accessory company Razer. The second is a new line of laptops from Vizio, best known for its big-screen televisions.
In both cases, these are new laptops, designed from the ground up. Both are thin, midsize systems, with an eye toward creating a premium product line. The Blade looked very cool, but famously went off the rails trying to do too much that was unfamiliar. The Vizio line, represented here by the 14-inch CT14-A2, doesn't mess with the archetype too much and hits more often than it misses.
This 14-inch is technically an ultrabook, although it doesn't particularly promote Intel's trademarked ultrabook branding. It's very thin, and feels especially light in the hand, and its all-metal construction gives it a very high-end vibe. Of course, at $1,199 for this Core i7/256GB solid-state drive (SSD) configuration, it is a high-end laptop. A more reasonable Core i3 version, with a 128GB SSD, is $899 (still expensive for a Core i3 laptop), while a middle-ground Core i5/128GB SSD version is $949. All have 1,600x900-pixel-resolution displays, 4GB of RAM, and Intel HD 4000 graphics.
While the thin, sturdy chassis is exactly the kind of thing Dell, HP, and others have been struggling to get right for a long time, there are some potential deal killers. The touch pad is just unresponsive enough to be annoying. The keyboard is a nonisland throwback, like an old MacBook Pro keyboard, but with shallower keys. Battery life is unimpressive. And, oddly, there's no SD card slot, which is a surprising omission; even $299 Netbooks include that basic feature.
If you can live within those restrictions, it's very hard not to like the Vizio CT14. For a first-shot laptop, it looks and feels great, and it's exactly the kind of rock-solid, ultrathin midsize laptop I wish more companies would make. As it is, Vizio's inaugural laptop is a few tweaks (admittedly very important ones) away from being a top-tier product.
|Price as reviewed||$1,199|
|Processor||1.9GHz Intel Core i7-3517U|
|Memory||4GB, 1,333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||256GB SSD|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||13.3x9.2 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||14 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||3.4 pounds / 4.2 pounds|
With a matte silver-gray finish and sharp angles, the Vizio CT14 stands out from a sea of shiny, soft-focus laptops with gently sloping curves and reflective surfaces. If anything, it's a much more "home theater" look, which is appropriate for a company largely concerned with creating unobtrusive, minimalist big-screen televisions.
Some 14-inch ultrabooks push the spirit, if not the letter of Intel's official ultrabook specs, with bodies nearly 1 inch thick, non-SSD storage, optical drives, and weights that come close to 4 pounds. Fortunately, the Vizio CT14 doesn't walk that close to the edge, coming in at 3.4 pounds and 0.67 inch thick. It's one of those laptops that feels even lighter than it looks, but only because it retains a healthy desktop footprint for a 14-inch laptop.
The side edges bevel in for the front three-quarters of the system's depth. That leaves less room for ports and connections, but creates a natural rounded grip to lift the laptop up by when it's open and sitting right in front of you. Few laptop makers think of ergonomic touches such as this.
The keyboard is one of the most notable deviations from the norm. Instead of the island-style keys that have become nearly universal, these are wide, flat keys that sit nearly edge-to-edge. The key faces taper just a little around the edges, and the keys are the same silver-gray color as the rest of the system interior, making the keyboard look very much like the classic MacBook Pro from a couple of generations ago. Unlike on that now-defunct Apple keyboard, however, there is a decent amount of flex while typing, even away from the center of the keyboard tray.
One nice touch is a system tray icon that will reverse the tasks on the Function key row, so you don't have to hold down the Fn key to raise or lower the volume via F8 or F9, for example.
The click-pad-style touch pad, like many ultrabook touch pads, drops the left and right mouse buttons for a single surface, with click zones built into the lower corners of the pad itself. This is one of the hardest components for any laptop maker to get right, and the right-mouse click zone takes a little concentration to hit consistently. There's also a tiny bit of that laggy, unresponsive feeling that drives me crazy. That said, the multifinger gestures, such as two-finger scrolling, were very responsive, as if the sensitivity on those functions had been cranked way up.
Vizio touts, as part of a partnership with Microsoft, a clean, bloatware-free operating system, without the usual preloaded software packages, advertising come-ons, and other annoying desktop detritus. It's a shame that needs to be called out as a feature, when it should really be called "not screwing up the user experience in the first place."
The 14-inch display has a 1,600x900-pixel native resolution, which is standard across all three CT14 configurations, regardless of price. That's really the ideal resolution for 13- and 14-inch laptops, and it gives you the best balance of readability and screen real estate. That said, the screen itself was a mixed bag. It had that subtle wavy quality you see in some budget laptops, but at the same time, it's an IPS screen, and the one on our test model was bright, colorful, and even had good off-axis viewing angles.
As is typical of thin laptops, the CT14's sound quality is similarly thin. It's fine for online TV or movie viewing, or some music in a pinch, and the volume level actually gets surprisingly high.
|Vizio CT14-A2||Average for category [midsize]|
|Video||HDMI||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone jack||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||2 USB 3.0||2 USB 3.0, 2 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
|Optical drive||None||DVD burner|
Vizio made a few bold choices regarding what to include in and what to omit from the CT14. Two USB 3.0 ports are included, but an SD card reader and Ethernet jack are not. Practically the only other laptop I can think of that doesn't have an SD card slot right now is the 11-inch MacBook Air. I'm not saying that's a deal killer, but it's certainly something to think about.
Vizio currently has three configurations of this 14-inch ultrabook. This review unit is the highest-end model, the CT14-A2, which has an Intel Core i7 CPU and a 256GB SSD. The CT14-A1 has a Core i5 and a 128GB SSD, while the CT14-A0 has a Core i3 CPU and the same 128GB SSD. All three models have the same 4GB of RAM and Intel HD 4000 graphics.