Since its inception, Windows 8 has had something of an identity crisis. The operating system demands to be touched, with bold tiles optimized for swipes and gestures. But we've grown spoiled by having a proper mouse (or touchpad) and keyboard to get us through the day, in spite of the proliferation of smartphones and tablets.
Some devices try to offer the best of both worlds, splitting from keyboard bases or bending over backward for our comfort. Others, like the $700 Asus VivoBook S451, graft a touchscreen onto a run-of-the-mill laptop chassis and call it a day. While this has a relatively budget price, it doesn't justify the compromises you'll have to make to make this machine a worthwhile.
Note that like many Asus laptops, our exact version of the VivoBook S451 can go in and out of stock at online retailers, and you may find slightly different sets of components at different prices depending on when and where you look. Our review unit has a 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 6GB of RAM, and a 500GB HDD. Keeping it firmly in the budget zone is a low-resolution 1,366x768-pixel native screen resolution.
|Asus VivoBook S451LA||Dell Inspiron 14 7000 Series||Acer Aspire E1 472G-6844|
|Price as reviewed||$699||$1,049||$599|
|Display size/resolution||14-inch, 1,366 x 768 screen||14-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 touch-screen||14-inch, 1,366 x 768 screen|
|PC CPU||1.6GHz Intel Core i5 4200U||1.8GHz Intel Core i7 4500U||1.6GHz Intel Core i5 4200U|
|PC memory||6GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz||8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz||8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz|
|Graphics||32MB Intel HD Graphics 4400||1792MB shared Intel HD Graphics 4400||2048MB Nvidia Geforce 820M|
|Storage||500GB 5,400rpm hard drive||32GB SSD 500GB 5,400rpm hard drive||500GB 5,400rpm hard drive|
|Networking||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Windows 8.1 (64-bit)||Windows 8.1 (64-bit)||Windows 8.1 (64-bit)|
Design and features
Let's take a step back: it is kind of pretty, isn't it? In a deceptive sort of way, with a brushed-metal lid that gives it the appearance of a much pricier machine. And the height -- a mere 0.97 inch thick -- makes it look eminently totable, the sort of svelte machine you could just toss into a bag. But the VivoBook S451LA weighs 4.8 pounds, which is well on the onerous side.
The notebook has a 14-inch touchscreen, which seems rad. But then you open it up, and see that it offers a measly 1,366x768 pixels of screen real estate, and it's also not very good: viewing angles are incredibly limited, with colors inverting and looking washed out with the smallest shift in angle. I find myself constantly adjusting the hinge, hunting for that mythical perfect angle where I can sit comfortably and still see clearly -- this will prove problematic if you like to move about much. That said, it is a touchscreen. It's responsive and handles Windows 8's gestures with aplomb, but its hinge isn't very rigid, wobbling rather annoyingly as I tap through menus.
I've grown accustomed to glass or matte touchpads, so the overly glossy one on this VivoBook feels a bit too slippery for my taste. Gestures are problematic, as the touchpad is occasionally imprecise. This is compounded by the extra tricks included to emulate Windows 8's touch gestures: swipe in from the right edge of the touchpad, and you'll bring up the charms menu. Swipe in from the left to quickly switch between running applications, while swiping down from the touchpad's top edge calls up Windows 8's context-sensitive menu bar. You'll also get the typical pinching and panning to manipulate photos that we've come to expect from modern machines.
My fingers have admittedly grown accustomed to sliding rather lazily across the MacBook Air's touchpad, but getting Asus' gestures to work requires a bit of finagling, with swipes that are too fast or not close enough to the edge simply failing to register. Fortunately, most of this is customizable: fire up Asus' Smart Gesture menu and you can disable just about every touchpad function and enable some new ones, including three- and four-finger gestures. Things don't get much better on the keyboard. The chiclet keys are suitably wide and comfortable enough to type on, but they're also very shallow: my fingers are constantly bumping into the laptop's frame, which doesn't necessarily affect accuracy but is rather annoying.
Worst of all, the keyboard isn't backlit. I'm a capable touch-typist and won't go so far as to call backlighting mandatory, but I'd be hard-pressed to recommend any notebook keyboard that becomes all but invisible should you choose to work or play in dark spaces. You'll also need to hold down a Function key to access media controls and the like -- many keyboards give those important controls priority, so it's a shame Asus hasn't followed suit.
The rest of the VivoBook S451LA's hardware isn't spectacular, but par for the course at this price. It's powered by a 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U processor, with 6GB of RAM. There's 500GB of storage via a 5,400rpm spinning platter drive, sorely disappointing in the era of the SSD (but to be expected at this price). The S451LA also offers a DVD burner, a relic from bygone days when most data came on discs instead of the Internet. In all seriousness, it probably doesn't add much to the overall weight, so it's a welcome addition. You'll also get 3GB of free cloud storage care of Asus' WebStorage platform, which is nice.
There's a Gigabit Ethernet jack running along the left side of the machine, a feature that'll become harder to find as Ultrabooks continue their race to thinness. The other option for getting online is 802.11n Wi-Fi, and you'll also find Bluetooth 4.0 built-in. The rest of your connectivity options aren't too bad: two USB 3.0 ports sit alongside an HDMI output jack on the left side of the machine, while the right offers an SD card reader, a combination microphone/headphone jack, a USB 2.0 port, and the aforementioned DVD burner.
There are speakers, but as is generally the case with laptops on the lower end of the price spectrum, you're going to want to go ahead and stick to headphones or an external pair. Despite Asus' SonicMaster branding and a few equalizer presets, the speakers can sound a bit hollow.
Ports and connections
|Asus VivoBook S451|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, combination headphone/microphone jack|
|Data||2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
|Optical drive||DVD+RW drive|
Connections, performance, and battery
The VivoBook's Core i5-4200U processor sits in that illustrious "good enough" category. While it lags behind competitors on every single one of CNET's performance tests, I didn't have too much trouble with day-to-day usage. Windows 8 remains appreciably zippy, with applications loading in a reasonable amount of time and always moving at a steady clip. Starting the machine up takes about 12 seconds, which feels a bit long but not exactly a deal breaker -- that's more of a credit to the operating system than the hardware, as an SSD would certainly improve things.
Unfortunately, you also can't do much better: the S451LA can be configured with up to a Core i7-4500U, but there are no SSD options. The fastest storage option is a 750GB 7,200rpm drive, while the largest is a 1TB 5,400rpm drive. You'll also find a dizzying array of prices for the model we tested, though Amazon currently has it for $669.69 (as of this publication date).
The VivoBook's reliance on Intel's integrated graphics means that any sort of high- or medium-end gaming is out of the question. Fortunately, there are plenty of games on the Windows 8 store and around the Web that'll chug along just fine on this hardware.