Windows 8 may have one foot solidly planted in the future, but in the present it needs to be a reliable OS for everyday computers, too. While Macs are pricier, Windows PCs have always been what to look at if you're on a budget: this Asus VivoBook S400CA is meant to be exactly that sort of value machine, with a price tag of $700 and a touch screen to boot.
"VivoBook" is a new Asus brand, adding to an already densely crowded galaxy of Asus laptop products. But, top to bottom, the VivoBook S400CA is really just your classic 2012 mainstream budget ultrabook, made a little thicker and outfitted with a touch screen. That's not such a bad thing, but it's hardly unique: we've seen a lot of budget picks recently, including the Acer Aspire V5 and M5 481PT. The Acer M5 has a DVD drive, too.
What does the VivoBook offer that other laptops don't? Nothing, really. The design's reasonably attractive, but a slim Zenbook this is not. The battery life is serviceable, not stellar, and the laptop's not all that comfortable to use.
Considering the VivoBook S400CA as a total package, I'm left with a lukewarm feeling. It's less expensive than many touch-enabled laptops, but still not cheap enough, thin enough, powerful enough, or well-designed enough to stake a definitive spot above the competition. It's good, but not great -- and I have a feeling that 2013 will present a ton of similar-looking, more competitively priced alternatives.
|Price as reviewed||$699|
|Processor||1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U|
|Memory||4GB, 1,600MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||500GB, 5,400rpm + 24GB SSD hybrid|
|Graphics||Intel HD 4000|
|Operating system||Windows 8 (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||13.4x9.4 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||14 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||4.1 pounds / 4.8 pounds|
Bigger than your average ultrabook
The Asus Zenbook was notable largely for being the closest thing in terms of surface design to a MacBook Air for Windows. The VivoBook takes some of those touches and incorporates them into a larger, thicker laptop made with a combination of metal and plastic.
The VivoBook certainly looks nice: from its black brushed-metal back lid to its silver aluminum interior and black-bezeled screen covered in edge-to-edge glass, I found myself wanting to pick it up and review it immediately. Once I did, some of that initial joy faded away.
The VivoBook S400CA is heavy -- not a block of lead, but heavier than an ultrabook. It looks astonishingly like a MacBook Air from the front (with the addition of the edge-to-edge glass and black bezels), but it's 0.83 inch thick and weighs 4 pounds. Granted, this is a 14-inch laptop, but it lacks a DVD drive or any higher-end graphics and features other than a touch screen.
Touch screen vs. keyboard and touch pad
That capacitive touch screen, much like the screens on other Windows 8 computers and tablets, feels very responsive, similar to screens on modern smartphones or tablets. The lid bends back pretty far on a somewhat stiff hinge, and the upper lid feels like it doesn't flex when you're touching and tapping at any angle.
The screen quality, however, is fair at best. A 1,366x768-pixel resolution is the generic baseline for laptops, and the screen brightness feels soft. Off-axis vertical viewing isn't good, either, but you can at least see the screen decently from side to side. The screen threw off some glare in my office, too. It's good enough for average use, and touch works very well.
Another letdown: the keyboard. The raised chiclet-style keys aren't backlit, and feel mushier to the touch than those of other high-end keyboards. The only backlit key is the power button. Volume and screen brightness controls layered on top of the Fn keys aren't function-reversed, either, which means to use them you need to hunt down the Fn key to press simultaneously.
A very large multitouch clickpad lies flush with the palm rest, making off-edge finger gestures a breeze. Responsiveness feels mixed, but it's a better experience than on other recent Windows 8 laptops I've seen from Sony and Toshiba...when it doesn't crash. On my review unit, the gesture support suddenly dropped out and I was unable to switch apps from the clickpad after watching a movie using the Netflix app.
Speakers and software
SonicMaster-branded stereo speakers with Waves MaxxAudio 3 are tucked away under grilles on the left and right sides of the laptop bottom, and offer better-than-average pop for movies and TV shows. "The Adventures of Tintin" sounded crisp and enjoyable.
Asus didn't overcrowd the assortment of preinstalled apps and software on the VivoBook S400CA, focusing on basic dashboardlike settings apps that help streamline basic fine-tuning of Windows 8. For newcomers, finding your way around Windows 8's multifaceted layout can be pretty confusing.
|Asus VivoBook S400CA-UH51||Average for category [midsize]|
|Video||HDMI, VGA||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone combo jack||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||2 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, SD card reader||2 USB 3.0, 2 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
|Optical drive||None||DVD burner|
Ports, performance, and bang for the buck
You can see the ports and connections in the photo above, but I'll just say that the Acer Aspire M5 managed to fit an optical drive into a similarly sized space, partly because it moved its ports to the rear. Otherwise, the VivoBook matches the average laptop's feature set.
Equipped with the practically generation-standard 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317 processor, as seen in many other ultrabooks, along with its Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics, the VivoBook S400CA hardly surprises. It performs about as well as any of the other laptops we've seen, handling applications well and running games reasonably effectively, too, provided they're not graphics barnburners. That's good news, because it means the VivoBook performs well enough to do almost anything you'd expect out from a basic laptop. You get 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive with an added 24GB solid-state drive (SSD) cache, which makes booting up feel speedier.
The bad news, of course, is that the S400CA doesn't do things any better, particularly, than its chief competitors, and if you look at the benchmark charts below, for a few tasks it was actually a little bit slower.
I wish I could say something profound about the VivoBook S400CA; I can't. Despite the new brand name it's a very familiar product, a big-boned 14-inch ultrabook with a touch screen and somewhat unimpressive feel and design. Getting this much computer plus a touch screen for $700 is a pretty good value, but I'd recommend the Acer Aspire M5 over it because the Acer has better battery life (see below), a backlit keyboard, and a DVD drive.
Battery life and warranty
Speaking of battery life, the Asus VivoBook S400CA eked out 4 hours and 45 minutes of run time in our video-playback drain test. That's not as long as similarly sized laptops like the Acer Aspire M5-481PT, HP Envy 4, and Toshiba Satellite P845t lasted, though in some cases not by much. It's better than the Acer Aspire V5's time. Still, you'd ideally aim for closer to 6 hours of battery life in an ultrabook-style laptop like this one, and there are products out there (the Acer Aspire M5, in particular) that achieve it.
Asus gives a one-year warranty with accidental damage protection for this particular model, the Asus VivoBook S400CA-UH51 (confusingly, a similarly specced S400CA-DH51t model is also sold on some Web sites). The Asus Web site can get a little confusing to navigate, but 24-7 phone support is available at 888-678-3688. To find your laptop's support information, the fastest way is to type the model number into the support page search box.
The Asus VivoBook S400CA may have a new name, but it's a very familiar laptop, infusing some of the Zenbook design into a 14-inch Windows 8 laptop with a touch screen. It's aggressively priced at $700, and covers all the bases you might be looking for in the average laptop, but lacks a killer feature, or a particularly killer price, considering the new bottom line in Windows touch laptops extends as low as $500. Even though it's relatively well-designed, you can sense the corners that were cut; and it's easy to imagine other laptops leapfrogging it in 2013 sooner than later. But for now, it's a fair value.
Find out more about how we test Windows laptops.
Asus VivoBook S400CA
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 500GB Seagate 5,400rpm
Toshiba Satellite P845T-S4310
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 6GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 750GB Toshiba 5,400rpm
Sony Vaio T13
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 6GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 32MB (Shared) Intel HD 4000; 500GB Hitachi 5,400rpm
Acer Aspire M5-481PT
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 6GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 128MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 500GB Hitachi 5,400rpm + 20GB SSD Hybrid
HP Envy 4-1102
Windows 8 Pro (64-bit); 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Shared) Intel HD 4000; 500GB Hitachi 5,400rpm
Dell Inspiron 13z - 5323
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 6GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 500GB Western Digital 5,400rpm