Scouting Report: New PCs from Vizio

[Every time a hot new gadget is announced, the buzz can reach a boiling point before anyone stops to think about what all the fuss is all about. In our Scouting Report series, we’ll cut through the marketing jargon and examine what makes a certain product special—or in some cases, simply overhyped.]

"A huge percentage of users take their computers home and re-image them. What other device do you know of where the first thing you do is fix it?"
-- Vizio CTO Matt McRae

That's Vizio's explanation for why its new line of PCs come with no bloatware or bundleware at all. You get a clean system right out of the box. If you're a long-time PC user, it's probably music to your ears, and it speaks to the overall drive of Vizio's entry to the PC market: to distrupt the a huge, mature industry with a focus on customer experience. Vizio's entry into the PC market is heralded by three products—a standard laptop, a thin and light laptop in two sizes, and an all-in-one in two sizes—with a serious focus on design and engineering.

Or so the company says. Vizio's PCs are noteworthy because they mark the HDTV maker's entry into a very big and competitive business, but this is hardly the first time a PC company has proclaimed it puts top-notch engineering and design above all else.

All-in-ones

Vizio put a lot of effort into making the back of its all-in-ones look good.

Vizio is releasing two all-in-ones. The 24-inch version (dubbed the CA24), starts at about $900. At this price, it features an anemic Core i3 CPU (of the Ivy Bridge generation), 4GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive. Two higher-end models are available, with the highest-end configuratin sporting a quad-core Core i7-3610QM, 8GB of RAM, a 1TB hard drive with 32GB SSD cache, and a GeForce GT 640M LE graphics processor. The mid-range model costs $1050 and the high-end $1250.

The 27-inch version (the CA27) starts at $1100 and has almost identical configurations, with the exception of a little more hard drive space (the starting configuration gives you 1TB). The mid-range Core i5 equipped version costs $1250 and the high end model, with Core i7-3610QM and 8GB of RAM, is $1350. The high-end versions of both the CA24 and CA27 look like the best deal.

These PCs look great all over. The pivoting arm on the back looks like something from The Jetsons, and the matching wireless keyboard and touchpad fit right in. All the cords plug into the base to reduce cable clutter.

The AIOs have two unique features worth mentioning. First, the stereo speakers are augmented by a small seperate subwoofer pod. Together with SRS audio enhancement, this could give it an edge up in sound performance. Second, they're fully-functional HDTVs, too. You get a remote control that lets you use the display as an HDTV, even when the PC isn't turned on. There's no TV tuner, but there are two HDMI inputs.

15.6-inch notebook

The standard-size laptop, called the CN15, also starts at reasonable $900. It includes a 1080p display, Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM, 500GB hard drive, and a GeForce GT 640 LE. Think of it as the notebook version of the 24-inch all-in-one. As with the AIO, you can upgrade to a quad-core Core i7-3610QM, 8GB of RAM, and 1TB hard drive with 32GB SSD cache. Vizio promises up to 7 hours of battery life. The mid-range model costs $1050 and the high-end model $1200.

Thin and light laptops

Vizio's thin and light laptop models, the CT14 and CT15, are sure to be bigger sellers than it's standard model. The 14-inch features a 1600 x 900 display, processors from a Core i3 to Core i7 (the low-voltage variant), and either 128GB or 256GB of SSD storage. Disappointingly, even the high-end version has only 4GB of RAM. It starts at, you guessed it, $900 The mid-ranged CT14 is $950, and the high-end version $1200.

The 15.6-inch thin and light model has the same specs as the 14-inch, with the exception of a 1920 x 1080 display. Both the 14 and 15.6-inch thin and light models feature up to 7 hours of battery life (according to Vizio). The high-end model there will run you $1250.

The unknowns

We know what Vizio's new PCs look like, we know the starting prices, and we know what kind of hardware they're packing. That said, there are still many important features we don't know. Size and weight are critical in laptop purchasing decisions, and while Vizio touts the 0.66-inch thickness of its thin and light models, we don't know how much they weigh, or the thickness and weight of the CN15.

We also don't know when these systems will actually be available. You can preorder them now at Vizio's site and Walmart.com, but there's no word on when they will ship. Ultimately, you'll find these PCs in Walmart stores, Microsoft stores, and even pop-up retail stores that look like shipping containers.

Perhaps most importantly, we don't know how usable these PCs are. Vizio has designed a new keyboard from the ground up, and keyboard quality is critically important, but we really don't know if these systems will be a speed typist's dream or if you'll wear out the backspace from all the mistakes they'll cause. Trackpad quality is of paramount importance, too. It's hard to give Vizio the benefit of the doubt there when so many establish PC makers do such a poor job making a good trackpad. Do the displays have good off-axis viewing? Are they especially prone to glare? Vizio touts that you can color-calibrate the displays, but to what extent, and how accurate is it?

Will Vizio PCs be better than its HDTVs?

The brand "Vizio" does not necessarily conjure up the image of "the best TVs you can buy." Vizio makes B-minus TVs at extremely affordable prices. It's a strategy that has been successful for them; in less than a decade, it has become the #1 LCD TV supplier in the United States.

The company's PC strategy seems different. From what I've seen so far, this is some top-notch gear, with better components, build quality, and design than anything else Vizio makes. From unibody aluminum laptops to space-age all-in-ones, it looks like Vizio is making better PCs than TVs.

Yes, the specs of the entry-level models are unimpressive. The higher-end models are nicely equipped, though. They're missing the boat on a few things (like limiting the RAM in the thin and light models to 4GB), but these are competitive systems, especially for the price. If Vizio gets the usability right, they could make big waves in the PC business this fall. Given that the company has no prior history in the PC market, I would wait for thorough hands-on reviews before passing judgement.

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