Best Budget Ultrabook, March 2013by Jarred Walton on March 28, 2013 6:00 PM EST
We’re planning to start a regular revolving list of recommended products at AnandTech—sort of like a mini buyer’s guide focused on a single product or component. Anand has asked me to kick things off with a look at the notebook market. Initially, I wasn’t sure if I could find anything I was really comfortable recommending, considering Haswell is right around the corner and Richland APUs have been announced by AMD and should start showing up in laptops in the next month or two. But then I took a look around and found that there are some decent laptops that appear to be on clearance, making way for the next round of new products.
With that in mind, I tried to find what I felt was the most compelling offering right now, and somewhat surprisingly I ended up with an Ultrabook. To be clear, Ultrabooks and ultraportables aren’t the be-all, end-all of laptops; they’re great for portability and performance for general use applications is usually adequate, but they’re generally not gaming powerhouses and even battery life often gets compromised in pursuit of a small size. I’ll have some other recommendations for laptops over the coming weeks, but for now I’m specifically looking at the ultrathin class of offerings. The key things I like to see in an Ultrabook are pure solid state storage, a good LCD, and the lower the price the better; that brings me to VIZIO.
Last month, Vivek posted his thoughts on the VIZIO CT15 “Thin+Light” laptop. Note that the Windows 8 variants updated the touchpad and that they’re better than the original release, but they’re still not perfect. However, a good price can go a long ways towards making a product acceptable, and right now the CT14 with 128GB SSD is available for $680 at Amazon.com. (Note that this is basically a discontinued product, and even VIZIO has a list price of $599 on their store—except they’re sold out. [Update: Now back in stock at $849]) Not only does that make this one of the least expensive Intel-based ultraportable around right now, but for the price you still get a 128GB SSD, Core i5-3317U processor, and best yet: a 1600x900 high quality IPS display.
Does that make this the best current ultraportable? For the money, I would say yes, though I don’t know how long supplies will last. There are other issues that need to be mentioned as well: the keyboard still flexes a fair amount when you type (and lacks backlighting), the RAM can’t be upgraded, opening the lid can be a bit more difficult that I’d like, and battery life is merely so-so. However, when you look at competing offerings you often end up with other compromises (poor quality LCDs being a major one), and most of those cost more than the CT14 and come with a hard drive and caching SSD.
Bottom line: if you have to buy a laptop today and you want an Ultrabook or ultraportable, unless you’re willing to pay substantially more money (like $1100+), this is the one I’d recommend. Otherwise, wait and see what Haswell and Richland bring to the table in terms of Ultrabook/ultraportable options; they’ll likely cost more than the VIZIO’s sub-$700 price, but they’re likely to make up for that with higher performance, improved battery life, and better build quality. VIZIO will likewise be offering touchscreen updates of the CT14 and CT15 with the new CPUs/APUs and they also fix the keyboard complaints; we just need to see where they’re priced when they launch. Interestingly, I believe VIZIO is forgoing the Ultrabook aspect on the refresh, as they're switching to standard voltage CPUs. [Update: VIZIO just posted the updated specs and MSRPs for the touchscreen models. Hopefully street pricing is quite a bit lower.]