Vizio All-in-One review (24-inch): a TV maker tries its hand at desktops

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We see lots of computers announced every year: many of them are forgettable, and we don't even have the manpower here at Engadget to review them all. You might wonder, then, why we've been a little fixated on Vizio's. Well, for starters, up until a few months ago the company didn't even make PCs, and now it's selling five. Secondly, they actually look pretty good, especially for an outfit that's best known for its value-priced TVs.

We've already had a chance to take its 14-inch Thin + Light laptop for a spin, and came to the conclusion that although it had a flaky trackpad and poor battery life, it represented a good start for a company that hadn't previously made a computer. Now we're taking a look at one of the company's all-in-one desktops -- the 24-inch version, to be exact. At $800 and up, it, too, is attractively priced, with an eye-catching metal design, external subwoofer and a crapware-free Windows install. But is it as good as it looks? Let's find out.

Look and feel

Vizio AllinOne review 24inch a TV maker tries its hand at desktops

Was putting form before function worth it?

Back at CES, when Vizio first announced its plans to enter the PC market, the overwhelming reaction from Engadget and other critics was that the company's designs actually looked pretty good. Compared to other all-in-ones, with their complex, tilting hinges and easel-like frames, this desktop is quite simple in its design: what we have here is a flat, metal base and a thin, lamp-like stand, topped off by a 1080p display. (It's available in 24- and 27-inch sizes.) All the components -- the CPU, the RAM, etc. -- live inside the base. Interestingly, Vizio was so intent on this form factor that it went with a mobile (read: notebook-grade) processor because that was the only thing that would fit inside a compartment this thin. Had the engineering team used desktop parts, a company rep told us, the designers would have had to go in a completely different direction. Was putting form before function worth it? Read on till you get to the performance section and decide for yourself.

Fish around the edges of the base and you'll find all the ports, including an Ethernet jack, two HDMI inputs, an SD reader, an audio port, eSATA and four USB 3.0 sockets. For the most part, these ports are lined up on the back edge, though you'll have slightly easier access to the memory card reader, headphone jack and one of the USB 3.0 ports, all of which are tucked on the right side.

Now, here's where things get interesting. A single cable comes out of the base and, instead of plugging it directly into an outlet, you connect it up to the external subwoofer, which doubles as a power source. From there, another cable connects the 'woofer to the power outlet. Wrapping things up, the All-in-One ships with a wireless keyboard, remote control and Magic Trackpad-style touchpad, which we'll talk about more in just a moment. The remote, by the way, has a simple design: volume controls, a settings key and buttons for navigating through the on-screen menus. Pretty self-explanatory stuff.

All told, it's an impressive-looking package, though as it turns out, the machine doesn't feel quite as nice as it looked back at CES. The metal surfaces have a hollow plasticky feel to them even though they are, in fact, made of metal. And while the display is tiltable, it wobbles uncertainly if you so much as tap the bezel. The devil is always in the details.

Keyboard and trackpad

Vizio AllinOne review 24inch a TV maker tries its hand at desktops

The touchpad drivers here are beyond half-baked.

For better and worse (mostly worse), this is the same type of keyboard used on Vizio's new laptops. As we said when we reviewed the Thin + Light, it feels like the company's engineering team tried a little too hard to reinvent the typing experience. And what an odd design it is: it's not a chiclet layout, but this also doesn't mark a return to dense, cushy keys either. In fact, the keys are about as shallow as they would be on island keyboard, except they're packed together so tightly that they bleed into one another. Were it not for some beveling around each individual key, you might struggle to hit the right one without pausing to look down at your fingers. Indeed, we made plenty of typos while drafting this review, and that was even after several days of use. What's more, the keyboard exhibits a good deal of flex, even if you're not typing that forcefully. It's not backlit, but that seems to be the least of its problems. If it's any comfort, though, important keys like Enter, Backspace, Caps and Shift are amply sized, so those, at least, are easy to find.

Unlike most other desktops, Vizio's All-in-One doesn't ship with a mouse but rather, an Apple-inspired external touchpad. It's a spacious thing, with a built-in touch button -- basically an overgrown version of the touchpad you'll find on most laptops. And yet, the learning curve might be steeper here for folks who've never used a desktop with anything but a mouse. Even if you can get used to resting your hand on an external trackpad, though, this pad is virtually unusable. Harsh language, we know, but the drivers here are beyond half-baked. Even something simple like dragging the cursor across the screen can feel like a chore, and don't get us started on what it's like to point and click on a small onscreen object, like a drop-down menu. The cursor might go here and then there, before hitting the spot you meant to click. The worst scenario, though, is when you swipe the trackpad and it doesn't respond at all.

And while the pad offers plenty of space to pull off multi-touch gestures, we slogged through a good deal of misfires. Try and do a two-finger scroll, for instance, and you might accidentally zoom in on the page. We even had some accidental pinch-to-zooms while attempting to point and click things. You can, of course, bring your own mouse to the table. It just won't match the stylings of the PC, keyboard and bundled remote.

Display and sound

Vizio AllinOne review 24inch a TV maker tries its hand at desktops

Given that Vizio came up through the TV business, it isn't surprising that one of the All-in-One's strongest features is its display. The 1,920 x 1,080 resolution was crisp enough for photo slideshows, movie watching and general window-juggling. More than the pixel count, though, it's the quality that impressed us: the blacks here are deep and the colors are pleasing without being oversaturated. The viewing angles are also top-notch. As it happens, we reviewed the All-in-One in an office filled with natural light, and even when the sun was shining in on the screen, reflection was never an issue. We'd also add that the display looks good at a variety of angles but again, because it's so glare-resistant, we didn't find ourselves adjusting the monitor that often.

In addition to that external subwoofer, the machine has two speakers, located on either side of the computer's base. And man, what a nice setup it is, especially if you tend toward bass-heavy music. The subwoofer is powerful enough to make your desk vibrate, but the sound itself barely gets distorted as you crank the volume. Okay, if we're being picky, we noticed that the high notes sounded different at higher volumes, but low notes stayed consistent. Either way, it's a clear improvement over the out-of-the-box sound you'll get from most other PCs.


Vizio AllinOne review 24inch a TV maker tries its hand at desktops

The $950 configuration we tested comes with a Core i5-3210M processor, clocked at 2.5GHz, paired with 4GB of RAM and a 1TB hard drive. On the one hand, many competing systems also have mobile processors, but 4GB is a little stingy for a machine above $1,000. Indeed, its synthetic benchmark scores aren't all that impressive. In PCMark Vantage, for instance, it notched 6,581, which falls short of most laptops we've tested with similar Core i5, Ivy Bridge CPUs. In the disk performance benchmark ATTO it notched top read speeds of 113 MB/s and max writes of 112 MB/s, and while that's reasonable for a spinning hard drive, it's nothing to write home about either.

When it comes to graphics clout, too, the All-in-One delivers lackluster performance, summed up neatly by a 3,760 average score in 3DMark06. Now, to be fair, Vizio's All-in-One isn't marketed as a gaming rig but even so, that kind of score matches what we saw from laptops running last-gen Sandy Bridge chips. Ivy Bridge has been shown to provide a nice bump in graphics horsepower over last year's systems and indeed, most Ivy Bridge machines we test manage scores somewhere in the 4,000s or 5,000s.

Software and warranty

Vizio AllinOne review 24inch a TV maker tries its hand at desktops

For all the things Vizio got wrong on its first try -- the performance, the touchpad -- it nailed the software experience. Across all of its PCs, it's going with a Microsoft Signature image, a clean, crapware-free install, approved by Microsoft itself. Sure, you could always uninstall those programs one by one, but it's infinitely more pleasant to boot up a computer for the first time and be greeted by a blank desktop. We wish more OEMs would do this, but since they don't, we're thankful that Microsoft sells Signature systems direct to consumers.

Another thing you'll find on every Vizio PC: a key with the company's logo on it (aka the V Key), which acts as a shortcut to both driver downloads and content streaming services (this is a company with roots in TV, after all). But, because this is a bloat-free machine, none of this software is actually installed on the system. Rather, pressing the key launches a webpage, peppered with links to Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, Rhapsody and Vudu. When we first tried it out, there was also a banner stretching across the top telling us a touchpad driver update was ready to download (a good thing, since the update didn't turn up when we checked for new drivers in Windows Device Manager).

Like most consumer systems (mobile or otherwise) the Vizio All-in-One comes with a one-year warranty.

Configuration options

Vizio AllinOne review 24inch a TV maker tries its hand at desktops

As we said, the Vizio All-in-One comes in two sizes -- 24 and 27 inches -- and it's available in three configurations each: Core i3, Core i5 and Core i7. All of these machines are pre-configured, so what you see is what you get in terms of specs; you can't upgrade things like the RAM or hard drive speed. Starting with the 24-incher we reviewed, prices range from $700 for the Core i3 to $950 for the i5 and $1,000 for the i7. The entry-level version has a modest 500GB of storage. The i5 model we tested steps up to 1TB, and the i7 one combines 1TB of storage with a 32GB SSD for faster boot-ups. Similarly, the two lower-end systems have 4GB of RAM and Intel HD 4000 graphics, while the top-shelf model has eight gigs and is offered with a discrete NVIDIA GT 640M LE GPU. Whichever machine you choose, you'll get an IPS panel with 1,920 x 1,080 resolution.

It's a similar story with the 27-incher, though the specs are better. The base-level model comes with 4GB of RAM and a 1TB HDD. The Core i5 version steps up to a 1TB drive coupled with a 32GB SSD. It also has that 640M LE GPU. Finally, the Core i7 model has all that, plus twice the RAM. Current prices for the 27-inch models are $800, $1,150 and $1,250, respectively.

The competition

Vizio AllinOne review 24inch a TV maker tries its hand at desktops

While some companies such as Toshiba only entered the all-in-one market relatively recently, HP has been pushing AIOs aggressively for quite some time now. Indeed, we had to whittle down our options on HP's site from about a dozen before picking out something comparable to recommend. Of the non-touch-enabled models, the most similar machine would seem to be the 23-inch Envy 23, which starts at $1,000 ($900 after instant savings). At the entry level, you get a 3GHz Core i5-3550S processor, a desktop-grade chip in the Ivy Bridge family. Like the Vizio All-in-One, it has a 1,920 x 1,080 display, except this guy comes with 6GB of RAM and 1TB of storage, minimum. It's also worth pointing out that this comes with two years of warranty coverage, not one.

Speaking of Toshiba, the company's fledgling desktop line is in the midst of a transition of sorts: it's phrasing out its non-touch-enabled DX series and ushering in the LX series, some of which will have touchscreens. Right now, only the 23-inch LX830 is available; the 21-inch LX815 (non-touch only) is coming sometime this quarter. The cheapest configuration with an Ivy Bridge processor costs $930 (we don't recommend paying less for a model with a Sandy Bridge chip). It comes with 1TB of HDD storage and 8GB of RAM, which is generous compared to the four gigs Vizio is including at that price. These, too, have mobile, not desktop, processors.

Here's hoping Vizio has returned to the drawing board and is working on something more polished.

And who could forget Dell? The company's non-touch Inspiron One 23 starts at $750 with a Sandy Bridge Core i3 processor, a 1TB 7,200RPM drive and 6GB of RAM. It, too, has a 1080p display and integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics.

For the most part, the machines we've mentioned in this size and price range don't have touchscreens. Not the case with Lenovo, though. The company recently announced the IdeaCentre A520, a $1,000 desktop with a tilting 23-inch touchscreen that can lie nearly flat. For the money, too, it has an IPS panel and can be configured with up to a Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM and a Blu-ray player. (Hey, bonus points for even being configurable.) Like many other all-in-ones (including the particular Vizio configuration we tested) it will only be available with integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics.

Sony, too, is offering better specs than Vizio, but then again, its lowest-end L series desktop starts at $1,100 -- a $200 premium over Vizio's entry-level machine. At the very minimum, you get a mobile Core i5-3210M processor clocked at 3.1GHz; a 1TB 7,200RPM drive; 6GB of RAM and a 1,920 x 1,080 display.

It almost seems pointless to mention the iMac, since it costs hundreds of dollars more and runs a completely different operating system, but here's a quick summary: it's available in 21.5- and 27-inch sizes, with the former starting at $1,199 and the latter going for $1,699 and up. Assuming you get the $1,199 model (since that's the only one remotely comparable in price to the Vizio we reviewed), you'd be getting a 2.5GHz Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM and a 500GB 7,200RPM hard drive. Additionally, it packs a 512MB AMD Radeon 6750M GPU, whereas most of its competitors come standard with integrated graphics (or don't even offer a discrete option).


Vizio AllinOne review 24inch a TV maker tries its hand at desktops

Though it's a different form factor, the Vizio All-in-One ultimately falls prey to some of the same missteps as the company's first generation of laptops. Which is to say, a flat, oddly shaped keyboard and a supremely unreliable trackpad amount to some serious usability flaws. Between that and the lackluster performance, Vizio's emphasis on modern design seems to eclipse almost everything else that might be important to users. It's a shame, too, because with a nice display, clean Windows install and a subwoofer, it has the makings of a fine machine. Until the engineering team comes up with a suitable trackpad fix, though, those usability issues make it very difficult to enjoy what this machine actually has to offer. Here's hoping Vizio has returned to the drawing board and is working on something more polished.