Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Best Affordable Tech Products for Students


Sony VAIO VGN-C290 Graphic Splash Edition

Make a splash on campus with Sony's eye-catching VAIO VGN-C290. This $1,079 laptop has triple appeal, with its slick design, stellar performance, and down-to-earth price. Plus, it packs a solid set of components, including a peppy dual-core processor, a bright 13.3-inch display, a DVD±RW drive, and integrated 802.11a/b/g wireless. You can customize the totable 5-pound case with one of four fun patterns, along with free personal engraving.

Acer Aspire 9300-5005

Sometimes sacrificing mobility for usability isn't such a bad thing. Measuring nearly 16 inches wide and weighing a whopping 8.1 pounds, the $899.99 Aspire 9300-5005 won't be a joy to lug to class. But for all that heft, you get a spacious 17-inch LCD, a full-size keyboard with a dedicated number pad, and a bevy of quality components you don't usually find in a budget notebook.

Dell Inspiron 1420

It's all about choices with Dell's brand-new Inspiron 1420 line, which starts at $849. Build the notebook you really want, starting with a 14.1-inch wide-screen display and a case that comes in eight cool colors. Then choose among several Intel processors, opt for up to 4GB of memory, select integrated or discrete graphics, pick one of three optical-drive types (including a high-definition Blu-ray model), and, if you like, add mobile broadband.

Toshiba Satellite A135-S4427

If you'll be spending your days and nights staring at text on your laptop, consider the $899 Satellite A135-S4427. It has one of the sharpest, brightest displays (a 15.4-inch wide-screen) we've seen on a budget machine. Toshiba didn't skimp on components, either: The Satellite comes with plenty of power to run the included Windows Vista Home Premium operating system.

HP Pavilion TX1000z

If you're really serious about your note taking, consider the $1,149 Pavilion TX1000z. Powered by AMD's dual-core Turion X2 CPU, this versatile machine has a full-size keyboard, as well as a 12.1-inch touch-screen display that lets you jot notes on the screen. You also get a bundled software package for converting your notes into typed text, adding handwritten notes to documents, and drawing pictures. At 4 pounds, it's light enough to tote from class to class.

Fujitsu LifeBook A6025

A well-priced, well-rounded mobile machine with some nice extras, the $799 LifeBook A6025 won't turn many heads on campus—but, more important, it won't leave you hanging at crunch time, either. The component choices are about average for an entry-level laptop, but it's the extras that set this model apart from the competition: a spill-resistant keyboard, a hard drive motion-detection sensor that can activate password protection, and a unique touch pad that doubles as a tablet for jotting notes.

HP Pavilion HDX Entertainment Notebook PC


Huge, beautiful 20-inch screen; built-in analog/digital TV tuner is HDTV-capable; dual hard drives, HD DVD drive available; clever hinged screen; lots of extra touches.


Midrange graphics will disappoint gamers; noticeable fan noise; panel is shy of 1080p resolution.

Key Specs

Processor: 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo T7700
Memory: 4GB DDR2
Storage: Two 100GB hard drives (7,200rpm)
Optical Drives: HD DVD-ROM/DVD±RW
Display: 20.1-inch TFT
Graphics: ATI Mobility Radeon HD 2600 XT (256MB)
Operating System: Windows Vista Home Premium


Thinking of the HP Pavilion HDX Entertainment Notebook PC as just an oversize desktop-replacement notebook would be missing the point. The HDX is more of an entertainment hub for your home, meant to replace a litany of hardware: a fairly powerful PC, a 20-inch high-definition LCD TV set, an HD DVD player, a TiVo, a DVD recorder, and a stereo. Sure, it isn't cheap: The HDX starts at $2,999 for the base model, and the configuration we tested will cost around $4,250. (Final pricing will be set closer to the machine's July launch). But what you get for all that money is a well-thought-out, elegantly executed all-in-one laptop that you can move from room to room or take on the road occasionally. (Well, more like once in a blue moon: It weighs over 16 pounds).

Unless you've seen a notebook with a 20.1-inch screen in person, you won't be prepared for how huge the HDX really is. Pictures don't accurately communicate the scale. But HP has done a good job making the HDX attractive, employing the Pavilion line's glossy black case with a subtle pinstripe pattern. The only difference in the familial look (apart from the size) is the silver rectangle appended to the top of the chassis.

That turns out to be one of the HDX's most welcome touches: a clever hinge mechanism for the screen that lets you move it fore and aft a few inches and also tilt the screen up and down to get just the right viewing position. The design is a huge improvement over other clamshell 20-inch notebooks, such as the Acer Aspire 9810 and Voodoo Envy HW:201, whose fixed screens don't give much leeway. But HP hasn't gone out on a design limb as far as the similarly priced Dell XPS M2010, which features a detachable wireless keyboard and an integrated carrying handle.

Other conveniences abound. The HDX has a built-in Webcam, a fingerprint reader, Bluetooth wireless, and a five-format flash-memory-card reader. The Pavilion line's touch-sensitive, blue-backlit volume- and media-control buttons are also here, now augmented with handy bass/treble controls and a “theater mode” button that dims the blue LEDs. (This keeps them from distracting you when you're watching a movie in the dark). The comfortable full-size keyboard features a number pad to the right and a removable 4x2-inch remote nestled into an integrated deck on the left. Larger than the credit-card-size remotes that come with other multimedia notebooks, this glossy black remote has a full contingent of buttons for controlling Windows Media Center or HP QuickPlay functions from across the room.

To play back multimedia files, view and record TV programming, and so on, you can use either the Media Center features of Vista Home Premium or HP's own QuickPlay utility. Media Center has a slicker interface, an update of the familiar blue interface that's usable from the couch. But QuickPlay has its merits, too, most notably the fact that it supports the Slingbox. If you have a Slingbox, you're ready to grab content from a remote PC wherever you happen to have the HDX. HP will also include a full version of Muvee AutoProducer (for making music-video-style home movies), Roxio's Creator 9 disc-creation suite, and the Roxio utility Backup MyPC, as well as Microsoft Works 8.5.

The HDX comes with a built-in hybrid analog/digital TV tuner, which lets you watch and record cable programming or over-the-air HDTV broadcasts. In our tests, analog cable looked a bit grainy (akin to first-generation Media Center Edition PCs), especially when we made the picture window larger. (The screen shows the limits of analog-TV quality). Connecting an HDTV antenna to the HDX provided much better results, with a clear picture showing excellent detail.

Though it boosts the price, configuring the HDX with an HD DVD drive is well worth it. (The drive also doubles as a multiformat DVD burner). Purists will note that the 1,680x1,050-resolution panel does not support true 1080p resolution (1,920x1,080), but the 720p HDTV quality won't disappoint most viewers. Watching an HD DVD disc of The Italian Job was a joy on the screen, with crisp, clear video and stunning detail. Standard-definition discs also looked good, with deep, rich colors, though we did note some motion blurring in action scenes.

Even better, the panel has a 170-degree field of view, which means you can place it on a coffee table and everyone in the room will have a good seat. Audio is another strong point. Thanks to four good-size speakers and a built-in subwoofer, music and movies sound superb, and the HDX supports eight-channel output if you want to make the laptop the centerpiece of a home theatre system.

Built on Intel's latest Centrino platform (code-named “Santa Rosa”), our review unit came with a new 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo T7700, as well as 802.11a/g/n wireless connectivity, which boosts throughput dramatically when paired with a Draft N router. Instead of Santa Rosa's improved integrated graphics, the HDX opts for the even-better ATI Mobility Radeon HD 2600 XT with 256MB of dedicated memory. Our HDX also came with 4GB of RAM (the full amount the motherboard can accept) and twin 7,200rpm 100GB hard drives.

We could not get the Futuremark PCMark05 benchmark test to run on our late-preproduction build of the HDX, but other test results show the HDX is a robust machine for multimedia chores and decent (if not stellar) for gaming. It scored a solid 738 on Cinebench 9.5, and finished our Windows Media Encoder test in just over a minute. Futuremark's 3DMark06 returned a score of 3,993, which is good for an entertainment-focused notebook but well shy of the results for a true gaming machine. In our F.E.A.R. test with settings set to auto-detect, the HDX managed an average frame rate of 25 frames per second at 1,024x768. That's playable, but hard-core gamers will be disappointed HP didn't opt for higher-end graphics.

As you'd expect from a machine with an enormous screen, battery life is impaired. The HDX lasted 1 hour and 12 minutes on our DVD rundown test, which indicates it should last over 2 hours for typical computing chores. One other downside: The whirring of the machine's fan is noticeable—it could be distracting during silent scenes in a movie. It's no louder than a desktop PC, but not as silent as other portables we've tested lately.

HP backs the HDX with a one-year parts-and-labor warranty, with excellent support via phone, chat, or e-mail.

When you add up what its entertainment components would cost you separately, the HP Pavilion HDX's price is right where it should be. If you're in the market for a home PC that can double as an entertainment hub, this behemoth is worth a look.

Direct Price: $4,250

Hewlett-Packard, 800-289-6947

21st Annual Shoppers' Choice Awards: Best Portables


The Inspiron E1705 packs a solid set of multimedia features, and with its Intel Core Duo processor (or optional Core 2 Duo), it has enough power to speed through virtually any task, from editing video to playing games. It also packs a bright 17-inch wide-screen display and a five-format flash- memory-card reader, while running Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005. If you're looking to ditch your desktop, the E1705 will make the switch easy.
Dell • 800-999-3355
Toshiba Qosmio G35
HP Pavilion DV2000
Apple MacBook Pro
Acer Aspire 9800

GAMING NOTEBOOK: Alienware Aurora m9700

Mobile gamers with deep pockets won't be disappointed by the Aurora m9700, which Alienware lets you configure with two nVidia graphics cards in an SLI configuration for maximum pixel-pushing power. The system features a bright, crisp 17-inch wide-screen display and a 1.3-megapixel Webcam so your online opponents can see the smug look on your face when you defeat them. As a final touch, if the Saucer Silver case isn't to your liking, you can upgrade to Conspiracy Blue or Cyborg Green.
Alienware • 800-254-3692
Direct Price: $1,799 (base model)
Dell XPS M1710
Toshiba Satellite P105-S921
Hypersonic Aviator FX7
Eurocom M590K Emperor


It was a tight race, but the XPS M1210 narrowly beat out Apple's new MacBook for your favorite svelte portable. Offering a feature set that's a cut above, including a Core 2 Duo processor, a Serial ATA hard drive, a built-in optical drive, a comfortable keyboard, tons of ports, Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, and a sharp 12.1-inch wide-screen display, Dell packs a lot into this tiny, 4.4-pound system.
Dell • 800-999-3355
Runners-Up: Apple MacBook
Dell Latitude D620
Asus W5F
Averatec A V2260


As always, Dell and its new subsidiary Alienware cleaned up most of your desktop and laptop awards, but the ultraportable category remained Sony's domain. The company's latest Lilliputian laptop impresses on the outside with its carbon-fiber casing, available in a choice of four colors. Despite weighing only 2.8 pounds, this ultraportable packs an 11.1-inch wide-screen display, an 80GB hard drive, a built-in optical drive, and three kinds of wireless connectivity: 802.11b/g, Bluetooth, and EDGE cellular. Good things do come in small packages.
Sony Electronics • 877-865-7669
Direct Price: $2,299 (base model)
Dell Latitude D420
Lenovo ThinkPad X60
Panasonic ToughBook W4
Fujitsu LifeBook Q2010
Lenovo 3000 V100

PDA OR HANDHELD PC: Palm Treo 700p

A lot of readers liked RIM's corporate BlackBerry models, but the Treo 700p narrowly edged them out as your top handheld device. With its gorgeous 2.5-inch screen, improved QWERTY keyboard, and support for Evolution Data Optimized (EV-DO) service, the 700p is a worthy successor to the popular Treo 650. Rivals are popping up seemingly every day to challenge the Treo's supremacy, but for now, it's still the smartphone to beat.
Palm • 800-881-7256
RIM BlackBerry 7130c
Motorola Q
Sony Ericsson W810i
T-Mobile Sidekick III

Toshiba Qosmio G45-AV680 Adds HD DVD-R to Laptops

Last month we reported Toshiba’s plans to unleash the first laptop with an HD DVD-R drive, and we just got word that the Qosmio G45-AV680 is shipping. If you’re looking for full 1080p playback of HD movies on a 17-inch laptop screen, as well as the capability to burn discs that store up to 30GB of data, the wait is over.

Bucking the piano black trend, the Qosmio G45-AV680 is decked out in a glossy finish that Toshiba calls “piano-key white.” Under that piano lid you’ll find a 2GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB of RAM, two 160GB hard drives, a DirectX 10-capable nVidia GeForce 8600 GT card with 512MB of graphics memory, and the HD-DVD-R/DVD SuperMulti drive. To sweeten the entertainment experience, Toshiba includes four Harman Kardon Bass Reflex stereo speakers and a built-in subwoofer, plus an external USB TV tuner.

All this high-def goodness will set you back a not-so-entertaining $3,199.99.

The Ideal Laptop for You

One of these 10 laptops will fit your needs and budget just right

With more and more consumers going mobile, it's no wonder computer vendors are expanding their laptop lines. Laptop makers are pushing a dizzying array of models to meet most any need, whether you're a budget-minded home user, a frequent flier, a media addict, or a hard-core gamer. The real challenge is zeroing in on the right one for you.
We can help. In this guide, we boil down the laptop field to five categories: mainstream machines, ultraportables, entertainment-oriented models, thin-and-lights, and desktop replacements. While everyone has his or her own particular requirements, we're betting one of these classes of notebook has the qualities to suit your needs. Besides telling you what to expect and what to look for in each category, we also present a hands-on review of our top pick in each class as well as a worthy runner-up. We selected our choices based on how well they fit each category, taking into consideration price, weight, features, and performance.

Middle-of-the-Road Machine

If your computing needs are confined to DVD-watching and basic productivity work such as Web surfing and e-mail, consider a mainstream notebook. At $1,000 or less, these laptops are less expensive than most thin-and-light models, though also heavier (usually between 5 and 7 pounds) because of their roomy wide-screen displays.
What to expect: An entry-level configuration typically includes a low-power Intel Celeron M CPU, or an AMD Athlon or Sempron CPU; 512MB or 1GB of RAM; integrated graphics; a 60GB or 80GB hard drive; and a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive or a DVD burner. These specs won’t satisfy power users, but for basic office and multimedia tasks, they’ll suffice.
What to look for: If you can afford a little more processing power, set your sights on a dual-core CPU, such as Intel's Core Duo or Core 2 Duo, or the AMD Turion 64 X2. Also, don’t skimp on RAM. While 512MB is the minimum requirement for running Windows Vista Home Basic, we wouldn’t settle for less than 1GB.
Top Pick: HP Pavilion DV6000z
Runner Up: Dell Inspiron 1501

Petite Portable

For true road warriors, compact size and light weight are must-have features in a notebook. At less than 4 pounds, an ultraportable will lighten your load and keep you humming along for hours with its extra-long battery life. Naturally, these featherweight systems demand some compromises, such as small screens (usually between 8.6 and 12.1 inches), cramped keyboards, and few extra features. Portability also comes at a price—these tiny machines start at around $1,400.
What to expect: To maintain their slim profiles, ultraportables often don't include built-in optical drives, though you'll find some models with an internal DVD burner or DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive. A few feature modular bays that allow you to swap out the optical drive for an extra battery or a weight-saver module.
What to look for: Intel's Low Voltage (LV) and Ultra Low Voltage (ULV) Pentium M and Core Solo CPUs both offer solid performance and enable long battery life, though you'll get faster performance from an ultraportable fitted with a Core Duo or Core 2 Duo processor. Built-in wireless networking is a standard feature, but those who need constant connectivity should also look for integrated Bluetooth and a wireless wide-area-network (WWAN) radio for Internet access via high-speed cellular data services.
Top Pick: Sony VAIO VGN-TXN15P
Runner Up: Asus S6F Leather Edition

Mobile Media Center

Instead of leaving your music, movies, and digital photos locked up in a desktop hard drive, you can take your files anywhere you go with an entertainment laptop. Granted, you won't want to travel far with one of these behemoths strapped to your back, since they feature huge wide-screen displays and cases as heavy as 15 pounds. And all that multimedia prowess doesn't come cheap--units with moderate specs start at $1,200.
What to expect: While a few entertainment laptops come with screens as big as 20 inches, the sweet spot is a 17-inch wide-screen LCD, which is big enough for home-theater-style viewing without adding too much heft. Because of the power-hungry components these notebooks pack, don't expect long battery life. These fire-breathing machines also tend to run hot, so it's best to keep them off your lap.
What to look for: If viewing high-definition content is a must, go for a laptop with a built-in HD DVD or Blu-ray optical drive. (The latter also lets you burn nearly 50GB of data to a double-layer Blu-ray disc.) To connect other media devices, check for multiple ports and slots, including a built-in flash-card reader and video jacks such as Digital Visual Interface (DVI) or High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI), which let you output content to an external monitor or big-screen television.
Top Pick: Gateway NX860XL
Runner Up: HP Pavilion HDX Entertainment Notebook PC

Trim Traveler

Offering the best of both worlds, a thin-and-light laptop is powerful enough to handle most tasks, yet light enough to take on the road. As a rule, these notebooks weigh between 4 and 6 pounds and measure an inch to an inch-and-a-half thick. They’re fairly affordable—about $1,000 to start—and can include some premium features, such as DVD burners and big hard drives.
What to expect: The norm is a 12.1-, 13.3-, or 14.1-inch wide-screen LCD, a roomy keyboard, and good overall functionality. Batteries can last up to (and in rare cases beyond) four hours for these machines.
What to look for: Like mainstream notebooks, thin-and-lights can start with some fairly weak specs. On the other hand, most vendors let you configure these notebooks to be nearly as powerful as hefty desktop replacements, but you’ll pay a premium for that performance. Standard components such as a midrange Core 2 Duo CPU, 1GB of RAM, a 100GB hard drive, and built-in Wi-Fi will offer plenty of power for most users.
Top Pick: Apple MacBook
Runner Up: HP Pavilion DV2500t

Power Player

These days, almost every powerful part you can get in a desktop tower is also available in a desktop-replacement notebook. Of course, any laptop that squeezes in that many high-end components will not only be extremely potent, but also massive, hot-running, and short on battery life. And performance, as always, comes at a cost. Prices start around $1,700 and can soar above $4,000 with upgrades.
What to expect: Like entertainment notebooks, desktop replacements generally feature big, high-resolution displays and an extensive assortment of ports. For graphics power, these notebooks use dedicated mobile graphics solutions from ATI or nVidia with 256MB or 512MB of video memory. Some laptops are even available with nVidia's dual-card Scalable Link Interface (SLI) technology.
What to look for: If you’re playing games, editing videos or images, or doing heavy graphics work, your system specs should read like those of a desktop PC, with a fast dual-core CPU from AMD or Intel, at least 2GB of RAM, and 100GB or more of hard drive space. Those who want to access data quickly should consider desktop-caliber drives spinning at 7,200 rpm.
Top Pick: Dell XPS M1710 (Blu-ray Edition)
Runner Up: Toshiba Satellite P100-ST9772