Thursday, July 26, 2007
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.
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
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
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
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