There has never been more choice in notebooks. The standard 12-inch ultraportables, 14-inch thin-and-lights, 15-inch mainstream laptops and 17-inch desktop replacements are still commonplace. But there are new shapes and sizes filling in the gaps ranging from 11 inches all the way up to 18 inches. Just to further confuse things, netbooks with larger displays and higher price tags are creeping up on mainstream notebooks.
More choice is a good thing, of course, but it also makes it much harder to choose the right laptop. Here are a few new developments to consider:
First, if you are eyeing a netbook, remember it is not a notebook. Netbooks were designed for developing countries, but it turns out the majority of sales are in developed markets as second or third systems for light tasks such as e-mail and Web browsing. The prices may be tempting, but the smaller displays and cramped keyboards are tough to use for extended periods, most do not offer Windows Vista, and performance is a fraction of what you get even from a budget notebook. Combine that with the fact that you can pick up a decent notebook for less than $700, and most users will be better served by a full-fledged laptop. (If you still want a mini-notebook, however, here are my top netbook picks for the holidays.)
Then there are the new display sizes. A 13-inch model is good choice for those who really want portability but found traditional 12-inch ultraportables to be too limited, especially given the high prices. And 16-inch notebooks provide many of the features of a desktop replacement in a thinner and lighter package--usually less than 7 pounds (Sony has a model with a 16.4-inch display). Laptops with these new display sizes are desirable in part because they have a 16:9 aspect ratio, and in many cases, true HD (1,920x1,080) resolution. But keep mind that you will probably still find the best deals on notebooks with the older display sizes, especially 15-inch mainstream notebooks and 17-inch desktop replacements. An LED-backlit display is brighter, weighs less and uses less power, but it costs a bit more than the traditional LCD displays, which are illuminated by cold cathode fluorescent lamps (CCFLs).
In the past year, there has been a lot of hype about solid-state disks, or SSDs. In place of rotating magnetic disks, SSDs store data in NAND flash, the same type of memory found in SD cards for cameras and microSD cards in cell phones. Prices have come down quickly but they are still far more costly than a hard drive, and so far the performance hasn't lived up to expectations. That will change but for now most users should steer clear of SSDs.
The choices in graphics have also changed this year. Most notebook still have either an integrated graphics processing unit (GPU) that borrows some of the main system memory--typically from Intel-- or a separate, more powerful GPU with its own fast video memory, such as AMD's ATI Mobility Radeon 3800 HD series and the Nvidia GeForce 9800M series. But there's a new wrinkle: hybrid graphics. They have both types, and you can switch between them to maximize either battery life (integrated only) or performance (discrete GPU). Nowadays even Windows Vista has some hefty graphics requirements--the root of those "Vista-capable" lawsuits--so it's worth spending a little extra for a configuration with a discrete GPU. And in highly-portable laptops with displays of 13 inches or smaller, hybrid graphics is also a desirable feature.
Depending on your needs, some other features to look for in the latest laptops include integrated mobile broadband for Internet access on the go, an eSATA port for connecting an external hard drive and HDMI-out for connecting your notebook to an HDTV. You can also get Blu-ray drives on many laptops, and even in few cases Blu-ray burners, but they are still an expensive option.
If a netbook is non-starter but a full-size notebook would weigh you down, an 11-inch laptop may be just right. These ultraportables are similar in size and weight to netbooks (with 10-inch displays), but they use Core 2 Duo processors, have higher-resolution displays and run Windows Vista. There are several hot notebooks in this category, but I'm giving the nod to the Lenovo IdeaPad U110. The IdeaPad's design nearly moved reviewers to tears--CNET.com called it the most beautiful laptop they've seen in years and Laptop Magazine said it belongs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There only two basic configurations: 2GB ($1,700) or 3GB ($1,750), each available in black or bright red. Both have an 11.1-inch LED-backlit display (1,366x768 pixels), 1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo L7500, Intel integrated graphics and 120GB hard drive. The U110 weighs in at 2.4 pounds with the four-cell battery and 2.9 pounds with a seven-cell battery--both of which are included. The only thing missing is an internal optical drive, though Lenovo also includes a USB DVD burner. Two competitors also deserve mention here: the Asus U2E and Sony VAIO TT series. Both have slick designs that include internal optical drives--Sony claims the TT series is the world's smallest system with a Blu-ray drive--but they also cost significantly more than the IdeaPad U110.
The X300 series gets all the attention, but Lenovo's 12-inch widescreen is the better deal. It has the same functional ThinkPad design and high-resolution LED-backlit display, but the ThinkPad X200 is smaller and lighter (3 pounds), outperforms the X300 (though not the refreshed X301) and delivers excellent battery life. And the X200 costs hundreds of dollars less. The $1,500 starting configuration includes the 2.26GHz Intel Core2 Duo P8400, 1GB of memory, Intel integrated graphics and an 80GB hard drive. The X200s has a low-voltage processor, the 1.2GHz Core2 Duo SU9300 and a WXGA+ (1440x900) display starting at $1,630. The configuration that CNET.com tested with a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo P8600 and an extended (nine-cell) battery lasted 6 hours 23 minutes. No matter which one you choose, I'd recommend upgrading to the configuration with 2GB of memory with Windows Vista. The X200 is also available as a convertible tablet. The only real drawbacks are that it uses a pointing stick only--no touchpad--and there's no internal optical drive. If you want to carry a DVD drive everywhere, you may want to check out the Toshiba Portege R500, which weighs only 2.2 pounds with an optical drive, or step-up to a 13-inch thin-and-light such as the ThinkPad X301. HP's new TouchSmart tx2z 12.1-inch tablet-- the first consumer Windows laptop with multi-touch interface--is also worth a look if you're interested in a convertible tablet.
For road warriors, the 13-inch segment is where all of the action has been over the past year. It started when Steve Jobs first pulled the MacBook Air out of a manila envelope at MacWorld in January. Lenovo quickly answered with the impressive ThinkPad X300 series. Those and others in this category such as the Sony VAIO Z series are beautifully-designed and powerful laptops, but they carry big price tags. By contrast HP's first consumer laptop with a 13-inch display, the HP Pavilion dv3510nr, has a price that puts it within reach of many more buyers. The dv3510nr is a Best Buy exclusive that was designed with input from the store's customers who asked for a decent-size display in a thin and lightweight laptop, a backlit keyboard and a standard two-year warranty. The $1,099 Pavilion dv3510nr has a 13.3-inch LED-backlit display (1,280×800), 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P7350, 4GB of memory, Nvidia GeForce 9300M GS graphics with 512MB, a 320GB hard drive, and a DVD burner. Extras include a 6-cell battery that doesn't stick out of the case like most extended batteries, the backlit keyboard, media controls, a remote control, and HDMI and eSATA ports. Throw in solid performance and the dv3510nr is the best value in its class. For a laptop worthy of a role in a James Bond movie, check out the Sony VAIO Z series. This model starts around $1,800, but the fun of this system is cramming as much technology as possible into a 3.4-pound laptop. A top-of-the-line configuration includes a 13.1-inch LED-backlit display with a remarkable 1,600x900 resolution, 2.53GHz Core 2 Duo P9500, 4GB of DDR3 memory, hybrid graphics (Intel GMA 4500MHD integrated graphics and an Nvidia GeForce 9300M GS GPU with 256MB), a 320GB hard drive and an integrated Blu-ray burner. There's even a configuration with dual 128GB solid-state disks (SSDs), an option that adds more than $1,000 to the already hefty price tag. I wouldn't recommend the MacBook Air, but if you are considering a Mac, Apple recently refreshed its 13-inch MacBook and dropped the starting price down to $1,000, though it's worth spending the extra $300 for the aluminum "uni-body" version with more memory, a larger hard drive and much better graphics. Other choices in this category include the Thinkpad X301 and Lenovo IdeaPad U330, and the Dell Inspiron 13 and XPS M1330.
This one is a bit of surprise since Samsung only U.S. entered the market in the past couple of months. Of the six new models, the 14-inch X460 series is the winner. It has an attractive, thin design and a bright LED-backlit display, weighs only 4.2 pounds with an internal DVD burner, and delivers solid performance and battery life. The $1,700 X460-44P includes a 2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8400, 3GB of memory, Nvidia GeForce 9200M GS graphics, a 320GB hard drive and a DVD burner. The only drawbacks are that the display tops out at a resolution of 1,280x800 and there is no internal wireless WAN option (though you can use an ExpressCard modem). Competing models with the same display size include the Dell Latitude E6400, HP Pavilion dv4, and Lenovo ThinkPad T400. Like the Samsung X460, most of these 14-inch models are designed for business users.
Although new display sizes are gradually finding their way onto shelves, the 15-inch laptop is still a Best Buy mainstay. It may not be the most exciting segment, but it's still where the bulk of the sales are because you get the most bang for the buck. That is an area where Dell often shines, and the Studio 15 is a great example. BestBuy.com is currently selling an $850 configuration of the Studio 15 that includes a 15.4-inch widescreen display (1,200x800), 2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5800, 4GB of memory, a roomy 320GB hard drive and DVD burner. It is also available in three different colors. Dell sells similar configurations direct starting at $600, and you can get a version with a newer Centrino 2 processor and discrete graphics for $1,000. All in all, the Studio 15 is a great value with the specs to stand up to a wide range of applications for the next couple of years. Apple has recently updated the 15-inch MacBook Pro, but it still starts at twice the price with a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo, 2GB of memory and a 250GB hard drive.
Notebooks with these relatively new display dimensions are similar in terms of overall size and weight to 15-inch mainstream notebooks, but they have a true 16:9 display, typically with a resolution of 1080p. As a result they tend to be marketed as entertainment-oriented notebooks with the performance and features that are closer to true desktop replacement notebooks in a thinner, more portable package. There are two top picks here, the HP HDX 16t and Sony VAIO FW series, and you really can't go wrong with either one. You can pick up the HDX 16t in configurations priced as low as $1,000, but this model has the lower resolution display, and at that price you'll get more for your money with a 15-inch notebook. A nicely-equipped HDX 16t with the higher resolution (1,920x1,080) display and the 2.4GHz Intel Core2 Duo Processor P8600, 4GB of memory, Nvdia GeForce 9600M GT with 512MB, a 250GB hard drive and a Blu-ray drive is currently priced at a reasonable $1,400 at www.hpdirect.com. The Sony VAIO FW's unique display measures 16.4 inches diagonally, yet the laptop is still relatively thin and weighs 6.7 pounds. The $900 starting configuration has a lower resolution display (like the HP HDX 16t) driven by Intel integrated graphics. At nearly twice the price, the VAIO VGN-FW290JRB has the 1,920x1,080 display, 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8400, 4GB of memory, hyrid graphics (Intel integrated graphics and the ATI Mobility Radeon HD 3650 with 512MB), a 500GB hard drive and a Blu-ray burner. The Acer Aspire 6920 and Aspire 6930 are competing 16-inch models that have also received very god reviews, so it's worth a look at them as well before you buy.
In this traditional desktop replacement category, portability and battery life take a backseat to performance. The Gateway P Series FX Edition delivers all of that. What's even better is that it manages to do all of that at a very competitive price. Sadly, the Gateway P-7811FX, a $1,400 Best Buy exclusive that earned lots of accolades from reviewers--including Editors' Choice awards from both CNET.com and Laptop Magazine--is no longer available. Fortunately, Gateway is still offering a similar model, the Gateway P-7801u FX, through the site Newegg.com. It costs a bit more at $1,700, but you get the same great 1,920x1,200 display, a larger hard drive and twice the graphics memory. All told, you get the 2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8400, 4GB of DDR3 memory, hybrid graphics (Intel integrated plus the Nvdia GeForce 9800M GTS with 1GB of its own memory), a 320GB hard drive, and a DVD burner. Given the fact that the Gateway P-7811FX held its own with gaming laptops that cost significantly more, the more powerful Gateway P-7801u FX should satisfy even the most demanding gamers. In this category, the HP Pavilion dv7 series is also worth a close look. It doesn't match the gaming performance of the Gateway P Series FX, but the dv7 is an excellent entertainment notebook with a resolution up to 1,6809x1,050 and an optional Blu-ray drive.
Acer was one of the first companies to release a desktop replacement with an 18.4-inch display--part of its Gemstone Blue launch back in March--and the latest version, the Aspire 8930G-6448 adds faster Core 2 Duo processors and more powerful graphics. The 8930G is a movie machine with its 1,920x1,080 display, True 5.1 Dolby sound (five speakers plus a 10-watt subwoofer) and signature CineDash touch-sensitive media controls next to the touchpad. There are two basic configurations. The $1,150 Aspire 8930G-6306 has a 2.26GHz Intel Core2 Duo Processor P8400, 4GB of DDR3 memory, Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT graphics, a 320GB hard drive and a DVD burner. But this model is limited to WXGA+ resolution. In this category, you'll want the 8930G-6448, a $1,600 configuration with the 1080p display, as well as a 2.5GHz Core 2 Duo T9400 and Nvidia GeForce 9700M GT graphics with 512MB. Sometime this month Acer will reportedly offer a $2,600 model with a Blu-ray drive and dual 320GB hard drives.