Holiday Gift Guide 2009: Laptop computers

This year the laptop list was a tough assignment for several reasons.First, the emergence of a new class of ultra-thin laptops--spawned by lower-cost processors from Intel and AMD--has made things more complicated.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

This year the laptop list was a tough assignment for several reasons.

First, the emergence of a new class of ultra-thin laptops--spawned by lower-cost processors from Intel and AMD--has made things more complicated. Second, there's a fresh crop of Windows 7 laptops, and very few of them have received full reviews. Finally, Intel is preparing to release its first 32nm processor families, Arrandale for laptops and Clarksdale for desktops, early next year, and this is likely to really shake things up.

The good news is that there's more choice than ever at all prices ranges. The bad news is that it's becoming very tough to choose. Here are some guidelines.

Not long ago, the laptop market was relatively straightforward. The so-called mainstream systems with 15-inch displays were the least expensive (and most commonplace) and everything smaller (thin-and-lights and ultraportables) and larger (desktop replacements) cost more--often a lot more. Today mainstream models with 15.6-inch displays still tend to be the cheapest (not counting netbooks). These will typically cost anywhere from $300 to $550, though you can easily spend more depending on the configuration. The difference is that smaller, and more portable, laptops are closing the price gap. Sure, you can still spend $2,000 or more on an "executive-class" ultraportable if you really want, but now there are many low-cost ultra-thin alternatives. These typically have displays ranging in size from 11.6 to 13.3 inches, and start at around $600. At the opposite extreme are desktop replacement laptops with 17.3-inch, or in some cases even 18.4-inch, displays. These are more expensive than mainstream systems, are typically toward entertainment or gaming applications, and are only marginally portable.

Some of the larger laptops are now offering quad-core processors, but most users will be better off with a fast dual-core processor combined with more memory. You may notice that many laptops come with a new type of system memory, DRR3, which is faster and uses less power than DDR2 memory. Most laptops use an Intel chipset with integrated graphics (Arrandale will actually put graphics processor in the same physical package with the CPU) and this has advantages in terms of battery life. But it can’t match either the integrated or discrete graphics from AMD or Nvidia in terms of performance. More computer makers are offering solid-state disks in lieu of standard hard drives, but this market has yet to materialize largely because NAND flash remains too costly, though performance has been an issue as well. Microsoft designed Windows 7 to take better advantages of SSDs, so as the price comes down, we may see some pick-up in 2011. But for now, you can ignore them.

Finally several PC makers have started dropping internal optical drives from some larger laptops with displays of 13, 14 or even 15-plus inches to make them thinner and lighter. This is largely a matter of personal preference, depending on how much you travel, and whether you are accustomed to downloading all of your applications and content. Many entertainment notebooks have optional Blu-ray players or burners.

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Compaq CQ61z

The Compaq brand, which HP has relegated to the budget bin, doesn’t get a whole lot of attention (or reviews) anymore. But that's your gain because HP has quietly been delivering very good values under the Compaq label. At certain times over the past year, Wal-Mart and other stores were briefly selling Compaq laptops for just under $300. The Compaq CQ61z is a new Windows 7 model with a 15.6-inch (1366x768) display. It starts at $399.99 (basically in netbook territory) with a 2.00GHz AMD Sempron M100 processor, 2GB of memory, ATI Radeon HD 4200 integrated graphics, a 160GB hard drive, LightScribe DVD burner and Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit. One of my picks in last year's holiday guide, the Dell Inspiron 15 is also a good deal at $399.99 but it has Intel integrated graphics, which do not offer the same level of performance (2.20GHz Intel Celeron 900, 2GB of memory, 160GB hard drive and DVD burner). Currently Best Buy's least expensive 15.6-inch laptop is a Toshiba Satellite L500 series model that starts at $449.99. Like any low-priced laptop, the Compaq CQ61z has its trade-offs. The design is a bit bland, the performance won’t set any new records and the battery life will be relatively poor. But it you're on a tight budget, the Compaq CQ61z offers a lot more than similarly-priced netbooks, and is a better choice for many users such as students.

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Acer Aspire Timeline 1810T

The Aspire Timeline 1810T is part netbook and part notebook. By that, I mean that it has the design and portability of a netbook--in fact, it is virtually identical to the Acer Aspire One 751h--but the guts of a true laptop. More specifically, it uses one of Intel's ultra low-voltage (ULV) processors. That means you'll get better performance, but still have good battery life. Great battery life, in fact. Some reviewers have reported battery life scores of nearly nine hours. The Timeline 1810T is only 1.2 inches thick and weighs 3.2 pounds. It has a near full-size keyboard (92 percent), a decent touchpad and HDMI-out, a feature not found in netbooks. There is only one configuration of the Timeline 1810T (though it comes in Sapphire Blue, Ruby Red or Graphite Black) and it costs $599.99 with an 11.6-inch display (1366x768), 1.30GHz Intel Pentium SU7300, 4GB or memory, a 320GB hard drive, and Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit. Nearly every PC maker now offers ULV-based ultra-thin laptops with display sizes typically ranging from 11.6 inches to 13.3 inches (a few are experimenting with even larger ULV laptops). Acer has an entire Timeline series, HP has the Pavilion dv2z and Pavilion dm3t, and Dell offers the Inspiron 11z. So it pays to do a little research if you are interested in this new category. But you'd be hard-pressed to find a better balance of extreme portability and decent performance at this price.

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Apple MacBook Apple's mainstay consumer laptop was suffering from neglect until the company gave it a major update in October. Industry watchers have been calling for Apple to cut prices, but the company stuck with its tried-and-true formula of keeping the price the same and adding more features. The MacBook still uses a white polycarbonate case, as opposed to the aluminum one on MacBook Pros, but it employs a similar unibody manufacturing technique that results in a stiffer, sturdier case. The new MacBook starts at $999 with a 13.3-inch display, 2.13 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 2GB of memory, Nvidia GeForce 9400M integrated graphics and 160GB hard drive. Feature-for-feature, the MacBook still can’t match mainstream Windows PCs that cost hundreds less. In addition, Apple removed the FireWire port and there's still no SD card slot, even though the 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pros have this feature. But these are relatively minor issues. The real selling point of the new MacBook is Mac OS X Snow Leopard, and for those who really want it the new hardware is just a better package.

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Dell Studio 14z The Dell Studio 14z is an example of an emerging trend of dropping the internal optical drive (HP takes this to the extreme with its 15.6-inch Envy 15). The theory is that nowadays most software and content is delivered over the Internet, so users will gladly trade the DVD drive for a thinner, lighter system. The result is a laptop with a 14.1-inch display that is only 0.8 inches thick at the front (expanding to 1.2 inches at the back) and weighing 4.3 pounds. The Studio 14z starts at $740 nicely equipped with a 2.20GHz Core 2 Duo T6600, 3GB of memory, Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics, a 250GB hard drive and Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit. In addition to the standard 720p (1366x768) display, Dell also offer a 900p (1600x900) display for an additional $50. CNET reviewed a $749 configuration, the Studio s1440-022B, which was part of Best Buy's back-to-school lineup.

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Alienware M15x

About the only thing that the Alienware M15x shares with the Compaq CQ61z is its display size. The Compaq is a budget box and the Alienware M15x is a gaming laptop at the other extreme. How extreme? If money's no object, you could configure this system with a high-resolution (1920x1080) display, 2.00GHz Intel Core i7 920XM, 6GB of memory, Nvidia GeForce GTX 260M graphics with 1GB, a 256GB SSD and slot-loading Blu-ray burner for a cool $3,700. Laptop Magazine called it the "most powerful, expensive 15-inch gaming notebook in the universe." But even the starting configuration--a more reasonable $1,499--boasts some very respectable specs including the 1600x900 display, 1.60GHz Intel Core i7 720QM, 3GB of memory, Nvidia GeForce GT 240M graphics with 512MB, a 250GB hard drive, DVD burner and Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit. The new magnesium alloy case is all angles, giving the Alienware M15x muscle-car looks, and you can illuminate the keyboard and outside of the touchpad with different color lights. The Alienware M15x comes in black or grey--both with bright red accents. Some reviews have pointed out that you can squeeze similar levels of performance

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