Holiday Gift Guide 2010: Laptop computers

The choices for laptops continued to expand in 2010. The good news is that you are virtually guaranteed to find exactly what you -- or someone on your list -- is looking for.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

The choices for laptops continued to expand in 2010. Notebooks have pushed down into the netbook territory with several models using 11.6-inch displays, including Apple’s razor-thin MacBook Air. This trend toward thinner and lighter laptops continues and some computer makers have sacrificed optical drives in systems with displays as large as 14 inches in order to trim the fat. In addition to a thinner profile, more laptops offer higher-quality components such as aluminum and magnesium alloys inside and out. The result is a laptop that both looks good and feels solid and rugged.

The low- and ultra low-voltage processors are still not as widely used as many had anticipated because they are noticeably slower and the standard-voltage dual-core chips are providing very good battery life. You can find laptops of all shapes and sizes with these single-core, dual-core or quad-core processors and a growing list offer both integrated graphics—usually Intel HD graphics—and a discrete GPU to balance between application performance and battery life.

Other features you may want to look for in a laptop—depending on the size—are a high-resolution (702p or 1080p) display, Blu-ray drive, HDMI and/or Intel’s Wireless Display technology for connecting to a TV, and powered USB/eSATA ports (which can charge your gadgets even when your laptop is powered down). One final note: Many laptops have integrated 3G wireless, which is a great feature, but you might be better off with a mobile WiFi hotspot that works with multiple devices, including the Apple iPad, and can be easily swapped for one that supports 4G WiMax or LTE (some already do) as it becomes more widely available.

All of these choices make for a confusing buying process, but the good news is that you are virtually guaranteed to find exactly what you—or someone on your list—is looking for.

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Alienware M11X The gaming gurus at Dell typically churn out big and fast machines, which is what makes the M11x so unusual.

The M11x is an ultraportable with an 11.6-inch display (1366x768) that measures 11.3 x 9.2 x 1.3 inches and weighs slightly more than four pounds. Yet it comes loaded with both Intel Core i5/i7 processors and Nvidia’s GeForce GT 335M discrete graphics with 1GB of memory.

The low-voltage Core processors are not as powerful as the standard ones, but this combined with the use of Nvidia’s Optimus technology, which automatically switches to Intel’s integrated when you don’t need the powerful discrete GPU, results in anywhere from 3 to 5 hours of battery life.

The M11x can also output 1080p video via HDMI or DisplayPort and it has a surprisingly-good 5.1 channel audio system (the only thing missing is an internal optical drive). The M11x starts at $799 with an older 1.3GHz Core 2 Duo SU7300, 2GB of memory and a 160GB hard drive; a nicely-equipped model with the newer 1.06GHz Core i5-520UM, 4GB of memory and a faster 500GB hard drive is $999.

The aggressive design—complete with customizable AlienFX lighting--isn’t for everyone, but no other laptop offers this much power in such a portable package.

[read review][check prices]

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Lenovo ThinkPad X201 These days the laptop market seems to be gravitating toward slightly smaller (11.6 inches and below) or larger laptops with 13.3-inch display, but the 12-inch ultraportable remains the best balance of portability and power for road warriors.

And the best of this dwindling category continues to be Lenovo’s ThinkPad X201. The 1.3-inch thick ThinkPad X201 no longer looks ultra-thin alongside laptops such as Apple’s MacBook Air, but it is still highly portable with a starting weight of less than 3 pounds and it packs a lot more punch.

The base $979 configuration has a 2.40GHz Intel Core i3-370M, 2GB of memory, a 160GB 5,400rpm hard drive and a 4-cell battery. But for a few hundred dollars more ($1,299), you can load it up with 2.66GHz Core i7-620M, 4GB of memory, a 320GB 7,200rpm drive and an extended 9-cell battery.

Try getting those kinds of specs in a MacBook Air. The ThinkPad X201’s old-school 12-inch matte display (1280x800) is easy on the eyes--no high-gloss glare--and its standard keyboard is still the best in the business with large, well-spaced keys that can take a pounding.

The battery life will depend on the processor and battery you choose, but CNET’s reviewer managed to get 7 hours of battery life with a Core i5 and the 6-cel battery, which is impressive.

In short, the ThinkPad X201 is the total package.

[read review][check prices]

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Toshiba Portege R700 The Portege R700 is the total package.

The magnesium alloy case is durable and looks great in navy blue or black. The 13-inch (1366x768) R700 is only about an inch thick and has a starting weight around 3 pounds. Yet it uses standard voltage Intel processors.

This is a big deal because it translates into better performance, which is why Toshiba refers to the R700 as its “thinnest and lightest full-performance laptop” it has ever built. The R705, which starts around $800, comes with Core i3 and Core i5 processors, and the “Built for Business” R700 is even available with the top-of-the-line Core i7 (with a 128GB SSD only) starting at $1,599.

Despite the more powerful processors, the R700 lasted anywhere from 4 to 6 hours with its standard 6-cell battery, depending on the test. Toshiba didn’t skimp on features either. The R700 has an integrated DVD SuperMulti drive, a powered eSATA/USB 2.0 combo port, HDMI out, and on some configurations, Intel’s wireless display technology, which lets you “push” video to a TV using a NetGear adapter that costs less than $100.

The only other 13-inch ultraportable with a similar size and weight to combine standard Intel Core processors with an optical drive is the Sony VAIO Z series, but it starts at $1,799 and goes up quickly.

Add it all up and it’s no wonder the Toshiba Portege R700 series is one of the best-reviewed laptops of the year.

[read review][check prices]

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HP Pavilion dm4 Like economy cars, most mainstream laptops are boxy, boring and come with basic components. HP’s Pavilion dm4t is different.

Part of HP’s dm thin-and-light series (which also includes the 11.6-inch dm1z and 13.3-inch dm3t), the dm4t is only 1.3 inches thick and the metal surfaces on the back lid and around the keyboard with a tasteful etched design lend it an upmarket feel.

Despite its small size, the dm4t has a 14-inch 720p (1366x768) display that is bright and vibrant and an integrated DVD drive. Best of all you don’t need to settle for economy performance. Even the base $730 model is well-equipped with a 2.26GHz Core i5-430M, 4GB of memory, and a 500GB 7,200rpm hard drive.

The dm4t is also highly configurable with numerous processor, memory and graphics options. With this base configuration, you should get at least 4 hours of battery life.

If you want high performance, you can get the dm4t with a Core i7-640M, 8GB of memory and AMD’s Radeon HD 5470 discrete graphics with 1GB for $1,235.

Not bad for a system you can carry around campus all day long.

[read review][check prices]

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Apple MacBook 15-inch The smaller MacBook and MacBook Air get all the press these days, but Apple’s 15-inch laptop is still a great choice for the sorts of applications that Mac OS X excels at such as digital photography to video editing thanks to its 15-inch display and fast components.

Unlike the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook and MacBook Pro, the 15-inch MacBook Pro has the latest and greatest Intel processors starting with the Core i5 with higher-end Core i7 options. The new processors also required a switch from Nvidia integrated graphics to a combination of Intel HD integrated graphics plus Nvidia’s GeForce GT 330M discrete graphics.

Apple has its own version of Nvidia’s Optimus technology, which automatically switches between the integrated graphics and discrete GPU to balance battery life and application performance. The system drives a 15.4-inch (1440x900) glossy displays that is now available with a higher resolution of 1680x1050 for $100 extra. (You can also get the high-resolution display with an anti-glare coating for a total of $150 extra.)

At 5.6 pounds this isn’t a system for the everyday commute, but as far as 15-inch laptops go it is relatively thin and compact, and the aluminum unibody design is rugged and looks great. The MacBook Pro 15-inch comes with Mac OS X 10.6.2 Snow Leopard plus the recently-announced iLife 11 suite and App Store for Macs.

With a starting price of $1,799, the MacBook Pro 15-inch hardly qualifies as a mainstream laptop and you can easily find Windows laptops in this category with similar specs--plus features such as HDMI-out and Blu-ray--for less. But for those who love the Mac OS, the MacBook Pro 15-inch offers a great combination of design and performance.

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HP Envy 17 At this size, portability takes a backseat to power and you want the works—a high-resolution display, quad-core processor, powerful discrete graphics, Blu-ray and more.

The HP Envy 17 delivers all of that and more. There are two models in the premium Envy line—a 14-inch and the 17-inch-and both have a high-quality aluminum and magnesium case that is durable and looks great. Inside one of the Envy 17’s best features is its edge-to-edge, full HD (1,920x1,080) display, which when combined with the upgraded Beats audio, make sit the perfect system for enjoying Blu-ray movies.

The Envy 17 starts at $1,230 with a 1600x900 display, 2.53GHz Core i5-460M dual-core processor, 6GB of memory, AMD Mobility Radeon HD 5850 graphics with 1GB, 500GB 7,20rpm hard drive and DVD player.

That’s a very nice configuration, but to really get the most out of the Envy 17 you’ll want to upgrade to the full HD display, 1.60GHz Core i7-720QM quad-core processor for $1,700. That might sound like a lot, but keep in mind that the Apple MacBook Pro 17-inch—which has a similar design—starts at a whopping $2,299 with a dual-core processor, less memory, a slower hard drive (5,400rpm) and a DVD drive (Blu-ray isn’t an option on Macs).

The Envy 17 also includes lots of connectors such as HDMI, USB 3.0 eSATA and standard DisplayPort that you find on the MacBook Pro.

The Envy 17 is the sort of laptop that truly lives up to the term desktop replacement.

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