Laptops: 2011 holiday tech gift guide

Laptops: 2011 holiday tech gift guide

Laptops they'll love

A well-designed, well-made notebook computer makes a delightful gift (and perhaps an item for your own wishlist?), offering shiny new tech that's both beautiful and highly practical. But it's not a present to be bought on a whim; you need to suit the laptop to the recipient's needs -- and to your own wallet. With that in mind, we're recommending both Mac and Windows laptops in a range of styles, sizes and prices to help you get the most bang for your buck.

Ultraslim, ultrasexy ultraportables

For the utmost in portability, a tablet (possibly paired with a wireless keyboard for iOS or Android) is hard to beat. But while tablets are great for media consumption, they're not the best tools for getting real work done. Cheap, underpowered netbooks won't get you far, either.

That's where the MacBook Air and its Windows counterparts come in. These sleek, stylish machines are less than an inch thick and weigh about 3 lb. or less, while offering comfortable keyboards and crisp displays. And with up-to-date processors and healthy amounts of RAM, they're powerful enough to do whatever you need them to on the road -- though they're not quite as fast as many full-sized machines.

Other tradeoffs come with a slim profile, including the lack of an optical drive, a non-removable battery, a skimpy array of ports and connectors, and integrated graphics, which may not be able to keep up with intense games or multimedia as well as a dedicated graphics system. And while their solid-state flash storage is mostly a plus -- it gives ultraportables a speed boost and is more durable than a traditional spinning hard-disk drive -- it also reduces the amount of onboard storage.

If your favorite gift recipient wants a perfect combination of portability, power and packaging, you can't do better than these ultraslim, ultrasexy and -- fair warning -- somewhat pricy laptops. The machines we're recommending are available in both netbook-size 11.6-in. models and 13.3-in. models for those who need a bit more screen real estate.

Mac: Apple MacBook Air

When the Air debuted in January 2008, it was expensive, underpowered and jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Since then it has retained its good looks, come down in price and steadily packed more power into its thin but strong unibody aluminum frame.

Starting at $999, the Air comes in four basic models: The two 11.6-in. versions offer 64GB and 128GB of storage, respectively, while the two 13.3-in. versions are available with 128GB or 256GB of storage. In all cases, that's onboard flash storage mounted directly to the logic board, which is noticeably speedier and more energy-efficient than an HDD.

The current generation of Airs retains the striking "wedge" design of last year's models, tapering from 0.68 in. down to just 0.11 in. at the thinnest point. Also carried over are the sharp, high-resolution display (1366 x 768 native resolution on the 11-in. models and 1440 x 900 on the 13-in. models); large, glass-coated trackpad; full-size chiclet keyboard; 802.11n Wi-Fi support; FaceTime webcam; SD card slot (13-in. models only); dual USB 2.0 ports; and headphone and microphone jacks.

At 2.4 lb. for the smaller models and just under 3 lb. for the larger, the new Airs are about an ounce heavier than before. Although Apple claims the same battery life as its previous models (up to 5 hours for the 11-in. and up to 7 hours for the 13-in.), Macworld actually found a slight improvement over last year's models during its rigorous battery tests.

There have been some big improvements as well, including the inclusion of 4GB of RAM on all but the entry-level 11-in. model (if you opt for that one, we advise bumping up the RAM to 4GB); a high-speed Thunderbolt port (which is backward-compatible with older Mini DisplayPort cables); Bluetooth 4.0 support and backlighting on the keyboard. The most notable upgrade is the addition of Intel's ultra-low-voltage "Sandy Bridge" CPUs, which provide a significant performance boost. In his review of the entry-level 13-in. Air, Computerworld's Mac editor Ken Mingis notes that it scored 5,452 on the Geekbench benchmarking app, up from a score of 2,678 for the equivalent model from 2010. He writes:

The upshot: The Air is no longer a stylish but underpowered laptop. You can have your cake (a lightweight laptop) and eat it too (with speeds in the same ballpark as low-end MacBook Pro models). (Read the full review.)

The 11-in. Airs come with a dual-core 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 processor, while the 13-in. models include a dual-core 1.7GHz Core i5. All models can be configured with a 1.8GHz Intel Core i7, but Mingis believes that many people won't notice the difference in everyday use. For most users, he says, the sweet spot will be the $1,299 13-in. model with 1.7GHz Core i5, 4GB RAM and 128GB storage.

The new MacBook Airs also benefit from Apple's latest operating system, OS X Lion. Mingis notes that although he's always preferred larger screens, Lion's expanded trackpad gestures and support for full-screen apps make it so easy to navigate among multiple screens on the Air that the small display feels "practically expansive."

The Air defined the ultrathin notebook category nearly four years ago, and with continuous smart improvements in the meantime, it is still the slim and stylish laptop to beat.

-- Valerie Potter

MacBook Air from Apple Inc.

Street price: $940 - $1,018 (64GB 11.6-in.), $1,139 - $1,170 (128GB 11.6-in.), $1,235 - $1,400 (128GB 13.3-in.), $1,498 - $1,624 (256GB 13.3-in.), or configure at Apple site

Summary: Speedy Intel Sandy Bridge processors, a Thunderbolt port and OS X Lion keep the MacBook Air on top of the ultraslim heap.

Windows: Asus Zenbook UX21E and UX31E

In the world of ultraslim laptops, Windows machines have always played second fiddle to Apple's MacBook Air. But a new breed of thin and light computer called the Ultrabook PC could change that. Driven by Intel, which has invested $300 million toward their development, today's Ultrabooks use the latest Sandy Bridge chips with integrated Intel graphics, and most follow a few general guidelines (download PDF) such as being less than 0.8 in. thick, offering fast startup and wake times, and delivering 5 to 8 hours of battery life.

The current leader of the Ultrabook pack is the Asus Zenbook. With a unibody aluminum chassis, full-size chiclet keyboard and a sleek design that tapers from 0.8 in. thick at the back to 0.12 in. at the front edge, the Zenbook looks a lot like the MacBook Air. The Zenbook, however, really stands out with an eye-popping brushed-metal pattern.

The UX21E model, which starts at $999, offers an 11.6-in. display and weighs in at 2.4 lb. The entry-level version includes a 64GB SSD and a dual-core 1.6GHz Intel Core i5; the next level up is $1,199 for a 128GB SSD and 1.8GHz Core i7. Both offer 4GB of RAM and a 1366 x 768 native resolution.

The UX31E model weighs 2.9 lb. and offers a bright, crisp 13.3-in. display with 1600 x 900 native resolution, something not often seen in a 13-in. laptop. It comes in three configurations, all with 4GB of RAM: $1,099 for a 128GB SSD and a dual-core 1.7GHz Intel Core i5 CPU, $1,349 for 256GB SSD and the same Core i5 processor; and $1,499 for a 256GB SSD and 1.8GHz Core i7 processor.

How does all that hardware stack up? Very well: The UX31E beat out several larger ultraportables in PC World's performance tests. The Zenbook also performs well in multimedia playback, and its Bang & Olufsen ICEpower speakers provide excellent sound. And as Computerworld reviewer Brian Nadel notes:

The Zenbook has another ace up its sleeve: its Power4Gear Hybrid software lets you tune the system's performance and battery life to suit what you need it to do. There are four settings, including High Performance, Entertainment, Quiet Office and Battery Saving, but you can tweak them further by changing individual settings. (Read the full review.)

Even in Battery Saving mode, however, Nadel found that the Zenbook lasted only around 4 hours in his admittedly rigorous battery tests. Some reviewers have also noted problems with the Zenbook's touchpad, but a driver update seems to have solved most of those problems. (Still, it might not be a bad idea to throw in a mouse.)

All Zenbook models come with Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit and support Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11n Wi-Fi. There's also one USB 3.0, one USB 2.0, one audio in/out, one Micro HDMI and one mini-VGA port, as well as an SD card reader on the UX31E only.

If your giftee prefers Windows machines to Macs, the Zenbook offers a sleek, stylish alternative. And although the 11-in. Apple and Asus models cost about the same, the 13-in. Zenbook UX31E starts at $200 less than the very similar 13-in. MacBook Air.

You might also like: Looking for something even snazzier? Consider the 11.6-in. or 13.3-in. Samsung Series 9 laptop, which offers over-the-top styling in a striking curvy enclosure made from a space-age aluminum alloy called Duralumin. But be warned: Starting at $1,199 for the 11-in. model and $1,649 for the 13-in., it'll cost you.

If you're on a tight budget, take a look at the 11.6-in. HP Pavilion dm1z. Weighing a relatively heavy 3.5 lb. and equipped with an HDD rather than flash storage, it's not in the same class as the rest of these machines, but it starts at just $380 and runs circles around netbooks of the same size.

-- Valerie Potter

Zenbook UX21E and Zenbook UX31E from ASUSTeK Computer Inc.

Street price: $965 - $1,205 (UX21E with Core i5), $1,150 - $1,390 (UX21E with Core i7),

$1,062 - $1,137 (UX31E with Core i5), $1,398 - $1,674 (UX31E with Core i7)

Summary: With a gorgeous brushed-aluminum exterior, solid performance and a few nice extras such as Bang & Olufsen speakers, the Asus Zenbook is a compelling ultraslim option.

All-purpose performers

If your giftee needs a laptop with a larger screen and more power -- not to mention an optical drive -- but that's still not too heavy to carry around, a midsize all-purpose laptop is your best bet. We like 14- and 15-in. models for their balance of viewability and portability.

Mac: 15-in. Apple MacBook Pro

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" seems to be Apple's mantra for the design of its MacBook Pro line, which has remained the same for several years now. That's not a bad thing -- clean lines and a strong unibody construction have long been hallmarks of the series, as have a slender profile (less than an inch thick), an expansive multitouch glass trackpad and a backlit chiclet keyboard. And the 1440 x 900 LED-backlit display on the 15.4-in. MacBook Pro is as crisp, bright and gorgeous as ever.

But inside the aluminum chassis, Apple has quietly added several key improvements, most notably Intel's second-generation Core i-series processors, built on the Sandy Bridge architecture. In the 15-inch models, that means the latest quad-core Core i7 CPUs at basic clock speeds of 2.2, 2.4 or 2.5GHz and Turbo Boost speeds of up to 3.5GHz.

As Computerworld's Ken Mingis explains, however, there's more to Sandy Bridge processors than clock speeds:

The biggest advance is that everything is integrated in one place: the processor itself, the Intel integrated graphics, the memory controller and cache. That allows the sum to work faster than the parts. And Intel's Hyper-Threading technology adds even more speed: It allows two threads of work to run at the same time across four cores, essentially giving you four real processor cores and four virtual processor cores. (Read the full review.)

The entry-level 15-in. model is $1,799 and includes a 500GB, 5400rpm HDD; a 2.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor; 4GB of RAM and an AMD Radeon HD 6750M GPU with 512MB of memory. The higher-end model starts at $2,199 for a 750GB, 5400rpm HDD; 2.4GHz quad-core Core i7 CPU; 4GB of RAM and an AMD Radeon HD 6770M GPU with 1GB of memory.

Those dedicated Radeon graphics processors, for intensive graphics work, are in addition to the integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000 subsystem, which handles most tasks and uses less energy. You don't need to switch between the integrated and dedicated graphics; the system knows what's needed and switches automatically.

You can upgrade the RAM on either model to 8GB and the storage to a 750GB, 7200rpm HDD or a 128GB, 256GB or 512GB SSD, and the higher-end model can be upgraded with a 2.5GHz quad-core Core i7 processor. Be careful, though: Opting for the highest level of all these upgrades brings the price up to a shocking $3,749.

More about laptops

The 15-in. MacBook Pro, which tips the scales at 5.6 lb., includes a new webcam that records at 720p HD and works with Apple's FaceTime app for Mac, which means you can video-chat with iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch owners running FaceTime as well.

Also new is a high-speed Thunderbolt port in place of the Mini DisplayPort. The other ports and connectors are slightly skimpy for an all-purpose machine: two USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire 800 port, an Ethernet port, audio in, audio out and an SD card slot. There's an 8x slot-loading SuperDrive for optical discs, but no Blu-ray support. For battery life, expect a reasonable 5 to 6 hours for everyday tasks.

All of this adds up to a powerhouse laptop that can easily handle a variety of computing tasks at home, in the office and on the road.

You might also like: If your gift recipient uses an external display most of the time (and thus doesn't need as much screen real estate in a laptop), consider Apple's 13-in. MacBook Pro, which starts at $1,199. You'll get a dual-core Sandy Bridge CPU instead of quad-core, plus lesser graphics capabilities and screen resolution, but you can save hundreds of dollars and shave a pound off the weight by opting for the smaller size.

One final note: (Unsubstantiated) rumor has it that Apple will begin shipping a 15-in. MacBook Air in the first quarter of 2012. With midrange components inside, it's likely to be a bit more affordable than the 15-in. MacBook Pro. The question is, will your gift recipient be happy getting an I.O.U. for a theoretical future laptop?

-- Valerie Potter

15-in. MacBook Pro from Apple Inc.

Street price: $1,698 - $1,939 (entry-level), $2,020 - $2,230 (higher-end), or configure at Apple site

Summary: The 15-in. MacBook Pro stuffs some serious hardware into a modestly sized, well-designed package.

Windows: HP Pavilion dv6t

At 5.8 lb. and slightly more than 1.2-in. thick in places, HP's Pavilion dv6t won't win any thin-and-light awards, but it hides its bulk well with gentle curves and a classy dark umber finish on its aluminum housing.

The dv6t's bright, crisp 15.6-in. LED-backlit display handles video well, according to PC World reviewer Loyd Case:

Video playback quality is quite strong. WMV high-def clips looked sharp, with nicely saturated colors. DVD upscaling to the native 1366 by 768 resolution was clean, with little visible edge enhancement or noise. The laptop ships with Intel WiDi (Wireless Display) client software, but you'll need to buy the box that attaches to your HDTV separately. (Read the full review.)

The dv6t offers some nice extras built in, such as a fingerprint reader, an HD webcam and four speakers backed by Beats Audio software that pump out excellent sound. There's a good array of ports and connectors including two USB 3.0 and two USB 2.0 ports; one port each for Ethernet, VGA and HDMI; an SD card slot; and one audio in and two audio out jacks.

The laptop comes standard with Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit (Professional and Ultimate editions also available), a SuperMulti 8X optical drive and 802.11n Wi-Fi support. Two omissions that may annoy you: Bluetooth is not supported by default (although you can add it for $15) and the keyboard is not backlit.

Like the MacBook Pro, the Pavilion dv6t includes Intel's second-generation Core i-series CPUs with Sandy Bridge technology, which boosts performance and battery life. But most of the dv6t models include dual-core Core i3, i5 and i7 chips that are less powerful than the quad-core i7s found in the 15-in. MacBook Pro. On the plus side, the lower-end dv6t models are much, much less expensive than MacBook Pros.

The dv6t's plethora of configuration options can be a bit overwhelming. The basic edition begins at $579 and includes a 2.2GHz dual-core Core i3 processor; integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000; 6GB of RAM and a 640GB, 5400rpm HDD -- but you can upgrade all those options in many levels all the way up to a 2.5GHz dual-core Core i5 CPU; a discrete Radeon HD 6770M GPU with 2GB of memory; 16GB of RAM and a 160GB SSD for about $1,950.

The dv6t Select Edition starts at $699 for a 2.4GHz dual-core Core i5 processor; integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000; 8GB of RAM and a 750GB, 5400rpm HDD. Most of its configuration options overlap those of the basic edition, but you can boost the processor up to a 2.7GHz dual-core Core i7.

Finally, there's the dv6t Quad Edition, which starts at $799 for a 2.2GHz quad-core Core i7 CPU; a discrete Radeon HD 6490M GPU with 1GB of memory; 8GB of RAM and a 750GB, 5400rpm HDD. That one can be configured up to a 2.3GHz quad-core Core i7; a Radeon HD 6770M GPU with 2GB of memory; 16GB of RAM and a 160GB SSD for about $2,075.

Other options, available on all models, include a full-HD 1920 x 1080 display ($150 extra), a Blu-ray player ($75) or writer ($150), and a longer-lasting 9-cell battery ($30).

In other words, although the dv6t starts out cheap, it can quickly get expensive if you upgrade the components or opt for other add-ons. PC World's Case recommends the version he tested, with dual-core 2.3GHz Core i5 CPU; 6GB of RAM; Radeon HD 6490M graphics chip and 640GB, 5400rpm HDD. "At $800, this configuration of the dv6 seems to hit a sweet spot," he says.

You might also like: Another all-purpose all-star is the striking 15.6-in. Acer Aspire TimelineX 5830TG, which starts at $800 and offers excellent battery life and such niceties as an Nvidia GeForce GT 520M GPU with automatic graphics switching (see PC World's review). It's also available in less expensive 14-in. and 13-in. models if your gift recipient doesn't need all the screen space of a 15-incher.

-- Valerie Potter

Pavilion dv6t from Hewlett-Packard Co.

Street price: $580 - $1,500 (depending on configuration) or configure at HP site

Summary: With solid performance and some nice extras, the highly configurable HP Pavilion dv6t is a good all-around machine for a range of budgets.

Extravagant entertainers

For watching multimedia or gaming, you just can't beat a huge 17-in. HD display with native 1920 x 1080 resolution, powered by a fast quad-core processor and a high-end discrete graphics chip to keep up with all the action. Great audio is also a plus, as is 3D support for some folks.

These multimedia monsters don't come cheap, and at 6.5 lb. minimum, they're not easy to carry around. But who cares when videos and games look this good?

Mac: 17-in. Apple MacBook Pro

What is there to say about the 17-in. MacBook Pro that hasn't been said before? This year's model has the same slender lines, the same strong unibody aluminum chassis, and the same sharp, bright, richly colored, LED-backlit, native 1920 x 1200 glossy display that's been wowing its owners for years.

(Don't like glossy screens? You can opt for a matte anti-glare screen for an extra $50.)

As with its smaller brethren, the new stuff is mostly on the inside: Intel Sandy Bridge chips with integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000, plus a discrete AMD Radeon HD 6770M graphics processor with 1GB of GDDR5 memory and automatic graphics switching to drive that beautiful display. These changes brought (in some cases more than double) over the prior model's scores in Macworld's rigorous speed, graphics and battery life tests.

The current 17-in. MacBook Pro also has the new HD webcam found in the 15-in. models, as well as the new Thunderbolt port. What's that all about? Computerworld's Ken Mingis elaborates:

Thunderbolt is sort of like USB on steroids (it's as much as 20 times faster than USB 2.0, 12 times faster than FireWire 800 and more than twice as fast as USB 3.0) because it delivers 10Gbit/sec throughput in both directions. That's serious data transfer speed. (Read the full review.)

Because Thunderbolt is based on DisplayPort technology, it looks just like the old Mini DisplayPort that it replaces and supports any device with a Mini DisplayPort adapter. Which is a good thing, because at this stage there aren't many Thunderbolt devices available. This is more of an enhancement for the future than a current benefit.

There are also three USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire 800 port, an Ethernet port, audio in, audio out and an ExpressCard/34 slot. The laptop supports 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0, and it provides an 8x SuperDrive for optical discs, but once again Apple has omitted support for Blu-ray.

The 17-in. MacBook Pro starts at $2,499. You can upgrade its 2.4GHz quad-core Core i7 CPU to 2.5GHz; the included 4GB of RAM to 8GB; and the standard 750GB, 5400rpm HDD to a 128GB, 256GB or 512GB SSD. We're not even going to tell you how expensive the highest configuration is -- if you have to ask, you can't afford it.

-- Valerie Potter

17-in. MacBook Pro from Apple Inc.

Street price: $2,349 - $2,693 or configure at Apple site

Summary: If money is no object, the gorgeous 17-in. MacBook Pro delivers a world-class multimedia experience.

Windows: Dell XPS 17

Dell's XPS 17 laptop features a bright, clear glossy 17-in. LED-backlit display, and its 22W JBL speakers deliver excellent audio quality. Like the MacBook Pro, the XPS 17 has been updated with Intel Sandy Bridge chips for greatly improved performance.

But be careful when shopping: The highly configurable XPS 17 line starts with an $899 model that comes with midrange components and a display that doesn't support full 1080p HD. This is not the version to get for the best multimedia experience.

We suggest starting with the preset $1,400 configuration, which includes a 2.2GHz quad-core Core i7 processor; 8GB of RAM; dual 500GB, 7200rpm HDDs (for a total of 1TB of storage); an Nvidia GeForce 555M GPU with 3GB memory; a 1920 x 1080 full HD display with HD webcam and a Blu-ray Disc player/burner. You can adjust from there if, say, you want to add more RAM, a faster processor, a TV tuner and/or a 256GB SSD. If you want 3D capabilities, start with the preset $1,500 configuration, which is exactly the same as the $1,400 configuration except it includes a 1920 x 1080 3D display with a 120Hz refresh rate, plus a pair of Nvidia 3D Vision glasses.

PC World reviewer Loyd Case was impressed with his tricked-out XPS 17 3D test model:

Overall, the Dell XPS 17 3D offers superb performance in standard desktop apps. Gaming performance is pretty good, too, though you'll want to scale back the resolution a bit and dial down the graphics features for best results, particularly in newer games. The new display looks very good, and stereoscopic Blu-ray movies are spectacular, if you're into them. (Read the full review.)

The XPS 17 ships with Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit and offers a typical array of ports and connectors for a device this size: two USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, an Ethernet port, one audio in and two audio out jacks, an SD card reader, and both HDMI and Mini DisplayPort connectors. Bluetooth 3.0, 802.11n Wi-Fi and WiMax are also supported, as is Intel WiDi on the non-3D display.

If you make sure to get the full HD display, the GeForce 555M video card, a quad-core Core i7 processor and, optionally, the Blu-ray player, the XPS 17 will be sure to delight the multimedia fan on your list.

You might also like: If you're looking for a machine that can handle fast-action, graphically rich gaming in addition to HD video, 3D and Blu-ray, check out the Asus G74SX. Starting at around $1,800, this nearly 10-lb. monster offers a stellar screen, crisp audio and an understated, living-room-friendly design.

-- Valerie Potter

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