Laptop computers: A visit to lap land

There’s a bewildering array of portable computers on the market, but only a handful of them qualify as best buys.

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by

From the November 2007 issue of the magazine.

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One of the most common questions I get when people find out that I’m a technology journalist is: “Which laptop should I buy?” That’s like asking: “Which car should I buy?”

To help narrow down the field, I always ask some questions back. What will you use your laptop for? What’s your budget? Will it sit on a desk most of the time or will you travel with it frequently? What do you want to do with it? Do you have any single daughters? (OK, that last inquiry is not always in the strict line of questioning, but it does help me get dates.)

You should begin your laptop search by asking yourself many of the same questions. Then find the category below that best describes you, and check out my recommendations.

Student

Kids can have it all these days—mobility, functionality and, yes, even entertainment. If you’re in small quarters like a dorm room or tiny apartment and you want a workhorse machine that can plow through your studies, but also transform into an entertainment system for downtime, my first choice would be the Toshiba Qosmio G40($2,799). The Qosmio packs all the power of a desktop computer in a heavy (5 kg) but portable package. It boasts a generous 17-inch screen for movies, and works fine with an iPod or digital music player. The Qosmio also comes with a high-definition DVD player that plays HD DVD movies. For a less expensive 17-inch system in the same category, consider the Dell Inspiron 1720/1721 ($1,058 and up).

Family user

If you want a mobile computer to take to the cottage and share with the kids, look at an Apple MacBook (starts at $1,249). These easy-to-use, handsome systems include the iLife software suite for making movies and creating music. MacBooks are also low maintenance, free from nasty spyware and viruses, and pack all the tools a kid needs for homework. If you prefer to stick with a Windows-powered laptop, then look at Dell’s Inspiron 1520/1521. Dell used to have a reputation for making dinky, crappy laptops. This new line is totally redesigned and getting a lot of attention. The biggest problem with buying a Dell laptop these days? Picking which one of eight colors you want.

Budget buyer

A hot deal is rarely a good deal in the laptop market. However, you can protect your pocketbook and still get a decent system by compromising in two areas. The first is the microprocessor. Choose a lower-end Intel processor such as the Celeron Duo or opt for a processor such as the Turion 64 made by Intel’s rival AMD. Both processors work fine for everyday tasks, but are far cheaper than state-of-the-art processors.

Another way to save is by lugging a bit of extra weight. Heavier machines that tick in between 2.5 and 3 kg are cheaper than their lightweight rivals. The 2.5 kg Hewlett-Packard Pavilion DV2402CA ($849) is a decent choice. Also look at the Toshiba Satellite A200 ($749).

Business traveler

The mobile executive can choose between an ultra-portable system that slips nicely into a purse or a more substantial yet still ultra-light laptop that has a more robust keyboard and screen. Systems in either category weigh less than 2 kg, which makes them a joy for those who spend a good part of their lives lugging briefcases around airports. Executives who want an ultra-portable that is barely larger than a hardback book should look at the hardy yet petite Lenovo ThinkPad X61 ($1,699) or the Sony VAIO TZ series ($2,500). Those who desire something slightly bigger should consider the Lenovo ThinkPad T60 or T61 ($1,399 and up).

Gamer

If you’re on the hunt for a laptop capable of playing the hottest, latest, most demanding video games, you have only two real choices—Hewlett-Packard’s Voodoo Envy line ($3,158 to $5,000+) or Dell’s Alienware Area-51 systems (starting at $1,769, but much pricier with options). Both are aimed at performance gamers who want to be able to play games without compromise. These gorgeous systems come with 15- and 17-inch screens (and in one case a 20-inch screen). They have the guts to handle the data-processing loads imposed by many leading-edge games and high-end graphics systems to display the animated imagery in stunning detail.

Hip geek

I like to think that I slip into this last category. It’s for techies who want the coolest and best machine.

Most of the hip geeks these days are going for Apple’s MacBook Pro (starts at $2,199 for a 15-inch model and $3,099 for the 17-inch version). Part of the MacBook’s appeal is what it’s not—it’s not primarily a Windows machine and that’s appealing to many techies who have come to loathe Microsoft and its creations. But, to give the MacBook its due, it’s also well designed and nearly immune to viruses.

My personal choice is the Dell XPS M1330, which is the closest you can come to a MacBook while staying within the Windows universe. This fully redesigned laptop weighs in at 1.8 kg; you can order a 13.3-inch LED screen as an option. (LED is a bulbless light technology that uses less power. All the cool kids have LED screens these days.) The M1330 features a built-in webcam in the bezel above the screen and an HDMI connector to output information to your high-definition TV. Fashionistas take note: the M1330 comes in three colors (red, black and white).

If you want to look further afield, consider Lenovo’s T-series. It’s long been a geek favorite thanks to some nifty extras such as shakeproof, drop-resistant internal mechanisms that protect users with slippery fingers. Lenovo’s ThinkPad T60 or T61 ($1,399 and up) are excellent choices. Geeks are also gasping at LG’s beautifully designed new laptops. You may know LG primarily as an appliance maker, but if esthetics matter to you, be sure to have a peek at the sleek, handsome LG R500 laptop ($1,900) if you get the opportunity.

72 comments on “Laptop computers: A visit to lap land

  1. The Zune concentrates on being a Portable Media Player. Not a web browser. Not a game machine. Maybe in the future it’ll do even better in those areas, but for now it’s a fantastic way to organize and listen to your music and videos, and is without peer in that regard. The iPod’s strengths are its web browsing and apps. If those sound more compelling, perhaps it is your best choice.

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  2. If you’re still on the fence: grab your favorite earphones, head down to a Best Buy and ask to plug them into a Zune then an iPod and see which one sounds better to you, and which interface makes you smile more. Then you’ll know which is right for you.

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  3. Sorry for the huge review, but I’m really loving the new Zune, and hope this, as well as the excellent reviews some other people have written, will help you decide if it’s the right choice for you.

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  4. Between me and my husband we’ve owned more MP3 players over the years than I can count, including Sansas, iRivers, iPods (classic & touch), the Ibiza Rhapsody, etc. But, the last few years I’ve settled down to one line of players. Why? Because I was happy to discover how well-designed and fun to use the underappreciated (and widely mocked) Zunes are.

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  7. I have seen many useful points on your web page about computers. However, I have got the viewpoint that laptops are still more or less not powerful adequately to be a good selection if you generally do projects that require many power, like video modifying. But for web surfing, word processing, and quite a few other prevalent computer functions they are okay, provided you never mind small screen size. Many thanks for sharing your ideas.

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  8. I really appreciate this post. I’ve been looking all over for this! Thank goodness I found it on Bing. You have made my day! Thanks again

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  9. I have discovered some new things from your internet site about computer systems. Another thing I’ve always thought is that laptop computers have become a product that each family must have for many people reasons. They provide convenient ways in which to organize households, pay bills, go shopping, study, focus on music and in some cases watch tv series. An innovative approach to complete most of these tasks is to use a notebook. These pcs are mobile, small, effective and easily transportable.

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  10. Well, it’s fine, however how about additional choices we have here? Would you mind crafting one more article about all of them also? Thanks a bunch!

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  11. This is getting a bit more subjective, but I much prefer the Zune Marketplace. The interface is colorful, has more flair, and some cool features like ‘Mixview’ that let you quickly see related albums, songs, or other users related to what you’re listening to. Clicking on one of those will center on that item, and another set of “neighbors” will come into view, allowing you to navigate around exploring by similar artists, songs, or users. Speaking of users, the Zune “Social” is also great fun, letting you find others with shared tastes and becoming friends with them. You then can listen to a playlist created based on an amalgamation of what all your friends are listening to, which is also enjoyable. Those concerned with privacy will be relieved to know you can prevent the public from seeing your personal listening habits if you so choose.

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  12. Hands down, Apple’s app store wins by a mile. It’s a huge selection of all sorts of apps vs a rather sad selection of a handful for Zune. Microsoft has plans, especially in the realm of games, but I’m not sure I’d want to bet on the future if this aspect is important to you. The iPod is a much better choice in that case.

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  15. Thanks for making me to achieve new strategies about computer systems. I also possess the belief that certain of the best ways to maintain your notebook in primary condition has been a hard plastic-type material case, and also shell, that fits over the top of one’s computer. These types of protective gear are generally model unique since they are manufactured to fit perfectly on the natural housing. You can buy these directly from owner, or via third party places if they are available for your notebook, however its not all laptop could have a covering on the market. Once more, thanks for your ideas.

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  16. Thanks for your write-up. I also believe laptop computers have gotten more and more popular right now, and now tend to be the only form of computer included in a household. Simply because at the same time actually becoming more and more cost-effective, their computing power is growing to the point where these are as effective as personal computers from just a few years ago.

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  18. Thanks for making me to gain new ideas about computer systems. I also possess the belief that one of the best ways to keep your notebook computer in primary condition is with a hard plastic-type case, or maybe shell, which fits over the top of one’s computer. These types of protective gear are usually model specific since they are made to fit perfectly within the natural covering. You can buy all of them directly from the seller, or from third party places if they are intended for your mobile computer, however only a few laptop may have a spend on the market. Again, thanks for your tips.

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