Holiday gift guide: Six laptops that rock

With the wide variety of laptops available, your lifestyle — or the person you’re shopping for — should be the starting point in determining what you buy. Do you travel a lot? Ultraportables can weigh less than three pounds these days or last on battery more than six hours. Prices are falling too, with more great configurations falling below the US$2000 mark. Speed and performance can be the trade-off, though. Want an elegant alternative to your clunky monitor and PC combo? A variety of powerful, elegant 17-inch models come with cool entertainment features such as a TV tuner, Blu-ray Disc drive, or HD DVD drive. Are you rough with your stuff? Consider a laptop with a solid-state drive; be prepared to pay more for less storage space though. And if you’re an environmentalist, laptops with LED-backlit screens are energy-saving and Mercury-free.

All-Purpose: Gateway E-475M

If a 7.2-pound laptop with a 15.4-inch screen isn’t too bulky or heavy to carry in your estimation, you may well find Gateway’s new business laptop ideal for toting in a satchel or backpack. It has a durable smudge-resistant exterior, a shock-mounted hard drive, and a close-fitting lid to keep out debris. Equipped with one of Intel’s latest mobile dual-core processors, the $2270 (as of 5/9/07) E-475M is also one of the fastest notebooks of the moment, and it has terrific battery life.

The E-475M’s classic matte-black case has a more business-oriented look than the two-tone M-465E it replaces. The rounded, clamshell lid keeps paperclips and other small items from working their way between the screen and keyboard, making this the perfect laptop for stuffing into a grubby bag.

Equipped with 2GB of RAM and a new 2.2-GHz Core 2 Duo T7500 processor, the E-475M is the fastest Vista notebook we’ve tested to date. It bested our previous top WorldBench 6 Beta 2 scorer, a Micro Express NP5760 running an older 2.33-GHz Core 2 Duo T7600 chip and Vista Home, by 1 point — 83 to 82. Our new speed champ is powerful enough to handle any application, even 3D gaming. (The speakers are no great shakes, however.) Wireless-communications fans get the bonus of the chip set’s support for five-times-faster draft-n Wi-Fi. The Gateway aced our battery tests, as well, lasting 5 hours, 17 minutes on a single charge.

The screen has the more conservative matte finish rather than the glossy sheen so popular these day, so it’s not blazingly bright — but neither does it reflect office lights. The WXSGA resolution of 1680 by 1050 pixels makes icons small, but that’s the necessary trade-off if you like being able to open a lot of windows or to see all of a big document at once. The rest of the design is good overall, if a bit spartan. The keyboard is classic Gateway: plain, with no quick-launch buttons, but comfortable. Case connections are also modest but cover all the bases, including a front-mounted wireless switch. The 100GB hard drive could be bigger, but at least it’s a high-speed, 7200-rpm model. The E-475M is one of the rare Gateway systems to offer a modular bay. Though the bay’s release is awkwardly situated on the bottom, and is stiff and hard to work, being able to swap out the dual-layer DVD burner for a second battery or hard drive is a valuable expansion option.

Extras not included in our review unit’s price include an optional fingerprint reader, an integrated smart card, Gateway’s built-to-fit privacy filter, and a detachable docking station with a very nice charging bay that lets you keep an extra battery ready to go.

Though not cheap, the E-475M injects some much-needed excitement into Gateway’s notebook lineup. It’s a good-looking and durable design, topped off by great performance courtesy of one of Intel’s latest dual-core processors.

For the fashionista: HP Pavilion dv6500t

A beautifully crafted consumer notebook, the new HP Pavilion dv6500t has backlit media controls and a stylish case that’s made for showing off.

Capable of serious work as well, it’s a strong performer, yet fairly light (6.2 pounds) and easily totable. The keyboard is a tad bouncier than that of its predecessor, the dv6000t. And though bright and readable, the 15.4-inch screen tends to reflect overhead lights. Also, HP downgraded the dv6000t’s 1.3-megapixel (1280-by-1024-pixel) Webcam to 0.3 megapixels (640 by 480 resolution) on the dv6500t. These are minor nits, however.

While the dv6500t adds a few more circles to the subtle motif on its designer lid, cosmetically the system is largely the same gorgeous laptop as its predecessor, with the same durable, high-gloss casing and piano-black hinges. New are support for draft-n Wi-Fi (in addition to 802.11a/b/g), a fingerprint reader for security, an HDMI output for connecting to a television, and the option for an HD DVD-ROM drive (though our test unit came with a multiformat, dual-layer DVD writer). The dv6500t has three USB ports and a seven-in-one shared card slot, and the configuration we tested included a 120GB hard drive.

Our $1309 (as of 5/9/07) review model also came equipped with 2GB of RAM and the new 2-GHz Core 2 Duo T7300 chip, which together helped it earn a WorldBench 6 Beta 2 score of 75 — just 10 percent behind the fastest laptops we’ve tested. As a result, the dv6500t can handle any type of application, from mainstream to multimedia, except 3D shooter games. The dv6500t’s integrated Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X3100 can use up to 358MB of main system memory; but for real gaming muscle, you’d want to upgrade to the optional 256MB nVidia GeForce Go 7400 graphics chip.

Battery life was excellent: The notebook lasted just 3 minutes shy of 4 hours in our tests.

Multimedia junkies still have the HP QuickPlay feature that was found on the dv6000t. This entertainment menu launches with one tap or a swipe of the touch-sensitive strip at the top of the keyboard, letting you enjoy DVD movies, music, personal videos, and photo slide shows without booting Windows. Meanwhile, fantastic stereo speakers pump out the sound. An ExpressCard TV tuner is remains a $130 option. The Pavilion dv6500t’s dazzling look may not be for everyone, but lurking beneath the glossy surface is a serious laptop. If high fashion fits your portable lifestyle, work never looked so good.

Desktop Replacement: Apple MacBook Pro

For people who appreciate finer laptop accoutrements such as a backlit keyboard and a slot-fed DVD drive, Apple has crafted another tasty offering in the form of the 17-inch MacBook Pro. Sleek, powerful, and able to run Windows as well as the Mac operating system, the MacBook Pro makes a strong case for becoming anyone’s ultimate notebook.

Equipped with a 2.4-GHz Core 2 Duo T7700 processor, the maximum 4GB of RAM, a 160GB hard drive, and nVidia’s new top-of-the-line notebook graphics card, the nVidia GeForce 8600M GT, our $2949 test unit set new speed records. The MacBook Pro outperformed the rest of the notebooks we tested, all of which claim Windows as their primary — nay, their only — operating system. We loaded Windows Vista Home Premium on the Apple notebook, and it snagged a WorldBench 6 Beta 2 score of 88. In games it achieved a blazing frame rate of 141 frames per second in Far Cry (with antialiasing turned off).

At 6.6 pounds and just 1 inch thick, the MacBook Pro is the lightest 17-inch notebook available. But it has no memory card slots and only three USB ports, and it comes configured with an ExpressCard/34 slot instead of the more versatile ExpressCard/54 slot. Though it has Bluetooth and 802.11n Wi-Fi, built-in cellular broadband is not an option. On the other hand, video editors will be happy to have not one but two FireWire ports. Battery life was disappointing: Apple pegs it at 5.7 hours on one charge, but in our tests we got less than 2 hours, 45 minutes.

Nevertheless, the MacBook Pro is elegantly designed and remarkably mobile for a 17-inch notebook.

Get your game on: HP Pavilion HDX

Gamers have a new best friend in the HP Pavilion HDX Entertainment Series Notebook PC. Superfast, with great sound and a huge 20.1-inch screen, it’s a good, fairly portable entertainment system. Digital editors, artists, and multimedia enthusiasts will like this all-in-one, too. Just be ready to dig deep for it: Our test unit cost $3000.

The machine we looked at came maxed out with the 64-bit version of Windows Vista Ultimate; Intel’s best mobile chip, the 2.4-GHz Core 2 Duo T7700; and 4GB of RAM. All of that horsepower helped the HDX earn a WorldBench 6 Beta 2 score of 86 and generate a frame rate of 109 in our Far Cry gaming tests. The HDX’s 2-hour, 22-minute battery life is quite poor for an ordinary notebook but remarkably good for a massive (15.5-pound) desktop-replacement model.

The HDX is impressively crafted. For one thing, the machine looks stylish; the exterior is a subtle variation on HP’s designer imprint finish called “The Dragon.” The 1680-by-1050 glossy screen is easy to move back and forth on its adjustable arm for a comfortable viewing angle, and it’s bright without being too reflective. The keyboard, which includes a dedicated number pad, offers desktop-like typing comfort along with one-touch QuickPlay media controls.

The system’s four integrated Altec Lansing speakers, aided by an HP triple-bass-reflex subwoofer, produce very loud, rich sound, but a rear audio-out port makes it a snap to add a nicer, external set of speakers for gaming surround sound. Its many multimedia connections include a coaxial port for a TV signal. Our test system included two 100GB hard drives, and if even that isn’t enough space for you, the HDX has an eSATA port for adding a fast new external hard drive.

If you’ve been searching for a powerful, luggable gaming machine or an ultrahigh-end desktop replacement, give the HDX a look. It’s one of the nicest 20.1-inch models we’ve seen yet.

The light traveler: Lenovo X61

In the ThinkPad X61, Lenovo has introduced its successor to the ThinkPad X60. The X61 uses Intel’s Santa Rosa mobile processor. Otherwise, it’s the same light, sophisticated ultraportable as the earlier model; like the X60, it lacks an integrated optical drive but offers dazzling battery life.

This 3.6-pound X-series member goes to the top of our list of ultraportables for mobile professionals. Our X61 test unit, with a 2-GHz Core 2 Duo T7300 processor and 2GB of DDR2-667 SDRAM, earned a WorldBench 6 Beta 2 score of 75, which is tops among currently tested ultraportables. The extended-life four-cell battery lasted an amazing 6 hours and 14 minutes.

The bright, 12.1-inch screen and the keyboard might feel a bit close at first, but the cramped feeling quickly goes away. The keyboard has no touchpad, but the eraserhead pointing device is first-rate and easy to acclimate to. The usual nice touches found on Lenovo keyboards, such as volume buttons and a one-press launch of the recovery system, are also present.

The UltraBase docking station adds four more USB ports (for a total of seven) as well as legacy parallel and serial ports. In addition, the modular optical drive has a side release, so you can swap with one hand between an optical drive, a second battery, or a second hard drive (those are optional accessories). Including the base, which is easy to snap on and off, the unit’s total weight is a little over 6 pounds.

Our review unit, which included an UltraBase docking station with a dual-layer DVD burner, costs $1724 (as of July 27, 2007). The great performance and features, and its reasonable price, make the X61 our current top choice of ultraportable.

The perfect pill: Lenovo X61-Tablet

A tidy little 4.4-pound unit, the tablet version of Lenovo’s ThinkPad X61 ultraportable lacks an integrated optical drive, but it has a great design, long battery life, and an easy-on, easy-off docking station. At $2333 (as of August 15, 2007), however, it’s expensive.

The only major change to this upgraded ThinkPad X series model is a processor update. Our review unit, equipped with a low-voltage 1.6-GHz Core 2 Duo L7500 chip and 2GB of DDR2-667 SDRAM, turned in a good WorldBench 6 Beta 2 score of 64. Battery life with the eight-cell battery that our test unit came with was fantastic at 5 hours and 2 minutes. (Other X-series models come with four-cell batteries.)

Features are generous. They include a 7200-rpm, 100GB hard drive, an SD Card slot, 802.11 a/g Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and an option for wireless broadband from Verizon. In addition, with the UltraBase docking station you gain an optical drive, four more USB ports (for a total of seven), and several legacy ports, including a parallel port and a serial port. The modular drive bay allows one-handed swaps of the optical drive, a second battery, or a second hard drive. Including a docking station with a dual-layer DVD drive (but not the power adapter), the package weighs a reasonable 6.3 pounds.

The keyboard has many premium features, including an eraserhead pointing device that’s so good it hardly seems fair to complain about the lack of a touchpad. I also liked the dedicated back and forward Internet keys and spacebar magnifier. The tall-looking 12.1-inch display doesn’t have a wide-screen aspect ratio, but it’s easy to read and handle.

For tablet mode, the screen swivels smoothly, locks down with a press of the lid latch, and easily accepts pen or finger input. The AutoRotate feature automatically rotates the display every time you change the tablet’s position. This can be a great time-saver if you frequently switch between portrait and landscape modes, though manually pressing the orientation button also gets quick results and saves battery life.

Those who aren’t sure they need or want a tablet might be better suited to the nontablet X61 model, but if you heavily rely on pen input, the X61t is the way to go.

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