A look at laptops for the season


— 6:00 PM on November 25, 2008

As I'm sure you've noticed from the Christmas lights going up and the endless repetition of "Jingle Bell Rock" and "Santa Baby," the holiday season is upon us. While America faces a nasty economic downturn that is spiraling out into layoffs all over the country, we must now more than ever remember the true meaning of Christmas: to put ourselves blindly into debt buying gifts for others and ourselves. This guide is for the selfish jerks like myself who might seize the opportunity to upgrade their own laptops at holiday prices.

I must point out that, even though Christmas towers above you like a red-and-green commercial juggernaut, you need not trample old ladies at your local Best Buy on Black Friday to "get yours." Deals have been good all year round, and mobile hardware has been evolving relatively slowly as of late. Centrino 2 wasn't a huge upgrade over previous platforms, and Nvidia's GeForce 9M-series mobile GPUs have a lot in common with the previous generation. Basically, if you bought your laptop last Christmas like I did, you're probably okay. My HP Pavilion dv2500t with a GeForce 8400M GS (featuring a whopping 64MB of video memory) still runs Left 4 Dead, Quake Wars, and Call of Duty 4 pretty well, and those are the only games I really need to run on the go. But if Old Reliable is starting to feel a lot older and less reliable, and your average battery life is around the 30-minute mark, then I suggest reading on.

A brief treatise on netbooks
First, if you're looking for a simple Internet and word processing machine, a good netbook will probably fit the bill. The netbook guide we published in September remains a helpful resource, although two new and notable contenders have popped up since then. HP has produced a consumer-friendly Mini 1000 netbook lineup, which swaps the somewhat mediocre Via C7-M processor from the Mini-Note 2133 for an Intel Atom while retaining the same delightful keyboard design. Dell has also started selling its Inspiron Mini 12 for $549—that's a little expensive for a netbook, but Dell does provide a 12" 1280x800 display.

The last netbook I'll discuss here is a strange new contender: the Asus N10J. Asus has produced a weird little chimera that squeezes a 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor with a 256MB GeForce 9300M GS into a little 10" chassis. Shoving dedicated graphics hardware into tiny laptops is par for the course for Asus and has been for years, but considering the unusual nature of an Atom netbook with a decent GPU, I'm surprised the N10J doesn't have an ASRock logo on its lid. We're currently working on a review, but if you're willing to shell out for the privilege of owning the only netbook designed to game (sort of), you can already do so.

This leaves us with the crowd favorites: Asus' Eee PC 1000H and Acer's Aspire One. Our editors have already sung the praises of the Eee PC 1000H as being one of the most well-rounded netbooks on the market, but if you're willing to compromise for a lower price tag, the Acer Aspire One is a dandy alternative. Though it has a smaller display and keyboard than the 1000H, the Aspire One's attractive, well-rounded design has made it a solid alternative to cheaper Eee PCs. The Eee PC 1000H tends to run about $100 more than the Aspire One, so it's up to you to determine whether or not the increased screen and keyboard real estate is worth the extra dosh.

A quick word about Asus
Asus gets a special mention here for one specific reason: the tendency to shove discrete graphics into just about everything it can. A visit to Newegg should yield 14.1" Asus laptops with your choice of GeForce 9650M GT or Mobility Radeon HD 3650 graphics chips. This is important, because I'm fairly certain there's a healthy gaming-oriented readership here, and those people may be happy to get solid gaming performance in a portable, utilitarian machine. Probably best of all, these notebooks are generally quite affordable. The most expensive one on Newegg right now costs only $1,199.

There is, as always, a catch. I've had experience with Asus notebooks, and depending on how picky you are, you may or may not be able to forgive their quirks. I've owned two—the 14.1" A8Jm (with a GeForce Go 7600) and the 12.1" F9Dc (with a GeForce 8400M G)—and both of them had weak hinges and mediocre battery life. The G50V I recently reviewed didn't really share these issues, but after lurking around forums, I've found that battery life remains fairly middling on Asus laptops (with 14.1" models pushing 2.5 hours tops). If you find this a reasonable trade-off for a gaming-friendly GPU, go hog wild. Personally, I've found myself willing to give up some graphics performance in exchange for better battery life and the possibility of an extended battery (which is hit and miss with Asus). It's not like I don't have a gaming desktop at home or anything.

I just wish my 8400M GS would run Rainbow Six Vegas 2 a little better—that's what I play with friends back home, and I'd really like to die less. When I'm in the market again, I'll no doubt be eyeballing Asus laptops once more.

And a little about Apple
First of all, if you're considering Apple, it's probably fair to say you're not looking for the best deal in the world. The new MacBooks and MacBook Pros have met with derision in some corners and praise in others, and our own Cyril seems pleased with his aluminum MacBook. I'm personally happy to see GeForce 9400M integrated graphics materialize, and it's nice to see Apple more or less call Intel out for foisting crappy graphics on the marketplace. That said, the new aluminum machines have problems of their own, like a very transparent market separation in the removal of FireWire from the consumer-grade MacBook. $1,299 is pricey for a 13.3" laptop, as well. If you must get your Mac fix, my vote goes to the original MacBook, which Apple sells for under a grand.

This recommendation comes with hesitation, of course, since I'm not a huge fan of Macs myself. I find Windows Vista to be just as good as Mac OS X, and the first-gen MacBook tends to run somewhat toastily. Finally, I like having an individual right-click trackpad button. Your mileage may vary.

The mainstream cheapsauce: HP's Compaq CQ50
Integrated graphics from AMD and Nvidia beat the stuffing out of Intel's chipsets and allow for cheap, low-end gaming on even the lowliest of laptops. By extension, I've found the CQ50 to really be the sweet spot for people who just want a cheap full-on laptop. It includes a dual-core AMD processor and GeForce 8200M integrated graphics with a basic 15.4" screen, and while the battery life is less than two hours, asking for more than that under $500 is barking up the wrong tree. The GeForce 8200M itself may not be quite as fast as ATI's Radeon HD 3200 IGP, which produces startlingly good performance, but it's definitely an improvement over the GeForce 7150M and its predecessors.

Of course, I also recommend this machine with some reservations. Talking to you as a friend, I've had rotten luck with anything that had the word "Compaq" on it. While HP swallowed up Compaq some time ago, I've always been wary of Compaq machines, and I can't guarantee your CQ50 won't develop some kind of horrible problem. When something this complex is $499, think about the steps that needed to be taken to get there. Reviews online are generally positive, though, so if you're willing to take the plunge, you can start here.

The ultraportable of choice: Lenovo's ThinkPad X300/X301
Let's say a netbook just doesn't cut the mustard for you. And let's say you find the MacBook Air appealing, but you feel Apple cut too many corners and pushed the price too high. If you want something that has more than a single USB port and is still remarkably portable and powerful, Lenovo's ThinkPad X300 is probably what you're looking for. (Some of you may have already seen this, but Lenovo's "ad" for the X300 comparing it to the MacBook Air comes highly recommended.) Although the X300 is a hair thicker than Apple's MacBook Air and has a slightly slower processor (an Intel Core 2 Duo SL7100 clocked at just 1.2GHz) it features a higher-resolution screen and—heaven help us—a DVD burner. You can get an X300 here, but if you're really interested in the cutting edge, there's the recently released X301.

The X301 bumps the integrated graphics up to Intel's new GMA 4500MHD and the processor up to a 1.4GHz, 45nm Core 2 Duo. If you go for the whole kit and kaboodle with dual batteries (one of which goes in the optical drive bay), the X301 will push over seven hours of useful battery life. And remember, you can actually remove the batteries yourself without having to disassemble your laptop. Unfortunately, the X301 starts in the neighborhood of $2,300, so it's not for the timid or money-crunched. Let's be realistic, though: if you could afford it, you'd probably buy it. I would.

I should also mention that Lenovo generally outfits ThinkPads with some of the best keyboards in the business, and the units themselves are often so solidly constructed they could serve as murder weapons and continue to work. With these ultraportables, you can at least confidently say you're getting what you pay for. Or at least most of it. Two large is still a lot of money.

The casual performer: Lenovo's ThinkPad T400
As much of an HP fan as I am, and as much as I like having a stylish notebook, I would probably be shortlisting the ThinkPad T400 if I were in the market today. Lenovo starts this model at a pretty reasonable $949, given that it's a 14.1" Centrino 2-based system with an optional Mobility Radeon HD 3470. The 3470 isn't the kind of powerhouse you're liable to find in a similar Asus laptop, but remember what I said about the Lenovo pedigree in the previous section. The T400 is a very well-constructed notebook with great battery life, and it brings with it the perks of buying Lenovo beyond the great shell and keyboard: the swappable drive bay and the myriad of accessories you can cram in it (a DVD writer, a second hard disk, or just another battery).

I will say that the ThinkPad look isn't for everyone, and I enjoy my HP notebook for that reason. The aesthetic screams "business or pleasure" compared to the monolithic black slab that is the typical ThinkPad. If you don't mind having an aesthetically challenged notebook, you can configure a T400 on Lenovo's site or buy a pre-built one through our price search engine.

The behemoth: OCZ's DIY 17"
This is a hard recommendation for me to make. It's hard because, as popular as 17" notebooks might be, these monstrous desktop replacements have always seemed kind of asinine to me. You pay a hefty premium for gaming performance, but you don't get much for your money—mobile GPUs are always less powerful than their desktop cousins, and upgrade options are severely rarefied. If you're just using it to crash LAN parties, you're worlds better off just building a small-form-factor desktop. Sure, it might involve a little extra packing and moving, but you'll also save something like a grand while getting equivalent performance in a much more upgradable form factor.

Dell, HP, Sony, et al make things even worse by foisting massive "notebooks" with 18" and bigger displays upon us. At this point, you just look sillier and sillier not going for a straight LAN desktop. Because of how impractical I find these machines, I'm omitting them from consideration entirely. Also omitted from consideration are Dell XPS and Alienware systems, since these tend to be somewhat overpriced for what they offer.

To be frank, I'm not particularly enthralled with "gaming PC" brands like Alienware. All the die-hard gamers I know make do with either a reasonably specced laptop (like one of the smaller Asus machines) or a desktop they or someone they know built. This continues to be one of the elusive joys of being a PC gamer: building your own machine and tweaking it yourself, something you just can't really do with an Xbox 360 (except for the odd Linux junkie). If you go out and buy an HP Blackbird 002 for serious gaming, it's a respectable system, but it's not yours. There's some cred to be had here. Alienware exists to try and foist that sort of cred on to the frat boy set. This is purely my opinion, but that's what a blog is for, right?

This is why, if you simply must have a hulking gaming laptop, my favorite contender in this market is the OCZ Do-It-Yourself 17" machine. We'll be reviewing one of these in the future, but it's essentially a notebook that lets you install as much hardware as you reasonably can by yourself, giving you at least some feeling of accomplishment as a do-it-yourself sort of gamer. The notebook comes equipped with a Centrino 2 chipset and is one of the rarefied machines sporting ATI's Mobility Radeon HD 3870, available in both single-GPU and CrossFire configurations. At Intel's Centrino 2 launch, I actually had the opportunity to see a Mobility Radeon HD 3870 X2 running Assassin's Creed on a gaming machine, and I was fairly impressed. My own admitted AMD bias coupled with my joy of tinkering with computer hardware makes the OCZ DIY 17" an easy recommendation for those that simply must have a big, beefy gaming laptop but would like to maintain some of their geek cred in the process.

Conclusions
At TR, we're fans of the smaller, more utilitarian machines. I also like having a laptop I can really play with, forcing it to run all kinds of crazy crap and seeing what it can and can't do, and with that desire comes a need for something other than an Intel GMA X3100. So for me at least, the 14.1" neighborhood (and 13.3" by extension) is where I like to play the most and where I've found the coolest stuff. I like what Asus offers in this segment, but battery life is a big deal for me, since I don't feel like lugging my AC adapter everywhere I go. I'd rather carry a spare battery than have to hunt for a plug, but doing without either one is best.

In the end, I might well recommend the ThinkPad T400 for its well-roundedness. It's reasonably light, configurable, a solid performer, and it has great battery life. Odds are I'll personally buy an Asus or HP on the next go around, however. Looks aren't everything, but they're something.

   
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