A buyer's guide to laptops -- from mighty mites to mobile monsters

Notebooks come in all shapes, sizes and prices. Here's help in picking the right one.

Rather than the tiny screens and cramped keyboards offered by UMPCs and netbooks, this class delivers grown-up displays of 12.1 to 13.4 inches and full-size (or close to it) keyboards. With low-voltage processors, which consume less energy than most CPUs, they have just enough power for most everyday tasks. This type of machine is really meant for reviewing the work of others, doing some Web work, pounding out hundreds of e-mails a day and occasionally giving a presentation.

With jaw-dropping looks and the fastest processor in its class, the MacBook Air is the notebook to beat in this category. But it offers less than meets the eye because some of its parts -- like its battery and hard drive -- can't be easily upgraded or swapped. Plus, it lacks an optical drive and has just one USB port, and connecting to a wired network or an external monitor (other than Apple's own monitors that support the Mini DisplayPort connector) requires an adapter. This makes it less than road-ready.

Rather than a hard drive, ultraslims can be outfitted with a 32, 64, or 128GB SSD for saving files; models with a 256GB SSD should be available later this year. This solid state storage is much less fragile than a hard drive and can increase an ultraslim system's performance, but it can also add $800 or more to the system's already pricey bottom line.

Thin and light

From the start, the thin and light category has suffered from something of an identity crisis. That's because there are many notebooks on the market that are thinner and lighter, but the tag stuck. Today, it defines the minimum computer needed for the majority of mobile workers.

Smaller and significantly more mobile than traditional mainstream laptops, yet larger and more economical than the ultraslim class of notebooks, each thin and light design has a different way of balancing size, weight, power and cost. Systems ranging from Fujitsu's LifeBook S6520 to Toshiba's Satellite U405 all weigh about four pounds and have been designed to meet the needs of those who live on the road.

Along with screens that measure up 14 inches, these systems have up-to-date -- though not always the fastest -- processors and midrange hard drives. Although most have Webcams and Bluetooth, this class of notebook cuts corners on video. A typical thin and light machine is fine for e-mails, Web cruising and even a little video conferencing, but the graphics engine often lacks dedicated memory, which cuts into its visual abilities.

Lenovo's ThinkPad T400 may start a trend by packing two graphics accelerators into certain configurations. They let you toggle between maximum battery life with Intel graphics and system memory or peak performance with an ATI graphics chip that has 256MB of video RAM.

It is truly amazing how much can be stuffed into a thin and light's case. This genre has near-full-size keyboards, optical drives and a good assortment of ports, although some manufacturers exclude FireWire from the mix.

Happily for corporate buyers, it's also where security starts to enter the notebook equation, with fingerprint scanners, smart cards and Trusted Platform Modules available on many models. This makes a thin and light notebook not only a lean machine but a secure one as well.


The pen may be mightier than the sword, but for decades the keyboard has ruled the notebook roost. The two try to get along in a tablet PC, which provides the best of both mobile worlds.

While there are slate tablet designs that do without the keyboard altogether, most tablets are convertibles. They replace the traditional notebook display with a touch-screen mounted on an articulated hinge that allows the panel to swivel and fold over the keyboard. This creates a space for viewing and writing.

Tablets are great for scribbling notes at a meeting, sketching your killer new product idea or drawing a map for a new factory, and then flipping the screen over and typing a memo about it. However, this genre of notebook has caught on only in niches, such as sales teams and schools.

Join the Good Gear Guide newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags notebooksultraportable laptopsnetbooks

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Brian Nadel

Computerworld (US)
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Crucial Ballistix Elite 32GB Kit (4 x 8GB) DDR4-3000 UDIMM

Learn more >

Gadgets & Things

Lexar® Professional 1000x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards

Learn more >

Family Friendly

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Stocking Stuffer

Plox Star Wars Death Star Levitating Bluetooth Speaker

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles


GGG Evaluation Team

Kathy Cassidy


First impression on unpacking the Q702 test unit was the solid feel and clean, minimalist styling.

Anthony Grifoni


For work use, Microsoft Word and Excel programs pre-installed on the device are adequate for preparing short documents.

Steph Mundell


The Fujitsu LifeBook UH574 allowed for great mobility without being obnoxiously heavy or clunky. Its twelve hours of battery life did not disappoint.

Andrew Mitsi


The screen was particularly good. It is bright and visible from most angles, however heat is an issue, particularly around the Windows button on the front, and on the back where the battery housing is located.

Simon Harriott


My first impression after unboxing the Q702 is that it is a nice looking unit. Styling is somewhat minimalist but very effective. The tablet part, once detached, has a nice weight, and no buttons or switches are located in awkward or intrusive positions.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?