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.

Tablet

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.

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Brian Nadel

Computerworld (US)
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