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HotHardware Holiday Gift Guide: Notebooks
Date: Dec 06, 2011
Author: Paul Lilly
Slim, Sleek, and Well Equipped

This Holiday Gift Guide is sponsored by Epson—makers of the World’s Fastest 2-sided inkjet printer, the Epson WorkForce Pro. Run your business at full speed with Epson.

Notebooks, Ultrabooks and netbooks, oh my! Road warriors never had it so good, and though the holiday shopping season is in full swing, don't worry yourself with regret for having waited too long, there's still plenty of time to treat yourself to a get-up-and-go system, no matter what kind you're in the market for (even tablets, which we already covered here). You have options aplenty to hit the road running, all you have to do is decide what it is you're looking for. Does watching 3D movies on a notebook display without having to don any dorky glasses sound enticing? What about a sleek and sexy machine that's as light as a feather and runs Windows? Or maybe you lay awake at night dreaming of a dual-GPU powerhouse that beats up on desktops just for the thrill. We have recommendations for all of them, and more.

Whether it's for yourself or someone else, consider this your go-to guide for picking out the perfect notebook PC. We're all about spreading the holiday cheer, and if it means sifting through dozens or even hundreds of laptops to find the best ones, then so be it. This is what we do, and we'd much rather you spend your time this holiday season with your family and friends than clicking frantically through the web trying to make sense of all the available models. We've already done it, and these are our picks.

Thin and Light Machines

Apple MacBook Air (HotHardware Review)

With all due respect to our readers who are diehard Windows fans, you simply can't have a discussion about thin and light machines without bringing up Apple's MacBook Air. These appropriately named PCs currently come in two sizes: 11.6 inches and 13.3 inches. Both measure barely more than half an inch thick at their highest points (0.11-0.68 inches high) and weigh less than 3 pounds. They're also incredibly good looking to boot.

Underneath the sleek exterior and lightweight chassis sit some capable hardware. These machines pack Intel Core i5 and i7 processors inside, along with up to 256GB of flash storage, up to 4GB of DDR3 memory, and Intel HD Graphics 3000. They also come equipped with a pair of USB 2.0 ports, a Thunderbolt port, SD card slot (13.3-inch models), 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, and access to Apple's Mac App Store. Not too shabby.

We liked the MacBook Air series when it was rocking a Core 2 Duo processor, and now that the entire line has been refreshed with Intel's second generation Core i5/i7 processors, they're all the more enticing. The only caveat is that Apple might be getting ready to once again refresh its MacBook Air family in the first quarter of 2012, which will include the introduction of a 15.6-inch model, according to rumor mill chatter. It might be worth waiting a month or two if you can make do with your current laptop, but if not, the current generation of MacBook Airs are fine machines.




Apple Zenbook UX21 (HotHardware Review)

Arguably every bit as good looking as the MacBook Air and subjectively sturdier, the Zenbook UX21 from Asus slides neatly into the new "Ultrabook" class of notebooks created by Intel. Ultrabooks are supposed to embody stunning good looks, plenty of raw horsepower, and long battery life all wrapped into an ultra-slim package that's as portable as a netbook but far and away more fully featured. That's what you get with the Zenbook (meditation is optional).

The Zenbook steps into the Ultrabook ring wielding an 11.6-inch or 13.3-inch LED backlit display, an Intel Core i7 2677M processor (as reviewed, though processor options vary), 4GB of DDR3-1333 memory, a 128GB solid state drive, and a whole host of technologies, including 802.11n Wi-Fi and USB 3.0 support. It weighs just 2.43 pounds and is about as thin as a MacBook Air. But the real treat here is that not only is the Zenbook a highly portable machine capable of turning heads, it runs Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit, not OS X Lion or any other Apple operating system. Up until recently, a machine like this almost exclusively belonged to Mac-heads, and now Windows users can get the same experience on their platform of choice for roughly the same price.





Toshiba Portégé Z830 (HotHardware review coming soon)

From day one, Intel was very clear that it wanted Ultrabooks to cost less than a grand. Notebook makers initially struggled to meet Intel's pricing goal, but not only did Toshiba prove it could be done, but it did it with a 13.3-inch model - take that, bean counters and naysayers! The Portégé Z830 is currently the least expensive Ultrabook on the market, a designation that's usually shared by Acer's Aspire S3, but Best Buy has it marked down to $800. Even after sales tax, it's a better deal than the Aspire S3, and it has a dedicated 128GB solid state drive and USB 3.0 port, both of which Acer's model lack (the Aspire S3 combines a 320GB mechanical hard drive with a 20GB SSD).

Compared to the Zenbook, Toshiba's Portégé Z830 lacks an aluminum chassis and Bluetooth support, and it's saddled with a slower Core i3 2367M processor, but it's the lightest Ultrabook around (just 2.47 pounds versus the Zenbook's 2.9-pound frame) and sports a generous 8-cell battery for exceptional up-time. At Best Buy's discounted price, it should come with a ski mask.

Price: $1099

Dell XPS 15z Ultra Slim Notebook (HotHardware Review)

Lost in the shuffle of Ultrabooks, netbooks, and every other specialized form factor are traditional 15.6-inch laptops sporting an ultra slim profile. That's what you get with Dell's XPS 15z. It combines power, portability, and a clean aesthetic into an affordable package, criteria which makes it an easy recommendation for our gift guide. These traits also earned the XPS 15z our Editor's Choice award back in June.

Pricing starts at $1,000, which is Ultrabook territory, but with more features (like an optical drive) due to its slightly larger form factor. A baseline configuration ships with an Intel Core i5 2430M processor, Nvidia GeForce GT 525M graphics, 6GB of DDR3 memory, 500GB of hard drive storage (7200RPM), 8X slot-load DVD burner, and a bunch of other stuff you'd expect to find on a modern machine, including USB 3.0 support.

  • $954 (Core i5 2430M, 6GB DDR3, 500GB HDD)
  • $1,060 (Core i5 2430M, 6GB DDR3, 500GB HDD)
  • $1,378 (Core i7 2640M, 8GB DDR3, 750GB HDD)

Asus Eee PC 1025C or Samsung N102S

Unless you absolutely, positively must purchase a netbook right this second -- perhaps you're being held at gunpoint or it will put you over the top in a Brewster's Million's inheritance challenge -- you're better off waiting just a short while longer for the new crop of netbooks. We know, we know -- playing the waiting game is boring and usually we advise against it, but in this case, you'll kick yourself in a couple of weeks for having not been patient. Why? Asus and Samsung are both coming out with new netbooks built around Intel's Cedar Trail platform, and at attractive price points to boot.

Spec for spec, the Eee PC 1025C from Asus and N102S from Samsung are very similar, and the recommendation might come to down to whichever one is able to ship to U.S. shores before the other. Tentatively, however, Asus holds a slight edge based on price. Word on the Web is that the Eee PC 1025C will go for $249 and feature a 10.1-inch display, Intel Atom N2600 (1.66GHz) processor, 2GB of RAM, up to a 500GB hard drive, 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and HDMI and USB 3.0 ports. There will also be a 1025CE model with an N2800 (1.83GHZ) for $279.

Price: TBA

Gigabyte Booktop T1132

We know what you're thinking, 'Didn't convertible notebooks go the way of the dodo?' If they did, Gigabyte clearly never got the memo, and while there isn't a huge audience for this type of device, we're including Gigabyte's Booktop T1132 as an oddball gift idea for the geek in your life who seemingly has everything. Why? Put simply, he doesn't have anything like this, because there isn't another one like it on the planet (and your special geek is from this planet, right?).

What makes the Booktop T1132 one-of-a-kind is that it's the world's first 3-in-1 computer that functions as a notebook, tablet, and a desktop PC. With that kind of flexibility, Gigabyte should have called it a Transformer, only we don't imagine that would have flown with Asus.

In any event, the Booktop T1132 features an 11.6-inch screen that detaches from the unit. Plop them both into an exclusive rotatable docking station and you suddenly have a desktop tower. It has an Intel Core i5 2467 processor, up to 8GB of DDR3 memory, Nvidia GeForce GTX 520M graphics, up to a 750GB hard drive, and everything else you'd expect to find on a modern machine, including USB 3.0. The Decepticons would be proud.

Unfortunately, it doesn't look like you can actually purchase one yet, however, Gigabyte is giving you a chance to win one by filling out a Facebook survey. Are you likely to win? No. But would it be rad if you did? You betcha!

Price: Free! (if you win)
Big, Bad, and Awesome

Full Size Notebooks

We're all about ultra-slims, ultra-portables, Ultrabooks, and ultra-whatevers, but for that special someone who craves a fully equipped notebook in a big-boy form factor, here are our picks.

Alienware M14x Gaming Laptop (HotHardware Review)

Dell brought the bling when it introduced its Alienware M14x laptop, a comparatively compact gaming notebook crammed with high-end hardware to help you break your competitors' spirits without breaking your back lugging it to LAN parties. Don't let the 14-inch form factor fool you, this is a full size notebook experience with up to a Core i7 2860QM quad-core processor, Nvidia GeForce GT 555M graphics, up to a 750GB hard drive or 256GB solid state drive, and even 5.1 surround sound baked in with optional Creative X-Fi software.

When you're not knee deep in gaming, you can play with nine customizable lighting zones with the included AlienFX Lighting software to complement an already sharp aesthetic with a rubberized coating and overall sturdy build quality. Shaped keycaps make the M14x one of the more comfortable notebooks we've ever typed on, which means the recipient of this gift idea can use it for work, as soon as they're finished with Skyrim and Batman Arkham City and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and, well, who are we kidding? This thing is built for gaming, plain and simple.

Price: $1,099 and up



    Hewlett-Packard Envy 15

    Arriving just in time for the holiday season, Hewlett-Packard's redesigned Envy notebook line is a great gift idea for the geek who has a secret lust for Apple's MacBook Pro styling, but isn't so infatuated with Apple's ecosystem. This is the compromise they've been waiting for. Now available in a 15.6-inch form factor (and 17.3-inch with or without a 3D screen), the Envy line is obviously inspired by the MacBook Pro, and that's not a bad thing.

    HP's Radiance Backlit keyboard features individual LEDs dedicated to each keycap. There's also a proximity sensor that detects when a user is approaching and turns on the lights, and then deactivates them when the user takes gets up for a coffee break.

    Quad-core processors, AMD Mobility Radeon graphics, 3x3 wireless technology, Full HD displays, HDMI, full-size DisplayPorts, long battery life, and Beats Audio are all optional features of the redesigned Envy line that would undoubtedly brighten anyone's Christmas morning.




    Apple MacBook Pro

    Ask any contentious Windows user what he has against Apple and he'll bring up things like the so-called Apple tax, planned obsolescence model, sketchy upgrade path, and how Steve Jobs once kicked his puppy before his untimely demise. An Apple fan's response? Haters gonna hate.

    That might be true, but imitative designs like HP's redesigned Envy and the entire Ultrabook category at large are proof that few people actually hate the design of Apple products, it's the underlying system and business model that perturbs them. If, on the other hand, you're either platform agnostic or an Apple fan to begin with, you can consider the MacBook Pro the real McCoy.

    MacBook Pro systems aren't cheap, especially for the 17-inch model, which starts at $2,500. But if you have the scratch, the current generation of MacBook Pro notebooks are solid systems that have long since crossed over Intel's Sandy Bridge. Only one of the five baseline configurations ships with a Core i5 processor, and the rest are built around Core i7 CPUs. Flanking these chips are either Intel HD Graphics 3000 or AMD Radeon HD 6750M/6770M graphics. And of course there's Thunderbolt, the high-speed interface that conspiracy theorists will have you believe is the reason Intel has been slow to adopt native USB 3.0 support in its chipsets.



    AVADirect Clevo P180HM (HotHardware Review)

    Two words every guy fears: Size matters (ed. note: not every guy). At the same time, there's not a die-hard gaming dude out there who would turn down an 18.4-inch desktop replacement built for fast framerates and big screen action in a mobile (not portable) form factor. That's what AVADirect's Clevo P180HM delivers.

    This sweet looking notebook is gargantuan in stature, high on sex appeal, and ready to tackle any media chores you throw at it. The system we reviewed showed up on our doorstep rocking an Intel Core i7 2760QM processor, not one but TWO Nvidia GeForce GTX 560M GPUs configured in SLI, a heaping scoop of DDR3-1333 memory (12GB), a blazing fast OCZ Vertex 3 Max IOPS solid state drive, a Blu-ray reader, and even an internal Bigfoot Networks Killer Wireless-N 1103 card for that extra ping advantage.

    Of course this is all customizable and you can build a system to fit your budget, big or small(er). Or if you really want to go nuts in the graphics department, AVADirect's Clevo X7200 is configurable with up to two Nvidia GeForce GTX 580M or ATI Radeon HD 6990M GPUs, albeit in a 17.3-inch form factor.

    Price: $1,923 and up

    Toshiba Qosmio F755 3D Laptop

    Two of the biggest roadblocks to 3D adoption are the cost of entry and the undesirable prospect of having to don a pair of glasses. Toshiba addresses both of those with its Qosmio F755, the world's first glasses-free 3D laptop that starts out at around $1,150 street. Not only is that affordable, it's also reasonable for the hardware, which includes an Intel Core i5 2430M processor, 6GB of DDR3-1333 memory, Nvidia GeForce GT 540M graphics, 750GB hard drive, Blu-ray reader, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Harman/Kardon stereo speakers with Dolby Advanced Audio and Waves MaxxAudio 3, USB 3.0 support, and up to 3 hours of battery life (6-cell battery).

    This is an entertainment machine through and through. From gaming to watching HD movies, the Qosmio F755 can handle it all, and does it in 3D. That's pretty rad and will make you the most popular gift giver this holiday season.

    Price: $1,150 and up

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