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HH Holiday Gift Guide: Notebooks & Desktops
Date: Nov 23, 2012
Author: Ray Willington
Notebooks: From Ultrabooks To Desktop Replacements
2012 has been a banner year for both notebooks and desktops, in terms of design and innovation. It's not every holiday season that you get to swoon over a new Windows operating system and freshly designed hardware to go with it, but those in the market this winter will be treated with Windows 8 and some slick new machines should they choose to go that route.

Whether it's for yourself or someone else, consider this your go-to guide for picking out the perfect notebook or desktop PC this holiday season. We're all about spreading the holiday cheer, and if it means sifting through dozens or even hundreds of machines 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.

Alienware M18x R2 Gaming Laptop ($1,999+)

If price is no object, and high frame rates are a necessity, this is your machine. Be it as a gift to yourself or the most special gamer in your life, this $1,999+ machine doesn't come cheap. But, it'll deliver a serious wallop to with its Core  i7-3630QM CPU, 18.4" LCD, 8GB of RAM, and NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 660M (2GB) GPU.

From our review: "Straight and to the point, if you're looking for a no-compromises desktop replacement, the Alienware M18x R2 has your name written all over it in big, bold, neon letters. This is the system to get if you don't care about trivial things like portability (it weighs 12 pounds, after all), price (and costs around $4,400), and battery life (dual GPUs...'nuff said). Make no mistake, this is a gaming PC that's every bit as powerful as a high-end desktop, but with the benefit of a built-in display and form factor that makes it relatively easy to lug to LAN parties. Yes, it's four or five times as heavy as an Ultrabook, but its shape and weight are both far less unwieldy than packing up a desktop tower on a trip across town."

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Ultrabook ($1,249+)
 ThinkPad X1 Carbon Edge
If sleek and portable is the goal, Lenovo's gem will deliver. It's built ThinkPad tough, but it's amongst the lightest Ultrabooks on the market. The $1,249+ price tag will get you a powerful notebook for play or business, with Core i7 CPUs, a 14" LCD, up to 256GB of SSD storage and up to 8.2 hours of battery life. Bragging rights are included for free -- Santa's Special!

From our review: "Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Carbon put up very respectable performance figures across a myriad of workloads.  With the exception of gaming, where this ThinkPad's lower memory bandwidth holds back performance, the X1 Carbon competes well with the latest crop of Intel 3rd generation Core series powered ultra-light notebooks. In our light duty gaming benchmarks the ThinkPad X1 Carbon offered performance somewhat below other machines we've tested in this class, although gaming is not what this machine was designed for. Are you going to miss a bit of gaming performance in a feather-weight notebook usage model?  Likely not, but it's worth noting, especially if you tend toward heavier multimedia usage.  Beyond that, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon's combination of Intel's Ivy Bridge-based Core i5-3427U processor and its nimble SSD, add up to responsive, power-efficient performance that will satisfy virtually anyone interested in a machine in this weight class."

Dell XPS 13 ($949+)
If you want to get even more mobile, the 13" XPS 13 hits the sweet spot. It also checks in south of $1,000, making it slightly easier on the wallet than most high-end other Ultrabooks. Dell doesn't skimp on design or internals, however, with the base configuration packing plenty of punch for most users.

From our review: "A good friend of ours said the Dell XPS 13 is an ultrabook that "could steal customers from Apple."  That may be a stretch, depending on your point of view, but we'd definitely say the Dell XPS 13 is seriously tough competition for any manufacturer in the ultralight notebook space, Apple or otherwise.  However, Apple has done a magnificent job over the years cultivating extremely loyal customers.  Whether you believe it's out of blind brand worship or that they just make products that good, the loyalty is unmistakable and almost unfailing. And of course, a total solution product like a notebook has a software component with the OS that is a critical differentiator as well.  That said, the "PC" industry obviously saw the writing on the wall when they got behind the ultrabook product category with Intel."

Acer C7 Chromebook ($199)
 Acer AC710
Just because it's $199, doesn't mean that it should be ignored. Cheaper than most netbooks of yesteryear, this Chromebook is amongst the cheapest newly-available notebooks. Yes, it runs an unusual operating system, but for those who only need to keep up with social media, e-mail and movie streaming, it's sufficient.

Apple 13" Retina MacBook Pro ($1,699+)
 MacBook Pro
It's the first ultraportable laptop from Apple with a Retina display, boasting a ridiculously dense panel crammed with almost 4.1 megapixels, all flash-based storage and fantastic battery life. Just be aware that you're giving up an optical drive and there's no discrete GPU option, but it remains the only laptop in the bunch here that'll run OS X and Windows.
Desktops: From SFF To Behemoth
Maingear Potenza Super Stock ($899+)

Built around the mini-ITX form factor, the Potenza SS is a small form factor (SFF) system that rises above moderate expectations of what a comparatively itty-bitty PC can truly deliver. As it turns out, a mini-ITX rig can pack quite the payload. Of course, it's really easy to surpass $2,000 with this thing, so only the most generous of gift givers need apply.

From our review: "Maingear's Potenza proved without a shadow of a doubt that you can build a luxury game system in a compact case and still enjoy high end luxuries, like gaming at 2560x1600 and overclocking. Small form factor (SFF) systems are first and foremost about saving space. While the Potenza is small in stature, it's big on performance. Time and again, it pushed playable framerates on our 30-inch monitor, including DirectX 11 titles like Aliens vs Predator and Batman: Arkham City. It's a perfect example of shrinking the desktop without compromising performance."

CyberPowerPC Zeus Thunder 2500 SE ($1,895+)

If size and space aren't an issue, you'll enjoy the expandability and cooling performance of the ZEUS. It starts at around $1,899, but you get tons of room in there to build things out beyond the already impressive base configuration. Just make sure you save a few bucks to load it up with software -- wouldn't want all of that power to go to waste!

From our review: "You could scarcely find a better price-for-performance ratio than $1,899 for the Zeus Thunder 2500 SE, although if you’re not in love with the price, CyberPowerPC has eight other Zeus Thunder gaming rigs available, starting at $1,125. If you’re looking for just a little more performance than this system offers, however, there are pricier versions with slightly more beefed-up specs too, all the way up to the $3,735 Zeus Thunder Max. As we saw with the other systems in our test bank, however, at some point ponying up more money for features offers diminishing returns. This system, as configured, will likely do most users just fine."

ASRock Vision 3D 252B HTPC ($900+)
Is it an HTPC? Perfect for an apartment dweller or college student? Or is it a portable LAN party rig? Honestly, this machine can be any and all of the above, and it won't break the bank in the process. And, guess what? It might actually fit in an actual stocking. Fancy that!

From our review: "The ASRock Vision 3D’s use of mobile components results in relatively low power consumption and its active cooling solution is never loud or annoying. The components used in the system also offer strong performance and allowed ASRock to design a small chassis that we think looks great. The system also offers a host of connectivity options and since there's an Intel CPU and NVIDIA GPU on board, it’s compatible with a wide range of operating systems, HTPC front-ends, and can playback virtually any file type with the correct software."

Dell Alienware X51 (699+)
It's not cheap, but The Alienware X51 is flashy and powerful for its size. It's a unique mix of small and powerful, and as with anything made by Alienware, you're bound to gift a lot of smiles if someone you know cracks open one of these. It's tiny enough to be used in tight spaces, but powerful enough to satisfy all but the most demanding gamer in your life. Talk about multifaceted.

From our review: "When some consider the size of a small form factor system, they tend to set their expectations in performance directly proportional to that size, for the most part.  To say we were impressed with the numbers this little machine put out would be an understatement.  We'll stop just short of "blown-away" but we're a bit jaded around these parts anyway.  In terms of general compute performance, the X51 performed about where we expected for its midrange Core i5 quad-core CPU.  It's not a workstation number cruncher but it gets the job done for gaming and multimedia tasks especially, where GPU performance is more critical.  In that regard, gaming performance of the X51 was, for all intents and purposes, the fastest of the bunch among the other full-sized systems we tested.  We gave the X51 a high watermark to hit, pitting it up against full-ATX and mid-ATX systems, and the little alien invaded and cleaned house."

Dell XPS One 27 All-in-One ($1,299+)


While all-in-one PCs may not perfectly suit the gamer in your life, they're ideal for those who just need to accomplish less taxing chores. Dell's latest is amongst the most beautiful to ship in 2012, and it's as much a decoration as it is a computer.

From our review: "Sitting behind the gorgeous panel is a well rounded collection of hardware, including an Intel Core i7 3770S processor and NVIDIA GeForce GT 640M graphics. It's a combination that might be wasted on some mainstream users, which is probably why these parts don't come standard. As configured, the setup Dell sent us runs $1,999, though cost of entry starts at $1,399 for a Core i5 3450S and Intel HD 4000 graphics foundation. At that price, you'll also have to forgo the 32GB mSATA solid state drive, which acts as a giant cache buffer for the 1TB or 2TB (in this case, 2TB) 7200RPM hard drive, and give up the Blu-ray drive as well.  It all depends on your specific needs and budget."

Stay tuned to HotHardware for more holiday gift guides in the days ahead...

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