HotHardware Holiday Gift Guide: Notebooks

Slim, Sleek, and Well Equipped

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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)

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