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Picking the Purrr-fect Notebook | B&H Photo Video Pro Audio
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Picking the Purrr-fect Notebook

Before selecting one, identify how it will be deployed.

By Michael Antonoff

Unlike a desktop computer, a notebook is built to travel. But that doesn't mean it will actually get to see the world. Plenty of notebooks, also known as laptops, are used as stay-at-home computers that are essentially desktop PC replacements. The only time they get unplugged is if they're moved from one room to another.

Before you decide on a notebook for yourself or someone else, figure out the user's intentions regarding mobility. Does he or she plan to carry the notebook out the door regularly, not at all, or once in a blue moon?  The answer goes to the heart of your selection.

All the notebooks listed here are priced between about $600 and $800, and offer nearly identical specs on the major features other than size: with the exception of HP's 13.3" screen computer, all these models use dual core processors running at or above 2.2 Gigahertz. All contain 4 Gigabytes of RAM and hard drives with capacities ranging from 320- to 500GB. Also, they all integrate a Webcam and microphone, offer at least 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi connectivity, contain HDMI and VGA outputs to drive a larger screen such as an HDTV set, and are loaded with Windows 7 Home Premium, Microsoft's newest operating system that critics generally agree is a hit.

Therefore, screen size, which is directly proportional to weight, may be your most important consideration.

For the home body whose notebook rarely or never leaves home, the bigger the screen, the more appreciated it will be. A full-size screen means less scrolling, and the integrated keyboard will most likely be full-size, too. Standard-size keys are more comfortable to type on, particularly for someone with large hands. Go for a screen size close to the 17-inches you'd expect from a desktop monitor. The weight hardly matters.

On the other hand, for the student who's constantly throwing his/her notebook into a backpack or the road warrior who frequently boots up in an airline seat, a smaller screen will fit their lifestyle better and save a few pounds in the carrying case. For them, choose a screen 13 to 14 inches in size and a weight between 4 and 6 pounds. Yes, notebooks are larger than netbooks, but they offer more versatility, perform faster, and are more comfortable to view and operate. (Don't even think about running graphics-intensive games or doing video editing on a netbook.)

Then, there are more casual users who take their computers with them occasionally and stand to benefit by compromising on a model that's not too small, but not too big either. For this in-betweener, I'd recommend a laptop with a screen 15 to 16 inches in size and a weight of 6 to 7 pounds.

Of course, screen size isn't the whole story. Screen resolution, port variety, what software's included, and special features count, too. Let's take a look at six models in the order of decreasing screen size and weight.

The biggest screen in our roundup belongs to the Hewlett-Packard Pavilion dv7-3060us Entertainment Notebook Computer. The wide 17.3-inch display assumes you won't necessarily be hovering over it, so HP includes a remote control for kickback entertainment. There are integrated Altec Lansing speakers with SRS Premium Sound and a subwoofer and two headphone jacks. The LED-backlight LCD has a native resolution of 1600 x 900 pixels, and the display is powered by an ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4530 graphics chip. The 101-key full-size keyboard with separate numeric keypad could make the dv7-3060 your full-time computer with the ability to travel in a pinch. Unplugged, the computer is powered from an 8-cell lithium-ion battery. The 7.7-pound computer contains a complete set of ports including 1394 FireWire, eSATA, and ExpressCard/54. There's a 5-in-1 memory card reader. The built-in DVD/RW drive contains HP's LightScribe technology for applying silkscreen-type text, photos, and graphics to discs. Cyberlink's DVD Suite is included. A touch strip above the keyboard makes it easy to play, fast forward, mute, or adjust the volume on your entertainment. For wireless connectivity, 802.11a/b/g/n compatibility is included. The dv7-3060 contains a 500GB (7200 rpm) hard drive. Incidentally, to make the dv7-3060 even more of a desktop machine, you may want to add HP's Notebook QuickDock Docking Station 2.0, which plugs into the mystery port on the side of the computer. In case of an earthquake, you can disconnect the notebook with one cable release and run.

The Toshiba Satellite A505-S6981 Notebook Computer, like the other laptops featured here, contains a Webcam and microphone, but the computer comes with a link to Skype for setting up an account for free voice and video calling to other Skype users. It's mainly about marketing, since we've seen the Skype icon on Asus computers, too, but putting Skype on the Satellite's desktop does save users the effort of finding and installing the money-saving phone application on their own. The 16-inch screen with a resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels delivers 720p resolution, a nice match for high-def video content available online. And given its Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n protocol, the A505 will be able to stream those HD videos without being tethered to an Ethernet cable, assuming you have an N-type router. The A505 uses a NVIDIA graphics chip for lightning-quick 3D gaming and HD movie editing. One of the USB ports doubles as an eSATA port for connecting an eSATA hard drive, and the same port can be used to charge other devices even when the computer is asleep. There's a built-in card reader, and the TouchPad enables multi-touch control, which is especially useful for enlarging photographs. The A505 lacks Bluetooth connectivity, but it could be added as a USB accessory. The built-in DVD reader/writer supports Labelflash disc labeling. The A505-S6981 comes with a 400GB (5400 rpm) hard drive.

B&H carries two 6.2-pound Acer Aspire notebooks that look identical (one is pictured above) in that each has a 15.6-inch (1366 x 768) screens and gemstone blue finishes. They can each easily double as desktop and traveling computers. The major difference between the Acer Aspire AS5738-6969 and the more expensive Acer Aspire AS5738PG-6306 notebook is that the latter contains a multi-touch display.

I found the two-finger squeeze-and-separate approach mildly satisfying when applied to the AS5738's widescreen. Placed over a video playing in a window showing elephants, my gesture expanded the nature video full screen, the way elephants were meant to roam. Bringing my fingers together scaled the wildlife back to their previous size. This is not the incremental sizing enjoyed by iPod Touch and iPhone owners, but flicking the screen is definitely more direct than retreating to a mouse controlling an onscreen pointer. Single-finger flicking across the screen enabled me to advance a filmstrip, too. The touch-screen notebook contains a 320GB hard drive; the non-touch-screen model, a 500GB hard drive. The touch screen uses an ATI Radeon HD 4570 graphics chip; the non-touch, an Intel GMA 4500M graphics chip. The AS5738PG comes with Acer TouchPortal and Microsoft TouchPak software; the AS538 doesn't. Otherwise, the specs are identical including 802.11a/b/g/n connectivity but no Bluetooth, a multi-card reader, and a DVD drive. Incidentally, both models feature a multi-gesture touchpad, so the screen isn't your only target for getting tactile.

The Sony VAIO CW VPCCW13FX/B Notebook Computer (Jet Black) abruptly grabbed my attention after innocently training its Webcam to recognize my face. The Motion Eye camera uses face-tracking software that is similar to the technology used in certain cameras and camcorders. So, there I was standing in the computer department together with a B&H sales rep looking at the Vaio CW. I turned on the camera, and suddenly we were peering at ourselves. Rectangles appeared around our faces. I selected mine. That did it. As I leaned back, the computer zoomed in. I moved slightly to the left and the camera appeared to pan right. I moved right, and the camera panned left.

I suppose that Motion Eye is useful if you get animated during a Webcam conversation, but frankly, I'm glad the Vaio didn't have wheels or it might have started following me as I looked at other computers.

Getting back to basics, the Vaio CW VPCCW13FX/B offers a 14-inch screen, our second smallest, yet with a bright LED backlight and a 720p-capable resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels. The model is also our second lightest at 5.3 lbs. For plugged-in connectivity, the CW additionally offers a 4-pin FireWire port and SD, MS, and Express Card slots; for wireless, there's also Bluetooth. There's a built-in DVD burner and a 320GB (5400 rpm) hard drive. Finally, the touch pad is innovative in its ability to accept certain gestures to scroll or cause the Web browser to move backward or forward.

The smallest and lightest notebook in our bunch is the Hewlett-Packard Pavilion dm3-1030us Entertainment Notebook Computer. With an LED-backlit widescreen of 13.3-inches containing a 720p resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels and an overall weight of only 4.2 pounds, the computer excels at portability. Despite its petite nature, the sleek, aluminum-magnesium casing stands out. However, this is the only model in our group to jettison an optical drive. So, if you can live with media copied to the dm3-1030's 320GB (7200 rpm) hard drive or residing on a flash drive or hard drive plugged into one of the computer's four USB ports or streamed from the internet via its 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi connection, you're in business. If not, you may need to buy an external USB DVD player such as the Asus External Slim DVD+/-R/RW Drive. The computer includes Bluetooth connectivity and a 5-in-1 card reader. The dm3-1030 runs on a 1.6GHz AMD Athlon Neo X2 Dual-Core processor.

So, whether you're looking to replace your home computer, acquire a traveling computer, or want something that fills both needs, there's a notebook in waiting. A brief comparison of the models discussed follows. Superficial as these attributes seem, they're useful in making a buying decision. Elaborate specifications are available by clicking through to each product.

 

Notebook Computer Model Screen Size (inches) Weight (pounds) Typical Deployment
Acer Aspire AS5738-6969 15.6 6.2 At home or away
Acer Aspire AS5738PG-6306 15.6 6.2 At home or away
HP Pavilion dm3-1030us 13.3 4.2 On the road
HP Pavilion dv7-3060us 17.3 7.7 At home
Sony VAIO CW VPCCW13FX/B 14 5.3 On the road
Toshiba Satellite A505-S6981 16 7.2 At home


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