Picking the Purrr-fect Notebook
Before selecting one, identify how it will be deployed.
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
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
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
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
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
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.