Laptops of Luxury
- Linksys by Cisco WIRELESS G BROADBAND ROUTER WITH SPEEDBOOSTER (Linksys-WRT54GS) $50.00
- Belkin SleeveTop Notebook Case, Orange
- Samsonite iMobile 360
- Interlink Electronics ExpressCard Media Remote for Bluetooth
- Logitech VX Revolution Cordless Laser Mouse
- Targus Rechargeable Bluetooth Laser Mouse
- Creative Live! Cam Optia AF Webcam $78.00 (Lowest Price) via Amazon.com
- Logitech Orbicam
- Ubixon UBHS-NC1-3D Lubix Bluetooth Stereo Headset
- Kensington Wall/Auto/Air Notebook Power Adapter with USB Power Port
Laptops have gone extreme. Some of the latest models come loaded with giant screens, massive hard drives, dual processors, Blu-ray or HD DVD drives, and even designer lids, if you so desire. Laptops have also become incredibly popular in recent years--major vendors say that portables are on track to outsell desktop PCs by 1 million units this year. Laptop companies must be doing the right things to make their machines so enticing.
We rounded up six of the biggest, baddest laptops we could find to see which are worth your hard-earned dollars. We tested three desktop replacement models (the Apple MacBook Pro, Dell Inspiron 1720, and HP Pavilion HDX) and three all-purpose laptops (the Lenovo ThinkPad R61, Sony VAIO VGN-FZ180E/B, and Toshiba Satellite A205-S4639). We ran our WorldBench 6 Beta 2 benchmark test suite--as well as our battery tests--on the notebooks, and we also put them through our rigorous hands-on evaluations. In the end the HP notebook came out atop the desktop-replacement category, while the Lenovo portable bested the other all-purpose models.
In addition to looking at some of the most decked-out portables available, we examined the latest mobile broadband options to help you stay connected when you're on the road. We also checked up on solid-state technology and how it's changing the way laptops perform. We peeked a bit into the future to see where laptop technology is headed. And finally, we rounded up a number of carry-on bags for protecting your machine and looked at some accessories that can help increase your productivity when you and your notebook are traveling.
Loaded Laptops for Everyone
The six laptops we tested offer diverse options. Some, like HP's desktop replacement, are loaded but big and heavy, while the Lenovo is ideal for travel. For pure speed, check out the MacBook Pro, the fastest Windows notebook we saw.
For all other laptop reviews, consult our All Laptops chart.
So you've picked the perfect notebook and now you need to hit the road and get online. Where Wi-Fi hotspots leave off, Wireless Wide Area Networks (aka mobile broadband) theoretically pick up. Existing technology theoretically supports mobile-broadband downloads topping 2.4 megabits per second, but your real-world connecting speeds will average between 300 and 700 kilobits per second if you're lucky, with slower uploads. And if a building or a tree blocks the signal, your connection speed can turn to molasses. (By comparison, the new Wi-Fi 802.11n standard scheduled to roll out at hotspots over the next few years offers about 100 mbps.)
"[Mobile] broadband is still shaky, with flashes of quality," says Phillip Redman, an analyst for Gartner. "It's not unusual for the speed to drop to as low as 9.6 kbps."
Now priced at $7 and $10 for a day pass or $30 per month, mobile broadband also costs more than Wi-Fi. The top mobile broadband providers--AT&T (formerly Cingular), Sprint, and Verizon--all offer plans starting at about $60.
Integrated or A La Carte?
Should you buy a new notebook that has integrated mobile broadband, or should you add it via an adapter? Neither setup is perfect. An integrated card, warns Redman, makes it harder to switch carriers later if you're dissatisfied with the service--or if you want to enjoy the same carrier's technological improvements. If your carrier upgrades to a faster network, for example, you'll be stuck with an older, slower card inside your laptop. "Sprint and Verizon are rolling out CDMA-based EvDO Revision A. Revision 0 cards that came out two years ago won't take advantage of that," Redman says.
But IDC analyst Richard Shim tells clients to choose a notebook with an integrated card because it's faster. "The antenna is usually embedded along the top of the screen--the highest point, where the signal is cleaner," he says.
If you do opt for an adapter card, don't worry too much about the type of interface. It doesn't matter which kind of adapter--whether PC Card, USB 2.0, or ExpressCard--you buy, because all of them have more than enough strength to handle broadband's comparatively wimpy throughput.
Picking a Carrier
You're not required to have a voice plan with your mobile broadband carrier, but piggybacking is more convenient and usually cheaper. And for the moment, who will prevail in the race to provide the best data service is still a toss-up.
"It's impossible to say which carrier will have the best coverage at any given time," says Redman. "One week Verizon might be better, the next week it's Sprint. Or AT&T might be better, depending on where you're at."
Currently all three carriers offer about the same level of performance. Sprint and Verizon's CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) 1x EvDO (Evolution-Data Optimized) networks are more widespread than AT&T's UMTS/HSDPA (Universal Mobile Telecommunications Systems/High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) service, which has been slow to roll out.
Carriers will soon scrimmage over upload speeds, which is good news for mobile professionals who have to e-mail large files. By year's end AT&T is expected to upgrade its service with HSUPA (High-Speed Uplink Packet Access), which introduces the first symmetrical downlink/uplink speeds. In the meantime, the EvDO Revision A service to which Sprint and Verizon are upgrading bumps up download speeds to 1.4 mbps and upload speeds to 500 kbps.
When weighing your options, don't assume that data coverage will be identical to your voice plan's. Just because your cell phone receives a signal doesn't mean your laptop will. For example, Sprint's data service coverage is limited to 70 percent of its voice areas. Also, ask your carrier if unlimited data means just that, or if in fact data is being metered and might result in extra charges if it exceeds a certain limit.
International mobile broadband is likely to be difficult to manage unless you choose AT&T as your provider. Redman recommends instead that you rely on the estimated half a million Wi-Fi hotspots worldwide or that you use a service such as iPass, which patches together mobile broadband coverage from the major carriers for you.
Some cell phones, such as those in Sprint's Power Vision series, can serve as your laptop's mobile broadband modem via a USB cable or Bluetooth, sparing you the cost of an extra card. This approach might make sense if you don't need to use wireless broadband often.
Coworkers who travel together can save their company some dough by taking out a single broadband subscription and then setting up their own hotspot with a cellular router such as Linksys's Wireless-G Router. You just insert the broadband card into the router instead of into your laptop, and a small group of users will be able to connect to the router via Wi-Fi.
Regardless of which carrier you choose, you shouldn't expect to experience nonstop mobile wireless connectivity anytime soon, according to Redman. "One technology can't win; it can't be everywhere at once. Even ten years from now, we won't have one big wireless network that covers us everywhere we go. It will have to be mix-and-match coverage of wired and wireless."
With prices continuing to drop, flash-based solid-state drives (SSDs) have become viable options for your notebook's primary storage. Moreover, SSDs can now hold 32GB of data, making them large enough to satisfy more than just basic storage needs, and making them at least somewhat competitive with 1.8-inch hard drives, whose storage capacity ranges from 30GB to 80GB. SSDs from companies such as Samsung and SanDisk now appear in portables from Dell, Fujitsu, and Toshiba. But are they really worth your money?
Even after price drops, SSDs still carry a hefty $400 to $500 premium over ordinary hard disks. To see whether that additional cost is justified, we tested three pairs of ultraportable notebooks from Dell and Fujitsu. Each pair was identically configured except that we equipped one unit with an SSD and the other with a typical 1.8-inch, 4200-rpm hard drive.
We tested each of the three SSD notebooks against its identical non-SSD counterpart. Two of the notebook pairs, Dell's ATG-D620 ($3015 with SSD, $2815 with an 80GB hard drive) and Fujitsu's LifeBook P1620 ($2578 with SSD, $2029 with a 30GB hard drive), ran Windows XP Professional. The third notebook pair, again Fujitsu's LifeBook P1620 ($2548 with SSD, $1999 with a 30GB hard drive), ran Windows Vista Business.
Our WorldBench 6 Beta 2 tests showed no definite pattern of results differentiating SSD systems from ones with standard hard drives. For example, the two Dell ATG-D620 models, packed with a 2.0-GHz Core 2 Duo T7200 CPU and 1GB of memory, each scored 76 on our WorldBench 6 Beta 2 tests. In contrast, the two Fujitsu LifeBook P1620 units, configured with a 1.2-GHz Core Solo U1400, 1GB of memory, and Windows XP Professional, varied a bit in performance: The SSD version scored 42, while the hard-drive version scored 39.
Interestingly, that performance difference grew more pronounced when we tested the pair of Fujitsu P1620 laptops running Windows Vista Business. The SSD version achieved 36 on our WorldBench 6 Beta 2 tests, while the hard-drive version scored only 30. In particular the Vista-based Fujitsu system with the SSD demonstrated a performance advantage on our Adobe Photoshop CS2 image-manipulation test, besting the hard-drive version by 36 percent.
In contrast to the generally inconclusive WorldBench 6 Beta 2 results, we saw quite decisive performance wins by the SSD models when we ran the six systems through the same file-read-and-write tests we use for our regular hard-drive testing. (The tests consist of reading and writing folders of files, and searching for files on a drive.) On these tests the SSD models bested their hard-drive-based counterparts in 11 out of 12 cases. In the most extreme example, the XP Pro Fujitsu with the SSD outperformed the hard-drive model by 63 percent when reading and writing a 3.06GB file.
Numbers don't tell the whole story for solid-state drives. SSDs also tend to be more rugged than standard hard drives because the NAND flash memory of SSD lacks the moving parts of a hard drive. Drop your notebook, and the data on your SSD will probably be safe. Also, SSDs don't generate heat (as hard drives do), and they don't produce a lot of electromagnetic interference.
Ultimately, with an SSD in your notebook, you'll see a boost in system responsiveness, as well as a positive change in the way the system handles tasks that are drive intensive--activities such as reading data off the drive, returning to active duty out of standby mode, and booting up from scratch.
Into the Future
What will the ultimate laptop of the future look like? Next year's notebooks will have Intel's Penryn processor, which is based on a new 45-nanometer manufacturing process. Penryn will shrink the size of the current 65-nanometer Core 2 Duo processor while boosting speed and improving battery life.
Though an important step, Penryn will provide only an incremental improvement. According to Gartner analyst Leslie Fiering, Penryn will "help keep notebook prices down and improve performance a little more, but it won't be earth-shattering." The ground might move more with the arrival of Intel's first mobile quad-core chips, Core 2 Extreme, due out first in high-end gaming notebooks by the end of this year.
More notebook makers are likely to follow the example of Dell, Lenovo, and Toshiba and implement "roll cage" construction, as well as head-parking technology that protects the hard drive when a notebook is tossed around. Eventually, crash-prone, magnetic, platter-based traditional hard drives will give way to solid-state hard drives. The first solid-state units are making their way into Dell and Fujitsu models such as the ones we tested. Though they top out at 32GB now, their capacity will quickly increase to at least 120GB by next year and will soon catch up with today's magnetic drives. Hybrid drives (magnetic drives with a layer of flash storage) will also help to make notebooks faster and more reliable. "There's an overarching trend in the notebook market for increased durability," says IDC's Shim.
While matte-finish screens are making something of a comeback among people bothered by glare, glossy screens should continue to dominate for their higher contrast and richer-looking colors. LED-backlit screens brighten the picture even more. Already available in some Apple and Sony notebooks, LED-backlit screens are thinner and use less power while delivering noticeably brighter displays. New, vibrant OLED screens with colors "that reach out and slap you" might figure in the distant future, says John Jacobs, an analyst with DisplaySearch, but they're still too expensive to manufacture. Traditional tubular fluorescent backlit screens will be around for a long time to come, with a few improvements; one might be A switch to flat tubes, which spread light more evenly.
By year's end wide-aspect screens will become fully dominant over the traditional "tall" notebook screen. Screen size will top out at 22 inches, predicts Shim, possibly as soon as next year in a Dell or HP gaming portable, but most laptops will continue to have 15.4-inch screens for quite some time.
The jury's still out on SideShow, the new Windows Vista technology that allows laptop makers to put a smaller secondary display on the lid to show incoming e-mail and other information without your having to turn on the system. So far only a handful of manufacturers, including Asus and Toshiba, have introduced units with the display.
Notebooks will soon last longer on a charge, but not because of a new technology such as fuel cells. Laptop makers will stick with lithium ion batteries and work on components that suck less power, according to Kamal Shah, Mobility Enabling Initiative manager of Intel's Mobile Platforms Group.
Finally, though conservative notebook makers have toyed with and discarded bright exterior colors in the past, that diffidence will soon disappear. "A lot of personalization is going on, because the consumer market for notebooks has become such a big force," says Shim.
To wit: Dell is partnering with Skinit.com to enable its customers to put any image they choose--say, a logo or even a photograph they took--on a notebook lid.
What is the well-dressed laptop wearing these days? I found several pricey but must-have wireless, USB, and ExpressCard peripherals that you'll want to pack.
The $69 Lubix Stereo Bluetooth Headset is marketed as a cell phone accessory but works with laptops for VOIP calls or music, and it has a cool design. When you aren't using the set, the two magnetized halves stick together to make a pendant.
What, your laptop has no built-in Webcam? Creative Labs' $129 Live Cam Optia AF is a sleek, 2-megapixel, USB 2.0 model that clips onto your notebook's lid. It can capture images at almost any angle with its 270-degree swivel.
Like to pace during meetings? Logitech's $119 Orbicam, with an eyeball-like mechanized lens, keeps you in the picture during videoconferences.
If you're still using a wired mouse, ditch it at once for either the $70 Targus Rechargeable Bluetooth Laser Mouse or Logitech's $86 VX Revolution Cordless Laser Mouse. Since the Targus mouse uses Bluetooth, you don't need a separate receiver as you do with USB wireless mice; in addition it uses laser optics, the latest in mousing technology. The VX Revolution requires a USB receiver and an AA battery, but it offers word highlighting, which conducts an automatic search in your favorite search engine.
ExpressCards are the latest way to add neat stuff to your laptop way beyond storage. Interlink Electronics' $60 Bluetooth ExpressCard Media Remote stores and charges in an ExpressCard/54 slot when you're not using it to crank up the volume on the latest DVD blockbuster. ExpressCard mice should be available from HP and Newton Peripherals in early August.
All of these products are great add-ons, but they're useless if your notebook's battery suddenly poops out. The $139 Kensington Wall/Auto/Air power adapter for notebooks works everywhere and can also power your cell phone, PDA, iPod, or MP3 player.
Bag a Great Carry-On
The ultimate laptop deserves an equally snazzy bag. These days that means a stylish carry-on that doesn't scream to thieves, "There's a laptop inside! Steal me!" Here are three worthy contenders.
Samsonite's $99 iMobile 360 is a new breed of wheeled laptop bag. It has four wheels instead of two, and they spin 360 degrees so the bag never sticks or balks. (It can be a runaway on sloped surfaces, however.) Because you can push it in any direction, it's much easier to maneuver down airport corridors and even cobbled pathways than a two-wheeler. Two thumbs up, with a warning not to let go of the handle on steep grades or in a stiff wind.
Logitech's Kinetik 15.4 Backpack, $100, is a sturdy but lightweight semihardshell backpack with lots of nice padded pockets, big and small. (I especially liked the quick-access pocket on top for keys and airline tickets.) It has a freestanding design so it doesn't slump over when set down. Though it's designed for 15.4-inch notebooks, there's room enough for the skinny 17-inch MacBook Pro. My only beef: A choice of interior colors besides bright orange would have been nice.
Belkin's $40 SleeveTop is great for casual toting. Made of neoprene, it has built-in handles and when unzipped stays open like a briefcase so you don't have to remove the laptop to use it. It's a bit too bulky to fit inside another bag and the top doesn't close; but it's fine for room-to-room trips, and it protects your lap from being scorched. The three available colors are silver, fluorescent green, and orange.