Lenovo ThinkPad X200
Equipped with the Centrino 2 processor, Lenovo's ThinkPad X200 looks a mild-mannered ultraportable, yet it can leap tall workloads in a single bound. Its battery life is phenomenal, and the keyboard is huge. It's a much better laptop than the ThinkPad X61, which it replaces, and it's a surefire winner for on-the-run execs.
Because it bears a lower model number, you might imagine that this is a less-powerful version of the ThinkPad X300, but the X200 actually carries a more recent processor. The X300 has a 13.3-inch display, however, while the X200 has a 12.1-inch screen. Ah, but what you'll see when you fire this baby up!
At just under 3 pounds with its lightest battery installed, the X200 weighs a few ounces less than the ThinkPad X61, despite offering the same-size screen and a bigger keyboard. The bright little screen has an easy-to-read 1280-by-800-pixel resolution, making it quite comfortable for work on the go. And the built-in Webcam keeps you in visual touch with your colleagues.
The redesigned keyboard is as big as the ones that models in Lenovo's ThinkPad T series have, and it offers all the same amenities: spill resistance, dedicated Page Up and Page Down keys, and the all-important ThinkVantage button. The ThinkVantage application suite offers one-touch access to the user manual as well as to recovery, security, and other crucial utilities. A fingerprint reader rounds out the package. Only a touchpad is missing; many ThinkPads offer both a touchpad and an eraserhead, but not the X200.
PCW Rating: 85
Lenovo ThinkPad SL400
Usually, ThinkPads don't come cheap: You expect to pay dearly for the classy keyboard, rugged chassis, and whatever top-notch parts lie under the hood. That's not quite the case with Lenovo's SL400 series of laptops. The SL400 configuration we received for evaluation was at the upper end of the series, selling for about $1223 as of October 23, 2008, and it's a fairly solid deal.
Inside sits a reasonably speedy Intel Core 2 Duo 2.26-GHz P8400 CPU backed up by 2GB of RAM and a 256MB nVidia GeForce 9300M GPU. Not too shabby. In our tests this combination performed well, garnering a score of 84 on our WorldBench 6 benchmark test suite. That's well short of the Micro Express Microflex JFL 9290, which notched a 92, but it's a strong enough showing for the SL400 to finish near the top.
The six-cell battery kept the SL400 working for a little over 5 hours on a single charge--that's plenty of juice to keep you at the keyboard nonstop during a cross-country flight. The laptop's layout, screen, and beefy-meets-boxy 6.1-pound case indicate that Lenovo was shooting for a "strictly business" approach here.
PCW Rating: 83
HP Compaq 6530b
If you're in the market for an affordable portable work system, the HP Compaq 6530b deserves a place on your short list. This solid, standard-issue all-purpose laptop sells for $1195 and houses a thoughtfully arranged software bundle that will quickly help you get down to business.
What does your money buy you, performance-wise? For starters, it buys Intel's Core 2 Duo 2.26-GHz T8400 CPU and 2GB of RAM. That's more than enough power to carry you through the workday and yield reasonable scores in our WorldBench 6 tests. The 6530b earned a mark of 81--not bad, and close to the Lenovo ThinkPad SL400's score of 84. (The SL400 costs about $100 more.) In battery life, too, the 6530b is no slouch, lasting for about 4 hours, 22 minutes in our tests. That result fell shy of the SL400's running time of 5 hours, 8 minutes, but the great thing is that this laptop is a lot lighter: The 6530b weighs 5.3 pounds, while the beefy SL400 is 6.1 pounds.
What's not to like? The screen. The 14.1-inch panel is a little on the dull side. The matte coating makes it more amenable to broad-daylight computing, but the colors seem a bit faded on the 1280-by-800-pixel-resolution screen--even with the brightness cranked up all the way. Will you be able to view your pictures and watch the occasional DVD on your next flight? Yes, but the video won't pop as much as it might on a glossy panel. That's the trade-off you make with any matte screen: The colors are less vivid, but the screen is viewable in any lighting condition. This particular panel, however, is a touch dim even when compared with similar matte screens.
PCW Rating: 80
This tricked-out ultraportable will cost you a pretty penny, but it will seem worth it if you're not sweating the bottom line.
The lightweight, ultraportable Sony VAIO VGN-Z598U has a base price of $1499, but our review unit--packed to the gills with high-quality components--quickly caused the total to balloon to $4450. The primary reason for the sticker shock: a pair of 128GB solid-state drives, which jacked up the original price by roughly two grand. But our test unit also jammed a 2.53-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P9500 CPU, 4GB of RAM, and a dedicated nVidia GeForce 9300M GS graphics processor into its tiny 12.4-by-1.3-by-8.3-inch frame.
All of that makes for reasonably speedy performance and solid graphics for an ultraportable. The VGN-Z598U's eye-opening WorldBench 6 score of 107 is a testament to that. That's great for a machine that weighs only about 3.3 pounds (4.2 pounds including the power brick).
Of course, Sony also offers a beautiful 13.1-inch (1600-by-900-pixel) backlit LCD screen that you can watch high-definition flicks on when you aren't crunching numbers. The machine also packs in a Blu-ray drive, meaning you'll have plenty to keep you busy on your next flight.
PCW Rating: 82
Lenovo ThinkPad X300
Lenovo's buttoned-up ThinkPad X300 ultraportable laptop may not have the MacBook Air's superslim, spartan style, but from its rock-solid construction to its piled-in perks, this laptop (with a street price of $2696 at time of testing) offers just about everything that matters to the business traveler.
The Air and the X300 have some similarities. Both have crisp 13.3-inch displays, although the X300's has a higher resolution--1440 by 900 pixels versus 1280 by 800--and with both systems you can get a 64GB solid-state drive (it comes standard with Lenovo's machine, but tacks about $1000 onto the Air's price).
Whether you're afraid of dropping your laptop at the airport or accidentally spilling some coffee on the case, the X300 can handle it, since it's built like--and resembles--a black-box recorder. The keyboard is spill-resistant, and the textured carbon- and glass-fiber exterior is intended to protect the innards. Unlike most ultraportables, the unit has both an eraserhead and a touchpad. The keyboard feels great, with full-size keys.
The X300 is a little on the chunky side for a true ultraportable--just over an inch thick and weighing 3.4 pounds (4 pounds with an AC adapter) versus the Air's 3-pound heft. Then again, you can pop a disc in the ThinkPad's integrated, paper-thin, 3-ounce DVD drive and watch movies (the Air's optical drive is an external model).
PCW Rating: 78
Apple MacBook Air
The MacBook Air is a superslim ultraportable laptop that you can slip into very thin spaces. As with anything else that Apple crafts, the Air's industrial design is phenomenal. But its beauty is little more than skin deep.
Miraculously, the Air houses a 13.3-inch, 1280-by-800-pixel display; a roomy keyboard; and a double-wide, multitouch trackpad within its petite, 0.75-inch-thick frame. But aside from a headphone jack, a USB port, and a mini-DVI port, it isn't very well equipped. It lacks an optical drive, and to connect to a network via ethernet, you must purchase a $29 USB adapter.
The Air's anodized brushed-aluminum casing is cool to the touch, and even the most anti-Mac person can't help but appreciate it. The gorgeous keyboard's cut-out key design is not only unique but also provides huge keys that feel great. They're also amply spaced, so you won't find yourself bumbling, hitting the wrong keys.
You won't have trouble seeing the keys in dark rooms, either, because, thanks to an ambient-light sensor, the Air adds a subtle background glow to the keyboard when the area gets dark. (The feature works in the preinstalled Mac OS, of course, but not in Vista.)
In the Mac OS, the enormous touchpad adorning the laptop's bottom recognizes multitouch commands, much as the iPhone's interface does--use two fingers pinching inward to zoom in, stroke across the top to navigate pages, and so on. The feature is neat to see in action, but I'd consider it a bigger deal if Synaptics hadn't already delivered drivers that provide somewhat similar functionality for many Windows-based trackpad-equipped laptops.
PCW Rating: 70
HP Voodoo Envy 133
Admit it: You've said to your boss that you need an ultraportable laptop because it would give you easy and instant access to your work data. But the truth is, the main reason anyone buys a sleek, slim ultraportable is to turn heads. The HP Voodoo Envy 133 is one such shiny new toy, with just enough features to legitimize it as a slick business box as well.
Like the Apple MacBook Air, the Envy 133 sports enough interesting design choices for it to be a genuine attention-getter. Unfortunately, however, it also shares the Air's anemic guts and high cost: The model we tested, which sports a $2349 price tag, came equipped with an Intel Core 2 Duo 1.6-GHz CPU (SP7500), 2GB of RAM, and a poky 80GB hard drive that spins at 4200 rpm. And the system didn't exactly sail through WorldBench 6, receiving an overall score of 64.
PCW Rating: 72
Welcome back, Samsung. The company has been lying low in the U.S. laptop market, but after kicking the tires on the X460, I can honestly say Samsung was missed. In the X460 you get a 14.1-inch, thin-and-light, all-purpose laptop that's perfectly road-ready and goes toe-to-toe with Lenovo's ThinkPad X300--even though the X300 is an ultraportable-class machine. The X460 is smartly priced, too: The configuration of our review unit goes for $1699. That money buys you solid performance in the form of a 2.26-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 CPU, 3GB of RAM, and a discrete graphics processor.
PCW Rating: 79
Toshiba Satellite U405-S2854
Think of the Toshiba Satellite U405-S2854 as a really inexpensive ultraportable or an incredibly svelte all-purpose laptop. It's both--and it offers decent performance, an enormous hard drive, and even bundled Microsoft productivity applications.
At 4.6 pounds, the U405-S2854 just misses out on qualifying as an ultraportable. Our test unit, equipped with a 2-GHz Core 2 Duo T5750 processor, 3GB of RAM, and Windows Vista Home Premium, earned a score of 80 in our WorldBench 6 tests; it's no speed demon by any stretch, but it is fast enough to handle basic applications.
The U405-S2854 is not a crème-de-la-crème ultraportable or a bargain-basement all-purpose laptop, but at $949, it is a reasonably affordable--and reasonably slick--laptop. It's light enough to take along every time, and a decent performer.
PCW Rating: 80