Best of 2008: The Most Impressive Laptops

Over the past year, we've seen netbooks explode on the scene, a paper-thin ultraportable challenge what we thought was possible, and powerful desktop replacements that really are suitable replacements for your desktop PC. But what were some of the most interesting laptops of 2008? Glad you asked.

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, comes 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.

Samsung X460

Welcome back, Samsung. The company has been lying low in the U.S. laptop market, but after kicking the tires on the Samsung 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.

Lenovo ThinkPad SL400

Usually, ThinkPads don't come cheap: You expect to pay dearly for the classy keyboard, the rugged chassis, and whatever top-notch parts lie under the hood. That isn't quite the case with Lenovo's SL400 laptops. These affordable, all-purpose machines start in the neighborhood of $650, yet they still offer much of what you expect from a ThinkPad. The ThinkPad SL400 configuration we tested 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--a strong enough showing for the SL400 to finish near the top of our results.


You've probably heard of the "Apple tax," the premium you pay for an Apple product. The same could be said for some of Sony's more distinctively designed laptops, such as the Sony VAIO VGN-Z598U. This ultraportable starts at $1499, but our review unit's configuration inflated the total to an eye-bulgingly-high price tag of $4450. If money is no object (yeah, as if that were the case these days), then by all means, scoop up this overstuffed but lightweight beauty.

Primary blame for the sticker shock goes to a pair of 128GB solid-state drives, which jack up the starting price by roughly two grand. But our test unit also packed 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. The twin SSDs probably contributed to the VGN-Z598U's astounding WorldBench 6 score of 107, the highest we've seen from an ultraportable. And despite its powerful configuration, the VGN-Z598U weighs only about 3.3 pounds (4.2 pounds with the power brick).

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. Despite having a 1.6-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo L7500 (a relatively powerful CPU for an ultraportable), the Air scored behind some of the other ultraportables we tested in its 3-pound weight class--even models that had slower processors. After we installed Apple's Boot Camp software and Windows Vista, the Air posted a mark of 57 on our WorldBench 6 tests. You might suspect that the Air's being a Mac could have something to do with those results. Perhaps it did, but previous Apple laptops haven't had any performance issues on WorldBench--in fact, for a time, a MacBook Pro held the title of the fastest laptop we'd tested.

The Air's performance might not be the best, but its design is spectacular. The anodized brushed-aluminum casing is cool to the touch, and even the most anti-Mac person can't help but appreciate it. 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. The gorgeous keyboard's cut-out key design is not only unique but also provides huge keys that feel great. They're amply spaced, too, so you won't find yourself regularly hitting the wrong keys.

Aside from a headphone jack, a USB port, and a mini-DVI port, however, it isn't well equipped. It lacks an optical drive, and to connect to a network via ethernet you must purchase a $29 USB adapter. And starting at the machine's base price of $1700, you pay a lot for the Air's style.

Acer Aspire One

Acer's first Aspire One mini-notebook was a Linux-based model that impressed us despite its modest components. Now the Windows XP Home version of the Aspire One is here, equipped with a larger hard drive and more RAM. Though it isn't superswift, the latest Aspire One is a fine netbook at a fantastic price of $349. That's $100 less than the next-most-affordable XP-based model, the Lenovo IdeaPad S10.

The XP-based Aspire One retains the physical profile, excellent keyboard, and small but crisp 8.9-inch screen of the Linux model. Significant changes lie beneath, however: A 120GB hard drive replaces the Linux model's paltry 8GB flash drive. An SD Card slot for additional storage supplements the unit's five-in-one card reader. The system also bulks up to 1GB of RAM (the Linux model had 512MB). Yet the price is virtually unchanged. Unfortunately, this Aspire One produced a mark of just 34 on the PC World Test Center's WorldBench 6 tests, landing toward the back of the pack of Atom-based netbooks we've evaulated (whose scores have averaged around 36).

Even worse, the Aspire One's three-cell battery lasted for just 2 hours, 16 minutes. As a result, you'll probably want to spring for the six-cell battery, which costs an extra $100--thereby negating the Aspire One's price advantage.

Asus N10Jc

Is it an ultraportable laptop or a jumbo netbook? That's the question surrounding the Asus N10Jc. At first glance the N10Jc seems like a do-over of Asus's Eee 1000H 80G XP netbook, albeit with some superior components and design. At the same time, it strays very close to ultraportable-laptop territory, despite bearing a price ($650) that's inexpensive for an ultraportable but steep for a mini-notebook.

What primarily differentiates this model from rank-and-file netbooks is its inclusion of a discrete graphics processing unit, nVidia's GeForce 9300M GS. That GPU isn't the fastest graphics option on the block, but the N10Jc is the first netbook I've seen that lets users toggle between the discrete GPU and the integrated graphics chip on the motherboard.

Also under the hood are the same 1.6-GHz Intel Atom processor and 1GB of RAM that just about every other mainstream netbook offers. The N10Jc has a 160GB hard drive, too, like the one that the Lenovo IdeaPad S10 carries. We evaluated the N10Jc in high-performance mode; at that setting it earned a WorldBench 6 mark of 36--middle-of-the-pack among current netbooks.

HP Mini 1000

The Mini 1000 is HP's second-generation foray into the netbook market, and it has a couple of advantages over its predecessor (the HP 2133).

Gone is the older model's Via C-7M processor; gone, too, is the pipe dream that any current netbook could handle Windows Vista. The Mini 1000 that we received for testing runs Windows XP, and contains Intel's 1.6-GHz Atom processor, 1GB of RAM, and a 4200-rpm, 60GB PATA hard drive. With that configuration, it falls in with the rest of the current netbook pack. In spite of its Atom processor, however, the Mini 1000 slipped a little toward the back of the group in our WorldBench 6 tests, eking out a score of 30.

With the Mini 1000, HP does a good job keeping most of the things that worked on the 2133, while upping the performance and managing to cut prices in the process (well, not counting the beautiful, fashionista-oriented Vivienne Tam edition).

Thankfully still present in this model is the fantastic keyboard. The oversize, square keys look like they belong on a full-size laptop. In fact, the main QWERTY and number buttons are large enough to fit your entire fingertip--no need to carefully hunt-and-peck on this keyboard.

The Mini 1000 starts at $399; the configuration we reviewed will set you back $549.

Lenovo ThinkPad W700

The Lenovo ThinkPad W700 is not only a desktop replacement; it's also a desktop-size machine. This laptop incorporates many of the latest mobile workstation features while also packing in a few unusual--and very welcome--goodies for the graphic artist or CAD designer.

Our test system (normally priced at $3963) was equipped with a 2.8-GHz Core 2 Duo T9600 CPU, 4GB of RAM, and 64-bit Windows Vista Ultimate. You can also choose either a 3.06-GHz Core 2 Extreme ($600 extra) or a 2.53-GHz Core 2 Quad Extreme QX9300 (a mere $1000 extra). In our WorldBench 6 tests the W700 earned a score of 99, only a few points shy of the best mark we've seen from a laptop.

The ThinkPad W700 isn't exactly stylish: It's a huge and functional business box. For the most part it looks and acts like a ThinkPad. That means you get excellent keys with lots of travel, a logical layout (with a separate number keypad located to the right of the main keys), and both eraserhead and trackpad pointing devices. Typing doesn't get much better than this.

And high-end graphics pros may think mobile computing doesn't get much better than this, too. The W700 includes a ton of graphics memory, which proves useful in applications like Photoshop, and you can specify a 17-inch wide-screen display with either 1440 by 900 resolution or the 1920 by 1200 resolution of our test system. Graphics users also will appreciate the W700's unusual add-ons: a built-in color calibrator and a built-in Wacom drawing tablet.

The ThinkPad W700 may seem understated, but it's a top-flight laptop. For on-the-go graphics artists or anyone looking for the ultimate mobile workstation, it's hard to beat.

Apple MacBook Pro A1286

At first glance Apple's updated MacBook Pro appears nearly identical to its predecessor. But it's not. Inside and out, the new 15-inch MacBook Pro has been remodeled, redesigned, and reengineered. Instead of assembling the laptops piecemeal and splicing the components together, Apple has introduced a unibody architecture that constructs the entire machine out of a single piece of recyclable aluminum.

The unibody composition makes the new laptops easier to service and fix, and great for do-it-yourself types who, in the past, have lamented how difficult it was to swap out the hard drive or battery. The redesigned MacBook Pro makes accessing those particular components easy--just push the lever on the bottom of the case, and you're in.

The MacBook Pro's bright, glossy, 15.4-inch, wide-screen, LED-backlit monitor is pure joy to behold. The 1440-by-900-pixel screen is no longer encased in a metal bezel, but rather seems to float on its own, ringed by a deep black frame. You no longer have a choice of screen finishes, unfortunately, and many users will grumble about the glossy surface. But our reviewer found it striking, showing grayscale gradations that are virtually undetectable on matte screens. The results also have a 3D quality that makes everything on screen burst with energy and vivid color.


With an 18.4-inch display, an ample keyboard, and a host of plugs and ports, the HP HDX18 is a desktop replacement that may actually make your desk look snazzier. It's not quite a desktop-PC destroyer, but its multimedia-mindedness proves that HP is ready to put up a fight.

In our WorldBench 6 tests, the HDX18 produced a commanding score of 102. That isn't the fastest we've seen, but it's close--and it's more than powerful enough to play some games as well as video. A 2.8-GHz Core2 Duo CPU (T9600), 4GB of RAM, and nVidia's 512MB GeForce 9600M GT graphics processor fueled our review unit.

The HDX18 is huge--the first tipoff is the 8.9-pound, 17-by-11.26-by-1.72-inch case. And the 18.4-inch display is capable of showcasing full high-definition video in all its glory; everything from Blu-ray movies to the newest games comes across looking great.

Today's Best Tech Deals

Picked by PCWorld's Editors