2009 Holiday Laptop Gift Guide

Whether your tastes run to business or pleasure, whether you're a jet-setter or a multimedia fiend, we have some great-looking laptops for you (or for someone you want to spoil) this year.

Acer Aspire 5738DG-6165

Price: $780 as configured

Who it's for: People who want a 3D experience on a laptop

The Acer Aspire 5738DG-6165 grafts a 3D panel onto a mainstream laptop. It's a gimmick--a feature that caters to maybe 1 percent of the computing population--and at first I was completely skeptical. But through the 3D software, you can open specific 3D video files that leap off the screen. The software adds depth to movies you pop into the internal DVD drive, too. And the 3D effect works with WMV and AVI video files. A 3D photo viewer imparts impressive depth to your own images as well. And, of course, the system supports 3D in games. Otherwise, this Aspire is a fairly average laptop. The 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T6600 CPU, 4GB of RAM, 320GB 5400-rpm hard drive, and ATI Radeon Mobility HD 4750 GPU help the machine notch a score of 88 in WorldBench 6. The 5738DG-6165 was good enough to run through just about any basic task we tried on it.The biggest downer: It's battery life is just 2 hours, 28 minute battery life--so stay close to an outlet!

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Similar laptops: Toshiba Satellite U505-S2940 | Samsung NP-Q320

Acer Aspire One D250-1613 (Android)

Price: $350

Who it's for: People who want the flexibility to use Android (or Windows XP) on a netbook

The D250 has the standard 1.6GHz Intel Atom CPU, 1GB of RAM, 160GB hard drive, tiny keyboard, and microscopic multitouch pad you'd expect in a netbook. But for the $350 asking price, it also provides a Google Android OS shell. Of course, Android includes hooks into your Gmail account--the biggest draw for this netbook--giving you access to all your contacts, calendaring, and e-mail offline. That feature is a huge benefit for anyone who doesn't own an Android phone (or a Palm Pre, for that matter) but needs offline access to online contacts. Change any information locally, and the next time you go online (whether over an optional 3G connection or via Wi-Fi), it syncs up with your Google account. This netbook can handle basic productivity functions and Web browsing, but ultimately its software support will make or break it--and right now, it needs more apps. Once those show up, though, this model will be worth a close look.

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Similar laptops: Fujitsu LifeBook M2010 | HP Mini 110 | Lenovo S10

Alienware M15x (With Core i7-920XM)

Price: $3000 as configured

Who it's for: Hardcore gamers and multimedia fiends who aren't fazed by hardcore prices

Take Alienware's big, black, intimidating M17x, shrink it down to the size of an all-purpose laptop (our test unit had a 15.6-inch screen), and pop in a Core i7 CPU. That's about as reductive as power notebook design gets. Though a baseline machine starts at $1499, the serious power doesn't come so cheap. In our WorldBench 6 tests, a $3000 version of the M15x earned a score of 121, thanks to its Core i7-920XM processor, 4GB of RAM, 1GB nVidia GeForce GTX 260M and 7200-rpm, 250GB hard drive. That mark puts it within spitting distance of Eurocom's near-$6000 desktop replacement, which packed a Xeon processor. On the downside, this high-performance rig can barely muster 2 hours of battery life. But what matters most here are two things: Video looks crisp, and the laptop is stuffed to the gills with all the I/O ports you'll need. At this price, it had better.

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Similar laptops: Alienware M17x | MSI GT627

Apple MacBook Pro A1286 (15.4-inch)

Price: $1699 as configured

Who it's for: Partisans who live and die by the Mac

The latest 15-inch MacBook Pro closely resembles its predecessor. It sports the same solid aluminum unibody enclosure with the indented thumb scoop for opening the lid, the same huge touchpad, and the same stiff button that makes tapping and swiping the touchpad with your fingers easier than depressing the button. The big glossy screen still has a resolution of 1440 by 900 pixels, and all ports--including the MagSafe power port, gigabit ethernet, FireWire 800, two USB ports, and separate audio-in and -out ports--are still grouped together on the left side of the case. But Apple did add an SD Card slot that you can boot off of, and it improved the laptop's guts to give the machine more gusto. On WorldBench 6, the 2.66GHz Intel CPU, the 9400M chip on the motherboard, and the discrete nVidia GeForce 9600M GT graphics chip helped this machine glide to a mark of 106--not too shabby.

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Similar laptops: Dell Adamo | HP Envy 13

Asus UL80vt-A1

Price: $849 as configured

Who it's for: Folks seeking an ultraportable laptop with some GPU power at a decent price

The two best reasons to consider buying the UL80Vt-A1 are its battery life and its flexibility. This machine includes both a discrete nVidia G210M graphics system and an integrated Intel alternative, so users can switch on the fly to adjust the laptop's performance and battery life to the task at hand. Another appealing feature is the unit's power-sipping LED backlit display. In part because of these features, the UL80Vt-A1 lasted almost 6 hours on a single charge in our battery-life tests.

The slick little 14-inch laptop comes with 4GB of DDR3 RAM and a 1.3GHz Intel CPU factory-overclocked to 1.7GHz. On WorldBench 6, the UL80Vt-A1 scored a 76--reasonably swift for its class but hardly smoking fast. For some reason, the user experience seems surprisingly good, with snappy performance on everyday tasks. Even better: Though it isn't a gaming rig by any stretch, the UL80Vt-A1 managed frame rates above 35 frames per second on both Unreal Tournament 3 and Quake Wars: Enemy Territory at 800-by-600-pixel resolution and high quality settings.

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Similar laptops: Dell Studio 14z | HP Pavilion Dm3

Dell Studio 14z

Price: $750 as configured

Who it's for: Tech-savvy students who want reasonable juice while traveling light.

Dell did its homework with the Studio 14z. Like the MSI X340 and the Acer Timeline 3810T, this slim, slick laptop lacks an optical drive, but it has more juice than those laptops (with their ultra-low-voltage processors) do. Working with 3GB of RAM, an Intel 2.1GHz T6500 CPU, and an nVidia GeForce 9400M GPU (akin to what you'd find in a MacBook Air), the 14z knocked out a reasonable score of 80 on our WorldBench 6 test suite. Though you won't be able to scream through games at the screen's native resolution of 1366 by 768 pixels (720p), you will be able to enjoy solid frame rates when you play games such as Left 4 Dead at 800 by 600 pixels. Colors jumped and looked appropriately rich. The 720p video we installed on the hard drive ran smoothly--with the bomb bursts in a movie trailer exploding across the 14-inch panel. The only downer: The 14z will see you through only a couple of classes (4 hours, 32 minutes) on a single battery charge.

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Similar laptops: Dell Inspiron 14z | HP Pavilion Dv2 | HP Pavilion Dm3

HP Envy 13

Price: $1799 as configured

Who it's for: PC users who don't want to buy a MacBook Pro

This handsome laptop isn't so much a tribute as it is a poke in Apple's eye--an assertion along the lines of, "We can design sleek, sexy machines that look a lot like yours...and maybe charge people a little more for them." Under the hood, you get a decent amount of power: a 2.13GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SL9600 processor, 3GB of RAM, and a discrete ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4330 GPU. This combo earns a respectable 93 in WorldBench 6 tests. As for battery life, the Envy 13 will survive for 4 hours, 40 minutes before giving out. The optional extra battery slice snaps on and you'd have to look closely to recognize that it's there. Besides the eye-catching design, you'll dig the gorgeous 13.1-inch backlit LED screen and fully functional Linux Shell, which can boot quicker than you can say "Windows 7 Home Premium." Even so, this is an expensive machine--and you still pay for the privilege of receiving some bloatware ads.

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Similar laptops: MacBook Air | Dell Adamo

HP Mini 311

Price: $449 as configured

Who it's for: Anyone seeking a netbook with a little more oompf but no equivalent bounce in price

HP is first to market with an nVidia Ion-based portable. Ion marries an Intel Atom CPU (in this case, the 1.66GHz N280) to a discrete GPU, yielding more-powerful, affordable machines that can output high-def video and even enable you to play some games. With the Mini 311, you get a 3.22-pound machine that can do what most netbooks can't, and without costing you much more. Though it managed only an average netbook score (a 37) on WorldBench 6, its 1366-by-768-pixel panel lets you do two things that other netbooks can't: output 720p video, and play 3D games. Left 4 Dead and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare ran just smoothly enough to be playable; but the Mini 311 isn't a full-blooded game rig, and you'll find yourself squinting from the glossy screen's glare.

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Similar laptops: HP Pavilion Ddv2 | HP Pavilion Dm3 | Lenovo IdeaPad S12

HP Pavilion Dm3

HP Pavilion Dm3

Price: Starts at $549

Who it's for: People looking for a sleek machine that's faster than a netbook but cheaper than many ultraportables.

The Pavilion Dm3 is less than an inch thick, weighs 4.2 pounds thanks to an aluminum shell, and replaces HP's Pavilion Dv2, which might linger on some store shelves (look for bargain closeouts). The machine comes in both AMD and Intel flavors. The key differences between these 64-bit Windows 7 machines: The AMD version packs a1.6GHz Athlon Neo X2 dual-core CPU, a 320GB (7200-rpm) hard drive, and an ATI Radeon HD 3200 series GPU; while the Intel version offers a 1.3GHz Pentium SU4100, a 500GB (7200-rpm) hard drive, and an integrated GPU. Both versions are strong enough to get you through the day--and even let you watch some videos on the sharp-looking 13.3-inch, 1366-by-768-pixel panel display. This machine is still making its way through the PC World Labs appraisal, but it's a strong contender going into the holidays.

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Similar laptops: Asus UL80Vt-A1 | Dell Studio 14z | Toshiba Satellite T135-S1310WH

HP ProBook 5310m

Price: $899 as configured

Who it's for: Mobility-minded businesspeople with an eye on the bottom line

HP has a thing of business-savvy beauty on its hands with the ProBook 5310m, thanks to a good price and reasonable gusto under the hood. Intel's Core 2 Duo SP9300 2.26GHz CPU, backed by 2GB of RAM, runs the show with enough vigor to handle Windows 7 Professional and a few core programs (Office apps, photo editing software, and a Web browser, for instance) without balking. In fact, it had enough juice to notch a 99 on WorldBench 6. If there's a shortcoming here, it's the 5-hour battery life. Meanwhile the positives include a slick design, a software suite that'll keep business brisk, and (most notably) QuickOutlook--which links your in-Windows contacts to a quick-booting Linux shell so that you can swiftly and easily get to your important contact info without mucking around in Windows.

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Similar laptops: Dell Latitude Z600 | Lenovo ThinkPad SL510 (2847-22U)

Lenovo ThinkPad T400s (With Multitouch Screen)

Price: $1999 as configured

Who it's for: Busy folk who want to keep in touch with their business via a sweet touchscreen.

Lenovo's ThinkPad T400s laptop, a slim and powerful corporate raider, has lingered near the top of our chart of best all-purpose laptops for a while. Thanks to solid all-around performance (it scored a 112 in WorldBench 6) in a svelte frame (it measures 0.8 inch thick and sports a starting weight of 4 pounds), this was already a great choice for business travel. The latest addition, a multitouch 1440-by-900-pixel LED panel, makes navigating through Windows 7 even easier. And we enjoyed being able to pinch in and zoom out on-screen as well as to draw shapes and take full advantage of Lenovo's SimpleTap suite (which lets users control all major PC functions on-screen).

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Similar laptops: Dell Latitude XT2 | HP TouchSmart tx2 | Toshiba U505-S2980

Sony VAIO X Series

Price: $1499 as configured

Who it's for: High-flying jet-setters in the market fort a supersexy netbook, regardless of its cost or comfort level

The Sony VAIO X Series measures just 0.55 inch thick, weighs 1.6 pounds, and carries an over-the-top price tag that screams, "CEO only!" In fact, the main reason to buy this machine is to impress someone. The X Series packs a 128GB solid-state drive, 2GB of RAM, and an Intel Atom Z550 processor. Those specs mean that you'll be able to pull off basic work tasks on this laptop, but not much else. The standard (3.5-hour) battery keeps it slim, while the larger one promises up to 14 hours (according to Sony spokesfolk). The X has an 11.1-inch, 1366-by-768-pixel LCD screen. Just don't plan on watching HD video on it. Even clips you'd expect to be able to view smoothly on an iPhone chugged a little here. Also, we recommend that you lay your hands on this machine before committing to buy it. It has unnaturally small keys that will be tough for some large-fingered typists to use.

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Similar laptops: HP Mini 5101 | Nokia Booklet 3G | Dell Adamo XPS

Toshiba Satellite T135-S1310WH

Price: $710 as configured

Who it's for: Thrifty, impatient peoplewho need an ultraportable-size screen and brisk boot times.

Slim, sleek (weighing 3.8 pounds and measuring about 1 inch thick), and armed with Windows 7 Home Premium, this laptop is bound to draw some admiring glances. Intel's 1.3GHz SU4100 processor, backed by 4GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive (the RAM and hard drive can be upgraded by removing the covers underneath), earned a score of 63 on PC WorldBench--good enough for handling everyday computing tasks. And the six-cell battery will last the length of a cross-country flight and then some: 6 hours, 50 minutes. The crisp 13.3-inch screen runs at an HD-ready 1366-by-768-pixel resolution, handling video installed directly on the hard drive (720p footage ran without a hitch) or streamed from Hulu. As for screen quality, with the brightness jacked all the way, this machine is a backlit LED beacon.

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Similar laptops: Acer Timeline 3810T | MSI X340 | Asus UL30A

Toshiba Satellite U505-S2980

Price: $1050 as configured

Who it's for: General consumers who want to feel the difference with multitouch screens

The Toshiba U505-S2980's main gimmick is its multitouch touchscreen. In many other respects it's an above-average laptop. You can zoom in and out of images, and quickly navigate Websites. Heck, if you wanted to draw in a photo editor on the 13-inch screen, you could. But the machine's touchscreen is a 1280-by-800-pixel display that's a little too grainy for its own good. The U505-S2980 does have a little bit of power under the hood courtesy of the 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T6600, 4GB of RAM, and meaty 500GB hard drive (leading to a respectable score of 86 on WorldBench 6). The real reason you'd even consider this, though, is for the touch-based navigation. Check it out in a store to see if it works for you.

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Similar laptops: Dell Latitude XT2 | HP TouchSmart Tx2 | Lenovo ThinkPad T400s

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