Laptop Prize Fight

We pit netbooks vs. ultraportables and desktop replacements vs. all-purpose machines to find the portable champion.

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Tale of the Tape

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Netbooks

Battery life: Superior (6 to 10 hours)

Weight: Very small and light (under 4 pounds)

Cost: Low ($300 to $500)

Performance: Poor

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Ultraportables

Battery life: Good (4 to 6 hours)

Weight: Lightweight (3 to 5 pounds)

Cost: Varies ($500 to $1000)

Performance: Mediocre

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Netbooks: Pros and Cons

Portability is crucial to a netbook. Small and light with super battery life, netbooks (like HP's Mini 210, above) are meant to get you online when you're on the go. Most have one of Intel's Atom CPUs, which are more energy-efficient but far less powerful than the processors that larger laptops use. This is fine for checking e-mail, visiting Facebook, and tweaking business documents. Digital video and 3D gaming are not their forte.

With diagonal screen sizes of 9 to 11 inches, they offer limited resolution, so forget photo or video editing, large spreadsheets, or any other work that requires a fair amount of desktop real estate. The good news is that a small screen and an anemic CPU mean lots of battery life; a good netbook will run more than 6 hours be­­tween charges, and some models last almost 10 hours.

Think of netbooks as companion devices--something you'll pull out on the plane or in the classroom, or use to surf the Web from the comfort of a couch. Most models start at about $300; optional extras can increase the price to $500 or so.

Ultraportables: Pros and Cons

Netbooks may be popular, but their low-power processors and tiny screens can make them hard to work with. Ultraportables (like the Dell Vostro V13, above) have larger screens--11 to 14 inches--and slightly more powerful CPUs. This shortens battery life, but an ultraportable will still outlast an all-purpose laptop; expect 4 to 6 hours of uptime. An ultraportable's (usually) integrated graphics are a step up from a netbook's, delivering smooth video playback and even some basic 3D games.

Pricing varies widely. Some ultraportables re­­semble large netbooks, with cramped keyboards and 11-inch screens, and may cost just a couple hundred bucks more than a netbook. Others are stylish and superthin, with bigger screens and full-size keyboards; they can set you back a pretty penny. But new ultra-low-voltage CPUs for ultraportables are certainly more capable than the Atom CPUs in netbooks.

If you plan to use your laptop on the go quite a bit, but can't abide the limited power and screen size of a netbook, you should look for a laptop in the ultraportable category.

Winner

Ultraportables are probably the better choice for most users--you won't be so frustrated by slow-running apps.

Note: For more information on notebooks, see our buying guides and charts (under "Before You Buy") at our Laptop Products Center.

Contenders

Netbooks

Asus EEE PC 1005 PE

The Eee PC has been a staple of the netbook category, and is arguably the brand that started the netbook revolution. Asus's just-released 1005 PE uses Intel's new Atom N450 CPU and graphics combination, which should further improve battery life. With a 10-inch screen and a weight of less than 3 pounds, the Eee PC 1005 PE epitomizes what people think of when they think of a netbook. That includes fantastic battery life (possibly more than 10 hours of Web surfing) and, concurrently, a limited amount of RAM (1GB), which can hold back performance. Available early 2010.

Dell Inspiron Mini 10

Dell offers the Inspiron Mini 10 at the very low starting price of $299, but the price goes up as you add nonstandard features to your unit. It's available in six colors, and you can opt for Windows XP or Windows 7 Starter (for $30 more), but you won't find a lot of customization options beyond that. Like many other netbooks, the Mini 10 is limited to 1GB of RAM. The keyboard--which is 92 percent of full size--is easy to type on, despite the netbook's diminutive size. Also, the Mini 10 uses a Z-series Atom processor, which provides stronger graphics than the Atom N-series does.

MSI Wind U135

MSI's popular Wind brand, like the Eee PC from Asus, helped popularize the netbook category. Besides adding an Intel Atom N450 processor, the new Wind U135 model includes such design tweaks as a bigger trackpad and an improved keyboard. And the Wind U135 has one significant advantage over many other netbooks: It's available with up to 2GB of RAM. Prices for MSI's new model start at $329--less than for the Eee PC 1005 PE--but the battery is smaller, so you'll get a few hours less life out of it before you must recharge.

Ultraportables

Acer Ferrari One

What do you call a laptop system that is about an inch thick, comes with an 11-inch screen, weighs just over 3 pounds, and uses a low-voltage Athlon X2 processor? Is it a larger, more powerful netbook or a small, low-power ultraportable? The Ferrari One from Acer straddles the line. With up to 4GB of RAM and a decent AMD integrated graphics chip, it's snappier and more powerful than most netbooks; but don't expect more than 5 hours of battery life. And you can get it clad in any color--as long as it's Ferrari Red.Sony VAIO Y

Sony's new VAIO Y Series laptops feature Core 2 Duo ultra-low-voltage CPUs and Intel integrated graphics in a slim, lightweight (under 4 pounds) chassis. The 13.3-inch LED-backlit screen has a resolution of 1366 by 768, which is a step up from what you'll find on most netbooks. Also standard is 4GB of 800MHz DDR3 RAM and a 500GB hard drive. You probably shouldn't expect all-day battery life from the VAIO Y's six-cell standard battery, but a larger eight-cell battery is available if you don't mind carrying a little more bulk and weight.Lenovo ThinkPad Edge

Lenovo is known for its boring black laptops; the new ThinkPad Edge, though, is sleek and stylish by comparison. It's a larger ultraportable, with a 13-inch screen, but it still comes in at only 3.5 pounds. It's powered by Intel's dual-core ultra-low-voltage (ULV) processors, which are markedly more powerful than the Atom CPUs found in netbooks. Battery life, as with most ultraportables, is better than that of full-size notebooks but not as good as that of the best netbooks. The keyboard feels great--a typical feature of Lenovo notebooks--and you get both a touchpad and a TrackPoint "eraser nub."

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Tale of the Tape

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Desktop Replacements

Screen: Large, great for gaming and media (17 to 18 inches)

Weight: Heavy (8 to 12 pounds)

Cost: Expensive ($1000 to $2500)

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All-Purpose Machines

Screen: Good size and resolution (13 to 16 inches)

Weight: Varies with selection of options (5 to 8 pounds)

Cost: Varies ($600 to $1500-plus)

Performance: Varies

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Desktop Replacements: Pros and Cons

Desktop replacements (such as the Acer Aspire 8940G, above) are laptops in name only: You wouldn't want to tote one around or use it on your lap. With screen sizes that start at 16 inches but more commonly measure 17 or 18 inches, these are big, powerful, heavy notebook PCs that are more "luggable" than "portable."

You can get a large-screen desktop replacement notebook for less than $1000, but what's the point of having such a big laptop if you aren't going to opt for a more powerful CPU, a dedicated graphics card, and a big hard drive to put in it? Of course, all of that power and those big screens come at a cost. If you play a lot of the latest PC games, edit video, or perform intense computations, you already know that you'll be shelling out for a big screen and capable hardware. As a bonus, you'll almost always get a full-size keyboard with a numeric pad.

If you ever need to use your laptop away from a wall socket, look elsewhere. Not only are these large and heavy laptops a pain to carry around, but their battery life stinks.

All-Purpose Machines: Pros and ConsAll-purpose laptops (like Dell's Inspiron 14, above) offer a vast array of choices. With screens from 13 to 16 inches, models in this category can match any need or budget. You can purchase a smaller system with a modest CPU, integrated graphics, and a basic design for less than $800. Or you can spend nearly $2000 for a system with a fancy screen (even a touchscreen), a Blu-ray drive, a fast quad-core CPU, and a powerful discrete graphics chip. The latter will do everything a desktop computer does, including playing the latest 3D games and high-def videos--but it will also hurt your pocketbook and maybe your back.

Whether you go for the low end or splurge on the works, you can expect your all-purpose laptop to be portable enough to carry around for short periods of time, and to deliver enough battery life to take notes in one or two meetings or entertain you during a fairly short flight. As long as you don't need massive battery life or supreme portability, you can find an all-purpose laptop that will fit your needs. The hard part is choosing among all the options!

Winner

All-purpose laptops offer so much choice and flexibility that it's hard to recommend a desktop replacement unless you truly need to move from a powerful (but immobile) desktop PC to something that you can more easily move around.

Next: Contenders (Desktop Replacements vs. All-Purpose Machines)

Contenders

Desktop Replacements

Dell Studio 17

You could call the Studio 17 from Dell an "entry-level" desktop replacement laptop: The basic model starts at just $599. That price gets you a dual-core Intel processor, but you can spend more to step up to the mobile Core i7 quad-core chip. You can also opt for discrete ATI graphics instead of the Intel integrated stuff, and you can boost the standard 4GB of RAM up to 8GB. Even fully loaded, the system shouldn't cost more than about $1500. New this spring is a multitouch display option, making this laptop the first from Dell to offer such a feature.Alienware M17x

Alienware's M17x targets gamers who don't want to compromise on laptop quality. The 17-inch screen supports extremely high resolutions (up to 1920 by 1200). The machine is available with various speedy Core i5 and i7 processors, and you can configure it with one or two Radeon Mobility HD 4870 graphics chips and up to 8GB of RAM. You can even opt for two hard drives in a RAID 0 arrangement to obtain extra speed. The downside? The aluminum chassis pushes the weight up to at least 12 pounds, and the model starts at $1799 and goes up from there.Asus R.O.G. G73Jh

The sleek matte black exterior of the G73Jh, part of Asus's Republic of Gamers line, is "inspired by the Lockheed F117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter." The laptop's components will inspire high-performance enthusiasts. Asus pairs Intel's Core i7 notebook CPU with 8GB of fast DDR3 RAM and a Mobility Radeon HD 5870 graphics card loaded with 1GB of RAM for blistering game performance. Two 500GB hard drives in a RAID 0 array provide a full terabyte of storage, and a unique ventilation system draws air in the front and exhausts it out the back to keep the palm rest and keyboard area cool. Available early 2010.

All-Purpose Machines

Fujitsu LifeBook T900

You might think that a starting price of $1889 for a 13-inch laptop is excessive, but Fujitsu's LifeBook T900 tablet PC is packed with features. The most notable of these is the reversible multitouch screen (with an optional active/capacitive dual digitizer). The modular bay can hold an optical drive, a second hard drive, or a second battery. With a smart-card slot and VPro virtualization support, this is a flexible, no-compromise tablet that even your IT manager could love, despite its price.Asus K42F

The impending 14-inch K42F is Asus's first all-purpose laptop to feature Intel's Core i3 and i5 CPUs, which can reach speeds of up to 2.4GHz. The K42F also comes loaded with up to 8GB of RAM. The Core i3 and i5 CPUs contain a new integrated graphics chip from Intel that distinctly improves on previous Intel graphics. Options include a Blu-ray drive, a larger (500GB) hard drive, and an expanded eight-cell battery. At just under 5 pounds with the standard six-cell battery in place, it's not especially bulky, and it offers good performance for around $1000. Available early 2010.

Toshiba Satellite M505

Starting at about 5.1 pounds, this new version of the M505 (it succeeds last summer's M505-S940 ) is an average-size laptop that highlights such media features as Harmon-Kardon speakers and a 1366 by 768 screen resolution. You can get the M505 with Intel Core i3, i5, or i7 processors, or an AMD M520 CPU. Toshiba lets you upgrade the integrated Intel or AMD graphics to nVidia discrete graphics for better 3D performance. If you're interested in Windows 7's touch features, you can go for an optional multitouch screen. How much you get depends on how much you want to spend over the $699 base price.

Note: For more information on notebooks, see our buying guides and charts (under "Before You Buy") at our Laptop Products Center.

This story, "Laptop Prize Fight" was originally published by PCWorld.

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