8 best buys for essential gear

Pop quiz: Which would you rather have on a business trip, clean socks or your laptop? These days, clean socks are nice, but the laptop is indispensable, just as a desktop is at home, a camera is on vacation, and a cell phone is pretty much everywhere.

But tech is continuously in flux, so it's always the right time to upgrade your gear. Here's our look at today's best of the best: the top product in each of eight essential tech categories, including printers, hard drives, monitors, and HDTVs.

If you prefer to jump straight to our current charts, use the links below. To read about our picks, start on the next page.

Laptop

Monstrous desktop replacements and supersmall ultraportables exist, of course, but for us, the all-purpose laptop offers the best combination for anyone seeking a well-rounded notebook.

Our choice in this category best represents the delicate balance that considers cost, specs, and performance. The top-ranked portable on our all-purpose laptops chart right now is the US$1299 Micro Express JFL9226. This 6.6-pound model lacks the sleek lines and polish of its competitors, but it delivers the right mix of performance and features, for a good price.

Our test system, which came configured with a 2.53-GHz Core 2 Duo T9400 processor and 3GB of RAM, whipped through our WorldBench 6 tests as if the other members of the all-purpose laptop pack were standing still. Whether the task was to burn disc images or to encode video, no other model could keep pace; the JFL9226 earned an impressive score of 103 on the World­Bench 6 test suite. And it did all that while lasting almost 4.5 hours in our battery tests.

The next-fastest all-purpose laptop, Sony's VAIO VGN-SZ791N, scored nine points lower on the test suite but costs almost twice as much.

The Micro Express notebook's 256MB nVidia GeForce 9600GT GPU knocked out reasonably solid numbers in our graphics tests. The results indicated that this system would be good enough to handle most tasks, but not sufficient to support modern, top-flight games jacked up to the 15.4-inch screen's native 1280-by-800-pixel resolution.

Bottom Line: The Micro Express JFL9226 cuts most of the right corners to produce a capable, budget-friendly companion for the road.

Desktop

Desktop PCs can be had on the cheap today, of course, but in our estimation the power desktop holds the most appeal: You'll get better graphics handling (such as for gaming), as well as greater customization options and more-nimble performance for tasks such as editing 21-megapixel images or cutting your video masterpiece.

The leading pick on our current power desktop PCs chart is the Dell XPS 630, a system that came in at under $2000. Our test system came configured with a 3.16-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E8500 processor, 4GB of memory, a 512MB nVidia GeForce 9800 GT graphics card, and 640GB of hard-disk storage, plus a Dell SP2208WFP LCD monitor.

Our test machine notched a WorldBench 6 score of 114 (just nine points shy of the mark that a $3229 gaming-centric XPS 630 equipped with an Intel Core 2 Extreme QX6850 quad-core CPU posted). The GeForce 9800 GT card helped the system attain an average frame rate of 138 frames per second in running Doom 3 at 1280 by 1024 resolution with antialiasing turned on.

As for the Dell's case, for one of its size it provides a respectable amount of expansion room, with one open 5.25-inch drive bay at the front (a DVD±RW drive occupies the other). Four internal slots--two regular PCI, one PCI Express x8, and one PCI Express x1--are open.

Bottom Line: The customizable Dell XPS 630 desktop system provides strong, affordable performance within a stylish package.

Printer

A versatile multifunction printer such as the Canon Pixma MX700 minimizes desk clutter by combining the capabilities of several devices into one package.

We decided, however, to focus here on the straight-ahead speed and professionalism of a color laser printer. Our pick in this category, currently leading our Top 10 Color Laser Printers chart, is the $400 Brother HL-4040CN, which delivers satisfying and speedy performance.

The printer itself is simple enough to set up, though at about 64 pounds it's heavier than many other models we've tested. At its default settings, the HL-4040CN printed competently.

Its speeds, average overall, ranged from 19.3 pages per minute for plain black text to 4.2 ppm for graphics. Text looked perfectly crisp in all tested fonts. Color images had a few shortcomings at default settings, but with the print driver's 'Fine (2400 dpi class)' setting, image quality improved noticeably.

The cost per page (based on Brother's specs) of this model is very appealing: A half-page print of black text uses less than 2 cents' worth of toner, and a color page (using a small amount of black plus all three colors) costs less than 12 cents.

Bottom Line: The Brother HL-4040CN color laser printer offers good pricing, speed, and print quality, but a somewhat awkward design.

Cell Phone

The Apple iPhone 3G commands much attention--and rightfully so, considering the handset's slick looks and numerous innovations (the iPhone 3G ranks fifth on our latest Top 10 Smart Phones chart). But the iPhone and its on-screen keyboard aren't for everyone--especially if you plan to do messaging.

T-Mobile's Wi-Fi-equipped Research in Motion BlackBerry Pearl 8120 ($200 with a two-year contract) stands out for more than just its excellent messaging capabilities (owing to RIM's e-mail-friendly software and 20-key SureType keyboard). The T-Mobile Pearl occupies the top of our chart (the AT&T Wireless version ranks number two) because it works with T-Mobile's innovative HotSpot@Home technology, which lets you make VoIP calls over a Wi-Fi network.

The voice-over-Wi-Fi feature provides a viable calling alternative in locales where cell signals are weak, and the service has worked well in our testing. Wi-Fi speeds up Web browsing and data-intensive tasks, too. The HotSpot@Home Talk Forever Mobile service, required for voice-over-Wi-Fi calls, costs $10 a month.

The T-Mobile version of the phone is less attractive than its AT&T counterpart, in part because of its mousy-gray case; the icons in the BlackBerry menu look cartoonish, as well. The cluttered interface is mostly a result of all the software that T-Mobile loads on the device. Some of the add-ons are versatile (such as a voice-command application that worked very well for dialing contacts), while others aid productivity (RepliGo views, prints, and faxes Microsoft Office documents). You get a couple of games, too.

The phone packs a sharp 2.0-megapixel camera and an excellent multimedia player. The Pearl's SureType predictive text-entry system turns this candy-bar-style phone into one with an effective 20-key keyboard. And both voice quality and talk-time battery life were excellent: The T-Mobile 8120 lasted the full 10 hours of our tests.

Bottom Line: The sleek T-Mobile BlackBerry Pearl 8120 not only has RIM's excellent messaging capabilities, but it lets you place voice calls over a Wi-Fi connection, too.

Digital Camera

Digital SLRs are hot items in the camera category, with models such as the Canon EOS Digital Rebel Xsi leading the way. But in our increasingly photo-centric society, simpler digital camera models, such as those occupying our Top 10 Point-and-Shoot Cameras chart, have evolved into must-have products.

The 8-megapixel Canon PowerShot A590 IS is attractively priced at $150, and it gives you such features as 4X optical zoom, optical image stabilization, face detection (which recognizes faces in the frame and optimizes the autofocus accordingly), and a serviceable 2.5-inch LCD screen.

This model is a starter camera, with 19 shooting modes and limited manual controls (though you can program the shutter speed and aperture settings, Canon designed this PowerShot primarily for automatic use). The camera conveniently runs on two AA batteries, which makes it a great travel companion; it has an easy-to-hold hand grip, too, but that means the camera may be less pocketable for some owners.

The A590 IS scored significantly higher in our image-quality assessments than point-and-shoots that have higher megapixel counts and cost more than twice as much. In particular, our panel of judges noted superior colors and flash exposures in our subjective tests.

Bottom Line: For a beginner's camera, the Canon PowerShot A590 IS has excellent image quality and superb stabilization.

External Hard Drive

As hard-drive prices drop and as people's collections of digital stuff balloon, external hard drives--ideal for storage and backup--have become a staple of every gear kit. The direct-attached SimpleTech Duo Pro Drive rose to first place on our Top 10 External Hard Drives chart for various reasons, including the device's excellent performance, its generous capacity, and its thoughtful design.

Sturdily built yet attractive, the Duo Pro Drive features what the company calls a "smart" fan, which adjusts its speed based on how much heat it senses inside.

The unit comes in three sizes (we tested the 1TB model, but you can get up to 2TB) and connects to your PC via USB 2.0 and External SATA-300. The drives are mounted in two internal bays; regrettably, the bays are not replaceable by the user, so you can't easily upgrade the drives at a later time. By default the drives come striped together in a RAID 0 configuration for maximum performance, but you can easily switch to RAID 1 for mirroring.

Most important, though, this model is blazingly fast. It sprinted past the other contenders to take top performance honors.

Bottom Line: Terrific design, fast performance, and versatile backup software make the SimpleTech Duo Pro drive a strong choice.

Monitor

Monitor shopping can present you with Goldilocks' bed conundrum: too small, too big, or just right. The 22-inch category feels "just right" to us: At this size, a monitor provides plenty of viewing flexibility--for crunching spreadsheets, editing photos, or watching movies--but at the same time it won't overwhelm your desk.

Our favorite display in this category is the $350 Hewlett-Packard w2207h. The w2207h stands out for several reasons, but we especially like its thin (1-inch), contoured, glossy black bezel, which doubles as a clip-on spot where you can easily attach optional accessories to the monitor's frame.

The w2207h has a native resolution of 1680 by 1050 pixels, and it did well in our tests overall, producing attractive-looking images and sharp text. The unit's base provides tilt, pivot, swivel, and height adjustments; the monitor also has easily navigable menus, two side-mounted USB ports, HDMI, and VGA inputs.

This model's only major weakness is a very common one across all the monitors we've tested: The unit's built-in speakers generate weak bass, which translates into flat, tinny audio.

Bottom Line: The HP w2207h is a nicely priced, full-featured LCD monitor with pleasing image quality for text and graphics, plus useful physical-adjustment options.

HDTV

Admit it: You're just about ready to put a gorgeous high-definition monument to couch-potato-dom in your living room. Or maybe it's time for TV number two, in advance of the impending digital-TV switch-over (set to happen in February 2009). What's your best HDTV bet?

We've tested televisions in multiple size categories (see all of the televisions we've reviewed). But for most people today, 42-inch TVs offer a sweet balance of size and price, so we're zeroing in on that category. (We expect to see that sweet spot migrate from 42-inch models to 46- and 47-inch televisions in the coming year; for the moment, however, viewer attention focuses on TVs with 40- and 42-inch screens.)

One benefit of a TV of this size: It translates well to a variety of living spaces. For example, your couch should sit 7 to 9 feet away from a 42-inch television.

The Vizio VO42L claims the top spot on our latest Top 5 42-Inch HDTVs chart because it delivers a well-rounded package that provides very good picture and sound quality, at a price that won't max out your credit line.

Our judges thought the VO42L produced a natural-looking picture, and they gave it an image-quality mark just below the LG 42LG60's top-of-the-heap score. But when you compare the Vizio's $1100 estimated street price with the cost of the LG model, which comes in at more than double the Vizio's price, the slight difference in quality hardly seems to matter.

As much as we like the Vizio, we have to admit that its case design disappoints. The set's side-mounted connectors are recessed, making them harder to reach than the easy-access inputs on other TVs. And the rest of the inputs face down, making access unduly difficult.

Bottom Line: The 42-inch Vizio VO42L HDTV delivers very good picture and sound quality, and it does so at a reasonable price.

This story, "8 best buys for essential gear" was originally published by PCWorld.

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