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Help for a Hater: A PC to Blow Away Apple's MacBook Air

Image of HP Envy 13
Dear Switched: Help an Apple-hater out. I've searched everywhere for the PC equivalent of a MacBook Air: super slim, light, with a good-sized display, a full-powered processor and good battery life at a similar price. But amazingly, I haven't found any to equal it. I can't stand the thought of giving Steve Jobs my loyalty, much less my cash, so help a hater out and JTMWTG!

Dear Hater: We don't think it'll surprise you that, as professional know-it-alls, we sometimes find ourselves stifling a chuckle at the naive queries we receive. And yet here we are, coming to you with a tail between our legs, as we admit we've found ourselves as stymied by this dilemma as you are. But that isn't to say we don't have a recommendation.

It is true that, to date, there really is no exact counterpoint to the MacBook Air in terms of profile, power and price, as compared to the slew of PC laptops on the market which are just cookie-cutter clones of each other, minus a spec here and there. But we're thinking that maybe there's a good reason. After all, there's much to recommend about the Air, but we've found it's an especially niche product because of its pronounced shortcomings: the lack of an optical drive, memory card slot, Ethernet port and standard graphics port (it has Mini DisplayPort) and just a single USB port. That might explain why PC makers took a look at the apparently lukewarm sales of the Air and decided an exact knock-off simply wasn't a prudent business decision.

Yet, this doesn't mean that PC makers haven't ventured into the ultra-thin, ultralight laptop market on their own with a different paradigm in mind. We took a long, hard look at the offerings from every reputable PC maker out there and came up with a short list of recommendations. Though none precisely fill every spec on your wish list, we're confident you'll be pleased.

To answer your frustrated queries and have us JUST TELL YOU WHAT TO GET, email Switched at tips@switched.com

HP Envy 13

HP Envy 13
Our top pick then would be HP's Envy 13. The pre-configured quick-ship model starts at $1,350 (or less, online) and is just 3.8 pounds and .8-inches high, which compares well with the Air's .76 inches at its thickest. The Envy occupies virtually an identical footprint as an Air and is also housed in a sturdy and slick magnesium-alloy casing. The upgradeable processor is a slightly weaker 1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor (versus 1.86GHz), but it comes with 3 gigabytes of RAM (versus 2 gigs), a 250 GB hard drive (versus 160) and even has a dedicated 512 MB ATI Mobility graphics card, which you can switch on or off to save battery -- a big step up from the Air's built-in graphics.

As for actual use, the Envy boots to a nifty Linux multimedia mode for photo, music and Web access in just 15 seconds, or can be booted to Windows 7 Professional in about a minute. Response is generally zippy, so don't worry about suffering an underpowered netbook experience. The chicklet-style keyboard, clearly influenced by the MacBook series, is excellent, though its multitouch trackpad/touchpad is a bit unfortunate: it takes serious getting used to and doesn't scroll or zoom consistently. It's more of hassle to use and we simply ended up ignoring it. We also found that the forward-facing speakers sounded nice but were far too weak; even in a quiet room we struggled to hear audio playback with the volume jacked all the way up. In our tests, the standard 4-cell battery lasted 4-plus hours watching 480p streamed video from Hulu, though an optional super-thin and lightweight "slice" battery for an extra $150 runs the entire length of the base and reportedly boosts battery time to about 10-to-15 hours.

Otherwise the Envy compares well with, and sometimes outdoes the Air, with a higher-res and gorgeous backlit LED display, a built-in camera and full wireless array (Wi-Fi 802.11n and Bluetooth), and the addition of a second USB port, an HDMI port, an SD card slot and an included USB/ethernet adapter-- all for a $150 less than the base Air.

HP Envy 13

We also checked out and passed on a few other models for various reasons which are still worth considering:

Sony Vaio Z11

Sony Vaio Z11
The Sony Vaio Z11 was a close second, but at $1,900 it's far pricier and thicker than the Envy. That said, it's super light, spec'd out like a science project with plenty of ports, a standard 128GB solid state hard drive, an internal BluRay drive and a whopping 6-hour battery life to boot. It's impressive, but too pricey.

Sony Vaio Z

Lenovo X201

Lenovo X201
We'd also be remiss not to mention the beloved Lenovo X201, which is super sleek and in standard configuration weighs just 2.89 pounds with a $1,170 price tag. If being thin isn't a dealbreaker -- it's 1.4 inches at its tallest -- then definitely give the X201 a look. We passed due to that huskiness and because the only option to its hallmark eraser-tip mouse is a trackpad with four buttons that just repulses us. Anyway, it's a solid PC at a solid price.

Lenovo ThinkPad X201

Dell Adamo XPS

Dell Adamo XPS
Finally, the celebrated Dell Adamo XPS which, despite being slick and insanely thin, was too rich for our blood at $2K, especially since the oddball overhang on the hinge doesn't suit laps well. Still, it's a performer and worth a look if your pockets run deep and wide. We would, however, feel compelled to point out that if you're paying top-dollar for a potent combo of form and function, isn't that the same thing as buying from Apple?

Dell Adamo XPS

Tags: computers, dell adamo xps, DellAdamoXps, features, hp envy 13, HpEnvy13, laptops, lenovo x201, LenovoX201, macbook air, MacbookAir, sony vaio z11, SonyVaioZ11, top, ultraportable, ultrathin

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