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6 Brilliant Laptops, From Budget to Big-Ticket

Best Laptop Guide
Despite the fact that most Americans have been doing it for at least a decade, buying a laptop is getting increasingly difficult. A laptop makes a great gift if you don't mind splurging a bit for somebody, but the range of models available and the minuscule differences between them make navigating the crowded notebook scene a daunting task. Before we go any further, let us explain why you won't find this list overrun with Macs. Chances are, if you want a Mac, you know it already; all you have to do is decide how much money you want to spend. Problem solved! This guide is for those that are negotiating the murky but well-stocked PC market. Now that we've got that cleared up, let's move on to our suggestions, broken up by price.

Under $500: Gateway NV55C35u

Gateway NV55C35u
Let's be realistic: you're not going to find a truly fancy, powerful or super-portable laptop for under $500. (If you're seriously concerned about portability, might we suggest a netbook instead?) The Gateway NV is a legit computer with real notebook power. Inside, you'll find a dual core Pentium chip clocked at a reasonable (but hardly blazing) 2 Ghz, alongside 4 GB of RAM -- enough for most computing tasks. It handles HD video playback and Web browsing with aplomb. Casual Flash games shouldn't pose any problem either, but don't expect to do any serious video editing or gaming on a $449 bargain laptop.

The case is entirely plastic, although the top lid is textured with a faux wood-grain that lends the NV series a little more personality than your average, sub-$500 portable. You'll also find a trendy chiclet keyboard, a trackpad that supports multitouch gestures and a full numeric keypad -- something rarely found even on 15-inch laptops. Above the glossy widescreen, you'll find an HD webcam, and, if the 15.6-inches of screen are too constricting for you, there's an HDMI port on the side for plugging into a TV or monitor. Of course, that large screen comes with bulk. With the standard six-cell battery, the NV55C35u weighs in at a chunky 5.72 pounds. (However, you should get almost four hours of life out of that battery.) The 250 GB hard drive is standard, and sufficient, for this price range.

Of course, you will have to fight your way through plenty of software trials and Gateway-branded utilities of questionable usefulness, but at least Gateway has seen fit to go with the 64-bit version of Windows 7. (That version should be standard, but we've seen plenty of budget laptops saddled with the 32-bit version of Windows.)

As a basic no-nonsense machine for checking e-mail, browsing the Web and getting in all the social networking you can handle, this bargain Gateway is more than adequate. It's a perfect laptop for a high schooler just looking to write a few papers and watch some YouTube clips, or a mom trying to keep in touch via e-mail and Facebook.

Gateway NV55C35u

Under $800: HP Pavilion dm4t series

 HP Pavilion dm4t series
HP might be stretching the definition of "ultra-portable" with the dm4t. At 4.5 pounds, this 14-inch laptop certainly isn't a hefty machine, but neither is it a suitable replacement for the slim MacBook Air or ThinkPad X201. Still, the portability is surprising at this price, considering the stylish looks and powerful insides. This Pavilion has also inherited the large matte trackpad, chiclet keyboard and brushed metal shell of HP's more expensive Envy line of laptops.

The $729.99 "quick ship" model features a 2.4 Ghz Core i5 processor, 4 GB of RAM, an integrated Intel graphics chip, a 500 GB hard drive, all of the wireless radios you could ever want, a DVD burner and a pair of Dolby-certified speakers from Altec Lansing that should provide much better audio than you're used to getting from a portable computer. The standard six-cell battery can theoretically power the dm4t for up to 6.5 hours, while HP claims 10.5 hours of life on the optional nine-cell extended battery.

Of course, you can skip the quick-ship model, and customize the dm4t to your liking. The $649.99 base still comes with a 2.26Ghz Core i5 and sacrifices the wireless radios, but leaves you with $150 to upgrade the graphics card or RAM.

The only complaint that most seem to have about the dm4t is that, like many mainstream PCs, it's loaded with tons of software trials and HP-branded junkware. But you can always uninstall the offending software, or skip the whole thing and just boot to HP's QuickWeb interface, which lets you get online without waiting for Windows.

The dm4t is perfect a college student or someone who needs a decent amount of computing power in a portable package for a very reasonable price. The Core i5 and 4 GB of RAM are more than enough for some photo editing and light video editing, and the integrated Intel graphics can pump out 1080p video with relative ease. You won't be able to play the latest in 3-D games, but it's more than just a glorified e-mail machine.

HP Pavilion dm4t series

Under $1,000: Dell XPS 14

Dell XPS 14

Dell's recently revived XPS laptops aren't as eye-catching as the company's Adamo luxury notebooks, but they're certainly more polished than the bargain Inspiron line. The lid and bottom plate are made of aluminum, which gives the laptop a relatively solid feel (although it also adds to the weight, which starts at 5.3 pounds). The XPS 14, unlike most laptops coming out these days, retains actual buttons on the trackpad, as opposed to integrating clickable areas into the tracking surface. The laptop also eschews a trendy chiclet keyboard for a traditional, backlit design that is reasonably comfortable for extended typing sessions and working in the dark.

The XPS 14 starts at $899.99, but spending the extra $100 on the "recommended" setup nets you quite a bit of computing power. Inside the $999.99 version, you'll get a 2.66 Ghz Core i5 processor, 6 GB of RAM, a 500 GB hard drive, a 1 GB discreet graphics card from NVIDIA, a DVD-burner and Wi-Fi N. The XPS 14 even has a pair of powerful speakers from JBL that will make most of the laptop speakers you've encountered sound weak. Lastly, it sports an HD webcam that will let the person on the other side of your video chat session see every pore in your face.

The NVIDIA graphics card is also capable of playing back 3-D video, although you'll need to plug into a 3-D TV using the HDMI port. It also takes advantage of NVIDIA's Optimus technology, which switches between the high-powered 420m card and the integrated Intel graphics for better battery life. Sadly, the included six-cell battery only lasted about three hours in tests performed by our pals at Engadget. It didn't, however, have any problem blowing through 3-D titles like 'Batman: Arkham Asylum' and 'Mafia II.' Even better, Dell has limited the amount of bloatware loaded on the XPS to the easily removable Dell Dock, Skype, McAfee and a few DVD tools.

It's not the most portable machine around, and, with only three hours of life unplugged, it's not for heavy travelers. But for the price, it's hard to match the media and gaming capabilities of the XPS 14, especially when they're crammed into a cheap plastic body. If you're shopping for a machine to play movies or music while you lug it around the house, then the XPS 14 is just the ticket.

Dell XPS 14

Under $1,300: ThinkPad X201 "Express Ship"

Lenovo ThinkPad X201
Considering the amount of computer power available for under a grand, $1,300 should buy you a super-powered gaming rig that would inspire jealousy in all your friends who are still playing games on their quaint and stationary Xbox 360s. And maybe it could, but, for our money, nothing beats the ThinkPad X201 from Lenovo. ThinkPads are not the flashiest or prettiest machines out there, but under that trademark matte-black exterior lies a computer that has been standard issue in the corporate world for over a decade... with good reason. They're premium machines that offer great reliability, and can stand up to a surprising amount of abuse. (This writer once salvaged one from a scrap heap after it had been thrown against a wall; it survived another three years.)

The X201 is the current ultra-portable from Lenovo. The "express ship" model carries a 2.54 Ghz Core i5, 4 GB of RAM, a 320 GB hard drive and the best keyboard to be found on a laptop. Serious typists and writers should skip the chiclet keyboards currently in vogue, and go with the firm keys and satisfying click of a ThinkPad. Like all ThinkPads, the X201 has the distinctive TrackPoint (the red nub in the middle of the keyboard), but it also has a touchpad -- something most ultra-portable ThinkPads have lacked until now.

The 12.1-inch widescreen probably won't replace the TV in your bedroom, but its 1200 x 800 resolution is sharp enough to watch a few HD movies on the go. (You'll have to download them or stream via Netflix, since the X201 lacks an optical drive.) Skipping the DVD or Blu-ray drive keeps the weight under three pounds, making it easy to tuck the ThinkPad into a bag and take it with you everywhere you go. Just don't expect to do any gaming while you're out and about; the integrated Intel graphics are fine for pushing video, but will choke on even a moderately high-end 3-D title.

When you buy an ultra-light machine, you want to know that you can keep away from an outlet for a long time, and, with the standard six-cell battery, Lenovo promises almost seven hours of unplugged computing. Jump up to the nine-cell extended battery, and the X201 can supposedly keep going for over 11 hours on a charge.

All the cool kids might be lugging around sleek MacBook Airs, but we know that any time they have to do something more demanding than open an e-mail, they regret being saddled with a last-gen processor. The X201 is ideal for road warriors who care more about performance and reliability than fashionable looks.

Under $1,600: HP ENVY 17 3D

HP Envy 17 3D
So far, we've suggested practical machines that pack enough punch for everyday computing tasks, and that at least border on portability. But, what if you want raw, unadulterated power, and don't mind if your laptop is really only portable in theory? Then, sir or madam, we suggest the HP Envy 17 3D. This behemoth clocks in at 7.23 pounds with the standard six-cell battery that, if you're lucky, will last just over two hours. But, when you realize that under the textured lid is (deep breath) a 17.3-inch full HD (1080p) screen, a quad-core Core i7 chip running at 1.6 Ghz, 6 GB of RAM, a high-end graphics card from ATI with 1 GB of dedicated memory, a Blu-ray drive and a screen capable of displaying 3-D TV and games (with fancy and expensive active shutter 3-D glasses included), it all makes sense.

While the Envy 17 is a big and uncompromising powerhouse of a PC, it doesn't sacrifice style. The largely magnesium alloy and aluminum body is sleek and unique. While other laptop manufacturers seem content to either pump out bland PCs or simply rip-off Apple, HP has gone out of its way to craft something special. The brushed aluminum is dark, and the black accents of the keyboard and screen bezel make the computer feel serious without being stuffy. In many ways, it appears to be the evil twin of the MacBook Pro.

The large size leaves plenty of room for ports and extras, including an HD Webcam and a full-sized chiclet keyboard with a dedicated numeric pad. Scattered around the edges, you'll find all sorts of ports and plugs, including the prerequisite USB 2.0 and HDMI, but also a SuperSpeed USB 3.0 jack. (While USB 3.0 peripherals are only now starting to trickle out -- primarily in the form of external hard drives -- it's a feature that should come in handy down the line.) There's even room for a pair of powerful speakers and a subwoofer.

If you like the idea of a MacBook Pro, but prefer Windows to OS X (or don't want to pay the exorbitant Apple tax), the Envy 17 is for you. It's a gorgeous machine with all of the multimedia pedigree you could ask for -- just as long as you stay close to that power outlet.

HP Envy 17 3D

Over $2,000: MacBook Pro 17-inch

Macbook Pro 17
What can we possibly say about the MacBook Pro that hasn't been said before? It's the most powerful portable in the Apple catalog. At 6.6 pounds, it's relatively svelte for a 17-incher, and Apple claims it can last over eight hours on a charge -- unheard of for a machine of this size.

Starting at $2,299, the Pro seems woefully overpriced with its Core i5 processor and 4 GB of memory. But you're not just paying for the components inside, which are adequate for most computing tasks, including some video and photo editing. When you pay over $2,000 for a laptop, you're looking for a carefully crafted package and a status symbol... and the MacBook Pro is all of those things. With its unibody construction technique, Apple carves the entire chassis and body of the MacBook Pro out of a single piece of aluminum, making for the most solid-feeling laptop on the market.

The keyboard can't quite live up to the clickier boards on ThinkPads; when compared with the current crop of squishy, chiclet keyboards, however, the one found on the MacBook Pro seems like a godsend. And, if you're prone to working in the dark (which we do all the time), you'll really appreciate the backlight hiding beneath the black typing surface.

While the MacBook Pro packs plenty of graphical punch via the NVIDIA 330M for video editing and some light gaming, it's the ability to turn it off and rely on the integrated Intel chip that allows Apple to eek out the insane battery life. At just over 6.5 pounds, you probably won't be carrying it around enough to really test the battery's longevity. (Since the battery isn't removable or user-replaceable, it might be better to not go too far without your AC adapter.)

For the price, you could get a higher-powered laptop or a more portable machine -- or, in the case of the Sony Vaio Z, both. The Vaio Z might be attractive considering its incredible specs and portability, but its plastic housing and loads of bloatware lose out to the spectacular craftsmanship that goes into every MacBook Pro. If you plan to break open Photoshop on a fairly regular basis, and have a taste for the finer things in life (and don't mind paying a premium for them), then this is where to spend your hard-earned laptop dollar.

Macbook Pro 17

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