Computerworld's 2012 holiday gift guide

Discover more than 40 great tech gifts to give and get this year

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Load up on laptops: Ultraslim and all-purpose

Tablets may be the "in" thing, but for someone who wants to do serious work, nothing beats a laptop. This year's crop offers improvements on last year's lightweight ultraportables, workhorse systems that offer enough power for entertainment on the side, and even a few models with touch screens and other cool technologies. If you're looking for a gift that will be used for both work and play, one of these machines might do the trick.

Light, slim and sexy

For something to suit a well-heeled traveler, you can't do better than one of these light, slim and sexy systems. Apple fans needn't look any further than the MacBook Air -- it led the way for a whole generation of sleek, easy-to-carry laptops.

Meanwhile, there are a slew of new Windows 8 ultrabooks just coming out; in some cases you can even score a touch screen. And those who live completely online could have a Chromebook in their future.

Mac: Apple MacBook Air

Since its debut in 2008, the MacBook Air's popularity has forced competitors to respond with similar designs. The result has been the death of the netbooks and the rise of the ultrabooks.

Apple hasn't rested, however, and the 2012 MacBook Air is still the best combination of power and portability around. In fact, according to Macworld reviewer Dan Frakes:

In a few short years, the Air has gone from an expensive technology demonstration to a successful product firmly established as the heart of Apple's laptop line. This year's models improve the appeal of the Air by increasing performance, enhancing expansion capabilities, and lowering prices. In fact, the new models might just be making the MacBook Pro line a little nervous. (Read the full review)
Apple MacBook Air

The MacBook Air (credit: Apple). Click to view larger image.

This wedge-shaped computer is 0.11 in. at its thinnest point and 0.68 in. at its thickest when closed. Depending on the screen size, the Air is 11.8 in. or 12.8 in. wide for the 11-in. and 13-in. models, respectively.

The 11.6-in. model starts at $999 and comes with a 1366 x 768, 16:9 LED glossy display, 64GB of flash-based storage (for another $100, you can upgrade to 128GB), a 1.7GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, Intel HD Graphics 4000 series with external display support, a 720p FaceTime camera, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0, two USB 3.0 ports, a Thunderbolt port, a MagSafe 2 power port, an auto-dimming backlit keyboard and a large multitouch-enabled glass trackpad -- all in a package weighing less than 2.4 lb.

For $1,199, the 13-in. MacBook Air comes with the same features, except for a few differences: the 13.3-in. screen has a resolution of 1440 x 900; it comes with 128GB of storage (for another $300, you can up the storage to 256GB); it uses a dual-core Intel Core i5 running at 1.8GHz; and it includes an SD card slot, which the 11-in. model does not have. The 13-in. model weighs 2.96 lb.

Both models are wrapped in rigid aluminum, with the load-bearing frame constructed using Apple's unibody process -- carved from a single aluminum block to maintain sturdiness despite the thin design.

In concert with Apple OS X, the MacBook Air's combination of size, weight, battery life and quality construction makes this machine an easy call for loved ones this season.

-- Michael deAgonia

MacBook Air from Apple

Street price: $950 - $1,650 (11-in. model), $1,160 - $2,200 (13-in. model) or configure at Apple site

Tech specs  |  Store locator  |  Phone: (800) MY-APPLE

Summary: The thinnest and lightest notebook in Apple's lineup is perfect for those looking for maximum portability without sacrificing power and battery life.

Windows: Sony Vaio T Series 13 Ultrabook

As the Windows 8 era gets started, Sony's Vaio T Series 13 makes for a great gift to give or receive. At about 3.5 lb. and with a depth of 0.9 in., it may not be the lightest or the thinnest ultrabook around, but it offers the best balance between performance, features, battery life and price.

The Vaio T Series comes in a wide variety of configurations, most of which are user-configurable (although there are also several "ready to ship" versions if you're in a hurry). There are both non-touch and touch screens, Intel Core i3, i5 and i7 dual-core processors, 4GB to 8GB of memory and a 320GB to 500GB hard drive.

Sony Vaio T13

The Vaio T Series 13 Ultrabook (credit: Sony).

Click to view larger image.

If you want to give one of the most powerful ultrabooks around, though, go with the high-end model (SVT13128CXS), which I was able to try out recently. It comes with a 1.9GHz i7 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB solid-state drive (SSD), giving it the performance potential once reserved for a desktop gaming machine.

I was especially impressed with the Vaio's 13.3-in. multitouch display. All it takes is a swipe of the finger to bring out the Windows 8 Charms bar, highlight a block of text or finger-doodle during a boring meeting. The screen delivers a bright, rich image and is braced at the bottom so that it won't wobble while you're tapping and swiping.

All the Vaio T Series systems also have USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 ports (one each) as well as HDMI and VGA ports for driving a monitor or projector. Each can run for nearly five hours on a charge and is one of the few ultrabooks that allow you to change the battery.

There are plenty of chances to save a bit of money, depending on the configuration you want; for example, a system with an Intel Core i3 processor and a non-touch display starts at only $670. However, I'd put the fully equipped high-end Vaio Series T model SVT13128CXS ($1,300) on my own list to Santa.

You might also like: If you're looking for a really thin, lightweight ultrabook, check out Acer's Aspire S7. The stylish, sleek laptop is only half an inch thick and has a 13.3-in. HD touch display that has wowed reviewers around the Web; prices start at $1,200.

-- Brian Nadel

VAIO T13 from Sony

Street price: $1,299 - $1,415 (model SVT13128CXS) or configure at Sony site

Tech specs  |  Store locator  |  Phone: (877) 865-7669

Summary: A delight to give or receive, Sony's Vaio T Series 13 combines top performance and a touch screen in a slim case.

Chrome OS: Samsung Chromebook
Samsung Chromebook

The Samsung Chromebook (credit: Google).

Click to view larger image.

Google's Chrome OS is all about computing without hassles -- and with its Samsung Chromebook, available for $249, the company finally gets the price right.

The Samsung Chromebook revolves around the idea of a cloud-centric life: Instead of relying on locally stored programs and files, the Chromebook is designed to use Web-based services -- things like Google Docs, Gmail and Google Drive. Your data is all stored online and synced with your Google account; the operating system is updated frequently and seamlessly in the background.

As a result, you don't have to worry about drivers, viruses or time-consuming software patches. You just flip open the computer's lid, type in your Google ID and password, and within about 10 seconds, you're in a browser window, synced up and ready to go.

More about the Chromebook... plus all-purpose latpops »

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