Computerworld's 2012 holiday gift guide

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

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In terms of specs, the Samsung Chromebook has an 11.6-in. 1366 x 768 matte display and weighs about 2.4 lbs. The system is powered by an ARM-based Samsung Exynos 5 dual-core processor along with 2GB of RAM. It includes 16GB of local SSD storage and a two-year subscription for 100GB of cloud-based Google Drive storage.

As I noted in my review:

Whether as a secondary system or a primary computer, the new Chromebook is outstanding for light Web browsing and Web-oriented work. It's a slim, light, attractive device with good performance and promising battery life. Google seems to be marketing this machine as a secondary computer for the family, and in that regard, it's a pretty enticing proposition.

(Read the full review)

Despite its Web-centric focus, the Chromebook does work without an Internet connection; many apps offer offline modes that provide full functionality and then automatically resync with the cloud the next time you're online.

In short: This low-cost, lightweight Chrome OS alternative could make a great gift.

You might also like: The Samsung Chromebook 550 ($449 - $549) provides the same Chrome OS experience with extra horsepower -- something power users will appreciate.

-- JR Raphael

Samsung Chromebook from Google

Price: $249

Tech specs  |  Store locator  |  Phone: (855) 836-3987

Summary: The Samsung Chromebook makes getting online easy and fun without the hassles of traditional computing.

Practical and all-purpose

Thin is in -- but it's not everything. While MacBook Airs and ultrabooks are lightweight and good-looking, there are many reasons why you might want to look at a more practical, larger laptop as a gift.

If your friend or relative is an Apple fan, the MacBook Pro with Retina display offers an incredible and revolutionary screen along with the chance to get a more powerful quad-core Intel Core i7 processor. Need an Ethernet port or a built-in optical drive? There's the less expensive but still excellent MacBook Pro.

Windows users who want to both work and play can get powerful quad-core processors, along with larger displays, Gigabit Ethernet connections, optical drives and up to 1TB of hard drive storage (and if you really want top performance, you can include an SSD to add speed to applications).

Mac: Apple 13-in. MacBook Pro with Retina display

After spending the past month with the new 13-in. MacBook Pro with Retina display, I came away impressed. The laptop's small size, light weight, aluminum and glass construction, and absolutely stunning display make this machine the obvious choice for this year's all-purpose recommendation.

Starting at $1,699, this laptop's incredibly rigid yet thin and lightweight housing includes a couple of compromises, but performance, quality of materials and construction aren't among them. This 3.6-lb. machine features an auto-dimming backlit keyboard, a full-size glass trackpad with multitouch support, dual USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt connections, dual mics, an HDMI connection, Bluetooth 4, an SDXC card slot reader, a front-facing HD FaceTime camera and full Wi-Fi support.

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display

The MacBook Pro with Retina display (credit: Apple).

Click to view larger image.

The system is equipped with 8GB of RAM and a minimum of 128GB of flash storage (expandable to 768GB), powered by the latest Intel Ivy Bridge chipset and Core i5 processors.

Of course, the star feature of this computer is the amazing Retina display, with more than four million pixels densely packed into a 13.3-in. display -- that's 2 million more pixels than a 1080p HDTV set. The result is a stunning screen that displays text as sharp as high-quality magazine prints (especially at smaller sizes) and showcases every pixel in your digital photos.

The sleek machine does, however, eliminate a few components that Apple considers outdated but many folks don't: an Ethernet jack, FireWire ports and an optical drive for reading/burning CDs and DVDs. (You can buy an external one from Apple for $80.)

As I concluded in my Computerworld review:

The Retina display MacBook Pro offers a compelling bundle of features housed in an impressive chassis, with plenty of horsepower and, of course, the screen that makes it special. In short, this machine has won me over. It scores high marks everywhere it counts: performance, battery life, stability, quality, weight/portability and design. There are tradeoffs, but if you can live with them, you can't go wrong with this MacBook Pro. (Read the full review)

I'm a huge fan of the 15-in. MacBook Pro, so my recommendation for the 13-in. Retina MacBook Pro doesn't come lightly. But after my time with it, I feel it's definitely a great gift choice. If you spend time with it, I'm sure you'll agree.

You might also like: If your giftee requires the legacy features that are missing from the MacBook Pro with Retina display or you simply can't afford its high price, look to the 13-in. MacBook Pro, which starts at $1,199. It may not feature the latest and greatest in screen technology, modern I/O or all-flash architecture, but it's still a great laptop and is definitely more affordable.

-- Michael deAgonia

13-in. MacBook Pro with Retina display from Apple

Street price: $1,635 - $1,850 or configure at Apple site

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

Summary: The rigid aluminum and glass construction is 20% thinner and a pound lighter than the previous generation, but it's the beautiful Retina display that is the star of this notebook.

Windows: Dell Inspiron 15R

Now that Windows 8 is out, touch-screen computers are getting much of the attention these days. However, for many people, a traditional system may still be the most practical. Take Dell's Inspiron 15R, a Windows 8 laptop that makes an excellent holiday gift.

Dell Inspiron 15R

The Inspiron 15R (credit: Dell). Click to view larger image.

With a 15.6-in. 720p HD display, the Inspiron 15R can be configured with a third-generation Intel Core i3, i5 or i7 processor and has the luxury of four USB ports, three of which use the newer USB 3.0 spec. And unlike space-restricted ultrabooks, the Inspiron 15R has room for a DVD drive and can be ordered with up to a terabyte of hard drive storage space.

Weighing just over 6 lb., the Inspiron 15R may be a lot to carry around compared to a lighter-weight ultrabook, but its rounded corners, along with a two-tone black and silver color scheme, make for a sophisticated design.

In her PC World review, Sarah Jacobsson Purewal reported:

The Dell Inspiron 15R 7520 might fly under your radar amidst all the superskinny Ultrabooks that are zipping around, but it's worth a look if style and weight aren't major concerns for you. It offers an excellent screen (most Ultrabooks don't), sturdy components, and great general performance, and it will play games fairly well, even though it isn't built to be a gaming laptop. (Read the full review)

The system's price tag is the best part. A Core i3-based system starts at $550, but if you want something really impressive, check out the fully loaded Inspiron 15R Special Edition, which comes with a quad-core 3.2GHz Intel Core i7 processor, an AMD Radeon 7730M graphics engine with 2GB of dedicated video memory, 8GB of RAM, a 1TB hard drive and a 32GB mSATA SSD -- all for a very reasonable $1,100. In anybody's book, that combination adds up to top-shelf performance for work and play.

You might also like: Offering a load of features, including a DVD drive and up to 1TB of storage, Toshiba's 15.6-in. Satellite P850 can be a down-to-earth gift. You can choose between a Core i5 and i7 processor; systems start at $700.

-- Brian Nadel

Inspiron 15R from Dell

Street price: $480 - $1,139 (depending on configuration) or configure at Dell site

Tech specs  |  Store locator  |  Phone: (877) 907-3355

Summary: Dell's Inspiron 15R packs peak performance and all the mobile creature comforts into a reasonably priced traditional notebook format.

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