Cool stuff: Your 2011 holiday tech gift guide

From tablets and smartphones to HDTVs and a few surprises, we've rounded up the best tech gear to give and get this year.

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The 15-in. MacBook Pro, which tips the scales at 5.6 lb., includes a new webcam that records at 720p HD and works with Apple's FaceTime app for Mac, which means you can video-chat with iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch owners running FaceTime as well.

Also new is a high-speed Thunderbolt port in place of the Mini DisplayPort. The other ports and connectors are slightly skimpy for an all-purpose machine: two USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire 800 port, an Ethernet port, audio in, audio out and an SD card slot. There's an 8x slot-loading SuperDrive for optical discs, but no Blu-ray support. For battery life, expect a reasonable 5 to 6 hours for everyday tasks.

All of this adds up to a powerhouse laptop that can easily handle a variety of computing tasks at home, in the office and on the road.

You might also like: If your gift recipient uses an external display most of the time (and thus doesn't need as much screen real estate in a laptop), consider Apple's 13-in. MacBook Pro, which starts at $1,199. You'll get a dual-core Sandy Bridge CPU instead of quad-core, plus lesser graphics capabilities and screen resolution, but you can save hundreds of dollars and shave a pound off the weight by opting for the smaller size.

One final note: (Unsubstantiated) rumor has it that Apple will begin shipping a 15-in. MacBook Air in the first quarter of 2012. With midrange components inside, it's likely to be a bit more affordable than the 15-in. MacBook Pro. The question is, will your gift recipient be happy getting an I.O.U. for a theoretical future laptop?

-- Valerie Potter

15-in. MacBook Pro from Apple Inc.

Street price: $1,698 - $1,939 (entry-level), $2,020 - $2,230 (higher-end), or  configure at Apple site

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

Summary: The 15-in. MacBook Pro stuffs some serious hardware into a modestly sized, well-designed package.

Windows: HP Pavilion dv6t

At 5.8 lb. and slightly more than 1.2-in. thick in places, HP's Pavilion dv6t won't win any thin-and-light awards, but it hides its bulk well with gentle curves and a classy dark umber finish on its aluminum housing.

HP Pavilion dv6t

HP Pavilion dv6t

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The dv6t's bright, crisp 15.6-in. LED-backlit display handles video well, according to PC World reviewer Loyd Case:

Video playback quality is quite strong. WMV high-def clips looked sharp, with nicely saturated colors. DVD upscaling to the native 1366 by 768 resolution was clean, with little visible edge enhancement or noise. The laptop ships with Intel WiDi (Wireless Display) client software, but you'll need to buy the box that attaches to your HDTV separately. (Read the full review.)

The dv6t offers some nice extras built in, such as a fingerprint reader, an HD webcam and four speakers backed by Beats Audio software that pump out excellent sound. There's a good array of ports and connectors including two USB 3.0 and two USB 2.0 ports; one port each for Ethernet, VGA and HDMI; an SD card slot; and one audio in and two audio out jacks.

The laptop comes standard with Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit (Professional and Ultimate editions also available), a SuperMulti 8X optical drive and 802.11n Wi-Fi support. Two omissions that may annoy you: Bluetooth is not supported by default (although you can add it for $15) and the keyboard is not backlit.

Like the MacBook Pro, the Pavilion dv6t includes Intel's second-generation Core i-series CPUs with Sandy Bridge technology, which boosts performance and battery life. But most of the dv6t models include dual-core Core i3, i5 and i7 chips that are less powerful than the quad-core i7s found in the 15-in. MacBook Pro. On the plus side, the lower-end dv6t models are much, much less expensive than MacBook Pros.

The dv6t's plethora of configuration options can be a bit overwhelming. The basic edition begins at $579 and includes a 2.2GHz dual-core Core i3 processor; integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000; 6GB of RAM and a 640GB, 5400rpm HDD -- but you can upgrade all those options in many levels all the way up to a 2.5GHz dual-core Core i5 CPU; a discrete Radeon HD 6770M GPU with 2GB of memory; 16GB of RAM and a 160GB SSD for about $1,950.

The dv6t Select Edition starts at $699 for a 2.4GHz dual-core Core i5 processor; integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000; 8GB of RAM and a 750GB, 5400rpm HDD. Most of its configuration options overlap those of the basic edition, but you can boost the processor up to a 2.7GHz dual-core Core i7.

Finally, there's the dv6t Quad Edition, which starts at $799 for a 2.2GHz quad-core Core i7 CPU; a discrete Radeon HD 6490M GPU with 1GB of memory; 8GB of RAM and a 750GB, 5400rpm HDD. That one can be configured up to a 2.3GHz quad-core Core i7; a Radeon HD 6770M GPU with 2GB of memory; 16GB of RAM and a 160GB SSD for about $2,075.

Other options, available on all models, include a full-HD 1920 x 1080 display ($150 extra), a Blu-ray player ($75) or writer ($150), and a longer-lasting 9-cell battery ($30).

In other words, although the dv6t starts out cheap, it can quickly get expensive if you upgrade the components or opt for other add-ons. PC World's Case recommends the version he tested, with dual-core 2.3GHz Core i5 CPU; 6GB of RAM; Radeon HD 6490M graphics chip and 640GB, 5400rpm HDD. "At $800, this configuration of the dv6 seems to hit a sweet spot," he says.

You might also like: Another all-purpose all-star is the striking 15.6-in. Acer Aspire TimelineX 5830TG, which starts at $800 and offers excellent battery life and such niceties as an Nvidia GeForce GT 520M GPU with automatic graphics switching (see PC World's review). It's also available in less expensive 14-in. and 13-in. models if your gift recipient doesn't need all the screen space of a 15-incher.

-- Valerie Potter

Pavilion dv6t from Hewlett-Packard Co.

Street price: $580 - $1,500 (depending on configuration) or configure at HP site

Tech specs  |  Where to buy  |  Phone: (888) 999-4747

Summary: With solid performance and some nice extras, the highly configurable HP Pavilion dv6t is a good all-around machine for a range of budgets.

Extravagant entertainers

For watching multimedia or gaming, you just can't beat a huge 17-in. HD display with native 1920 x 1080 resolution, powered by a fast quad-core processor and a high-end discrete graphics chip to keep up with all the action. Great audio is also a plus, as is 3D support for some folks.

These multimedia monsters don't come cheap, and at 6.5 lb. minimum, they're not easy to carry around. But who cares when videos and games look this good?

Mac: 17-in. Apple MacBook Pro

What is there to say about the 17-in. MacBook Pro that hasn't been said before? This year's model has the same slender lines, the same strong unibody aluminum chassis, and the same sharp, bright, richly colored, LED-backlit, native 1920 x 1200 glossy display that's been wowing its owners for years.

17-in. Apple MacBook Pro

17-in. Apple MacBook Pro

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(Don't like glossy screens? You can opt for a matte anti-glare screen for an extra $50.)

As with its smaller brethren, the new stuff is mostly on the inside: Intel Sandy Bridge chips with integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000, plus a discrete AMD Radeon HD 6770M graphics processor with 1GB of GDDR5 memory and automatic graphics switching to drive that beautiful display. These changes brought significant jumps (in some cases more than double) over the prior model's scores in Macworld's rigorous speed, graphics and battery life tests.

The current 17-in. MacBook Pro also has the new HD webcam found in the 15-in. models, as well as the new Thunderbolt port. What's that all about? Computerworld's Ken Mingis elaborates:

Thunderbolt is sort of like USB on steroids (it's as much as 20 times faster than USB 2.0, 12 times faster than FireWire 800 and more than twice as fast as USB 3.0) because it delivers 10Gbit/sec throughput in both directions. That's serious data transfer speed. (Read the full review.)

Because Thunderbolt is based on DisplayPort technology, it looks just like the old Mini DisplayPort that it replaces and supports any device with a Mini DisplayPort adapter. Which is a good thing, because at this stage there aren't many Thunderbolt devices available. This is more of an enhancement for the future than a current benefit.

There are also three USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire 800 port, an Ethernet port, audio in, audio out and an ExpressCard/34 slot. The laptop supports 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0, and it provides an 8x SuperDrive for optical discs, but once again Apple has omitted support for Blu-ray.

The 17-in. MacBook Pro starts at $2,499. You can upgrade its 2.4GHz quad-core Core i7 CPU to 2.5GHz; the included 4GB of RAM to 8GB; and the standard 750GB, 5400rpm HDD to a 128GB, 256GB or 512GB SSD. We're not even going to tell you how expensive the highest configuration is -- if you have to ask, you can't afford it.

-- Valerie Potter

17-in. MacBook Pro from Apple Inc.

Street price: $2,349 - $2,693 or  configure at Apple site

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

Summary: If money is no object, the gorgeous 17-in. MacBook Pro delivers a world-class multimedia experience.

Windows: Dell XPS 17

Dell's XPS 17 laptop features a bright, clear glossy 17-in. LED-backlit display, and its 22W JBL speakers deliver excellent audio quality. Like the MacBook Pro, the XPS 17 has been updated with Intel Sandy Bridge chips for greatly improved performance.

Dell XPS 17

Dell XPS 17

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But be careful when shopping: The highly configurable XPS 17 line starts with an $899 model that comes with midrange components and a display that doesn't support full 1080p HD. This is not the version to get for the best multimedia experience.

We suggest starting with the preset $1,400 configuration, which includes a 2.2GHz quad-core Core i7 processor; 8GB of RAM; dual 500GB, 7200rpm HDDs (for a total of 1TB of storage); an Nvidia GeForce 555M GPU with 3GB memory; a 1920 x 1080 full HD display with HD webcam and a Blu-ray Disc player/burner. You can adjust from there if, say, you want to add more RAM, a faster processor, a TV tuner and/or a 256GB SSD. If you want 3D capabilities, start with the preset $1,500 configuration, which is exactly the same as the $1,400 configuration except it includes a 1920 x 1080 3D display with a 120Hz refresh rate, plus a pair of Nvidia 3D Vision glasses.

PC World reviewer Loyd Case was impressed with his tricked-out XPS 17 3D test model:

Overall, the Dell XPS 17 3D offers superb performance in standard desktop apps. Gaming performance is pretty good, too, though you'll want to scale back the resolution a bit and dial down the graphics features for best results, particularly in newer games. The new display looks very good, and stereoscopic Blu-ray movies are spectacular, if you're into them. (Read the full review.)

The XPS 17 ships with Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit and offers a typical array of ports and connectors for a device this size: two USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, an Ethernet port, one audio in and two audio out jacks, an SD card reader, and both HDMI and Mini DisplayPort connectors. Bluetooth 3.0, 802.11n Wi-Fi and WiMax are also supported, as is Intel WiDi on the non-3D display.

If you make sure to get the full HD display, the GeForce 555M video card, a quad-core Core i7 processor and, optionally, the Blu-ray player, the XPS 17 will be sure to delight the multimedia fan on your list.

You might also like: If you're looking for a machine that can handle fast-action, graphically rich gaming in addition to HD video, 3D and Blu-ray, check out the Asus G74SX. Starting at around $1,800, this nearly 10-lb. monster offers a stellar screen, crisp audio and an understated, living-room-friendly design.

-- Valerie Potter

XPS 17 from Dell Inc.

Street price: $1,400 - $3,000 (for versions with quad-core Core i7; prices vary depending on configuration)

Tech specs  |  Store locator  |  Phone: 877-717-3355

Summary: With the right configuration, the Dell XPS 17 is a multimedia powerhouse.

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