Computer and Notebook Gift Ideas [2010 Cool Yule Tools]

Computers continue be one of those product categories that make you say, “Yeah, what’s new?” Makers of notebooks and netbooks are facing continued pressure from the likes of the iPad, as people continue to consider what they need or want from their computing environment. Do they want portability? Do they want a powerhouse? Do they want something that can connect to TV, or just something with all of the latest and greatest?

We got a variety of desktops, notebooks, netbooks and other such gear for this year’s gift guide. Here are our picks for what we liked in the computer/notebook space.

Products reviewed in this category:

  • ViewSonic PC Mini VOT 125 (or VDT 125)
  • ViewSonic all-in-one PC VPC220
  • Lenovo A700 ideaCentre all-in-one PC
  • HP TouchSmart 310 PC (all-in-one)
  • Artigo A1100 (by VIA) Pico-ITX Kit
  • Toshiba Portege R705-P25 notebook
  • Lenovo ideapad Y560d (3d notebook)
  • Lenovo ideapad S10-3t (notebook/tablet)
  • HP Envy 14 notebook
  • HP Pavilion DM3 notebook
  • HP ProBook 4520s notebook
  • HP EliteBook 8440w
  • Panasonic Toughbook C1 rugged notebook
  • MSI P600 notebook
  • Dell Inspiron netbook
  • HP Mini 210-2000 netbook

TouchSmart 310 All-In-One PC, by HPIf there’s anything HP failed to pack into this all-in-one PC, I can’t think of it. For $699, you get an all-in-one with wireless keyboard and mouse, an amazing 20-inch display, powerful AMD Athlon chip, 500GB hard drive, 4GB of RAM, a camera, CD/DVD burner, and some pretty nice speakers. Oh, and did I mention the TV tuner. And the touch screen features. And the ability to plays games that you download from http://hp.wildgames.com.

The all-in-one is stylish and sturdy. Moving the screen angle doesn’t make you fear tipping the whole thing over. All of the USB and other inputs are on the sides or the back, so the front of the PC has a simple, sleek look to it. The wireless mouse and keyboard help eliminate that clutter of wires that you typically end up with around a desktop device.This computer has gaming as one of its primary missions. You can go to the HP Website and download kid-oriented games like Bob the Builder, Dora’s World Adventure and Collapse Crunch. The two-finger touch screen works well, allowing you to drop and drop, scroll, surf, navigate, etc.

In a test scenario, you don’t really have your personal photos, videos, documents, songs, etc., on the test PC. But one can certainly appreciate the potential of being able to use the touch screen to organize and share all types of media. All in all, this is an all-in-one that delivers pretty much everything you could ask for in a device that costs under $700.

Cool Yule rating: 4.5 starsPrice: $699Company Web site Reviewed by Neal Weinberg

ideaCentre A7 Series (A700) all-in-one desktop, by LenovoIt’s hard to figure out the best location for the ideacentre A700 – you could use it for work to save space, since the monitor and CPU are located in the same unit, but there’s a bunch of “fun” features that make it work well within the home as well.

The Windows 7 computer is monster-sized – it has a 23-inch full HD widescreen monitor that also is a touch-screen. The system can support the Intel Core i7-820QM processor, and has up to 8GB of RAM and up to 2TB of storage capacity. The A700 has a slot-loaded DVD player (you can also upgrade to Blu-ray), and an optional TV tuner lets you connect your coax line for viewing TV programming. Another fun feature is a Wii-like remote control and motion-control games, although it seems like this was an afterthought.  The remote can also be used as an “air mouse” for controlling options on the screen, and the unit can be wall-mounted (which would likely mean that you’d be using the air mouse). The system also has an integrated Webcam and microphone, allowing you to “video conference” with co-workers, or “video chat” with friends.

My biggest complaint about the system is the use of a Bluetooth keyboard, mouse and remote control – During my tests, I got very poor response from the system with Bluetooth, to the point where the system was skipping in and out of being able to provide a mouse cursor or the ability to type. The remote control was even worse – the included games with the remote showed barely any response. If you plan on using this as your main system, get a non-Bluetooth wireless keyboard and mouse, or just connect to the system with wires – it’s not as pretty, but you’ll be happier with the connectivity.

Some additional software from Lenovo is interesting – the Dynamic Brightness System helps protect your eyes by automatically adjusting the screen brightness based on ambient light conditions, and the Eye Distance System can alert you if you get too close to the screen.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars (5 stars if you don’t use the Bluetooth keyboard/mouse)Price: Starts at $1,000 Company Web siteReviewed by Keith Shaw

ARTiGO A1100 DIY PC Kit, by VIAI’m a huge fan of VIA’s embedded processors, and I’ve used them in several projects recently. The Artigo 1100 is based on a 1.2 GHz VIA Nano processor (the case at the heart of a Pico-ITX main board, which measures only 70 x 100 mm), which means this is one tiny PC. Our review unit came with Windows XP installed (ugh); we’ve run Ubuntu on these, and any necessary drivers are available for Windows (including Windows 7) and Linux. There’s lots of I/O – five USB 2.0 jacks (including one mini device port), three audio jacks with eight-channel sound, gigabit Ethernet, VGA, and – get this – HDMI, making the Artigo 1100 a reasonable candidate for a home theater PC. Up to 2GB of RAM is supported, and there’s room for one SATA 2.5-inch drive. An SD card slot and 802.11g wireless are optional

Packaging is tight, but anyone experienced in PC assembly and repair should be able to handle configuring this unit.Responsiveness is surprisingly good, with XP running without any noticeable lag. The compact size of the unit (146 x 52 x 99 mm / 5.7 x 2 x 3.9 inches) allows it to fit almost anywhere, and it’s one of the smallest nettops on the market. One drawback, though – it’s pretty noisy, with a fan you can hear across the room. And there’s no optical drive, so you might need a USB version of one of these to load software or play media. But, hey, most content comes off the Internet these days, so optical drives may be going the way of the floppy disk anyway.

You will need to add your own RAM, hard drive, keyboard, mouse, monitor and operating system, so this gift idea is only for true techies who enjoy a little light tinkering. I’m pretty sure, though, that they’ll be happy with the performance, and especially the form factor. But this unit may not be a good value for someone looking for a primary PC (we have a bunch of those in this guide) or the less technically inclined. Still, everyone will be impressed with the amount of performance and flexibility available in tiny PCs today.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars (lost one star for a very noisy fan)Price: Around $300 (street), depending upon configurationCompany Web site Reviewed by C. J. Mathias~~

IdeaPad S10-3t, by LenovoInstead of taking my corporate Dell Inspiron on a recent business trip, I grabbed the Lenovo IdeaPad S10-3t and I was already ahead of the game. The IdeaPad netbook/tablet was lighter, smaller, easier to carry, and easier to use in the cramped confines of the plane.

The 10.1-inch LED screen is big enough to do just about anything you’d want in terms of Web surfing, email and Word documents. I wouldn’t recommend it for complex Excel spreadsheets, and it’s not really built for gamers, but it handles the basics pretty well.

The IdeaPad has a sturdy, well-built and well-designed feel to it. The screen swivels 180 degrees and then folds flat onto the keyboard. In tablet mode, there are two ways to input data: you can use a touch-screen keyboard or you can use your finger to write in a special field on the top of the screen. The handwriting recognition software works pretty well for entering a URL or a short note. I wouldn’t use it for writing a news story or taking notes during a John Chambers’ keynote.

Overall, I used the IdeaPad on the plane, in the hotel room and in conference rooms for everything from Web surfing, to check emails to Tweeting during presentations. And I didn’t miss my Dell one bit.

The IdeaPad has a bunch of interesting features, including face recognition (there’s a 1.3 megapixel camera on board), touch-screen features (so you can double-click on a link, for example, with your finger) and the ability to switch from netbook to tablet modes.

On the downside, there’s no CD/DVD drive. The keypad doesn’t have the greatest responsiveness. And the performance from Intel Atom 1.8 GHz chip struck me as pretty sluggish. Microsoft has a performance metric that runs between 1 and 7.9 and it gives the IdeaPad a 2.6, which means it’s not optimized for games, for HDTV, or for running multiple apps on more than one monitor.

But with 2GB of RAM and a 180GB hard drive, you can certainly run basic apps and store plenty of videos, pictures, etc. Lenovo markets the IdeaPad with the slogan, “What’s Your Idea of Fun,” so it’s clearly not meant to be a corporate desktop replacement. But if you’re looking for a Cool Yule gift, the IdeaPad has a lot to offer.

Cool Yule rating: 4 starsPrice: $499Company Web siteReviewed by Neal Weinberg

Pavilion dm3 notebook, by HPThe first thing you notice about this device is the rubberized coating on the nicely shaped shell.  It has a good tactile feel to it; it feels good in your hands and there are no sharp edges.  The next thing is the size and build quality.  It’s fairly standard at 13-inches wide and 9-inches deep, but it is nice and thin – 1 inch at the hinge side and tapering down to about 5/8 of an inch at the front lip of the keyboard.  And, while it only weighs 3.99 pounds, it feels solid and well built.  

With so much being common about laptops these days, it is this little stuff that can mean the difference between a run-of-the-mill device and a machine you actually enjoy owning and using.

The review unit came with an Intel Core i3 CPU (you can get it with a less expensive Pentium U5400), 3GB of RAM and 64-bit Windows 7 Home Premium.  There is no optical drive, but there is a port for an eSATA external drive.  There is also an HDMI port, two UBS ports, an SD slot, a gigabit Ethernet jack, a VGA port, microphone and headset ports, and a built-in Web cam above the screen.  802.11n wireless is also built in, while Bluetooth and broadband wireless support are optional.

When you start the dm3 up, in less than 10 seconds it launches Splashtop, a way to access email, the Web, music, photos, even Skype directly without loading Windows 7.  This is particularly handy when you’re on the go and don’t want to wait for the whole operating system to start up.  

While we didn’t get a chance to test it, HP says the standard 6-cell battery on this efficient unit will drive the dm3 for up to 7.5 hours.

Cool Yule rating:  5 starsPrice:  Starts at $550Company Web site Reviewed by John Dix

Mini 210-2000, by HPThis is a slick little netbook in a substantial case that feels like it would stand up to the rigors of life on the go.  With netbooks it is all about the size and weight.  This one is 10.5 inches wide, 7.5 inches deep and 1.25 inches at the hinge side and only 0.75 inches at the front of the keyboard, creating a nice slanted feel for the chicklet keyboard that is 93% the size of a full keyboard.  That keyboard is more than adequate for my large hands.  The downside? At 3.1 pounds it is heavier than some netbooks.  We’ve reviewed some that weigh around 2.5 pounds, and while that difference doesn’t sound like a lot, every ounce counts when you’re packing for travel.

That said, the Mini 210 is notable for the solid build quality, a hallmark of HP gear.  This thing doesn’t feel like a toy like some of the netbooks you see in big box stores.  The guts, however, are fairly similar:  Intel Atom CPU N455 1.66 GHz, 160GB hard drive, three USB ports, an Ethernet port, VGA output, and integrated 802.11n (Bluetooth optional).  It also includes an SD slot card slot.

Like many other mobile HP computing devices, the Mini 210 comes with HP QuickSync, a tool that synchronizes the contents on the netbook with your desktop over a wired or wireless link, and QuickWeb, which launches an HP browser without starting the operating system.  That lets you surf the Web in seconds instead of waiting for Windows 7 to boot.  Regarding the latter, the 210 comes with 32-bit Windows 7 Starter.  

CoolYule rating:  4 starsPrice: Starting at $330Company Web site Reviewed by  John Dix~~

Toughbook CF-C1 by PanasonicThis Toughbook is a notebook/laptop that supports WiMAX if you’ve got a card for it, and Panasonic itself brags about its lightness. “The 3.2 lb. Panasonic Toughbook C1. It features an array of industry-leading advancements, such as being the first rugged convertible to offer hot-swappable twin batteries for continuous use. The C1 comes equipped with the Intl Core i5 vPro Processor.”

The device supports Windows 7 and Microsoft Office applications admirably, and when used strictly as a laptop it’s comfortable. A minor nitpick: it’s got a short spacebar, so hitting the Alt key instead of the right end of the spacebar can be a problem.

Perhaps because it’s so light, it doesn’t seem all that rugged, but it did survive an accidental spill off a 48-inch tall bookshelf onto a carpeted concrete floor, so that says something.

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