Cool stuff: Your 2010 holiday tech gift guide

Check out the best tablets, smartphones, HDTVs and other tech gifts to give and get this year

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Laptops to long for

A shiny new laptop is one of the nicest gifts money can buy. Whether you're looking for a svelte ultraportable, an all-purpose workhorse or a monster that's perfect for watching HD video, we've got you covered with recommendations for both a Mac and a Windows machine in each category.

Small, stylish speedsters

Last year, netbooks were among our readers' most wished-for holiday gifts. This year? Not so much -- and it's all because of the iPad.

If all you want is a device that's tiny and weighs almost nothing, chances are you'll opt for a tablet. And if you're looking for an ultraportable device you can actually work on, you may find that $300 netbooks are too slow and cramped to be truly useful.

But your options don't end there. You can get nearly the power of a much bigger laptop in a netbook-size package -- if you're willing to pay the price. These small, svelte, lightweight notebooks don't come cheap, but they bring a lot more to the table than a typical netbook -- including full-size keyboards, surprisingly good performance and a whole lot of style, making them likely to remain useful for far longer than cheaper netbooks.

A tiny size does involve some trade-offs, of course, such as fewer ports and connectors than on larger laptops, and often no optical drive. And while they're speedy for their size, these Lilliputians won't win any benchmarking tests against full-size machines.

Both of the machines we're recommending are available in netbook-size 11.6-in. versions as well as slightly larger 13.3-in. versions for those who need more screen real estate.

Mac: Apple MacBook Air

With its recent refresh of the MacBook Air line, Apple has once again raised the bar for ultraslim, ultrastylish machines. The new 11.6-in. model weighs only 2.3 lbs., while the revamped 13.3-in. model weighs 2.9 lbs.; both measure just 0.68 in. at the hinge and taper down to a wafer-thin 0.11 in. thick in front.

Apple MacBook Air

Apple MacBook Air

The Air's good looks don't end with its sleek but sturdy aluminum chassis. The 11.6-in. model boasts a bright, sharp 1366-by-768-pixel native resolution on its glossy LED-backlit display (1440 by 900 pixels on the 13.3-in. model), and the Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics processor plays HD video smoothly and crisply.

The new Air has the same glass-coated trackpad and full-size keyboard found in other Apple laptops, although the keyboard is not backlit. Other features include two USB 2.0 ports; an SD card slot; a Mini DisplayPort for driving an external HDMI, DVI or VGA display (cables are sold separately); an embedded webcam; support for Bluetooth and 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi; and, of course, Mac OS X Snow Leopard and Apple's iLife suite. Note that there's no Ethernet port or optical drive.

The 11.6-in. models are equipped with a 1.4-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB of RAM and either 64GB or 128GB of flash storage. The 13.3-in. models come with a 1.86-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB of RAM and either 128GB or 256GB of storage. We recommend upgrading to 4GB of RAM and getting the largest storage capacity available in the size you choose. Some versions can also be upgraded with somewhat faster Core 2 Duo CPUs, but you probably wouldn't notice much difference.

Those Core 2 Duo processors aren't terribly impressive, but Apple's use of NAND flash memory instead of traditional hard-disk drives speeds up the Airs considerably, says Computerworld's Ken Mingis:

As someone who's used an SSD in my own laptops over the past couple of years, I can vouch for the speediness of the technology and -- so far -- its reliability. Having fast access to data offsets the lower clock speed of the Core 2 Duo processor, giving the Air a far faster feel than it would have with a regular hard drive. Oh, and boot-up times are super-fast: 13 seconds from start-up chime to desktop.

(Read the full review.)

One last thing to think about as you're deciding on a model: Apple says the 11.6-in. Air's battery will last five hours, while it promises seven hours for 13.3-in. model, which has a bigger battery. Both of those estimates are generous, but it is safe to say that the 13.3-in. model will last significantly longer on a charge than the 11.6-in. one will.

MacBook Air from Apple Inc.

Street price: $969 to $1,400 for 11.6-in. model, $1,249 to $1,800 for 13.3-in. model

or configure at Apple site.

Tech Specs  |  Store Locator  |  Phone: (800) MY APPLE

Summary: Faster and sleeker than ever, the newest MacBook Airs set the standard for ultraportable computing.

Windows: Acer Aspire TimelineX

Like the MacBook Air, Acer's Aspire TimelineX line of laptops is available in both 11.6-in. and 13.3-in. models. (There are also two larger models that don't fit the "small and light" category.) While not as slim or as light as the Air, the TimelineX is still sleek at 1.1 in. thick. The 11.6-in. model weighs 3.1 lbs. and the 13.3-in. model tips the scales at 4 lbs.

Acer Aspire TimelineX

Acer Aspire TimelineX

The TimelineX sports a glossy LED-backlit display with a native 1366-by-768-pixel resolution. The integrated Intel GMA HD graphics aren't powerful enough for graphics-intensive video games but can handle HD video fairly well, according to PC World reviewer Sarah Jacobsson Purewal. The audio is also above average for machines of this size.

What's most notable about the TimelineX is Acer's use of speedy Intel Core i3, i5 or i7 processors in the 11.6-in. model. (The Core i3 is the only option for the 13.3-in. TimelineX.) To get the 1.46-GHz Core i7, the fastest of the three, look for model number 1830T-68U118, which also includes 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. In PC World's tests, the 1830T-68U118's battery lasted for 6.5 hours.

All TimelineX models include three USB 2.0 ports, HDMI and VGA ports for external monitors, an Ethernet port, an embedded webcam, a 5-in-1 card reader, support for Bluetooth and 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, and Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit). Like the Air, the TimelineX does without an optical drive, but that's a small price to pay for a slender profile and diminutive weight. Jacobsson Purewal sums up:

If you're looking for a netbook that has the power of a laptop (or a laptop the size of a netbook), look no further. The Acer Aspire TimelineX 1830T-68U118 combines power and portability in an appealing package that costs $100 less than the new MacBook Air. The keyboard and trackpad are flawed -- but for an i7 processor and an 11.6-inch screen, you have to make some sacrifices. (Read the full review.)

Aspire TimelineX from Acer Inc.

Street price:

$480 to $560 for lower-end 11.6-in. 1830T-3505 model (Core i3 processor, 3GB RAM, 250GB hard drive),

$860 to $940 for the 11.6-in. 1830T-68U118 model (Core i7, 4GB RAM, 500GB hard drive),

$630 to $750 for 13.3-in. 3820T-5246 model (Core i3, 4GB RAM, 320GB hard drive)

Tech Specs  |  Store Locator

Summary: While not as slim or as light as the Air, the TimelineX packs a lot of power in a tiny package.

All-purpose performers

For a gift that's practical for all-around use -- at home, in the office and on the road -- look for a midsize laptop with solid components. Notebooks with 14- to 15-in. displays are best if you want a good balance of viewability and portability.

Mac: 15-in. Apple MacBook Pro

The newest 15-in. version of Apple's flagship notebook line looks identical to the previous year's models. At 5.6 lbs., it sports the standard Apple "unibody" aluminum chassis, backlit keyboard and state-of-the-art multitouch glass trackpad, along with a sharp, bright 15.4-in. glossy LED-backlit display with a native 1440-by-900-pixel resolution. (You can get a 1680-by-1050 high-resolution antiglare display for an extra $150.)

15-in. Apple MacBook Pro

15-in. Apple MacBook Pro

What's new is on the inside: efficient Intel dual-core Core i5 or i7 processors at speeds ranging from 2.4 GHz to 2.8 GHz (with the ability to achieve higher "turbo boost" speeds in short spurts). The battery has also been tweaked for longer life, though you probably won't experience anything close to the eight to nine hours that Apple promises; expect more along the lines of 4.5 hours for everyday tasks such as Web surfing and e-mailing, and about 3.5 for watching video.

Perhaps the most noteworthy improvement is the 15-in. MacBook Pro's ability to automatically switch between the integrated Intel HD graphics for light computing and the discrete Nvidia GeForce GT 330M graphics chip for graphics-intensive work. Computerworld's Ken Mingis explains:

If you're surfing or writing a Word document, you're using the Intel HD graphics; if you're doing video work with Aperture or detailed jobs in Photoshop, you're using the 330M. The laptop switches back and forth between the two without you having to do anything. That's a change from the last generation of MacBook Pros, where you'd have to stop whatever you were doing when you needed more graphics power, log out and then log back in. (Read the full review.)

The 15-in. MacBook Pro comes with 4GB of RAM (upgradable to 8GB); a 320GB or 500GB hard drive or a 128GB, 256GB or 512GB SSD; an 8x SuperDrive optical drive; a webcam; two USB 2.0 ports; one FireWire 800 port; an Ethernet port; an SD card slot and a Mini DisplayPort for connecting an external VGA, DVI or HDMI monitor (converter cables sold separately). Bluetooth 2.1 and 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi are supported. Mac OS X Snow Leopard and the iLife suite are included.

15-in. MacBook Pro from Apple Inc.

Street price:

$1,700 to $1,800 for the entry-level version (2.4-GHz Core i5 processor, 4GB RAM, 320GB hard drive),

$2,050 to $2,200 for the higher-end version (2.66-GHz Core i7, 4GB RAM, 500GB hard drive)

or configure at Apple site.

Tech Specs  |   Store Locator  |  Phone: (800) MY APPLE

Summary: The 15-in. MacBook Pro delivers great graphics and impressive performance in a midsize, middleweight package.

Next: More laptops: Sony Vaio EA Series, plus entertainment notebooks

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