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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All-purpose Windows laptop: Sony Vaio EA Series
Sony Vaio EA Series

Sony Vaio EA Series

Slightly smaller and lighter than the 15-in. MacBook Pro, Sony's Vaio EA series has a 14-in. LED backlit display with 1366 by 768 native resolution; it's available in an array of colors and finishes in addition to basic matte black.

PC World reviewer Jason Cross likes the cut of the EA's jib:

It has clean lines and a nice glossy coat over the two-tone color pattern, it isn't too thick or bulky for a 14-inch laptop, and it's lighter than it looks at 5.0 pounds. The Chiclet-style keyboard is among the better ones I've used, with keys that have good travel and a nice clicky response. The touchpad has a slightly textured, sandpapery feel that makes tracking with your fingertips smooth and accurate, and the two distinct buttons beneath it are just the right size and require just the right pressure to activate. (Read the full review.)

Sony offers a large variety of configuration options for the Vaio EA, including from 2GB to 8GB of RAM; a 320GB, 500GB or 640GB hard drive; and one of four Intel processors: a 2.0-GHz Pentium Dual Core, a 2.4-GHz Core i3, a 2.53-GHz Core i5 or a 2.66-GHz Core i5.

Video is handled by the integrated Intel GMA HD graphics card by default; if you plan to do more than just basic Web surfing, you can also opt for a discrete ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5470 or 5650 graphics processor. We recommend opting for the 5650 if the laptop will be used for gaming or watching HD video.

You can also choose between a standard DVD±RW optical drive and a Blu-ray drive, and between Windows 7 Home Premium and Windows 7 Professional (both 64-bit).

There are four USB ports (one of which doubles as an eSATA port); an Ethernet port; VGA and HDMI ports for external monitors; an SD memory card slot, Memory Stick Pro and ExpressCard/34 slots; and a webcam. The Vaio EA supports Bluetooth 2.1 and 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi. Bundled software includes Sony's slick Media Gallery suite and Vaio Care troubleshooting software; some higher-end configurations include a package of Adobe software that includes Photoshop Elements 8.0, Premiere Elements 8 and Acrobat Standard 9.0.

Vaio EA Series from Sony Electronics Inc.

Street prices:

$790 to $850 for VPC-EA31FX/BJ model (2.4-GHz Core i3 processor, 4GB RAM, 320GB hard drive),

$930 to $1,000 for VPC-EA3HGX/BJ model (2.53-GHz Core i5, 4GB RAM, 500GB hard drive)

or configure at Sony site.

Tech Specs  |  Store Locator  |  Phone: (877) 865-7669

Summary: With a stylish look and excellent usability, the Sony Vaio EA Series is a great midsize machine for computing at home and on the go.

Extravagant entertainers

If the primary purpose of the laptop you're buying is to watch multimedia files or play games, you'll want a model with a high-end graphics chip and a crisp, bright 17-in. or larger display with a native 1920-by-1080-pixel resolution for playing HD video. These behemoths are pricey and hard to tote around, but the payoff comes in terms of power, screen size and graphics quality.

Mac: 17-in. Apple MacBook Pro

Apple's largest laptop has always been all about the display. The native 1920-by-1200-pixel LED-backlit 17-in. screen provides sharp definition and saturated colors, and it handles full 1080p HD video with ease. Now powered by Nvidia's GeForce GT 330M graphics chip, the current display is the same one found in the 2009 MacBook Pro, which had Computerworld's Ken Mingis ooh-ing and ahh-ing:

In addition to the 250-nit brightness and truly deep color saturation, the high pixel count delivers razor-sharp text and true high-definition capabilities. 30 Rock in hi-def looks phenomenal in full-screen mode. It's very film-like, with rich colors and no digital artifacts. In fact, it looks as good as hi-def video does on my 46-in. Sony Bravia LCD TV. (Read the full review.)
17-in. Apple MacBook Pro

17-in. Apple MacBook Pro

If reflections on the glossy display are a concern, you can replace the standard display with an antiglare screen for an extra $50.

Like its 15-in. sibling, the newest 17-in. MacBook Pro automatically switches between integrated Intel HD graphics for light computing such as Web surfing and the discrete 330M GPU for graphics-intensive tasks such as playing HD video or gaming. It also adds fast, efficient dual-core Intel Core i5 or i7 processors (from 2.53 GHz to 2.8 GHz).

The 17-in. MacBook Pro comes with 4GB of RAM (upgradable to 8GB); a 500GB hard drive or a 128GB, 256GB or 512GB SSD; an 8x SuperDrive optical drive; a webcam; three USB 2.0 ports; one FireWire 800 port; an Ethernet port; an ExpressCard/34 slot and a Mini DisplayPort for connecting an external VGA, DVI or HDMI monitor (converter cables sold separately). Mac OS X Snow Leopard, Apple's iLife software suite and support for Bluetooth 2.1 and 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi are included.

17-in. MacBook Pro from Apple Inc.

Street price: $2,100 to $2,300 for 2.53-GHz Core i5 processor, 4GB RAM, 500GB hard drive

or configure at Apple site.

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

Summary: Watching HD video and other multimedia is a joy on the 17-in. MacBook Pro's large, eye-pleasing display.

Windows: HP Envy 17

The smart-looking Envy 17 features a 17.3-in. LED-backlit display with a native 1600-by-900-pixel resolution. For viewing full 1080p HD video, you can upgrade to a 1920-by-1080 display for $100. Other welcome features for movie lovers are the Envy's excellent audio quality, pleasing color balance, wider-than-usual viewing angle and optional Blu-ray drive.

HP Envy 17

HP Envy 17

Inside the Envy 17 is either a dual-core Core i5 processor clocking in at 2.53 GHz or 2.66 GHz, or a quadcore Core i7 processor with speeds ranging from 1.6 GHz to 1.86 GHz. Like the other Core i5s and i7s discussed in this roundup, they support turbo boost and hyperthreading; the difference is that these quadcore i7s support eight threads simultaneously.

The Envy is configurable with either 6GB or 8GB of RAM, and graphics are driven by a discrete AMD Mobility Radeon HD 5850 GPU with 1GB of video RAM -- sufficient for demanding games and stellar for HD video, as noted by PC World reviewer Loyd Case:

Movie and video playback quality was uniformly excellent. I popped in both the Serenity Blu-ray Disc and Serenity DVDs, and noticed that the upscaling on the DVD version was only marginally poorer than the Blu-ray transfer. The Blu-ray version of The Matrix also looked crisp and sounded great. (Read the full review.)

For storage, the Envy 17 offers everything from a single 500GB hard drive up to two hard drives of 1TB each, or a 640GB HDD/160GB SSD combo. There are three USB 2.0 ports (one of which doubles as an eSATA port); one USB 3.0 port; an Ethernet port; Mini DisplayPort, VGA and HDMI ports for external monitors; a 5-in-1 integrated Digital Media Reader and a webcam. If you don't choose the Blu-ray drive you'll get a SuperMulti optical drive. The Vaio EA supports Bluetooth 2.1 and 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi.

Bundled software includes Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional or Ultimate (all 64-bit versions), Microsoft Security Essentials, the HP MediaSmart suite and Adobe Photoshop Elements 8 and Premiere Elements 8.

One last option to consider is the higher-end HP Envy 17 3D, which adds -- you guessed it -- support for 3D and includes a pair of 3D active shutter glasses. Only the quadcore Core i7 processors and the 1920-by-1080 full HD display are available with the Envy 17 3D; all other options are similar to the Envy 17.

Envy 17 from Hewlett-Packard Co.

Street price: $1,400 to $1,500 for 1010NR model (2.4-GHz Core i5 processor, 6GB RAM, 640GB hard drive) or configure at HP site.

Tech Specs  |  Store Locator  |  Phone: (888) 999-4747

Summary: Choose the HP Envy 17's high-resolution display and Blu-ray player options for the ultimate mobile HD video watching experience.

-- Valerie Potter

Next: Bright and beautiful HDTVs

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