Cool stuff: Your 2009 holiday gift guide

Find the best HDTVs, laptops, smartphones and some surprise goodies to give this year

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Laptops galore

Know someone on your gift list with a clunky old notebook computer that's barely wheezing along? A brand new laptop will put a spring in her step and a smile on her face.

To cover both sides of the OS Mason-Dixon line, we're recommending both PCs and Macs in a range of laptop categories: ultra-slim, all-purpose and entertainment. (If you're looking for netbooks, go to the next section of the gift guide.)

Thin and in

Nothing says "I'm important" like carrying around a super-sleek, ultra-slim notebook. These laptops are for people who want to impress, who value style and portability over computing power.

With crisp 13-in. displays, full-sized keyboards and 3-pound chassis that are less than an inch thick, they're perfect for on-the-go pros who need bigger screens, more oomph and more panache than a netbook can provide.

Mac: Apple MacBook Air

This is the computer that set the svelte computing standard, and it's still the one to beat, as shown by the growing list of competitors claiming to be the "MacBook Air killer."

Apple MacBook Air

Apple MacBook Air  (Click to view larger image)

While the earliest January 2008 models were underpowered and extravagantly expensive, today's Airs give a lot more bang for the buck.

The $1,500 entry-level Air comes with a 1.83GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB RAM, NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics, a native 1280 x 800 display and a 120GB SATA hard drive. The $1,800 model offers the same RAM and graphics with a 2.13GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU and a 128GB SSD.

Even these specs aren't terribly impressive, though: This is still Apple's slowest computer, and the skinny-minnie design means no optical drive and a dearth of ports and connectors. But that may not matter, as Macworld's Jason Snell explains:

I love the MacBook Air because it's a full pound and a half lighter than the next-lightest Apple laptop. The MacBook Air is designed for people who appreciate the fact that this Mac laptop weighs 3 pounds and measures .76 inches at its thickest point, and are willing to sacrifice all sorts of other features for that lightness. (See the full review)

Sound like anyone on your gift list?

MacBook Air from Apple Inc.

Street price: $1,400 - $1,800 or configure at Apple site

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

Summary: The MacBook Air still sets the standard for svelte computing that makes a statement.

PC: HP Envy 13
HP Envy 13

HP Envy 13  (Click to view larger image)

HP's aptly named Envy 13 is a worthy PC alternative to the MacBook Air. (Indeed, some have accused HP of following Apple's lead a little too closely in designing the Envy.)

Like the Air and other slim laptops, the Envy skimps on ports and leaves out the optical drive but does have a touchpad with multitouch functionality.

Slightly thicker and heavier than the Air, the Envy is nevertheless sleek and drool-worthy, as PC World's Darren Gladstone notes:

The Envy is an eye-catcher. Every place I popped open the laptop to try to get some work done -- even near the Macworld zone in the office -- people couldn't help but crane necks to check it out. ... This handsome laptop isn't so much a tribute as it is a poke in Apple's eye saying, "We can design similarly sleek, sexy machines...and maybe charge people a little more." (See the full review)

Also of note is HP's Instant On Linux interface, which gives you immediate access to a few basics such as the Web and your photos and MP3s without waiting for the normal Windows boot process.

The Envy comes with ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4330 graphics and is configurable with a 1.6GHz, 1.86GHz or 2.13GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor; 3GB or 5GB of RAM; and a 250GB SATA hard drive or a 160GB SSD. The 1366 x 768 resolution LED-backlit display can also be upgraded to 1600 x 900.

The price starts at $1,700; choosing the highest configuration options sends the price soaring upwards of $2,500. (There's also a $1,900 non-configurable Quick-ship model that HP guarantees will ship the same day.)

HP Envy 13 from Hewlett-Packard Development Company, L.P.

Street price: $1,700 - $2,200 or configure at HP site

Tech specs  |  Phone: 888-999-4747

Summary: The eye-catching HP Envy 13 is a gift that's sure to impress.

All-purpose

For a more practical gift, how about a good, solid, all-purpose laptop? We've found that notebooks with 14- to 15-in. displays hit the sweet spot between viewability and portability, and there are excellent options on both the Mac and the PC sides.

Mac: 15-in. Apple MacBook Pro
15-in. Apple MacBook Pro

15-in. Apple MacBook Pro

(Click to view larger image)

Over the summer, Apple did something drastic. Not only did it refresh its flagship MacBook Pro line with better features and hardware -- including faster processors, more RAM, updated LED screens and juiced-up batteries -- but it dropped prices at the same time.

Computerworld reviewer Ken Mingis has details:

The 15-in. model now comes in three varieties, all of them with 4GB of RAM -- which you can double to 8GB for a hefty $1,000 -- and hard drives with between 250GB and 500GB of space, or solid-state disk drives of 128GB or 256GB. For $300 more, the 2.8GHz model can be ordered with a 3.06GHz chip -- the first time Apple has offered a processor beyond 3GHz in a laptop. (See the full review)

The 15-in. MacBook Pro weighs 5.5 pounds and features a bright LED-backlit 15.4-in. display with native 1440 x 900 resolution, along with Apple's hallmark design details: aluminum 'unibody' chassis, multitouch trackpad and backlit keyboard.

The entry-level model, which includes integrated Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics chip, costs $1,700; the $2,000 midrange model includes the Nvidia GeForce 9400M plus a separate 9600M GT GPU with 256MB of discrete video RAM; and the high-end model starts at $2,300 and includes the same dual-GPU setup with 512MB of video RAM.

If that's too rich for your blood, consider the 13-in. MacBook Pro. You'll get a smaller screen with 1280 x 800 resolution, but the 13-incher weighs a pound less than its 15-in sibling and starts at an affordable $1,200 for the entry-level model with a 2.26GHz processor and 2GB RAM.

15-in. MacBook Pro from Apple Inc.

Street price: $1,600 - $2,400 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.

Laptops continue on the next page »

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