Holiday gift ideas: PCs and notebooks galore

The October release of Windows 7 helped unleash a slew of new notebook and desktop systems upon the world, and the good reviews for the operating system helps ensure that this holiday season will see lots of people upgrading their older systems for new ones. Plus, the low price of netbooks means that people can get some computers without breaking the bank – always good in a recession. Here are some systems that we liked playing with over the past few months:

Dell Studio XPS 16 notebook

At work I use one of those industrial Dell notebooks that's as boring as can be (sorry, Latitude, but you're just a workhorse, nothing more). So discovering a Dell notebook that is cool and hip was quite a surprise.

It's hard to tell whether I was more excited about this notebook's features, or the fact it had Win 7 installed on it. Trying to separate the two can be difficult, but it's good to know that if you want a Win 7 on a great notebook, this is a good place to start.

Performance and style really do go together quite well with the Dell Studio XPS 16 notebook. New Intel Core i7 Mobile processors, 1080p HD support and a 15.6-inch display mix with leather accents, a backlit keyboard and sleek finish to make a system that's not only fun to use, but also fun to see and be seen with.

Other awesome features – up to 8GB of RAM, up to 500GB of hard drive space (or you can opt for a 128GB solid state drive), Blu-Ray slot-loaded drive, and 802.11n wireless capabilities. I used this system to test some of the PC games for the After Hours article, and it performed without a glitch.

My only complaint is a lack of USB ports – there's only two on the system. My tendency to use lots of USB gear (storage, mouse, keyboard, etc.) means that choices may need to be made (or just invest in a USB hub or docking station).

Cool Yule Rating: 5 starsPrice: Starts at $999Product Web site.Reviewed by Keith Shaw ~~

ProBook 5310m, by HP

HP packs a lot into this laptop, which is being targeted at the small to midsized business market. HP's higher-priced EliteBooks are aimed at the enterprise market, but it's hard to see why an enterprise user wouldn't be satisfied with a 160GB hard drive, 2GB of RAM and a 2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Dual processor.

The ProBook works as a status symbol as well, since HP claims it's the thinnest notebook out there at .93 inches high – besting Apple's Macbook Air (.94 inches high). And when it comes to style, black is the new black, so the ProBook is all black, except for a silver power-on button.

Everything about this notebook feels solid and well-built. On some laptops, the keyboard seems like an afterthought, which is a shame, since there's nothing worse than trying to type on a cramped keyboard that has a soft, mushy feel to it. The ProBook gets it right. The keys are raised and separated and have sharp edges that help you avoid hitting two keys at the same time. The screen is 13.3-inches measured diagonally, and the LED backlight display is bright and clear.

HP says the Lithium-Ion battery provides up to 7 hours of battery life. And there are a bunch of other enterprise-focused features, such as a three-axis accelerometer that helps protect the hard drive, an anodized aluminum display enclosure and palm rest area to help guard against scratches, and a slew of security goodies such as HP SpareKey, drive encryption, pre-boot security and HP Disk Sanitizer.

The overall look of the ProBook is minimal and sleek. There aren't a lot of extra buttons. In fact, outside of the keyboard proper the only buttons are the on-off switch and tiny "quick-start" buttons on the right side that control wireless and Internet access. There's not even a button or latch to open the laptop; you just use your fingertips.

The ProBook 5310 that we tested came with Win 7, which is a marked improvement over XP. (I skipped Vista.) Other features include a built-in 2 megapixel camera, 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth, three USB ports, an SD-MMC slot and an Ethernet port. All in all, HP has done an outstanding job with this product. Of course, you're not getting a CD-drive. But you're also paying $699.

Cool Yule Rating: 5 starsPrice: Starts at $699Product Web site.Reviewed by Neal Weinberg ~~

HP TouchSmart 300 PC

HP follows up last year’s very impressive all-in-one PC system (the computer and the monitor are built into one solid unit – just like a Mac!) with even more features that make you want to move your computing habits out of an office or den and into a living room or even kitchen environment.

Featured specs: AMD Athlon processors (dual-, triple- or quad-core available), up to 4GB of RAM, up to 750GB hard drive, slot-loaded DVD drive, 802.11n wireless and Gigabit Ethernet, 6-in-1 memory card reader, TV tuner option, integrated stereo speakers with subwoofer, 20-inch LCD screen, and 5 USB ports (two on the side, three in the back),.First off, the inclusion of Windows 7 makes me very happy, there’s not the twinge of angst with using Windows Vista. HP did a great job by implementing its TouchSmart overlay on top of Windows 7, and lovingly refers to the operating system as “productivity mode.” The TouchSmart application is meant to be the more entertaining or “home productivity” part of the system.

It’s this part that’s really cool – the touch screen display lets you scroll through different applications, such as organizing your photos, creating a “refrigerator bulletin board” where you can write out notes for other family members, and even record messages via the Webcam. Like other devices that are implementing the “app” concept, the new verision includes a Netflix and Hulu app that lets you access those services to watch videos. A Twitter app lets you keep track of your Twitter feed, and post updates. The HP Recipe Box app let you import favorite recipes from the Web, enter your own creations, and manage them (again, see how HP wants you to use this in the kitchen?). It’s the growth of this app concept that will help the TouchSmart design and concept move people away from thinking that this is a computer, and more into the realm of a home productivity device (lousy term, but interesting concept).

Like other PCs, you can watch movies, listen to music, view photos and do all sorts of things with this. A Bluetooth keyboard and mouse means less cable clutter – if you really want this in your kitchen, just plug it into a wall somewhere, connect via wireless and you don’t necessarily need anything else connected.Cool Yule rating: 5 starsPrice: Starts at $799Product Web siteReviewed by Keith Shaw~~

Lenovo IdeaPad S12 by Lenovo

The Lenovo IdeaPad certainly blurs the line between netbook and laptop to the point where I don't see any significant difference. For a starting price of $449, we're talking about a 12-inch LED screen, full-size keyboard, 160GB hard drive, 1.6MHz Intel Atom chip, 1GB of RAM, and a built-in camera. OK, with a full-blown laptop, you'd probably get a slightly bigger screen, 2GB of RAM, a faster processor. But if all you're doing is basic, e-mail, Web and Office, the IdeaPad is perfectly capable of handling your needs. Plus, there's the option of getting the IdeaPad with the NVIDIA ION chipset, which improves the user experience if you're watching video, flipping through photos or playing games.

The IdeaPad is certainly well-built, solid and easy to navigate. The basic color scheme is black, and some of the function keys are accented with bright orange, which works well.

The IdeaPad also has an interesting feature called a QuickStart key, which lets you check e-mail, go to a Web site URL or open an application without going through the whole boot procedure.

Some minor complaints: There's a row of function keys above the keyboard, including the on/off key, the QuickStart key and volume keys, which are poorly marked. If you were trying to turn this baby on in a dark room or on a plane at night, you'd have to do it purely by feel. And there's another row of lights on the front of the machine – battery indicator, wireless, and power – which emit a pale white glow. I'm accustomed to a solid green that shows when the battery is charging or when the wireless is connected, so the white light seems a little strange.

All in all, however, the IdeaPad is an impressive netbook that makes you wonder why you would ever need a full-blown laptop again.

Cool Yule Rating: 4.5 starsPrice: starts at $449Product Web site.Reviewed by Neal Weinberg ~~

Acer Veriton Z280G Nettop PC

What do you get when you take the guts of a netbook (Intel's terrific 1.6 GHz. Atom N270 processor) and package it as a compact all-in-one desktop? Well, the Acer Veriton Z270G, for example. This compact PC features a bright and clear 1366x768 18.5-inch display, a 160GB hard drive, 2GB of RAM, GigE, 802.11g, and a DVD burner – all for around $500. It's designed as a "green" PC (EnergyStar 5.0 rated), but there's no real compromise in performance apart from wimpy output from the built-in speakers. Our version came loaded with XP Pro, but Vista (if you must, or for a Win 7 upgrade) was also in the box. Setup couldn't have been easier, although we'd prefer a wireless keyboard and mouse, and you can easily add these via the copious USB ports. There's even a card slot for MemoryStick (including Pro) as well as MMC and SD. CyberLink's PowerDVD is included for watching movies, but you'll want to use the audio-out jack and some real speakers for that.

Overall, a great PC for the kids, the den, the workshop, the… OK, you might not want it as a primary PC, but at that price, it's a deal.

Cool Yule Rating: 4.5 stars (after all, it's just another PC, but it's compact, convenient, easy on the AC power, and fast enough for most people).Price: About $500 (street price)Product Web site.Reviewed by Craig Mathias ~~

Lenovo ThinkPad X200 Tablet with Multi-Touch screen

You wouldn't buy a tablet unless of course you intended to use the device a good percentage of the time in that configuration, so our review focuses on the tablet aspects of the X200 rather than its ability to be used as a laptop.

As we have come to expect of Lenovo machines, build quality of the X200 Tablet is first rate. It has a solid feel, nice black finish and bright screen (nice keyboard too, but that's covered when the machine is used as a tablet).

The first thing you notice when you spin the screen and lay it down is a little thing: the screen catch is sticking up, but a simple push and it slips through and sticks out the other side to act as the catch in tablet mode. Slick. No protrusions left to snag stuff on.

Our tablet came with a Multi-Touch screen that really adds another dimension to tablet functionality. The screen lets you control standard interface buttons with your finger or a stylus (which hides in a hole on the side of the machine when not in use), and also supports iPhone-like controls such as paging down with the swipe of a finger, or shrinking on-screen objects by pinching two fingers or enlarging them by doing the reverse. Very cool.

The stylus can also be used in applications such as Word to take notes, edit copy, etc. In Word, tapping the stylus on the screen opens a dialog box that you can write in, with each completed word captured and interpreted. The success rate was quite good, even though my penmanship is lousy. Presuming that tablets will appeal mostly to professionals that are using a lot of forms and taking short notes, this feature was ideal.

You can also bring up an on-screen keyboard, but writing was much faster, especially given how good the text recognition software was.

The X200 Tablet also features something Lenovo calls SimpleTap. A little red ball hugs the edge of the screen (you can drag it around to get it out of the way) and, when tapped, brings up a set of standard control "tiles" for speaker volume, screen brightness, camera on/off and microphone on/off. While those are handy, what's really impressive is you can add your own tiles to launch programs, open Web pages or open files. That makes it a breeze to customize the tablet to access core applications that take advantage of the tablet functionality.

It is also worth noting that our machine came with a fingerprint reader (a $20 option) that was simple to set up and would probably be appealing in environments where tablets would be used. A diagram showed each finger on both hands and you select the one you want to use. You scan your selected finger three times and it compares the scans to see if it got a good capture. It took two attempts (six scans) before it got mine, but then using the reader to log in was a breeze.

That is, a breeze in tablet mode when the reader is oriented correctly on the frame of the screen. If you're in laptop mode, the reader is down near the hinge and sideways, making it hard to swipe correctly.

The whole package was very slick. And since it is a Lenovo, it comes with all the ThinkVantage tools to simplify IT management of these mobile assets: Password manager, update manager, power manager, system health and diagnostics, factory recovery, enhanced backup and restore, Internet connection manager, active protection, notebook fingerprint reader.The one downside: While 3.5 pounds is light for a laptop, carrying that weight on a bent arm in tablet mode gets tiring.

Cool Yule Rating: 4Price: $2,060 as testedProduct Web site.Reviewed by John Dix ~~

Lifebook A1220 by Fujitsu

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