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Best 5 laptops

Monday, January 11, 2010

Best 5 laptops
(Nov 23, 2009)

Dan Ackerman
Senior Editor

The most common question we get around here is simple: "What laptop should I buy?" Being a generally difficult person by nature, I usually respond with my own series of questions: "What size screen do you want? How much do you want to spend?" and so on. But sometimes people just want a simple suggestion, based on what I actually like. So, here is a jargon-free list of the current crop of laptops that I'm digging, either because they give you good bang for your buck, they excel in their specific category, or because they just plain rock.

Radically overhauled last year, Apple's MacBook line of laptops moved to aluminum construction, edge-to-edge glass over LED displays, and oversize multitouch trackpads (with the exception of the lone $999 white plastic model). The latest round of updates is more of a refinement than another revolution, but it adds some much-sought-after features, while lowering prices on many configurations.

Most notable, the 13-inch aluminum unibody MacBook has been promoted to join the MacBook Pro family. It's a move that makes sense, as the differences between the two lines were becoming increasingly blurred. To complete the transformation, the 13-inch Pro regains its missing FireWire port, making it even more useful for creative professionals on the go.

New to the Pro line is something we never thought we'd see on a MacBook: an SD card slot. Standard on the 13- and 15-inch Pro laptops, this corrects one of our main MacBook annoyances. We're also pleased to see the backlit keyboard--previously found in only the more expensive 13-inch versions--filter down to even the $1,149 base model (which is a nice discount from the previous $1,299 entry price).

Some have strong feelings about the nonremovable battery--similar to those already found on the MacBook Air and 17-inch Pro. It's a legitimate concern, but we think the promise of better battery life (Apple claims up to a 40 percent improvement), and three times as many recharge cycles as older batteries is just as important.

There are still a few items on our 13-inch wish list--matte screens, mobile broadband options, Blu-ray--but Apple has done an admirable job filling in some of the major missing pieces. By offering more features for less money, the 13-inch MacBook Pro remains one of the most universally useful laptops available.
Price as reviewed / Starting price $1,199
Processor 2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
Memory 2GB, 1066MHz DDR2
Hard drive 160GB 5,400rpm
Chipset Nvidia MCP79
Graphics Nvidia GeForce 9400M (integrated)
Operating System OS X Leopard 10.5.7
Dimensions (WD) 12.8x8.9 inches
Height 0.95 inch
Screen size (diagonal) 13.3 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 4.5/5.2 pounds
Category Thin and light

The design and construction of the system remain largely the same as last year's model, with a solid block of aluminum carved down, rather than a thin outer shell that has had support struts added to it. It's both lighter and sturdier than the older plastic versions of the 13-inch MacBook.

The new Pro also retains the same oversize trackpad, where the entire surface depresses like a button--although a simple tapping (as on a PC laptop) will also work once you turn that option on in the settings menu. We've become accustomed to the two-, three-, and four-finger multitouch gestures, which let you hide all your apps by sweeping four fingers up on the pad, or bring up the application switcher by sweeping four fingers left or right. Once you get used to that, going back to a regular touch pad is difficult.

According to Apple, the new display offers a wider color gamut, and the screen certainly looks bright and colorful, but we wish the same matte-screen option offered on the 17-inch MacBook Pro was available across the line. The 13.3-inch wide-screen LCD offers a 1,280x800-pixel native resolution, which is standard for screens this size, but we'd love to see Apple try its hand at a 16:9 laptop display.

While the LED screen means a thinner lid and some battery life benefits, the edge-to-edge glass covering the entire display panel grabs stray light rays with ease, making the glossy screen hard to see in some lighting conditions.

  Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch) Average for category [thin-and-light]
Video Mini-DisplayPort VGA, mini-HDMI, or Mini-DVI
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 2 USB 2.0, Mini-FireWire 800, SD card reader 3 USB 2.0, Mini-FireWire, SD card reader
Expansion None ExpressCard/54
Networking Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional WWAN
Optical drive DVD burner DVD burner

By bringing back the FireWire port (now FireWire 800) and adding an SD card slot, Apple has addressed most of our most pressing issues with the previous 13-inch model. Pro photographers will point out that they usually use CompactFlash cards, but the rest of us won't have to always remember to pack a USB card reader or cable to directly connect our cameras. Connecting to another video display, however, will require a sold-separately dongle for the Mini-DisplayPort video output.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro performed as expected in our benchmark tests, with the 2.26GHz GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU roughly on par with the 2.4GHz processor in the late-2008 version of the 13-inch MacBook. Trading up to the faster 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo available in the 15-inch MacBook Pro yields a marked improvement on paper, but for most anecdotal use--Web surfing, working on office documents, multimedia playback--any of the current MacBooks will be more than adequate. An even faster 3.08GHz CPU is available on the 15-inch MacBook Pro, but the 13-inch model tops out at 2.53GHz.

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