He ain’t heavy, he’s my constant companion.
Laptop design has made a quantum leap recently. The boffins have miniaturised most components, and today far more power-efficient chips mean that batteries can be smaller and lighter too. Look out for dual-core laptop processors, notably Intel’s Core Duo range, which offer greater multitasking and battery longevity than older models. Faster Core 2 Duo chips are on their way but the laptops reviewed here are as quick as most users will need. The lightest of the slimline laptops weigh barely a kilo. These wafer-thin machines can handle everyday tasks with aplomb, yet won’t run out of puff before, say, the Eurostar reaches the end of the tunnel.
Small is always beautiful, but portability means compromises in performance or ergonomics. A tiny laptop dictates that the screen will be weeny, often 12in or so. Also, be wary of congested or unresponsive keyboards. Never buy on spec alone — tap that keyboard with your own fingers and also consider the type of work you will be doing. Checking e-mail may be your primary goal but you’ll hate typing long reports on elfin-sized keys. And as for 3-D gaming, broadly speaking, forget it on a lightweight laptop.
The biggest issue is how and where you will work, or play, with your swanky new machine. Many laptops boast glossy widescreens, great for photos or movies, but reflections from overhead lighting at work will make them a misery to read.
Once out on the road, internet access is often a deal-breaker. You’d need to be waving-at-cows crazy not to opt for built-in WiFi, and a few business models include 3G as well. This sends data over a mobile phone network, so you can browse the web from almost anywhere in Britain, though speed varies wildly.
The average price of a notebook sold in the UK in 2006 has tumbled to £686, compared with £808 last year, says GFK Research. However, if you want performance, stamina and glamourpuss looks to boot, you must cough up. The skimpy models reviewed here will please your chiropractor far more than your bank manager. But they each deliver built-in WiFi, a top-notch screen, and a keyboard that Liberace would be proud to tickle. You know you want one.
InGear Best Buy: Five stars
Samsung Q35 MXD T2400 — typically £1,000, or £991 from www.digiuk.com
Classy and fun-packed. A bargain
Work is a side issue with this classy funster. The Q35’s surprisingly decent speakers can cheerfully fill a small hotel room with, say, Muse’s bombastic tunes, and an instant-on mode unleashes DVDs or MP3s without waiting for the machine to boot up. The ample 100GB hard disk is generous at this price and a card reader makes it a snap to stash photos — or burn your treasures onto the built-in DVD. Businessmen may tut at a one-year warranty and lack of security features, but an impressive Intel Core Duo processor helps make this sturdy yet suave 1.9kg compact among the fastest on test. However, fancy multimedia tasks will slash battery life from six hours to under two.
And though the keyboard is comfortable, a glossy 12in screen is far more suited to fun than chores. Enjoy.
Apple MacBook 2GHz Intel Core Duo — £900 (as reviewed) from www.apple.com/ukstore
Potent tool for the image-conscious digerati
The MacBook is the size of an A4 pad and hence easily totable, yet at 2.3kg it’s lardier than it looks. The reflective, glossy finish of the unconventional-sized 13in widescreen is a pain under office lighting, but does add lustre to, say, King Kong’s coat when watching the DVD.
In tests, battery life was a risible 1hr 26min, though this doubled with lighter use. There are rumours of updated MacBook models. However, current performance is mighty zippy, especially with Apple’s own software. The standard 512MB of Ram and 60GB hard drive are, frankly, stingy. That said, a posh built-in webcam and Apple’s suite of free software deliver an intuitive, virus-free computing experience that PC owners can only dream of. A fine keyboard and clean, sassy design make for a classy companion.
Dell Latitude D420 (E-Value code MAG-240PCP) — £1,408 from www.dell.co.uk
Slimline tonic for busy bodies
An ideal assistant for the on-the-move professional itching for constant internet access. Built-in 3G technology delivered blazing-fast download speeds that peaked, in tests, at 1.2Mbps with Vodafone’s 3G Broadband network, if far slower elsewhere (tariffs apply). This weeny 1.5kg Dell is more robust than it looks and the three year warranty is also top notch. A classy 12in widescreen is matched by a fine keyboard, with a fingerprint scanner to restrict access to those with security clearance. The modest-grade Intel Core Duo processor bested the Vaio slightly for performance, but battery life was a mere four hours with light use. Despite the lack of a DVD drive, this is a belter.
Lenovo ThinkPad X60 T2400 — typically £1,450, or £1,400 from www.dabs.com
Rugged, reliable, with blockbusting battery life
Serious business people hate surprises and Lenovo (formerly IBM) laptops have reliability in their genes. Deeply clever tech makes the X60 as tough as boots, yet it weighs in at a trim 1.7kg. You can plough through spreadsheets for over 10 hours — a whole transatlantic flight — without the distraction of a movie, as there’s no DVD drive. The 1.8GHz Core Duo processor is nippy, although 3-D games are off the menu. But this is a professional’s tool: the superb non-widescreen 12in display is matt, not glossy, to avoid reflections from overhead lighting, and documents typed on the class-leading keyboard are protected by a fingerprint reader, in case you leave it in a taxi.
Sony Vaio VGN-TX3XP — typically £1,500 or £1,490 from www.pixmania.com
Petite, if pricey, glamourpuss
The Vaio range often appeals to vanity over sanity and this shoulder-saving 1.2kg number is as alluring as Keira Knightley in a chiffon swimsuit. Carbon-fibre construction keeps weight down and durability up, though the lush 11in screen bends just a little too easily. A built-in DVD burner, plus a decent 80GB hard drive and up to nine hours’ super-quiet operation each add substance. The snags are that the non-dual-core Intel processor delivers only workaday performance and — despite a fine keyboard — the trackpad is fiddly. Worst of all, a one-year warranty is poor value. Still, bask in those admiring glances as you pluck this beauty out on the train to Paris.
Clock speed The speed at which a computer’s processor runs, measured in gigahertz (GHz). Not necessarily indicative of performance
CPU (central processing unit, or chip) Brains of the computer, where calculations take place
Dual-core Newer type of CPU with two “brains” — or cores. Benefit is not just speed but multitasking ability. With laptops, look for Intel Core Duo models
DVD burner Archives large files onto DVDs for long-term storage. Dual-layer offers far larger capacity
Hard drive/hard disk Where software and data are stored; measured in gigabytes (GB)
Notebook Alternative term for a laptop
Ram (random access memory) Memory that enables a laptop to run several applications simultaneously
Touchpad/trackpad Acts as a laptop’s built-in mouse
WiFi Method of connecting a latop wirelessly to the internet or other computers