As I type this round-up of top laptops on my own Windows portable desktop replacement, I can't help thinking that maybe it's time for an upgrade. It seems like only yesterday that dual-core processors, 500 GB hard drives, a couple of hours of portable use and screen resolutions of 1366 x 768 were at the very tip of every salesperson's tongue. But these days such machines would probably have a hard time attracting flies. 2013 has been a year of high performance, low power processors, long battery life, and stunning displays. Read on for a selection of top performers that have caused Gizmag's heart to skip a beat or two.
The best from the big guns
It's all tiles and touch
At the risk of being accused of favoritism, I'm going to kick off with a laptop running Microsoft's love it or hate it Windows 8 operating system. Actually, I've been desperately trying to choose between the Acer Aspire S7-392 Ultrabook and the Asus N550JV for a while now, and just can't decide which one rings my bell the loudest, so I'll call this one a tie and showcase them both.
Said to be Acer's thinnest touch-enabled Ultrabook at 0.51-in (12.9 mm), the Aspire S7-392 still manages to squeeze two USB 3.0 ports and HDMI on its sides. It features a 13.3-inch Full HD IPS touchscreen display fronted by Gorilla Glass 2, and if you're looking to collaborate on a project or just share what you see with friends or family, the display's hinge allows the screen to open to 180 degrees. Then, at the press of a key, the screen image flips to the correct orientation for the person opposite.
This great-looking, solid performer has a Core i5 dual-core processor capable of running up to 2.6 GHz (with a little help from Turbo Boost technology) at its heart, with support from integrated HD4400 graphics, 8 GB of dual-channel DDR3 RAM and 128 GB of SSD storage. Its 4-cell Li-Pol battery should give at least 7 hours between charges, or up to 80 days on standby.
Completing the specs of note are Acer Nplify 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi and a gorgeous light-sensing backlit keyboard. Prices start from around US$1,350.
If 13 inches is just not enough display real estate, the Asus N550JV doesn't just sport a bigger screen, pack much more storage, and offer quite a performance boost over Acer's mighty Ultrabook, it's also cheaper.
It features a 2.4 GHz Core i7 4700HQ quad-core processor supported by up to 16 GB of 1600 MHz DDR3L RAM and as much as 1 TB of HDD storage, though the latter will spin at 5400 RPM, so if speed is your thing, you may prefer to opt for the 7200 RPM 750 GB HDD instead. The 27.7 mm (1.09 in) thin, 2.6 kg (5.7 lb) entertainment powerhouse also has both HD4600 graphics and an Nvidia GeForce GT750M GPU with up to 4 GB of dedicated memory, a 15.6-inch Full HD IPS touch panel and the option to include a Blu-ray/DVD combo drive.
There's little chance of your high def movie enjoyment being let down by poor audio, since Asus worked with Bang & Olufsen ICEpower to create SonicMaster Premium audio technology, which includes a built-in four-speaker array. The laptop also has a port to plug in the included Asus N series external subwoofer for a little extra bottom end.
Elsewhere, buyers can choose between 802.11b/g/n or 802.11a/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0 is included, there's Gigabit LAN, three USB 3.0 ports, HDMI 1.4 and a mini DisplayPort. It also sports a rather attractive keyboard with extra-wide, dust repellent keys. Users should get over 5 hours between charges of its Li-ion battery, and the system will resume from sleep in a couple of seconds and can remain on standby for two weeks. Some configurations even include a Leap Motion controller.
The price of admission starts in the region of $1,100.
An Apple a day ...
Cupertino's 13-inch Macbook Pro with Retina display has spent much of this year basking in the glow of media and consumer adoration and praise, and rightly so. Its 13.3-inch, 2560 x 1600 resolution LED-backlit display fair takes the breath away, and it's no slouch in the performance department either.
Available with up to Core i5 processing up to 2.6 GHz, 16 GB of RAM and 1 TB of solid state storage, it offers 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0, HDMI, USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt ports, and a pretty darn decent battery life. The entry-level model managed to notch up an impressive six and a half hours of a good mix of heavy and light continuous use when it hit Gizmag's test bench back in February, and the newer Haswell-based Macbook Pros promise even longer away from the wall outlet. Prices start from $1,299.
The Developer's choice
Not too many consumer laptops ship with Linux pre-installed, but of those that do, Dell's Sputnik 3 (or the XPS 13 Developer Edition, to use its given name) must surely be a contender for top dog. I say a contender, but the XPS 13 DE actually comes in two flavors, both running Ubuntu 12.04 LTS and a basic set of dev tools out of the box.
The base model features a 4th generation Core i5 processor, 8 GB of 1600 MHz DDR3 RAM and up to 128 GB of solid state storage. It has a 350-nit, 13.3-inch Full HD touchscreen display, boots from cold in about 12 seconds, and starts at $1,249. The SKU model ramps up the processing power to a Core i7, offers the same system memory, but double the storage. It sports the same 1080p display panel, and costs $1,549.
Encased in machined aluminum, with a carbon composite base, and magnesium palmrest, the XPS models only just make this roundup of 2013 favorites because, though they're both available to buy now, they won't actually ship until early next year. Still, I think either edition is worth waiting for.
Life in the Cloud
If you're the kind of user who lives online and is always on the lookout for an inexpensive way to do so, notebooks running Google's Chrome OS are probably the way to go. Of the recent Haswell-based releases, Acer's Chromebook C720 (and its touchscreen variant, the C720P) offers the best bang for buck.
For around $250, Acer will give you a 0.8-in (20 mm) thin, 2.76 lb (1.25 kg) portable with an 11.6-inch, 1366 x 768 resolution display, a 1.4 GHz Celeron 2955U processor, 4 GB of DDR3L RAM, and 16 GB of solid state storage. Though given that a good proportion of your files are likely to be stored online, perhaps the unit's 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi capabilities are more relevant than the latter feature. It's got Bluetooth 4.0 too, and HDMI, USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 ports. The included 3-cell Li-Pol battery is reported good for up to 8.5 hours between charges.
For another $50 or so, you can have double the storage and a touchscreen display.
Let the games begin
Despite stiff competition from the likes of Razer, MSI and Digital Storm, it's Dell's top of the range Alienware behemoth that's the mobile gaming powerhouse I'd want with me when fighting off the zombie hordes.
Unleashed back in June, the Alienware 18 ain't cheap, but just take a look at the juicy hardware that you get in return for opening your wallet. Processor options run up to 4th gen Core i7, which can be overclocked to 4.3 GHz, there's up to 32 GB of 1600 MHz DDR3L RAM on offer with as much as 1.5 TB of 7200 RPM HDD or 1 TB of quad-play SSD storage.
All the high definition game action is delivered to the 18.4-inch TrueLife display panel by SLI-enabled dual Nvidia GeForce GTX 765M, 770M or 780M graphics. Klipsch-tuned speakers get a helping hand from Dolby Home Theater v4, and copper heat pipes and sinks help keep the system from running hot. AlienFX lighting is everywhere, not just illuminating the keyboard. Connectivity comes in the shape of four USB 3.0 ports, a mini-DisplayPort and a HDMI port, 802.11ac/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, and Killer Gigabit Ethernet LAN.
All of the Alienware 18 configurations run Windows 7, so if you're wanting a gaming monster that comes with Microsoft's latest operating system, you'll need to look elsewhere. Though I suspect that you may regret passing over this baby. Prices start at a mighty $2,049, but you can pay more than double that depending on your chosen configuration.
Slimming it down
If you want it thin, light, and long-lasting, but don't want to sacrifice power and performance, Ultrabooks are the way to go. Leading a strong field that includes excellent entries from the likes of Asus, Toshiba and HP, is the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus.
It weighs in at 3.06 lb (1.38 kg) and despite being just 0.54-inches (13.7 mm) thin, there's still a fair selection of ports, including full-size USB 3.0 and micro-HDMI. A 1.8 GHz Core i7 processor with HD4400 graphics is supported by 8 GB of 1600 MHz DDR3L RAM and 256 GB of SSD storage. 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0 and Gigabit LAN will help satisfy your connectivity needs, and Samsung says that the ATIV Book 9 Plus will keep going for 7.5 hours before its Li-Pol battery needs a recharge. The showstopper here though is the 13.3-inch, 350-nit, 3200 x 1800 resolution LED touchscreen display.
The ATIV Book 9 Plus does cost a pretty penny at $1,799.99, but there are cheaper configurations available if your budget doesn't quite stretch that far.
When a laptop just isn't enough
Folks looking for a laptop with that a bit more to offer than a portable workstation, media center or gaming machine are pretty much spoilt for tablet-with-keyboard, hybrid, or 3-in-1 choice nowadays. Lenovo's expanding Yoga line kind of mixes all those options up into a compelling multi-mode package. The latest to join the company's twist, flip and fold party is the Yoga 2 Pro.
The Pro's 13.3-inch, 3200 x 1800 resolution display supports up to 10 simultaneous touch points and is reported four times brighter than the original Yoga. Fourth generation Core i3, i5 and i7 processor options are available, all with integrated HD4400 graphics. Supporting players include up to 8 GB of system memory, and solid state memory options that run from 128 GB up to 512 GB.
Capable of being manipulated into tablet, laptop, tent, and stand modes, the 0.61-in (15.5 mm) thin, 3.06 lb Yoga 2 Pro features Wireless-N Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, USB 3.0 and 2.0 ports, micro-HDMI and integrated stereo speakers with Dolby Home Theater. Prices start at $949.
And that's a wrap
No product round-up can claim to be exhaustive and all-inclusive, and your recommendations for this year's most notable notebooks would be appreciated via the comments.
Gizmag has crossed paths with a few interesting concepts and prototypes in the last 12 months, too, which give a tantalizing glimpse of things to come. These include Sol, a low price Ubuntu laptop that's powered by the sun (need I say more?) and an Ultrabook sporting eye-tracking technology from Sweden's Tobii.
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