Tablets may be grabbing the spotlight, but traditional computers remain the tool of choice for those who need to get serious work done. Laptop and desktop models continue to display innovations, with laptops shrinking and more touch screens coming to desktops. And tiny netbooks still make sense for many people.
Prices keep falling, so you should be able to find a good deal when you shop this holiday season. The Ratings offers dozens of recommended laptops and desktops (both are available to subscribers), the best overall performers from recent tests of 157 models, along with 11 CR Best Buys. Here's the latest computer news:
Laptops that we rated Very Good or Excellent are available for $500 or less. With many models, you won't have to compromise on performance or features. For example, performance on the Gateway NV57H26U, a CR Best Buy, was excellent. It's a 15.6-inch laptop with decent battery life that costs just $450. It also has an HDMI port for connecting to an HDTV for high-definition video streaming.
If you need a laptop mainly for tasks such as word processing, Web browsing, and e-mail, even better deals emerge. Our Ratings (available to subscribers) includes a few 15.6-inch laptops for under $400. The Gateway NV55C49U ($350), Dell Inspiron I15R-526MRB ($380), and HP G62-373DX ($380) are all recommended models with good or very good performance; all three models were fast for productivity tasks. They're also CR Best Buys.
If you're shopping for a laptop, be on the lookout for ultrabooks, new laptops that are supposed to be thinner, lighter, and less expensive than most laptops. Thirteen-inch ultrabooks will be no thicker than 0.7 inch, about 30 percent thinner than most laptops. In addition, battery life should be at least 8 hours and the price less than $1,000. Toshiba's Port g Z830 and Lenovo's IdeaPad U300s are among the first models expected. They will weigh under 3 pounds, be about 0.6 inch thick, and use solid-state storage. Asus is also releasing an ultrabook this fall.
The new ultrabooks were not available in time for our Ratings (available to subscribers), but several laptops we tested provide similar features. Apple's MacBook Air, available in 11- and 13-inch versions, and Samsung's 13-inch 900X3A-A03 are thinner and lighter laptops than most models their size.
A third choice is the Sony Vaio VPCZ2190X. What distinguishes it from other laptops is the included Media Dock. There's a DVD drive, an option missing with other thin-and-lights, as well as a built-in discrete graphics chip with 1GB of memory. Plug in the Media Dock when you want to play demanding video games or leave it home when you want to carry around just the diminutive Vaio. Performance was excellent in either case, and battery life was 7.5 hours.
The Apple, Samsung, and Sony are featherweights, easy to carry, stylish, and comfortable to use. As we expect with ultrabooks, those models don't make you trade ergonomics or functionality for low weight, thin profiles, and battery life. But they cost more than the maximum targeted price for ultrabooks.
These space-saving desktops should become an even bigger part of the market, experts say. The best cost at least $1,000, but as the market grows, prices could drop. Meanwhile, sales of the bulkier full-sized desktops, which offer more bang for the buck, will probably fall.
When the next version of Microsoft's operating system launches in late 2012, touch-screen capability should be available on more laptops and desktops. That's because Windows 8 will be developed as both a tablet and a computer platform. If you're buying an all-in-one desktop, consider a model with a touch-enabled display to take advantage of the new features when they become available.
Among the changes expected in Windows 8: The Start menu will be replaced by a screen full of tiles representing your photos, widgets, applications, bookmarks, and videos. You'll use your finger (or a mouse) to slide from screen to screen, select tiles to launch them, or open multiple tiles at the same time.
Office and Internet Explorer 10 will also be touch-optimized, Microsoft says. There will also be an app store where you can buy low-cost software, much as you do for a smart phone or tablet.