Computerworld's 2012 holiday gift guide

Load up on laptops: Ultraslim and all-purpose

Tablets may be the "in" thing, but for someone who wants to do serious work, nothing beats a laptop. This year's crop offers improvements on last year's lightweight ultraportables, workhorse systems that offer enough power for entertainment on the side, and even a few models with touch screens and other cool technologies. If you're looking for a gift that will be used for both work and play, one of these machines might do the trick.

For something to suit a well-heeled traveler, you can't do better than one of these light, slim and sexy systems. Apple fans needn't look any further than the MacBook Air -- it led the way for a whole generation of sleek, easy-to-carry laptops.

Meanwhile, there are a slew of new Windows 8 ultrabooks just coming out; in some cases you can even score a touch screen. And those who live completely online could have a Chromebook in their future.

Mac: Apple MacBook Air

Since its debut in 2008, the MacBook Air's popularity has forced competitors to respond with similar designs. The result has been the death of the netbooks and the rise of the ultrabooks.

Apple hasn't rested, however, and the 2012 MacBook Air is still the best combination of power and portability around. In fact, according to Macworld reviewer Dan Frakes:

In a few short years, the Air has gone from an expensive technology demonstration to a successful product firmly established as the heart of Apple's laptop line. This year's models improve the appeal of the Air by increasing performance, enhancing expansion capabilities, and lowering prices. In fact, the new models might just be making the MacBook Pro line a little nervous. (Read the full review)

This wedge-shaped computer is 0.11 in. at its thinnest point and 0.68 in. at its thickest when closed. Depending on the screen size, the Air is 11.8 in. or 12.8 in. wide for the 11-in. and 13-in. models, respectively.

The 11.6-in. model starts at $999 and comes with a 1366 x 768, 16:9 LED glossy display, 64GB of flash-based storage (for another $100, you can upgrade to 128GB), a 1.7GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, Intel HD Graphics 4000 series with external display support, a 720p FaceTime camera, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0, two USB 3.0 ports, a Thunderbolt port, a MagSafe 2 power port, an auto-dimming backlit keyboard and a large multitouch-enabled glass trackpad -- all in a package weighing less than 2.4 lb.

For $1,199, the 13-in. MacBook Air comes with the same features, except for a few differences: the 13.3-in. screen has a resolution of 1440 x 900; it comes with 128GB of storage (for another $300, you can up the storage to 256GB); it uses a dual-core Intel Core i5 running at 1.8GHz; and it includes an SD card slot, which the 11-in. model does not have. The 13-in. model weighs 2.96 lb.

Both models are wrapped in rigid aluminum, with the load-bearing frame constructed using Apple's unibody process -- carved from a single aluminum block to maintain sturdiness despite the thin design.

In concert with Apple OS X, the MacBook Air's combination of size, weight, battery life and quality construction makes this machine an easy call for loved ones this season.

-- Michael deAgonia

MacBook Air from Apple

Street price: $950 - $1,650 (11-in. model), $1,160 - $2,200 (13-in. model) or configure at Apple site

Tech specs | Store locator | Phone: (800) MY-APPLE

Summary: The thinnest and lightest notebook in Apple's lineup is perfect for those looking for maximum portability without sacrificing power and battery life.

Windows: Sony Vaio T Series 13 Ultrabook

As the Windows 8 era gets started, Sony's Vaio T Series 13 makes for a great gift to give or receive. At about 3.5 lb. and with a depth of 0.9 in., it may not be the lightest or the thinnest ultrabook around, but it offers the best balance between performance, features, battery life and price.

The Vaio T Series comes in a wide variety of configurations, most of which are user-configurable (although there are also several "ready to ship" versions if you're in a hurry). There are both non-touch and touch screens, Intel Core i3, i5 and i7 dual-core processors, 4GB to 8GB of memory and a 320GB to 500GB hard drive.

If you want to give one of the most powerful ultrabooks around, though, go with the high-end model (SVT13128CXS), which I was able to try out recently. It comes with a 1.9GHz i7 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB solid-state drive (SSD), giving it the performance potential once reserved for a desktop gaming machine.

I was especially impressed with the Vaio's 13.3-in. multitouch display. All it takes is a swipe of the finger to bring out the Windows 8 Charms bar, highlight a block of text or finger-doodle during a boring meeting. The screen delivers a bright, rich image and is braced at the bottom so that it won't wobble while you're tapping and swiping.

All the Vaio T Series systems also have USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 ports (one each) as well as HDMI and VGA ports for driving a monitor or projector. Each can run for nearly five hours on a charge and is one of the few ultrabooks that allow you to change the battery.

There are plenty of chances to save a bit of money, depending on the configuration you want; for example, a system with an Intel Core i3 processor and a non-touch display starts at only $670. However, I'd put the fully equipped high-end Vaio Series T model SVT13128CXS ($1,300) on my own list to Santa.

You might also like: If you're looking for a really thin, lightweight ultrabook, check out Acer's Aspire S7. The stylish, sleek laptop is only half an inch thick and has a 13.3-in. HD touch display that has wowed reviewers around the Web; prices start at $1,200.

-- Brian Nadel

VAIO T13 from Sony

Street price: $1,299 - $1,415 (model SVT13128CXS) or configure at Sony site

Tech specs | Store locator | Phone: (877) 865-7669

Summary: A delight to give or receive, Sony's Vaio T Series 13 combines top performance and a touch screen in a slim case.

Chrome OS: Samsung Chromebook

Google's Chrome OS is all about computing without hassles -- and with its Samsung Chromebook, available for $249, the company finally gets the price right.

The Samsung Chromebook revolves around the idea of a cloud-centric life: Instead of relying on locally stored programs and files, the Chromebook is designed to use Web-based services -- things like Google Docs, Gmail and Google Drive. Your data is all stored online and synced with your Google account; the operating system is updated frequently and seamlessly in the background.

As a result, you don't have to worry about drivers, viruses or time-consuming software patches. You just flip open the computer's lid, type in your Google ID and password, and within about 10 seconds, you're in a browser window, synced up and ready to go.

In terms of specs, the Samsung Chromebook has an 11.6-in. 1366 x 768 matte display and weighs about 2.4 lbs. The system is powered by an ARM-based Samsung Exynos 5 dual-core processor along with 2GB of RAM. It includes 16GB of local SSD storage and a two-year subscription for 100GB of cloud-based Google Drive storage.

Whether as a secondary system or a primary computer, the new Chromebook is outstanding for light Web browsing and Web-oriented work. It's a slim, light, attractive device with good performance and promising battery life. Google seems to be marketing this machine as a secondary computer for the family, and in that regard, it's a pretty enticing proposition.

(Read the full review)

Despite its Web-centric focus, the Chromebook does work without an Internet connection; many apps offer offline modes that provide full functionality and then automatically resync with the cloud the next time you're online.

In short: This low-cost, lightweight Chrome OS alternative could make a great gift.

You might also like: The Samsung Chromebook 550 ($449 - $549) provides the same Chrome OS experience with extra horsepower -- something power users will appreciate.

-- JR Raphael

Samsung Chromebook from Google

Price: $249

Tech specs | Store locator | Phone: (855) 836-3987

Summary: The Samsung Chromebook makes getting online easy and fun without the hassles of traditional computing.

Practical and all-purpose

Thin is in -- but it's not everything. While MacBook Airs and ultrabooks are lightweight and good-looking, there are many reasons why you might want to look at a more practical, larger laptop as a gift.

If your friend or relative is an Apple fan, the MacBook Pro with Retina display offers an incredible and revolutionary screen along with the chance to get a more powerful quad-core Intel Core i7 processor. Need an Ethernet port or a built-in optical drive? There's the less expensive but still excellent MacBook Pro.

Windows users who want to both work and play can get powerful quad-core processors, along with larger displays, Gigabit Ethernet connections, optical drives and up to 1TB of hard drive storage (and if you really want top performance, you can include an SSD to add speed to applications).

Mac: Apple 13-in. MacBook Pro with Retina display

After spending the past month with the new 13-in. MacBook Pro with Retina display, I came away impressed. The laptop's small size, light weight, aluminum and glass construction, and absolutely stunning display make this machine the obvious choice for this year's all-purpose recommendation.

Starting at $1,699, this laptop's incredibly rigid yet thin and lightweight housing includes a couple of compromises, but performance, quality of materials and construction aren't among them. This 3.6-lb. machine features an auto-dimming backlit keyboard, a full-size glass trackpad with multitouch support, dual USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt connections, dual mics, an HDMI connection, Bluetooth 4, an SDXC card slot reader, a front-facing HD FaceTime camera and full Wi-Fi support.

The system is equipped with 8GB of RAM and a minimum of 128GB of flash storage (expandable to 768GB), powered by the latest Intel Ivy Bridge chipset and Core i5 processors.

Of course, the star feature of this computer is the amazing Retina display, with more than four million pixels densely packed into a 13.3-in. display -- that's 2 million more pixels than a 1080p HDTV set. The result is a stunning screen that displays text as sharp as high-quality magazine prints (especially at smaller sizes) and showcases every pixel in your digital photos.

The sleek machine does, however, eliminate a few components that Apple considers outdated but many folks don't: an Ethernet jack, FireWire ports and an optical drive for reading/burning CDs and DVDs. (You can buy an external one from Apple for $80.)

As I concluded in my Computerworld review:

The Retina display MacBook Pro offers a compelling bundle of features housed in an impressive chassis, with plenty of horsepower and, of course, the screen that makes it special. In short, this machine has won me over. It scores high marks everywhere it counts: performance, battery life, stability, quality, weight/portability and design. There are tradeoffs, but if you can live with them, you can't go wrong with this MacBook Pro. (Read the full review)

I'm a huge fan of the 15-in. MacBook Pro, so my recommendation for the 13-in. Retina MacBook Pro doesn't come lightly. But after my time with it, I feel it's definitely a great gift choice. If you spend time with it, I'm sure you'll agree.

You might also like: If your giftee requires the legacy features that are missing from the MacBook Pro with Retina display or you simply can't afford its high price, look to the 13-in. MacBook Pro, which starts at $1,199. It may not feature the latest and greatest in screen technology, modern I/O or all-flash architecture, but it's still a great laptop and is definitely more affordable.

-- Michael deAgonia

13-in. MacBook Pro with Retina display from Apple

Street price: $1,635 - $1,850 or configure at Apple site

Tech specs | Store locator | Phone: (800) MY-APPLE

Summary: The rigid aluminum and glass construction is 20% thinner and a pound lighter than the previous generation, but it's the beautiful Retina display that is the star of this notebook.

Windows: Dell Inspiron 15R

Now that Windows 8 is out, touch-screen computers are getting much of the attention these days. However, for many people, a traditional system may still be the most practical. Take Dell's Inspiron 15R, a Windows 8 laptop that makes an excellent holiday gift.

With a 15.6-in. 720p HD display, the Inspiron 15R can be configured with a third-generation Intel Core i3, i5 or i7 processor and has the luxury of four USB ports, three of which use the newer USB 3.0 spec. And unlike space-restricted ultrabooks, the Inspiron 15R has room for a DVD drive and can be ordered with up to a terabyte of hard drive storage space.

Weighing just over 6 lb., the Inspiron 15R may be a lot to carry around compared to a lighter-weight ultrabook, but its rounded corners, along with a two-tone black and silver color scheme, make for a sophisticated design.

In her PC World review, Sarah Jacobsson Purewal reported:

The Dell Inspiron 15R 7520 might fly under your radar amidst all the superskinny Ultrabooks that are zipping around, but it's worth a look if style and weight aren't major concerns for you. It offers an excellent screen (most Ultrabooks don't), sturdy components, and great general performance, and it will play games fairly well, even though it isn't built to be a gaming laptop. (Read the full review)

The system's price tag is the best part. A Core i3-based system starts at $550, but if you want something really impressive, check out the fully loaded Inspiron 15R Special Edition, which comes with a quad-core 3.2GHz Intel Core i7 processor, an AMD Radeon 7730M graphics engine with 2GB of dedicated video memory, 8GB of RAM, a 1TB hard drive and a 32GB mSATA SSD -- all for a very reasonable $1,100. In anybody's book, that combination adds up to top-shelf performance for work and play.

You might also like: Offering a load of features, including a DVD drive and up to 1TB of storage, Toshiba's 15.6-in. Satellite P850 can be a down-to-earth gift. You can choose between a Core i5 and i7 processor; systems start at $700.

-- Brian Nadel

Inspiron 15R from Dell

Street price: $480 - $1,139 (depending on configuration) or configure at Dell site

Tech specs | Store locator | Phone: (877) 907-3355

Summary: Dell's Inspiron 15R packs peak performance and all the mobile creature comforts into a reasonably priced traditional notebook format.

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