2011 Lappy Awards: Best Laptop Features of the Year
What separates a good laptop from a great one? That’s a tricky question, because there’s no single answer. It could be a supremely comfortable typing experience, speakers that blow you away, or a design so sleek it feels like it’s from the future. Our first-annual Lappy Awards recognize this excellence with prizes in 12 categories, including the above attributes and a host of other specific features that make our winners a cut above the rest.
Best Keyboard: Lenovo ThinkPad X1
Lenovo’s svelte 13-inch ThinkPad X1 makes a great first impression with its 0.8-inch profile, durable soft-touch chassis, and ultra-bright 350-nit screen. But it’s only when you start typing that you truly appreciate the beauty of this machine.
At first glance, the X1’s keyboard may look like a typical island-style layout. However, the key’s curvature and the feedback they provide rival the legendary IBM model M keyboard of the 1980s, right down to the pleasant clicking sound you get while typing. That’s not all; there’s an adjustable backlight for typing in low light, a soft palm rest to properly cradle wrists, and a comfortable slope to the deck. It all adds up to the best notebook typing experience ever.
Starting at $1,299; www.lenovo.com
Best Display: Dell XPS 15z
The XPS 15z is Dell’s answer to the 15-inch MacBook Pro, and it literally outshines Apple’s notebook. Both laptops sport a clean metallic design, a magnesium-alloy reinforced chassis, and a backlit island-style keyboard. The XPS 15z, however, schools the MacBook with its killer screen. Not only is the panel a super-bright 300 nits, the top-level configuration sports a much higher resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels (compared to the similarly configured MacBook’s 1680 x 1050).
Watching video on the glossy, high-contrast screen is a joy. Colors are vibrant, blacks are deep, and we didn’t notice pixelation, even in darker portions of HD movies. If you spend much of your computing time consuming—or editing—video content, this is the notebook for you.
Starting at $999; www.dell.com
Best Sound: Dell XPS 15
It’s the pretty rare laptop that sounds so good that you forget you’re not listening to external speaker. One such standout is the Dell XPS 15, which packs a pair of JBL stereo speakers, Waves MaxxAudio 3 sound processing, and even a 12-watt subwoofer. This notebook’s robust audio system does justice to music tracks that cause most other notebooks to stumble, and it made our gaming and movie watching experience truly immersive.
Whether playing bass-filled R&B songs, heavy rock tunes, or thumping synth-pop ditties, the XPS 15 sounded rich and pleasing to our ears. The notebook also created a wide, multi-layered sound field with clear separation between the two speakers. No harshness or tinniness here. In fact, the XPS 15 beat out several other laptops in a sound shootout, becoming our benchmark for sound quality. Not bad for $799.
Starting at $799; www.dell.com
Best Webcam: Alienware M11x R3
The best notebook for reaching out and seeing someone just happens to be a diminutive gaming rig. Yes, the 4.6-pound Alienware M11x R3 beat out machines from Apple, Dell, HP, and Lenovo when we recently tested video calling quality across several notebooks.
During Skype calls and when we streamed video clips recorded to the hard drive, the M11x R3’s 2-megapixel camera offered lush, saturated colors; clear details; and smooth motion. The laptop also transmitted clean audio during our chat sessions and performed well under low-light conditions. Alienware bundles comprehensive software tools that let users adjust settings, track faces, and activate fun avatars and backdrops.
Starting at $749; www.alienware.com
Best Touchpad Award & Fastest Boot Time Award: Apple MacBook Air (13-inch)
The best all-around ultraportable laptop money can buy, Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Air is a tour de force of portable computing craftsmanship. From its sleek, razor-thin design to the aluminum unibody construction, it’s immediately evident that Apple takes quality seriously. This same devotion to detail extends to the notebook’s roomy 4.1 x 3-inch touchpad.
The glass surface of the Air’s Trackpad allows for impressively smooth and responsive two-finger scrolling, three-finger swipes, and pinch-to-zoom gestures. Plus, Mac OS X Lion lets you perform nifty new gestures on this machine, including a three-finger swipe down for activating Mission Control.
To cut the trim machine down to a featherweight 2.9 pounds, Apple tossed the traditional hard drive and outfitted the Air with solid state memory installed right on the laptop’s motherboard. As a result, the 13-inch MacBook Air consistently fired up Mac OS X Lion in a mere 17 seconds. Just as impressive, the Air wakes from sleep as soon as you open the lid, giving it iPad-like responsiveness.
Starting at $1,299; www.apple.com
Best Overall Design: Samsung Series 9
You know a laptop maker is serious about the look and feel of its machine when it employs a metal usually reserved for making aircraft. We’re talking about the Samsung Series 9, and the material is duralumin, which is twice as strong as aluminum. Not only does this notebook weigh a hair less than the MacBook Air (2.88 vs. 2.96 pounds), Samsung also made the Series 9 a fraction of an inch thinner at its thickest point (0.64 inches vs. 0.68 inches).
Just as important, Samsung gave this laptop a seriously unique look. The Series 9 has a dark brushed-metal lid and smoothly curved edges. This minimalist-chic ultraportable also sports a backlit keyboard and a generous multitouch click pad, plus a jaw-droppingly bright 400-nit display. It’s hard to believe this super-slim chassis houses a Core i5 processor.
Best Battery Life: Lenovo ThinkPad X220
No matter how muscular your laptop may be, it’s just an expensive paperweight when it runs out of juice. Lenovo’s Thinkpad X220 has enough stamina to last longer than you can. For just $30 more than the base price, this 12-inch ultraportable’s optional nine-cell battery ran for 12 hours on the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi). But this notebook was just getting started.
When we combined the nine-cell battery with the X220’s optional six-cell battery slice, we clocked a jaw-dropping runtime of 20 hours and 18 minutes. Granted, this accessory costs a steep $229 and increases the weight to 5.1 pounds, but it’s hard to put a price on epic endurance. Those who seek a machine that can go the distance need look no further.
Starting at $899 ($1,156 with nine-cell and slice batteries); www.lenovo.com
Best Overall Performance: Alienware M18x
It’s so fast that your enemies won’t know what hit them. The Alienware M18x can be configured with two Nvidia GeForce GTX 580M GPUs commanded by an overclocked 4-GHz Intel Core i7-2920XM processor. Also on board this 18-inch rig is a generous 16GB helping of RAM plus dual 7,200-rpm hard drives linked in a RAID 0 array. But on to what really matters: the results.
All this firepower under the hood helped the Alienware M18x blow away other gaming rigs on our benchmark tests. This 13-pounder notched a whopping 158 frames per second in Far Cry 2—at full HD—about four times the category average. We tried in vain trip up the system by streaming the Iron Man Blu-ray to a nearby TV (via the integrated WiHD adapter and receiver). The M18x even averaged 60 fps in the demanding World of Tanks game. Any way you slice it, the Alienware M18x is top dog.
Starting at $1,999 ($5,552 as configured); www.alienware.com
Most Innovative Feature: Toshiba Qosmio F755 (glasses-free 3D)
Feel silly donning specs to watch 3D content on your laptop? Feast your eyes on the Toshiba Qosmio F755 3D, which boasts a 15.6-inch display with Active Lens technology that can display two sets of images at the same time for the left and right eye. Toshiba’s Face Tracking works with the notebook’s webcam and reacts to your position to ensure you stay in the 3D sweet spot. You can even view 2D and 3D content at the same time in different windows. With its Core i7 processor and Nvidia GeForce 540M graphics, the F755 3D has enough horsepower to add an extra dimension to 2D DVDs and videos on the fly.
Starting at $1,699; www.toshibadirect.com
Coolest Temps: HP Pavilion dm1
By their very nature, lightweight notebooks spend a lot of time on your lap, so you want a system that won’t scorch your legs while you work. The 3.4-pound HP Pavilion dm1 uses CoolSense technology to automatically ramp up the fan based on whether you’re using the notebook on your lap or on a desk. After we streamed a Hulu video at full screen for 15 minutes, the touchpad, G and H keys, and underside of the notebook measured 76, 78, and 77 degrees, respectively. Those are the coolest temperatures we saw all year. This AMD Fusion notebook’s more than 6.5 hours of battery life and $399 starting price solidify the dm1 as an all-around winner.
Starting at $399; www.hp.com
Best Security Feature: HP EliteBook 8460p
A business laptop clearly needs some security in place, since lost documents and sensitive corporate data could easily dwarf the actual cost of a misplaced notebook. HP’s EliteBook 8460p goes beyond typical security with a fingerprint reader, TPM (Trusted Platform Module), and smart card support.
Also on board is HP’s comprehensive ProtectTools software, our favorite security suite. The package allows for easy password creation and management and ties into all laptop-based forms of authentication. ProtectTools integrates the Computrace service for theft protection and lets users encrypt files for peace of mind. The laptop even employs facial recognition in combination with a Bluetooth phone to further restrict system access.
Starting at $929; www.hp.com