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Help Me, LAPTOP: A Backpacking Writer Needs A Light And Powerful Notebook

These days it's relatively easy to find a low-power laptop that's small and light, but what about when you need something with a little more juice that won't weigh you down nor drain your bank account? That's the dilemma reader Kanti finds herself in:

I am a book author, I travel a lot, and I can leave my home for 1-2 months, even more. My current notebook is Hp Pavilion Touchsmart tx2, 14 inches, AMD Turion X2; it's too heavy and slow for me. I've been doing some 'research' but still couldn't find the best one yet. I desperately need a light weight, but still able to do some photo editing though not frequent (I use Adobe Photoshop), great for doing Word work, have Wi-Fi facility, and fast enough to browse the internet. And of course have sufficient audio and video quality for Skype, because I'd need that to interact with my friends and family during my long travel. Durability is also my concern, and my budget is >500 USD. Do you think I should wait until next year to buy the new one? Could you please give me some options?

Usually for traveling writers we'd suggest a netbook as they offer performance good enough for running a word processing program, surfing the web, and chatting with friends on Skype. But it sounds like you're in the market for something with more robust performance, so we suggest an ultraportable. This kind of notebook ranges in size from 11.6 to 13-inches and, depending on the type of processor inside, can come in at under $500. However, most cost around $600. If you're willing to stretch your budget a bit or wait for a deal, you should be happy with something in this class. But there's at least one notebook that will suit your needs that does cost less than $500.

The $499 ASUS Eee PC 1215N is technically a netbook, but it's powerful enough that it could be classed as an ultraportable. This 12-inch system only weighs 3.4 pounds and is fairly slim, so it won't take up a lot of room in your backpack or add too much weight. It runs on a 1.8-GHz dual-core Intel Atom D525 and an Nvidia Ion 2 GPU plus integrated Intel GMA 3150 graphics. This, coupled with Nvidia's Optimus technology, allows the 1215N to switch between discrete and integrated graphics depending on what the computer is doing. Watching HD video? The Eee PC will use the Ion 2 chip. Just writing in Word or listening to music? It switches to the low-power integrated chip. The 0.3MP webcam isn't the best out there, but it captures decent images and video, which should be fine for Skype chats.

Stepping up in price, the 11.6-inch Acer Aspire Timeline 1810T (available for $599) scored better on tests that measure overall performance but its graphics aren't as powerful as the Eee PC 1215N. It's also slightly slimmer and lighter and has a better quality webcam. It runs on a 1.3-GHz Intel Pentium SU7300 CPU and comes with 4GB of RAM, but the integrated Intel GMA 4500MHD GPU isn't the best for intensive graphics tasks.

If you need a bigger screen, then the 13.3-inch Toshiba Satellite T235 or T235D ($549 - $629) may be for you. The difference between the two models is the processor/graphics card combo. The T235 runs on a 1.2-GHz Intel Pentium U5400 with integrated Intel HD Graphics; the T235D runs on a 1.5-GHz AMD Turion II Neo K625 CPU and ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4225 graphics. Both of these will give you plenty of power and performance, though the T235D costs less yet doesn't last as long on a charge. Unfortunately, neither of these systems has a great webcam.

You mentioned that you also do image editing in Photoshop in addition to writing and surfing the web. If you have Photoshop CS3 or an older version, you won't get the benefit of hardware acceleration. That means the strength of the graphics card isn't very important, since the software doesn't have the ability to access it. Photoshop CS4 or CS5 do have hardware acceleration, so if you're running either of those versions you want something with strong graphics so the program will run faster.

Here's a quick comparison of specs, price, and performance benchmarks:

NotebookASUS Eee PC 1215NAcer Aspire Timeline 1810TToshiba Satellite T235Toshiba Satellite T235D
Price$499$599$629$599
Size / Weight11.6 x 8 x 0.9 to 1.4 inches; 3.4 pounds11.2 x 8.0 x 1.2 inches; 3.2 pounds12.7 x 8.8 x 1.0 inches; 3.8 pounds12.7 x 8.8 x 1.0 inches; 3.8 pounds
CPU1.8-GHz Intel Atom D5251.3-GHz Intel Pentium SU73001.2-GHz Intel Pentium U54001.5-GHz AMD Turion II Neo K625
RAM2GB (max 4GB)4GB (max)4GB (max 8GB)4GB (max 8GB)
GraphicsNvidia Ion 2, Intel GMA 3150Intel GMA 4500Intel HD GraphicsATI Mobility Radeon HD 4225
PC Mark Vantage (Overall Performance)1,9212,9383,1583,198
3DMark06 (Graphics performance)2,6925941,2621,484
Wireless Strength (15 / 50 feet)39.4 / 23.7 Mbps19.3 / 17.9 Mbps42.8 / 27.4 Mbps35.7 / 16.1 Mbps
Battery Life (h:mm)5:404:156:115:20

It looks like the notebook that fits your needs best is the ASUS Eee PC 1215N, but read the full reviews of all four systems to see our in-depth thoughts on every aspect, including keyboards, touchpads, multimedia experience, and more.