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Help Me, LAPTOP: Simple Needs Are Not So Simple

When it comes to laptop features, is it ever possible to have it all? That seems to be the problem plaguing reader Megan, who is looking for a robust machine that can handle her everyday computing tasks and also withstand the antics of her house companion -- a lively, 5-month old puppy with a penchant for knocking her laptop off her bed. In Megan’s words:

“I don't need anything fancy. I'm not a gamer, at least not on the computer. I'm not a designer or a professional of anything. All I want is a computer that will do the few things I need it to do quickly, without complaint, and will do it for a long time in spite of my clumsy, abusive lifestyle. What I do: Internet surfing. Entirely too much of it. Multi-tasking. My friends constantly make fun of me for having 12 windows open at any given time. Instant messaging. My fiancé and I are stationed on nearly opposite ends of country. Skype is my hero. Movement. I am not good at that whole "don't move your laptop when it's running" thing. I am always picking my laptop up to move to a different room. Music. I love Pandora so my laptop often doubles as a boom box, and I would like it to be able to do so without me having to buy extra speakers. Storing pictures and tunes. I have a lot of files and the laptop I had before wasn't able to handle it all. The pictures I can put on an external hard drive, but I don't want to be plugging my other hard drive in every time I want to play a song. What I want: Solid State Drive. I've been told I don't need it since I don't do anything fancy with my computer. But I don't want it for its speed, I want it because it means fewer moving parts to rattle against each other when my dog kicks my laptop off the bed. Durability. Seriously, it's important. Simplicity. I'm borderline computer-retarded. I don't want to be going through my computer going, "What the hell is this? What does it do? Why is it here?" Battery. I would like it to last through a day of sitting in class with no plug-ins to be found. ”

We hear you, Megan, and we agree entirely with your assessment. It happens much too often in notebook-buying that someone thinks their needs are overly simple at the beginning, only to later discover that no options are a good fit for what they had in mind. This is where we can help.

But first, a caveat: Perhaps the reason why it’s been so difficult is that a couple of these requirements are contradictory. For instance, you likely won’t find a solid state drive that boasts storage capacities in the same league as traditional hard drives. Today, SSDs will offer about 256GB of space on the high-capacity end -- or up to 512GB, but that’s in very rare cases. That’s because SSDs are essentially flash drives permanently installed into your machine, costing much more per gigabyte than their magnetic counterparts.

Though SSDs are much faster than hard drives, users who want 500GB or more of space will have to stick with traditional hard drives for now. The good news is what Megan’s been hearing has mostly been right -- you don’t need an SSD to protect your laptop. While it’s true that flash drives they’re less susceptible to physical shock, most mechanical hard drives now have drop protection that pulls the head off of the platter when they suspect the notebook's in danger. Get an SSD only if you want raw speed and are willing to live with only 128 or 256GB of internal storage.

For someone in Megan's position, our first recommendation is the Lenovo ThinkPad T420, which might seem strange initially since the machine is primarily known to be a business system. But take a closer look, and you’ll see that Lenovo's notebook has features any consumer would love. At 14 inches, the device is portable enough to take to carry from room to room or take to class for an entire day -- and you don’t even have to worry about battery life.

Outfitted with a nine-cell extended battery, the ThinkPad T420 can last all day and then some. In our standard battery test, the machine endured an incredible 10 hours and 36 minutes, more than double the 5:15 category average. The ThinkPad T420 can be configured with either an SSD or a spacious 500GB hard drive to store plenty of files (that’s the roomiest hard drive configuration), a 720p webcam that provides sharp and detailed pictures, a high-res, 14.1-inch, 1600 x 900  matte display that handles 1080p videos with aplomb and speakers loud enough to fill a medium-sized room. Performance-wise, this fiend of a machine won’t let you down, either. You can get it with a 2.5-GHz Core i5 CPU, 4GB to 8GB  of RAM, and discrete Nvidia graphics so it can handle anything from spreadsheet crunching to light gaming. Plus, it’s got a durable design to boot.

Another alternative to consider is the Dell XPS 15z. A dead ringer for the MacBook Pro in terms of its looks, the highlights of this portable 15-inch machine include a bright 1080p display, a strong battery life of 6 hours and 8 minutes (which is well above the mainstream average of 4:23) and two large speakers on either side of the laptop’s keyboard that thump out loud, quality sound. An optional 2.7-GHz Intel Core i7-2620M processor runs the show along with up to 8GB of RAM, which will let Megan open as many tabs as there are stars in the sky (okay, we're exaggerating -- maybe just a little less than that). Up to 750GB of internal space – even more than the ThinkPad T420 – will satisfy her file-storing needs. And if it turns out Megan is intractable about the presence of an SSD, she can get the laptop configured to have a 256GB variant, too. Finally, the XPS 15z includes a 1.3-megapixel webcam which, while not Skype-certified, is still able to render fine details in the caller’s face.

Ultimately, it still comes down to a matter of trade-offs. If roomier storage is a higher priority, the stylish-looking Dell XPS 15z ($1400 for the unit with the 750GB hard drive configuration; $1700 with a 256GB SSD)  is a better choice. But if durability is the biggest consideration, the Lenovo ThinkPad T420 ($1149 with a 500GB hard disk drive, $1099 with a 128GB SSD and $1319 with a 160GB SSD) will be your best bet. Bonus: There's an eCoupon available for these configurations right now on Lenovo's official website. Good luck, Megan!

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