Photograph: Robert CardinRight now could be a great time to splurge on a laptop, given that many come with Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system to sweeten the deal. But is the new OS reason enough to jump now, or should you hang on to your trusty Windows XP laptop for a while longer?
To find out, we rounded up 15 Vista-equipped laptops from Acer, Asus, Dell, Fujitsu, Gateway, HP, Lenovo, Micro Express, and Toshiba, in two categories: desktop-replacement models powerful enough to serve as your Primary PC, and ultraportables weighing less than 5 pounds. We tested speed and battery life and carefully evaluated screens, keyboards, and other vital features.
We ranked the best five notebooks in each category and awarded Best Buys to the $2301 HP Pavilion dv9000t, a desktop replacement, and the $2150 Dell XPS M1210, an ultraportable. The jazzed-up dv9000t is a snazzy multimedia laptop with a 17-inch screen and designer exterior, while the M1210 is Dell at its best in a 4.9-pound package complete with a dedicated entertainment interface, smoking speed, and great battery life.
This roundup also marks the debut of WorldBench 6 Beta 2, the latest version of PC World's test suite for computers. Our PC World Test Center team refreshed the benchmark with Vista support and expanded tests that give multicore systems a workout. We also improved our battery test with a new automated script that rotates simulated typing with full-screen DVD-quality videos. (In view of its various updates, of course, WorldBench 6 Beta 2 scores are not comparable to previous WorldBench 5 results.) Visit PC World Test Center InfoCenter for more information.
So what can you expect from this first batch of Vista-enabled portables? Though graphically busy and a memory hog, Vista and its Aero 3D environment look great and run well on these suitably powerful laptops; most models in our roundup came with 2GB of memory. If you buy a Vista notebook now, however, you'll encounter more problems with hardware and software compatibility than you would have with an early Windows XP laptop; for example, some docking stations currently disable Aero. But most sources of incompatibility are identical to those you'd run into with a Vista desktop PC, and they should soon fade as vendors update their drivers and software applications.
While a few of the models here are XP-era laptops with an OS transplant, others are among the first notebook PCs to take advantage of some daring new Vista-inspired evolutionary advances. For example, though the Toshiba Port�g� R400-S4931 missed out on our chart due to limited performance and a hefty $3499 price tag, it and the $2199 Asus W5fe-2P025E were the only two models to implement Vista SideShow technology. SideShow-equipped laptops come with a small secondary screen in the lid or edge--a little like external displays on clamshell phones--that can display useful information (such as Outlook appointments) even when the notebook is turned off.
The Port�g� R400-S4931, the Asus U1F, and the Fujitsu LifeBook P7230 all have vivid new LED-backlit screens that are noticeably brighter and easier to read than a standard fluorescent-backlit panel. The LED-backlit screens are also thinner and use about a third less power, making for lighter laptops with longer battery life. In another first, we formally tested a laptop--the Acer Aspire 9810-6829--with a mammoth 20.1-inch screen.
Charts and Detailed Reviews
Our two charts cover the five best desktop replacements (or power laptops) and the five best ultaportable laptops. Our detailed reviews cover all 15 of the laptops we tested for this story: seven desktop replacements and eight ultraportables.
Best Vista Desktop Replacements
Aside from the Acer, with its 20.1-inch display, each desktop replacement we tested had a 17-inch screen; and some came with TV tuners, HD DVD drives, Media Center remotes, and more.
See our desktop replacements chart, the Top 5 Power Laptops, which includes these models:
HP Pavilion dv9000t
Micro Express NP5760
Acer Aspire 9810-6829
Toshiba Satellite P105-S6217
Acer Aspire 9300-5005
Best Vista Ultraportables
Most of the lightweight laptops we tested offer great battery life for the road; and some have bright LED-backlit screens, cellular broadband connectivity, or even Vista SideShow displays.
See our chart, the Top 5 Ultraportable Laptops, which includes these model:
Dell XPS M1210
Lenovo ThinkPad X60 Tablet
HP Pavilion tx1000
Fujitsu LifeBook P7230
Toshiba Portege R400-S4931
What's Next for Laptops?
Windows Vista may have brought some interesting features (such as Vista SideShow displays) to certain laptops, but a number of even more-exciting laptop changes are in store.
By the time you read this, Intel is likely to have unveiled the fourth generation of its Centrino mobile platform, code-named Santa Rosa. In April, the company announced that this platform revision for premium business notebooks (with extra features such as Active Management Technology, for IT staffers who manage a multitude of notebooks) will be known as Centrino Pro; at press time, however, Intel hadn't yet revealed the nomenclature that it intends to use for the consumer variant of the Santa Rosa platform.
Santa Rosa will include mobile Intel 965PM or GM graphics chip sets (the latter with integrated GMA X3000 graphics) and an 800-MHz frontside bus (up from Centrino Duo's 667-MHz bus) that can underclock during periods of low CPU use to save power. Also confirmed are DDR2-800 memory support, built-in draft-802.11n Wi-Fi with 802.11a/b/g backward compatibility, and a new CPU socket supporting a range of faster mobile processors expected to debut in the same time frame.
Intel has said that its Turbo Memory technology, which uses Vista's ReadyBoost feature and either 512MB or 1GB of NAND flash memory to speed up application launch times, will be an option rather than a requirement for Centrino laptops. Santa Rosa notebooks will probably also support not-yet-available hybrid hard drives that will be equipped with built-in flash memory.
Flash memory-based solid-state drives constitute another replacement alternative for traditional hard disks, and 32GB versions have recently begun providing performance, power, and weight benefits to ultralight portables such as Sony's VAIO UX and Fujitsu's LifeBook P1610 and B6210.
Meanwhile, AMD will soon launch its next-generation mobile platform, which includes the Hawk processor family (the first 65nm mobile part will appear in this family), and the recently announced M690 mobile chip set. The M690 chip set supports an ATI Radeon X1250 graphics option that can handle DVI or HDMI output and built-in ATI Avivo image and video enhancement, as well as third-party 802.11n Wi-Fi products and hybrid hard drives. The M690T variant will support 32MB of a local frame buffer technology that is touted to extended battery life by ensuring that the CPU remains in a low-power-state mode when appropriate.
-- Danny Allen