In the first installment, I compared reader survey results from PC World and Consumer Reports (subscription required) regarding which laptop makers offered the most reliable products, and the best service and support. Lenovo and Apple earned the most kudos in these areas, though there was some variation between the two surveys regarding the reliability of Apple laptops.

This week I consider top choices from those vendors (and others), plus the best times to buy a new laptop. Next week I'll discuss the best places to buy a new laptop; how much should you expect to pay; and ideas for financing your new portable.

Lenovo ThinkPad X61

  • Best Buy, PC World Top 10 Ultraportable Laptops: review
  • Current online pricing: $1535 and up

Lenovo's ThinkPad X61 earned the overall best PCW rating (84) of any Lenovo or Apple laptop currently on any PC World Top 10 laptop chart. (The charts feature power laptops, desktop replacements, and ultraportables.) Only the Micro Express IFL9025, the Top 10 Power Laptops Best Buy, earned a higher rating (85).

The ThinkPad X61 is an ideal ultraportable. It weighs only 3.6 pounds, and its extended-life, four-cell battery lasted an impressive 6 hours, 14 minutes in our tests. With a PCW WorldBench 6 Beta 2 score of 75, it's the best performing of our currently tested ultraportables. (By comparison, Apple's MacBook Air earned a WorldBench 6 Beta 2 score of 57.

There are a few downsides: The ThinkPad X61 lacks an internal optical drive, and the keyboard has an eraserhead pointing device but no touchpad. Overall, though, we found the X61 to be an excellent choice from a company with solid reliability and service scores.

Acer Aspire 5920-6954

  • Best Buy, Top 10 All-Purpose Laptops: review
  • Current online pricing: about $800 and up

Acer didn't receive the same high ratings in service and reliability from PC World readers as did Apple and Lenovo. But the company was rated better-than-average in one out of four reliability measures and two out of four service criteria. None of the other laptop makers (aside from Apple and Lenovo) fared as well. Add that to the fact that this laptop earned the highest PCW score (83) of any Acer portable, and the Aspire 5920-6954 is worth adding to your short list.

The Acer Aspire 5920-6954's under-$1000 price tag is compelling. This laptop offers just about anything you'd want in a budget portable, including a roomy hard drive (250GB in our test unit); an HDMI port for high-definition video; a terrific keyboard; and--a rarity for a laptop in this price range--a dedicated graphics processor (nVidia GeForce 8600M GS with 256MB of memory).

At 7.3 pounds, the Aspire 5920-6954 is a bit of a back breaker, and its battery life was average, at 3.8 hours in our tests. But it offers good performance (WorldBench 6 Beta 2 score: 70) at a price we love.

Apple MacBook Pro

  • No. 6, Top 10 Power Laptops: review
  • Current online pricing: about $1950 and up

If you're a die-hard Windows user who wouldn't ordinarily consider a MacBook, consider this: The 17-inch MacBook Pro set new speed records last year as the fastest Windows laptop in our tests to date. (The MacBook Pro's record has since been broken.) Add to that Apple's excellent ratings for reliability and service in our reader survey, and you've got a compelling power laptop.

The MacBook Pro earned an overall PCW score of 80, which is very good. The laptop is packed with features, including an elegant design that's only 1-inch thick, solid graphics performance, and the fabulous Mac OS X Leopard. At 6.6 pounds, The MacBook Pro is among the lightest 17-inch notebooks available.

Apple didn't pack everything into the MacBook Pro. It lacks memory card slots, has only three USB ports, doesn't offer a cellular broadband option, and comes with an ExpressCard/34 slot instead of a more versatile ExpressCard/54 slot. Battery life was so-so, lasting just 2 hours, 45 minutes on one charge. Still, this gorgeous laptop makes an excellent desktop replacement.

When to Buy

You need to consider several factors if you want to time your laptop purchase to get the best deal.

Often, laptop prices are discounted in late January to February during inventory clearance, in July and August for back-to-school shoppers, and during the year-end holiday season.

Existing laptop models are often discounted when the cheaper-faster-better version is announced or ships. This happens throughout the year, so it's harder to time. If you have a particular laptop maker in mind, consider researching its product introduction cycles for clues as to when to buy.

For example, Apple updates its MacBook Pro lineup approximately every eight to nine months. The first MacBook Pro was announced January 10, 2006, followed by subsequent models nine months later (October 2006), eight months later (June 2007), and then again, another eight months later (February 2008).

If history is any indication, then, it's likely Apple will refresh the MacBook Pro lineup in October or November 2008. Later this year you may find suddenly discontinued MacBook Pro models available at attractive discounts.

I've covered this topic in more detail in "When to Buy a Laptop."

Mobile Computing News, Reviews & Tips

Apple's Tempting iPhone 3G: If you held off on the first-generation iPhone, the new iPhone 3G may finally tempt you. PC World's Melissa J. Perenson offers five reasons to consider the second-generation smart phone from Apple, including price (the 8GB iPhone is $199, down from $399); the faster Web experience; and improved support for international use.

Are Smart Phones Security Risks? A new survey says that smart phones may pose a greater security risk than laptops or mobile storage devices. According to the survey, nine in ten smart phones are given access to company networks without extra security measures. The result: Smart phones can make it easy for thieves who steal them to access confidential information.

XM Radio on BlackBerrys: Owners of any RIM BlackBerry with version 4.2 or later of the BlackBerry operating system can now listen to a limited version of XM's satellite radio service on their handheld regardless of their wireless carrier. Expect to pay about $8 monthly for a service with 20 XM channels, mostly rock and pop.

Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. Martin is also author of the Traveler 2.0 blog. Sign up to have the Mobile Computing Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.