Computing on the move

SONY VAIO VGN-AR31S
£1,999
http://www.sonystyle.co.uk

Packed to the hilt with processing power, a 17-inch screen and even a next-generation blu-ray DVD drive, this is a beast of a laptop. An Intel Core Duo T7200 is at the heart of the machine, and it’s blazingly fast, especially because of its 2Gb of memory.

Don’t think it’s only the looks that are impressive, as the build quality is also high, as it needs to be to bear the weight of the huge screen. The keyboard is centrally mounted and comfortable to use, and this isn’t a machine that’s been made to look "cool" – the black finish will look smart anywhere. Battery life is about 1.5 hours, but the size and weight of the machine aren’t designed for mobile travel, so we’re not too concerned.

The X-black screen is simply stunning, running at an indulgent 1,920 x 1,200 pixels, and it’s bright too. Horizontal viewing angles are good, but not top-notch vertically – the panel needed a little adjustment to keep the contrast even from top to bottom. As you’d expect, video playback and digital photos benefit from the apparent extra contrast from the glossy screen, although some slight motion-lag is evident. There’s also a neat little video camera above the screen, which is perfect for video-conferencing.

It’s supplied with Vista Home premium, and there’s a remote control to let you take advantage of the hybrid analogue/DVB-T TV tuner with its PVR capabilities – an infra-red receiver is on the front for the included remote. The coaxial input is full-sized, negating the need for breakout cables. The speakers give a reasonable volume, but bass response is limited, and you’ll need more to really get immersed in music and movies.

There’s every type of port you could want, and overall it’s tough to fault the Vaio. At the very high end of the market where this is aimed, you’re really paying for that power – but, with the Vaio now being seen as "the" laptop brand, if you can afford it, you won’t be disappointed.

PROS: Great screen, power and blu-ray DVD drive.
CONS: High price tag.

PHILIPS X200
£850
http//:www.pcworld.co.uk

The Philips X200 is only available in the UK from PC World, which has dubbed this notebook "The Longneck". This is fitting, as it’s the first machine to be released with a screen a little different from the norm. Instead of being attached to the main body of the notebook like any other machine, you’ll find this one sits on a central column, rather like the average external monitor. This means you can raise the 12.1-inch screen up and down so you can pitch it exactly in line with your eye. This makes for a great screen, and although it’s small, gives it that desktop replacement feel.

Extra pressure is placed on the design when the screen is raised to the maximum height but we found that the build quality was good enough to support it. Made from toughened plastic, it’s doesn’t have the most luxuriant of finishes but at a cost of £850 (including VAT), it certainly offers decent value for money.

The most appealing fact is that the X200 only weighs 2.1kg, so you can carry it around with you. The panel is widescreen and comes with a Super-TFT coating so images look as impressive as the notebook’s design.

The main specification is impressive, though. Powered by an Intel Core Duo U2500 chip, you’ll find this is a dual-core offering, but as it needs to run in a slim case it’s an ultra-low voltage chip. There’s 1Gb of memory, and although it may be small this doesn’t limit the amount of connections you’ll find on board. As well as a 1.3-megapixel webcam, integrated Bluetooth connectivity and 802.11g, there is a DVD rewriter and DVI port, so you can either watch movies on the laptop’s own screen or outsource them to a large digital screen.

Overall, this is a bit of an odd beast – but one that will definitely turn heads in meetings.

PROS: Innovative design.
CONS: Screen is relatively small for a desktop replacement.

ACER ASPIRE 9813WKMI
£940
acer.co.uk

The Acer is a versatile and great value alternative to a desktop PC. It’s one of the biggest laptops I’ve ever seen, and at over 7.5kg you won’t want to carry around much, but in addition to a huge 20.1-inch screen, there’s room for an almost full-sized keyboard equipped with a dedicated numeric keypad. The keys are a little spongy when compared with some of the best models on test, but they’re perfectly usable. The only thing that lets the side down are the speakers, which although reasonably loud often left film dialogue muffled.

Considering its keen price, the Acer’s specification is quite generous. Although the Core 2 Duo T5500 is a little slow compared with the competition, it’s still a perfectly capable performer. The gigabyte of memory is enough to keep Vista Home Premium running reasonably smoothly too. Another boon is the built-in TV tuner, which is capable of receiving both analogue and digital terrestrial TV signals. Thanks to Vista’s sublime Media Center, the supplied remote control and the massive screen, both watching and recording TV is a real pleasure.

If you need a laptop that you can carry around by hand then look elsewhere, but as a compact alternative to a desktop PC, the Acer is a versatile and great value proposition.

PROS: Incredible 20.1-inch screen.
CONS: Be careful lifting it…

HP COMPAQ NX9420
£1,315
http://www.hp.com/uk

The austere grey exterior gives away the NX9420’s business credentials, but that doesn’t mean it would be out of place in your home. While it isn’t blessed with drop-dead good looks, it’s got plenty of class where it counts – build quality is superb and the slight flex in the base and screen helps the HP shrug off knocks.

Using the HP is an absolute pleasure too thanks to the superb keyboard and trackpad. The keyboard provides well-spaced keys with a wonderfully positive action. The sensible design extends to the shortcut key placed above the numeric keypad which brings up the Windows Calculator in an instant. The trackpad is worthy of equal praise as it’s located away from errant thumbs and precise enough to rarely see you reaching for a USB mouse. The 17-inch screen may be dwarfed by the Acer’s, but as it has the same high resolution of 1680×1050, you don’t actually lose any Desktop space. The display gives a bright, high-contrast image but the NX9420 had a noticeably grainy quality. Partnering a fast Intel Core 2 Duo T7400 processor with a gigabyte of memory makes it a great performer, although the graphics card is a little slow. Overall, this is a classy piece of kit.

PROS: Superb build quality and sleek design.
CONS: High price.

TOSHIBA SATELLITE PRO P100
From £899
http://www.toshiba.co.uk

The P100’s teal green lid is a  welcome departure from the usual drab colour palette adopted by most notebook manufacturers. Popping the hood reveals a brushed silver chassis with a black keyboard inset, but the overall look is both attractive and professional.

Weighing 3.3kg and with dimensions of 314 x 259 x 34.9mm, the P100 is firmly in the desktop replacement category. It’s clearly been designed for use as a multimedia powerhouse rather than a mobile workstation. The notebook’s most innovative feature by far is its touchpad, which as well as being a mouse doubles as a bay of quick-launch buttons to easily access your most-used applications. This is designed for those using an external mouse, as in these cases the touch pad usually remains idle. Switching between the two modes is done at the tap of a button, and assigning applications to the three buttons is painless.

Continuing the innovations, it’s also one of the very first notebooks we’ve seen to include a numpad attached to the right of the keyboard. This is handy for those who spend a lot of time on data-entry tasks, but it also results in the keyboard feeling quite cramped. The letter keys are full-size, but most other keys have been shrunk to fit, which had me frequently hitting keys unintentionally. It’s not as much of an issue once you’re used to it, but I’d prefer a proper full-size keyboard to a tacked-on numpad any day.

Lined horizontally along the top of the keyboard are six handy buttons for controlling audio/video playback. In addition, the front bezel contains headphone and microphone jacks, as well as a volume wheel so you don’t have to drop everything to fiddle with audio settings mid-film.

Thankfully, the notebook’s visual features look just as impressive as its audio options, with Toshiba adopting a 17" SXGA+ display that offers up a high 1680×1050 widescreen resolution. The processor used is a Intel Core Duo T2400 (1.83GHz). Your storage needs are catered for by a 100Gb SATA hard drive, while backing up files is trouble-free thanks to a dual-layer DVD writer that supports all of the major optical media formats.
Those requiring additional security will be pleased at the inclusion of a fingerprint sensor that can biometrically lock down all data. This feature has previously been exclusive to business notebooks, so it’s great to see it filtering down to multimedia products as well.

PROS: Great design, innovative touchpad.
CONS: 100-minute battery life is not great.
 

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