Over the past year, we've seen netbooks explode on the scene, a paper-thin ultraportable challenge what we thought was possible, and powerful desktop replacements that really are suitable replacements for your desktop PC. But what were some of the most interesting laptops of 2008? Glad you asked.
HP Voodoo Envy 133
Admit it: You've said to your boss that you need an ultraportable laptop because it would give you easy and instant access to your work data. But the truth is, the main reason anyone buys a sleek, slim ultraportable is to turn heads. The HP Voodoo Envy 133 is one such shiny new toy, with just enough features to legitimize it as a slick business box as well.
Like the Apple MacBook Air, the Envy 133 sports enough interesting design choices for it to be a genuine attention-getter. Unfortunately, however, it also shares the Air's anemic guts and high cost: The model we tested, which sports a $2349 price tag, comes equipped with an Intel Core 2 Duo 1.6-GHz CPU (SP7500), 2GB of RAM, and a poky 80GB hard drive that spins at 4200 rpm. And the system didn't exactly sail through WorldBench 6, receiving an overall score of 64.
Welcome back, Samsung. The company has been lying low in the U.S. laptop market, but after kicking the tires on the Samsung X460, I can honestly say Samsung was missed. In the X460 you get a 14.1-inch, thin-and-light, all-purpose laptop that's perfectly road-ready and goes toe-to-toe with Lenovo's ThinkPad X300--even though the X300 is an ultraportable-class machine. The X460 is smartly priced, too: The configuration of our review unit goes for $1699. That money buys you solid performance in the form of a 2.26-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 CPU, 3GB of RAM, and a discrete graphics processor.
Lenovo ThinkPad SL400
Usually, ThinkPads don't come cheap: You expect to pay dearly for the classy keyboard, the rugged chassis, and whatever top-notch parts lie under the hood. That isn't quite the case with Lenovo's SL400 laptops. These affordable, all-purpose machines start in the neighborhood of $650, yet they still offer much of what you expect from a ThinkPad. The ThinkPad SL400 configuration we tested was at the upper end of the series, selling for about $1223 (as of October 23, 2008), and it's a fairly solid deal. Inside sits a reasonably speedy Intel Core 2 Duo 2.26-GHz P8400 CPU backed up by 2GB of RAM and a 256MB nVidia GeForce 9300M GPU. Not too shabby. In our tests this combination performed well, garnering a score of 84 on our WorldBench 6 benchmark test suite--a strong enough showing for the SL400 to finish near the top of our results.
Sony VAIO VGN-Z598U
You've probably heard of the "Apple tax," the premium you pay for an Apple product. The same could be said for some of Sony's more distinctively designed laptops, such as the Sony VAIO VGN-Z598U. This ultraportable starts at $1499, but our review unit's configuration inflated the total to an eye-bulgingly-high price tag of $4450. If money is no object (yeah, as if that were the case these days), then by all means, scoop up this overstuffed but lightweight beauty.
Primary blame for the sticker shock goes to a pair of 128GB solid-state drives, which jack up the starting price by roughly two grand. But our test unit also packed a 2.53-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P9500 CPU, 4GB of RAM, and a dedicated nVidia GeForce 9300M GS graphics processor into its tiny 12.4-by-1.3-by-8.3-inch frame. The twin SSDs probably contributed to the VGN-Z598U's astounding WorldBench 6 score of 107, the highest we've seen from an ultraportable. And despite its powerful configuration, the VGN-Z598U weighs only about 3.3 pounds (4.2 pounds with the power brick).
Apple MacBook Air
The MacBook Air is a superslim ultraportable laptop that you can slip into very thin spaces. As with anything else that Apple crafts, the Air's industrial design is phenomenal. But its beauty is little more than skin deep. Despite having a 1.6-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo L7500 (a relatively powerful CPU for an ultraportable), the Air scored behind some of the other ultraportables we tested in its 3-pound weight class--even models that had slower processors. After we installed Apple's Boot Camp software and Windows Vista, the Air posted a mark of 57 on our WorldBench 6 tests. You might suspect that the Air's being a Mac could have something to do with those results. Perhaps it did, but previous Apple laptops haven't had any performance issues on WorldBench--in fact, for a time, a MacBook Pro held the title of the fastest laptop we'd tested.
The Air's performance might not be the best, but its design is spectacular. The anodized brushed-aluminum casing is cool to the touch, and even the most anti-Mac person can't help but appreciate it. Miraculously, the Air houses a 13.3-inch, 1280-by-800-pixel display; a roomy keyboard; and a double-wide, multitouch trackpad within its petite, 0.75-inch-thick frame. The gorgeous keyboard's cut-out key design is not only unique but also provides huge keys that feel great. They're amply spaced, too, so you won't find yourself regularly hitting the wrong keys.
Aside from a headphone jack, a USB port, and a mini-DVI port, however, it isn't well equipped. It lacks an optical drive, and to connect to a network via ethernet you must purchase a $29 USB adapter. And starting at the machine's base price of $1700, you pay a lot for the Air's style.