Could One of These Be Your Next Laptop?
Despite the popularity of iPads, Android tablets and now “phablets,” you still can’t beat the usefulness of a portable computer with a real keyboard and lots of storage. A few of the newer laptops even provide some of the same features found on tablets including touchscreens and solid state storage. Touchscreens on laptops are becoming more important as tablet and desktop operating systems merge into more gesture-friendly user interfaces like the Metro UI on Windows 8. Although Apple has been slowly merging iOS and Mac OS, they have yet to offer a touchscreen on one of their laptops. We suspect it will only be a matter of time before we see a MacBook “Touch.” Here’s our rundown of some laptops you might want to consider along with some laptops trends to watch for.
Laptop Trends to Watch
Touchscreens Make Windows 8 Much Easier to UseThe new Metro User Interface on Windows 8 just begs to be tapped, swiped, and pinched. Although you can get around with a mouse just fine, there are moments when you just want to reach out and touch the display and with a touchscreen laptop you can have the best of both worlds. Until we see gesture controls replace touchscreens, expect to see many new laptops that include touchscreen displays along with touchpads.
SSD Storage Adds Performance and Reliability SSD stands for Solid State Drive which for a laptop typically means a smaller capacity hard drive that works much faster than an electromechanical magnetic disk drive. SSD drives are not subject to wear and tear and “crashes,” that can occur on magnetic hard drives which makes them much more reliable. SSDs are getting cheaper all the time and currently don’t raise the price of a laptop that much. On the other hand, they don’t  provide nearly the same amount of storage as a magnetic hard drive however, with so much data stored online (in the cloud) we think the tradeoff is worth opting for the SSD.
USB 3.0 and Always On USB PortsApple and Intel may have hoped to replace USB with their Light Peak/Thunderbolt high speed serial port but in our opinion, USB remains the standard interface and although Thunderbolt can run many Gigabits per second faster than USB 3.0, USB 3.0 still offers a huge speed increase over USB 2.0. Many new laptops include both USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 ports which are cross-compatible. A few laptops including some Lenovo Thinkpads and Toshiba Porteges, keep a USB port powered even when the lid is closed or the laptop is “asleep.” This feature can come in very handy when charging a device off the USB port.
Latest Wi-Fi Standard is Still in Draft ModeThe successor to 802.11n is 802.11ac which offers lots of enhancements including higher data rates and greater range from features like beamforming and dual-band bonding. You can read more about this later standard along with a roundup of wireless routers here. Although you can buy wireless routers that incorporate 802.11ac we’re not aware of any laptops that support it however, the draft standard is close to being finalized and we think it’s just a matter of time before we see 802.11ac-equipped laptops.
Asus ViviBook and Zenbook Prime TouchBoth of these ultrabook laptops from Asus offer touchscreens. The Asus VivoBook S400CA was a recent PC Magazine Editors’ Choice who praised it for its “quick bootup from caching drive,” and “great bang for the buck.” You can buy this 14-inch, Ivy Bridge Core i5-powered VivoBook for under $700. The Asus Zenbook Prime Touch UX31A was also a PC Magazine Editors’ Choice who praised the more expensive, 13.3-inch, $1199, ultrabook for being “remarkably thin and lightweight,” and having a “gorgeous 1080p touch display with ISP panel,” although Wired Magazine called it, “good but not quite great.”
Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga and Thinkpad Carbon X1 TouchWe have had hands-on experience with both of these Windows 8 touchscreen laptops from Lenovo. The $999 Lenovo Ideapad Yoga can be transformed from a conventional laptop into a tablet by folding the screen all the way under the keyboard. Although the Ideapad Yoga is a very clever mobile device, we found it a bit strange to feel a keyboard under the display when using it as a tablet even though the keyboard is disabled after it’s rotated a certain amount. We also found the fan somewhat distracting when we were trying to watch a movie on it in a quiet setting.

The $1499 Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon Touch as the name indicates is made of lightweight carbon fiber which makes for a thin and light 14-inch laptop. This laptop has the latest Ivy Bridge processing power along with an SSD drive that makes for a very responsive machine. The Carbon X1 not only offers a touchscreen but there’s also the little red nubbin familiar to many Thinkpad users along with a versatile touchpad. It also has some little things that count like a lighted keyboard and Lenovo’s rapid startup and shutdown. Although a bit on the pricey side, the X1 Carbon Touch is worth considering especially as a MacBook Pro alternative.
Microsoft Surface Windows 8 ProThe Microsoft Surface Windows 8 Pro is the second Windows 8 tablet/laptop from Microsoft following the Microsoft Surface RT which is less expensive than the Pro, is powered by an ARM chip, and only runs a subset of Windows apps including a “lighter” version of Microsoft Office. The very thin and light 13-inch, Intel Core i5-powered, Surface Windows 8 Pro costs $999 and comes with Windows 8 Pro which runs all Windows programs including a full version of Office. Reviewers like the bright 1920 x 1080 screen, signature Surface kickstand and USB 3.0 port.
Toshiba Portege R935The Toshiba Portege R935 is a highly rated 13.3-inch ultrabook that costs around $850. Although it lacks a touchscreen and SSD, the Portege 935 offers lots of other useful features including a rugged magnesium alloy case and USB port with “sleep and charge.” The Portege 935’s cousin, the Toshiba Portege R930 can be configured with SSD and even an optical drive.
Apple MacBook Pro (Retina)The fact that you can buy two touchscreen ultrabooks for the price of a fully configured, Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch ($1499) or Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch ($2199), does not mean you should not consider, what are considered, the highest rated laptops available today. MacBook Pros with Retina displays pack many more pixels into the display than your 1080p HDTV and have noticeably sharper screens. Apple has also paid attention to all the details like a quiet high efficiency fan, long battery life with fast charging times, powernap which allows the MacBook to continue doing some tasks while “sleeping,” and lots more features that make a MacBook fun and easy to use, not to mention the Mac OS and Apple ecosystem.
Samsung Series 5 UltraTouch We’ve always been fans of Samsung laptops ever since our first “Sammy” Netbook. We have found Samsung laptops to be solid and reliable. The 13.3-inch Samsung Series 5 Ultra Touch laptop has a 1366 x 768 (not quite 1080p but close enough) a 10-point touchscreen and 24GB SSD cache drive which is the next best thing to a higher capacity SSD primary drive. The Samsung Series 5 Ultra Touch laptop gets generally good marks and can be purchased for around $850.

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Alternatives or supplements to the above...

I'm sure that these are all great products for those who need the power and flexibility of a "regular" PC, however, my recent purchase of a Chromebook has definitely open my eyes. For $200 I can do 90% of whatever work I need to do, writing emails, surfing the net, doing minutes for the organizations to which I belong, even creating posters and fliers for various events. If I am out and about, I start documents that will later be finished using more sophisticated software on a standard computer. Files get saved to the net or on a thumb-drive for access at a later date. The unit is small, compact, lightweight, and boots very rapidly.

It definitely is not as "sexy" as the products above, but I would ask these questions before you lay out any big bucks for those products, (1) What do you really need them to do that can't be done on a Chromebook?; (2) Can you use the money you save with the Chromebook to buy a better "power" machine for your more sophisticated work? I do a lot of graphics work for which the Chromebook is not my first, second, or even third choice, but outside of that it is my first choice.


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Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga and Thinkpad Carbon X1 Touch

Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga and Thinkpad Carbon X1 Touch - clever, not cleaver idea...

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