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Balanced Diets for Lighter Laptops

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By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, August 14, 2008

Cheap, lightweight laptops have quietly gotten better over the past year.

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This end of the home-use market is no longer owned by heavy, hot, battery-draining machines running on desktop processors that barely keep up with current software. Not that there isn't a market for such things, but "desktop replacement" laptops poorly serve college students and others who regularly take a computer away from a desk.

Much credit for this improvement goes to a new crop of efficient, compact processors that put out less heat and don't need to be cooled by an array of noisy fans. They've given far more options to budget-minded shoppers who want less than five pounds of laptop hanging off their shoulders.

But here's a downside to this new wealth of portable-PC choices: Almost any new model will do. Buy one with a laptop-optimized processor (Intel's Core 2 Duo has been running away with the light-laptop market) and enough memory (at least a gigabyte on a Mac, 2 GB on a Windows Vista PC), and you can't go wrong.

That was one conclusion from a test drive of four new laptops: Apple's MacBook, Dell's Inspiron 1318, HP's Pavilion tx2500z and Toshiba's Satellite U405-S2854. All featured 12- or 13-inch widescreen LCD screens; weighed just under five pounds; provided more hard-drive space than desktops did a few years ago; and threw in such luxury items as high-speed WiFi, Bluetooth wireless (except on the Dell) and built-in webcams. They'd all suffice for everyday home computing.

But plenty of other things still set them apart.

Let's get the obvious one out of the way first: Mac or PC.

Apple's Mac OS X Leopard makes Windows Vista look clumsy, unmanageable and obsolete. Vista's not nearly as bad as many people regard it, but Microsoft's year-and-a-half-old operating system can't match OS X's simplicity and relative security.

Apple also provides superior music, photo and video programs with its iLife suite; simple and automatic backup tools; and the Boot Camp software that lets you install Windows alongside OS X. Note that of the four tested laptops, only the $1,099 MacBook shipped without any third-party "trialware."

This MacBook ran longer than the other three laptops on one charge while playing a DVD. It lasted three hours and 17 minutes, compared with 2:15 for the Dell (a "pre-production" unit lacking the usual stickers), 2:03 for the Toshiba and 2:00 for the HP.

Buyers who live near an Apple Store can also get free in-person tech support -- something other vendors don't offer.

That said, Apple has put itself at a temporary disadvantage in the cheap-laptop market. The MacBook's basic design has gone two years without major upgrades -- it seems obvious that Apple will redo it soon.

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