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Tech Lab

Weighing in on three large laptops

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Hiawatha Bray
July 10, 2008

Laptop computers don't run on gasoline. This might explain why our cars are getting smaller, while our computers are getting bigger.

Researchers at IDC Corp. in Framingham say Americans will buy more laptop computers this year than desktop machines. Though they're not ideal for playing games or editing videos, laptops easily meet the computing needs of most users. Besides, they're compact, attractive, and portable.

But portability matters little to some users. They want a reliable, powerful home machine that's big enough for comfortable viewing and typing, but also tucks neatly out of sight when company's coming. Computer vendors are happy to oblige.

Making computers smaller can require some fancy engineering, so larger laptops can be cheaper than their little siblings. Japanese computer maker Toshiba sells its 7.5-pound Satellite P305 machines for about $1,000. That buys a 17-inch screen, an Intel Core II Duo processor, four gigabytes of memory, and a 320-gigabyte hard drive.

Like most laptops these days, the Satellite P305 has a small camera mounted above the flat-panel screen for online video chats. Toshiba also includes a face-recognition program that will log you on to the computer on sight. It's a fun feature, though not entirely reliable. You need to get close to the camera and to have plenty of light hitting your face. In ordinary home or office lighting, it often failed to recognize me. With a bright light on my face, it worked fine. Luckily, you can use traditional passwords as a backup.

The Satellite's not the most comfortable machine for touch typists. My fingers skittered across its flat, slick keyboard like a puppy on ice. Still, my experience was generally a happy one, until I tried installing a popular Internet-based action game, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. Apart from delivering hours of good-natured carnage, this humans-versus-aliens slugfest makes for a good test of a computer's processor and 3-D graphics chip. Trouble is, the Toshiba began freezing and crashing once Enemy Territory was installed. It's apparently a software conflict of the sort that happens all too often with high-end computer games. So it's probably not Toshiba's fault.

Indeed, remedies for such problems apply to all computers: Install the latest software updates for your machine. Make sure you have a restore disk - a CD or DVD that will return the computer to its original factory settings. New computers usually come with such a disk, or give you a way to burn one yourself. And of course, regularly back up your files to an external disk or an Internet-based backup service.

Apple Inc. has benefited more from the laptop boom than any other computer maker. Sales surged 61 percent in the first quarter of 2008, and Apple is now the nation's fourth-ranked laptop vendor. Apple's super-thin MacBook Air has attracted most of the media attention, but the company also offers a meatier 17-inch MacBook Pro. At 6.6 pounds, it's twice the weight of the MacBook Air, but nearly a pound less than the Toshiba, and far sleeker - folded, it's just an inch thick. Apple sent the premium version, with an upgraded high-definition monitor that's excellent for movie viewing or professional graphic arts work.

Unlike the Spartan MacBook Air, the Pro has lots of extras. There's a slot-loading DVD burner, built-in stereo speakers, a Nvidia 3-D processor with half a gigabyte of memory for prettier graphics, and a 200-gigabyte hard drive that offers faster data access by spinning at 7,200 revolutions per minute instead of the usual 5,400.

Apple being Apple, you will pay plenty - $3,400 for the machine I tried. But you will get a portable that's powerful enough to serve as a main machine and light enough for the occasional plane ride.

The least portable computer of the bunch provided the most fun. Heaven knows why Hewlett-Packard Co. designed a 15.5-pound "notebook" computer with a 20-inch screen, a five-speaker stereo with subwoofer, and a remote control. But the result, the Pavilion HDX Entertainment Notebook PC, is an impressive home entertainment center. I tried a high-end model priced at $2,500 but HP offers HDX notebooks for as little as $1,600.

It's a full-fledged computer, running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Vista. But the HDX also packs a digital tuner for HDTV viewing and an FM radio tuner as well. You can order it with a Blu-Ray disk drive for playing high-definition movies. And the huge screen and high-quality graphics processor are excellent for gaming. I got Enemy Territory up and running without a hitch, and spent several happy hours getting massacred.

The remote control with its tiny buttons is hard to manage, and HP's entertainment software interferes with Microsoft's Windows Media Center software. That makes the HDX more difficult and confusing than it should be. Still, the HDX is an appealing device that's well-suited to bedrooms or college dorms. It's far too large and heavy for real portability, but once you've tried an HDX, you may want to stay home anyway.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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