Computer, Notebook and Tablet Tech Treasures [2011 Cool Yule Tools]

Computers and notebooks and tablets, oh my!

We’ve always had a category covering the world of computers in our Cool Yule Tools holiday gift guide. But then computers gave way to notebooks (so we combined the category), and then tablets have entered the scene. With the arrival and success of the iPad and other tablets, many have said that “the PC is dead”, and we’ll admit, our choices of cool computers are fewer than in years past. But there are still some nice systems out there, here are a bunch of desktops, notebooks, and yes, tablets, that we think would make for some good gifts:

Watch a slideshow version of some of these products.

Products reviewed in this categoryMacBook Air (Model MC965LL/A), by AppleThe reviews

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, with Verizon Wireless 4G LTE data service

LifeBook TH700 Tablet PC, by Fujitsu

Aspire TimelineX AS3830T-6417 13.3-Inch Laptop, by Acer

ThinkPad X1 notebook, by Lenovo

ViewPad 10pro Dual OS Tablet (32 GB), by ViewSonic

IdeaCentre B520 all-in-one, by Lenovo

Pavilion g6 notebook, by HP

HP Pavilion dv4t series notebooks, by HP

ThinkPad Tablet, by Lenovo

PeeWee Pivot 2.0 Tablet Laptop, by PeeweePC

Killer Wireless-N 1103 wireless network adapter, by Bigfoot Networks

SeeThru cover for MacBook Pro (15-inch version), by Speck

MacBook Air (Model MC965LL/A), by Apple My holiday gift to me this year? A shiny new MacBook Air, of course. I switched to Macs about three years ago, but this is my first Mac notebook – and I couldn’t be happier. It’s light (less than three pounds – perfect for travel), fast (1.7 GHz. dual-core i5 with 4GB of memory and 128GB of very fast flash storage), and slick. The keyboard is backlit and the 300-Mbps Wi-Fi is dual-band. It has a Thunderbolt port and a multi-touch trackpad. Both battery life and audio quality are great. It boots up in seconds, and is, like all Macs, very easy to use. The 13-inch screen has a 1,440 by 900 native resolution, significantly better than most notebooks, and is bright and clear.

So you think you know Apple?

OK, the person you’re buying for may not be a Mac person, and you may be put off by the price (around $1,300 as configured – there are some cheaper and more expensive Air models available), but there’s a reason Mac users are so loyal. Anyone receiving this notebook from you will be your best friend forever. Seriously, if you haven’t considered a Mac before, the new Air model is an excellent reason to do so. I know you, or someone you really, really like – will be more than happy with this one.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: $1,299 as configured

Reviewed by C.J. Mathias

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, with Verizon Wireless 4G LTE data serviceIf you’re looking for a tablet that’s not an iPad 2, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 should definitely be on the list of other tablets to consider. From a technical standpoint, it’s got many of the same (if not better) features and specifications than the Apple competitor, and there should be enough apps within the Android Marketplace to satisfy your needs to customize the device to your particular needs.

Let’s review, quickly, on the specs: a 10.1-inch widescreen (1,280 by 800 LCD), 1GB of RAM (up to 32GB of storage capacity), Wi-Fi, 1GHz dual-core NVIDIA Tegra 2 processor, two cameras (2 megapixel front-facing, 3 megapixel rear camera for photos and video at 720p resolution), Android Honeycomb OS, and the ability to watch movies (built-in Flash lets you view videos on Web sites that may not play on the iPad), play music, and access Google’s services and other apps through the Android Market. It’s about the same size and weight of the iPad 2, as well.

Another thing that the Galaxy Tab has over the iPad 2, however, is 4G LTE data access from Verizon Wireless. While most people will likely be fine with Wi-Fi access only, connecting via 4G LTE offers faster data access and speeds for places beyond what Wi-Fi covers (most of the world beyond your office, home or coffee shop). This can be valuable for in-the-field workers, or for out-of-the way spots that you may find yourself in. Having 4G access compared to 3G access is a big difference, too: In our testing, we received more than 20Mbps of download speeds on a regular basis within the 4G coverage area.

Choosing between the Apple iOS vs. Google Android can come down to a personal preference, such as Pepsi vs. Coke. A lot depends on what you (or your gift recipient) is already used to. For example, if they own an Android phone and you want to get them a tablet, than sticking to Android makes sense.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: Starts at $530, plus data service costs.

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Aspire TimelineX AS3830T-6417 13.3-Inch Laptop, by AcerWhile I’m a Mac user (see previous writeup), I also recognize that (A) PCs based on Windows 7 are quite usable, (B) non-Mac notebooks usually cost less (a lot less) than Macs, and (C) many people are not Mac users.

So, needing a notebook PC for the test lab, I chose one of the latest Acer TimelineX-series products. Why is this a great gift? Well, notebooks should be thin, light, and fast. This one is only about an inch thick, about four pounds, and includes a 2.1 GHz Intel core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive. There’s no optical drive (who needs one of those anymore, really?), but the 13.3-inch display with 1,366 by 768 resolution in 16:9 aspect ratio was bright and clear, with excellent graphics performance (it uses the same chipset as the MacBook Air).

Very important for me was the HDMI port and a USB 3.0 port, which is still very rare in notebooks at any price today. This port will be great for testing all those upcoming gigabit-plus wireless LANs hitting the market. Other features include 300Mbps 802.11n wireless (2.4GHz. only, though) a Gigabit Ethernet port, Bluetooth 3.0+HS, and the 64-bit edition of Windows 7 Home Premium. The really good news: all of this, in stunning cobalt blue, is less than $600.

Setup was fast and simple, the included junkware is minimal, and you’re good to go quite quickly. The TimelineX operates pretty fast, even running that clunky Windows OS. If you have someone on your holiday list in need of a new PC, check out the Acer TimelineX – it’s a great value.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: $597.89 at Amazon

Reviewed by C.J. Mathias

ThinkPad X1 notebook, by Lenovo If you like thin and powerful notebooks, the ThinkPad X1 should definitely be on your list of possibilities. The X1 features a super-thin, 16mm profile but with some powerful processors - you can get up to a second-generation, Intel Core i7 processor (the unit we tested had a core i5). Another great feature is the Lenovo RapidCharge, which quickly recharges the battery to 80% capacity within 30 minutes - for fully drained systems, this is a great way to get back up and running. With the external slice battery that attaches to the bottom of the system (it also angles the notebook for better typing), you can get up to 10 hours of battery life.

Other unique features include a 13.3-inch screen with Corning Gorilla Glass and a spill-resistant, LED backlit keyboard. Speaking of the keyboard, it's a nice chiclet style that has "noise suppression" technology, making for quieter typing. You might not think that's a nice feature, but it's definitely cool when you're doing an interview and taking notes - the other person doesn't hear the clickety clicking of the keyboard.

Other features include up to 8GB of RAM, hard drive up to 250GB, a low-light sensitive HD webcam, options for wireless WAN connectivity (it comes with 802.11 Wi-Fi), one USB 3.0 port and a USB 2.0 port (although those are in the back, something a bit bizarre). Because of the unit's thin profile, there's no optical drive. The system comes with Windows 7 Home Premium, but you can upgrade to the Professional (either 32- or 64-bit).

With these unique features, the X1 is a very nice option for business users, but they'll also appreciate the styling and protection features for when they're out and about. IT will like the emphasis on security and protection as well.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: Starts at $1,199 (Web pricing)

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

LifeBook TH700 Tablet PC, by Fujitsu Tablets are, of course, all the rage, and, don’t get me wrong, they make dandy holiday gifts. But I’m in the camp that believes that the notebook is hardly doomed and will be around for some time - there’s a lot to be said for fast processors, “real” operating systems, and full-size, physical keyboards suitable for typing holiday product reviews.

But the appeal of a touch screen is undeniable, so how about a notebook with one of those? Enter the Fujitsu TH700 family, the latest in a long line of products that features a notebook form factor with a screen that swivels 180 degrees to become a (OK, somewhat thick – at about 1.5 inches - and heavy – more than four pounds, causing it to lose a star in our ratings) tablet? I tried out a TH700 based on a 2.53GHz. Core i3 with 4 GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive, running W7HP. The screen is 12.1 inches and has a resolution of 1280x800 (take that, iPad). It also has HDMI out and gigabit Ethernet, as well as a fingerprint reader and a “spill-resistant” keyboard. The DVD+/-RW drive can be swapped for a second battery, and even the internal dust filter can be cleaned by the user.

OK, as noted above, this type of product is no substitute for the sleekness of a pure tablet, but a pen/touch interface for Windows will prove quite popular with many. It’s easy to use. And it’s a great value at the price – less than $900.

But count on spending an hour doing initial setup. The supplied pen works fairly well with a little practice, but a finger can also be used, also with a little practice. There’s an on-screen keyboard, so you can use Windows 7 in full tablet mode. Of course, most people will want to do this only with certain applications; the touchpad and its buttons work just fine as well. But flipping the screen around and using the TH700 as a pure Windows touchscreen has its advantages. So, no, this won’t replace the iPad, mostly because of the slickness of the iPad and the weight of the Fujitsu, but the TH700 can fill the bill quite nicely for anyone looking for a tablet interface to W7.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price: $899 at B&H Photo, other models available (and judging by the Fujitsu Web site, this model is already obsolete).

Reviewed by C.J. Mathias

ViewPad 10pro Dual OS Tablet (32 GB), by ViewSonic This may not be a smack-yourself-in-the-forehead innovation, but a tablet that runs both Windows 7 Pro and Android simultaneously (via BlueStacks) is a pretty clever idea. However, there are a few compromises here. First, the ViewSonic10pro weighs about two pounds, which, while amazing for a tablet that runs Windows, is still heavier than an iPad. The screen resolution is only 1,024 by 600, which, while fine for most Android tasks, is pretty skimpy for Windows. But expandability and flexibility are way better than most tablets, with a USB port, a mini HDMI port, a front-facing 1.3 megapixel camera, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, a MicroSD slot, and a 32GB SSD (a 16GB version with W7 Home Premium is available for about $100 less).

In practice, though, a little experience is needed to get used to the UI. Flick scrolling works, but can be frustrating at times – it can take several attempts to hit what you’re aiming at. The on-screen keyboard pops up at times when starting an application; this is strange. Fan noise is noticeable. And the 10pro doesn’t feel as responsive as an iPad, but, to be fair, it is a lot more flexible.

The 10pro includes Thinix TabletBrowser, which is a set of tools that make it easier to do simple tasks, such as selecting a particular Web page or running a particular application, on a Windows-based tablet. It also makes configuration settings easier to access. Interestingly, Windows seems pretty responsive on the 10pro, so there probably won’t be a big need for Android except to run specific Android apps.

The bottom line here is anyone looking for a Windows tablet with a few extra bells and whistles, possibly including Android, will find the 10pro an interesting option. The software needs a bit of work, and the screen is small, but, hey, if you want Windows on a tablet, you get it here.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price: $699.99 (Amazon)

Reviewed by C.J. Mathias

IdeaCentre B520, by LenovoThe Lenovo IdeaCentre is an all-in-one in more ways than one. In terms of form factor, this is your basic all-in-one computer system, where the display and computer is integrated into one stylish, black and silver device that’s held vertical by a sturdy stand. That’s good thing because this sucker weighs a lot – the box says 11.49kg net weight. I don’t even need to do the math to know that you’re not going to be moving this baby around the house once you get it set up.

In terms of function, Lenovo is trying to present the IdeaCentre as your all-in-one device for computing, social networking, playing games, watching TV, watching movies, doing video chats, storing pictures, etc. You name it, you can do it on the Lenovo B520.

The 23-inch screen is multi-touch, the mouse and keyboard are Bluetooth, there’s a 2TB hard drive, it plays Blu-Ray discs, there’s a TV tuner and remote controller, plus Lenovo claims that there’s some 3D functionality (it even comes with 3D glasses).  The processor is an Intel Core i7-2600 (3.46GHz), and there’s 8GB of RAM. The OS is Windows 7 Home Premium, and there are all the ports and connectors that you could ever want.

Except for the fact that the Bluetooth mouse all of sudden stopped working, the IdeaCentre performed admirably. I found members of my family who have with their own laptops gravitating to the Lenovo IdeaCentre, lured by the large screen and fast keyboard.  

But is the Lenovo IdeaCentre right for you? On the one hand, the world seems to be moving toward lighter, smaller and more mobile, rather than bigger, heavier and stuck in one place. Then again, it all depends on how many computer users you have in your house and how heavy your total DVD watching / TV show watching / game playing / doing homework / checking email / Web surfing adds up to. If your needs are on the low side, you could buy one of these and put it in a public spot in the house where everybody can get a crack at it.

On the other hand, with a list price of $1,999 for the unit we tested (Ed. Note: The systems start at $1,099), you can buy four iPads. Or you can buy two iPads and a couple of flat-screen TVs. You can even buy two pretty nice notebooks. You don’t get the 23-inch screen and all of the bells and whistles, but you won’t have many arguments over whose turn it is to play Angry Birds.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price (as tested): $1,999; systems start at $1,099

Reviewed by Neal Weinberg

Pavilion g6 notebook, by HP If you go on the HP web site and start browsing for laptops, you find several categories: There are minis, ultra-portables, high-performance and the ENVY product lines. There is also the category of “everyday computing.” HP’s marketing department must have been on vacation the day they came up with that one, since that term doesn’t really grab you and make you want to run out to Best Buy.

Then again, that is an accurate description of the no-frills, powerful, yet inexpensive and well-built Pavilion G6 notebook. Two things you notice right away are the utter simplicity of the form factor, and a big, sharp, 15.6-inch screen.

Remember when laptops had all kinds of buttons and dials and stuff above the keyboard? The G6 has none of that. There’s a keyboard. There’s a simple power button. There’s a trackpad with right/left-click buttons. There’s a webcam. That’s it.

Under the hood, the Pavilion G6 packs a punch. It’s not the fastest laptop you can buy, but it does sport an Intel Core i3 (2.53 GHz) chip, 4GB of RAM, and a 450 GB hard drive. The OS is 64-bit Windows 7 Home Premium. For installed software, you get the basics: Windows Media Center, Paint, Snapfish, Cyberlink DVD Suite and YouCam, Microsoft Office Starter, etc. The Pavilion weighs in at a hefty 5.5 pounds. It doesn’t have some of the latest bells and whistles, like touchscreen features. But for less than $500, you’re getting a solid, well-built device that will satisfy your basic computing needs.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price: Starts at $449

Reviewed by Neal Weinberg

HP Pavilion dv4t series notebooks, by HP HP considers the Pavilion dv4t series as part of its "ultra-portable" series, these are small notebooks that aren't quite netbooks (which HP calls mini-PCs). The 14-inch notebook (LED with 1,366 by 768 resolution) starts with a second-generation Intel Core i3 processor (2330M, 2.2GHz), upgradeable to a Core i5. Other features include 4GB of RAM, an Intel HD Graphics 3000 card, Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit, 640GB 5400 hard drive, integrated webcam, six-cell battery with 7.25 hours of life, and built-in 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi.

The system I tested had three USB ports and an HDMI output port, in case you wanted to stream Internet TV services to a larger HD display. The overall look and feel of the device was good, it didn't particularly scream unique in any way - I prefer higher performance notebooks aimed at multimedia, graphics or gaming functionality, but this is still a pretty good basic computer system for someone who wants to connect to the Internet, do email, listen to some music and chat via Skype or other services.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price: Starts at $549.99

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

ThinkPad Tablet, by Lenovo Offered as a tablet for business purposes, the ThinkPad Tablet runs the Google Android 3.1 Honeycomb operating system, and comes with an optional pen with digitizer for customers who want the additional feeling of a stylus for handwriting purposes. Specifications include a dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 processor from Nvidia, a 10.1-inch display, up to 1GB of memory, up to 64GB of SSD storage and integrated front (2 megapixel) and back (5 megapixel) digital cameras.

Unlike the Apple iPad, this tablet supports Flash video content, has a full USB 2.0 port and micro-USB slot, as well as a mini HDMI port for displaying on a larger monitor. Network connectivity includes 802.11b/g/n, and it has a SIM slot for 3G wireless access. The optional keyboard plugs in via the USB port and provides a stand for the tablet as well as a protective cover. The full qwerty keyboard provides a better content input experience, and it also includes a ThinkPad "nub" (Lenovo calls it the optical TrackPoint) for mouse navigation (it's fun to see a mouse cursor travel around on a tablet screen).

Lenovo has done a good job at adding its touch to a standard Android tablet -- the ThinkPad includes many preloaded apps out of the box, including Netflix and Documents to Go (for accessing Office documents). The company's Lenovo Launcher on the home screen lets users choose from four main activities (Watch, Email, Listen and Read), with the ability to choose which apps to launch from those activity boxes. An additional Navigation bar along the bottom of the tablet lets users quickly go "back" in an app, go back to the home page or switch between apps quickly (via the Layers button, which is also a nice way of closing open apps). The USB 2.0 slot is a handy way to quickly move files between a PC and the tablet.

I was less impressed with the Lenovo App Shop, which tries to provide users with hand-picked or recommended apps for purchase. In the end it gets confusing between that app store and the Android Market, which provides more apps. The App Shop also made me sign up with a different account name (apart from Google Account access) and credit card information, adding to the confusion. The tablet's short battery life was bothersome, considering a very short power cord that made it difficult to keep the tablet on a desk (not to mention having to keep a tablet tethered to a power outlet).

But the addition of a digitized pen/stylus, keyboard and business-focused apps makes the ThinkPad Tablet a winner for companies or individuals considering a more serious offering than consumer-centric tablets.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price: Starts at $500

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

PeeWee Pivot 2.0 Tablet Laptop, by PeeweePCThe PeeWee Pivot Tablet Laptop is designed for children to be used either in the classroom or libraries, and like other convertible tablets, it has a rotating touch screen so the device can be used as a touch-screen tablet instead of a notebook (an included stylus also can use the screen).

The Pivot 2.0 uses the Intel Atom processor as part of its Classmate PC line, which includes a solid rubber case, removable carrying handle, and drop- and spill-resistant features to help protect it from little hands. The system comes bundled with 15 educational games and two security software packages, as well as a one-year warranty.

In trying this out with my own little ones, they preferred using the keyboard and mouse instead of the stylus and/or touch-screen – their touch screen experience involves using their fingers with an Apple iPad on a regular basis, so they weren’t thrilled with the stylus. Also, the Atom processor and Windows OS is really slow, especially when it comes to loading up programs. Again, they’re used to faster notebooks at home. Maybe if they were using this in the classroom (where, one assumes, the systems are older than what you find in the home), they would be more patient.

Still, at this price it doesn’t really make sense to get this as a gift for someone, when other normal notebooks are available for the younger set.

Cool Yule rating: 3 stars

Price: $575

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Killer Wireless-N 1103 Wi-Fi adapter for notebooks, by Bigfoot NetworksThis is for serious gamers only, or those network-heads that REALLY enjoy getting as much performance out of their wireless adapters as possible. The Killer Wireless-N 1103 Wi-Fi is a high performance network adapter aimed at giving gamers better performance when gaming, but also when doing tasks such as HD video, voice or streaming audio. The card is only sold as an integrated offering with PC notebook vendors, so for our guide we were sent a Mythlogic Pollux 1400 Series notebook with the Killer Wireless-N 1103 installed.

The card includes an Advanced Stream Detect feature that automatically classifies and prioritizes low-latency requiring network traffic, and also includes a Visual Bandwidth Control application. This is techie nirvana, allowing users to manage bandwidth and tune their upload/download allocations for individual online applications. I don't think Grandma will be using this app. Other features include a PC Monitor app that gives you PC, CPU, frame rate and ping data, and a quick speed test button that sends you to Speedtest.net for a quick Internet bandwidth test (to remind you about how bad your cable company's Internet may be - or is that just me?).

If you're serious about making sure that network traffic for your gaming (or other high-priority app) isn't being bogged down with other things (especially as we add more and more devices to our network that might also want bandwidth), then getting this adapter installed in your next gaming notebook is worth a look. And check out the wares from Mythlogic, too, the notebook they sent was pretty nice as well.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: Available as an upgrade to third-party notebooks, prices vary (Mythlogic upgrade was an extra $41).

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

SeeThru cover for MacBook Pro (15-inch version), by SpeckThere are two reasons why the SeeThru was a lifesaver for my new MacBook Pro. First, I'm using the notebook at home surrounded by my three children, who despite their best efforts, often have sticky fingers and like putting their fingerprints all over the computer. Second, Macintosh notebooks have become so mainstream with people at tech conferences, airports and coffee shops that the colored case gives my notebook a uniqueness that others don't have, at least in terms of its color.

The case is easy to assemble, it comes in two pieces, one for the top and the other for the bottom. The hard shell plastic (polycarbonate) protects the notebook from scratches and scuff marks, yet the design includes access to all needed ports, as well as vents for heat dissipation. The shell also has rubber feet to give the notebook extra stability. Six color options allow you to personalize the device even more.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: $49.95

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

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