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.

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