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

Computers and notebooks and tablets, oh my!

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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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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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