Air versus the world

Four windows laptops square up to Apple s market-leading, premium compact. oh, and its big bro  the MacBook Pro also wants a pop... On sales, the MacBook Air is running away with the slimline laptop market. But the 13-incherprice is also competing with bigger, more powerful laptops. Welined up four Windows-based laptops with third-gen Core i processors that all have Air-beating credentials on paper. Therealso a challenge from closer to home in the non-Retina MacBook Pro, which comes in a config costing exactly the same as the Air, raising the prospect of the greatest intra-family feud since Cain and Abel, or the Chuckle Brothers. In a sense, these laptops are all winners.


Stylish workhorse packs power even if it cuts a few corners. This 17-incher doesnhave the svelte, whippet-like allure of the MacBook Air or Acer Aspire S5 but, like a sumo in lipstick, it does have a certain bear-like charm; big and heavy though it is, with a brushed metal design, it s by no means hideous. More importantly, there s enough power for it to put in a very strong gaming and HD video performance. A third-generation Intel Core i7 processor and a whopping 16GB of RAM are at the heart of this mammoth media machine, and as you d imagine it stormed our benchmark and real-world tests. With an Nvidia GeForce GT630M providing the graphics firepower it stacked up a flawless 60fps in Batman: Arkham Asylum. Seventeen-inchers have another major advantage and thatthe amount of room there is for ports. Here, four USB 3.0. HDMI. VGA and Gigabit ethernet, make this one of the best-connected laptops on test. The screen resolution of 1600x900 is adequate but not amazing, while poor viewing angles and gloom-inducing lack of contrast mean it isn t as suited to movie viewing as the size, power and bundled Blu-ray drive would suggest. A minimal bezel means bulk is kept down very effectively, though. Unlike the Acer S5 and MacBook Air, there s only an 8GB solid state drive (SSD) for the Windows 7 operating system. SSDs are much faster than hard drives, so the Tosh boots speedily, but if it had a larger one it would also open apps faster and be less susceptible to failures than the 750GB hard drive provided for storage. On the other hand, 750GB is a lot bigger than the Satellite s smaller, sexier rivals. Given that at 3kg this is more of a home desktop replacement than a carry-around device, we d sooner see an SSD and use external storage, but maybe that s just us... SAMSUNG SERIES 5 550P Behold: an even better desktop replacement than the Toshiba Uglier than its closest rival, the Toshiba Satellite, this Samsung is also one of the chunkiest notebooks here. However, it s also the cheapest and offers superb value to gamers and other power users on a budget-you could easily pay ?700 more for a dedicated gaming machine. Again, the 17-inch panel is 1600x900 rather than 1080p and-unusually for nowadays-it s got a matt finish. This looks less thrustingly dynamic than a gloss one but it also means you can work comfortably in well-lit areas without suffering reflections. The processor is an Intel third-gen Core i7, identical to the one in the Toshiba. There s only 8GB of RAM to the Toshiba s 16GB and only an HDD rather than the Toshiba s SSD/ HDD combo. However, it does have a better graphics card, and as a result, it s slightly faster in operation despite being marginally slower out of the blocks. If you re looking for a next-generation desktop-replacement, the extra power here makes the Samsung a great buy. It s as good for gaming and media as it is for day-to-day work and narrowly preferable to the Toshiba s similar machine, as long as you can live with its slight unsightliness. ACER ASPIRE S5 Unfeasibly slim 13-incher packs a hell of a lot into its 11mm frame Currently the world s thinnest ultrabook, this 13.3-inch super-portable Air baiter is just 11mm at its thickest point, yet it doesn t scrimp on raw speed, with a top-end Intel Core i7 processor under the hood. Clocked at 1.9GHz, the third-gen chip produces some of the best scores seen by an ultrabook in our lab tests, while a 128GB SSD means the system boots in a trice as well. With only an integrated Intel HD 4000 core, graphics performance is more middle-of-the-road but still good enough for playing 1080p movies, if not for editing it. The battery life, as on the MacBook Air, is also adequate rather than spectacular-we got 220 minutes of non-stop HD video viewing. The S5 is actually so slim that ports can t be added to the side in the usual way. Instead, theyfound in a motorised hatch called the MagicFlip I/O. which is revealed by pressing a button on the keyboard. The Aspire S5 rises from the desk like a phoenix, or perhaps a Citroen Xantia. to show off two USB 3.0 sockets, a single HDMI and a 20Gbps Thunderbolt port. Is it a smart bit of design? Yes. Would we really rather have a slightly thicker laptop that we could just plug USBs straight in to? Umm... yes. However, despite being about the same price as the MacBook Air, the S5 is noticeably poorer in several key respects. The 1366x768 resolution display is bright, vibrant and mighty fine for movies on the move, but it s nowhere near the quality of the Air s 1440x900 beaut. The keyboard is also nastily spongey-a Ford Fiesta to the Air s BMW of a board —while the 128GB SSD is just half the size of its Apple rival. However, with so much power crammed into such an athletic frame, the Acer S5 remains excellent value at ?1.200. It s a real head turner and an excellent poster boy for the current wave of ultrabooks. APPLE MACBOOK AIR 13-INCH The original slimline notebook muscles up for 2012 The MacBook Air was the OS X-powered forerunner of the ultrabook and. according to analyst IDC. outsells all of them put together. The Air s update aims to maintain that state of affairs, adding more power and keeping the semi-iconic style and incredible portability. The unibody chassis hasn t changed much from the original, tapering from nearly 20mm at its rear to 4mm up front. The Acer Aspire S5 is thinner, but the Air is still wonderfully slim and punches well above its weight. For instance, despite the compactness, the keyboard is a massive plus point. Generously sized, it s got beautifully cushioned keys that make it a pleasure to type long documents on. The trackpad is also the best in the business, intuitively whipping you through OS X Lion. The Intel Core i5 chip inside is no slouch either. Itthe most basic model on test, but OS X seems to be a much leaner operating system than Windows, and it positively flies on the new Air. Theremore than enough power for photo editing and running multiple apps. Best of all. the 13.3-inch screen is fantastic, with a staggering 1440x900 resolution —almost the same as the 17-inchers on test. Therealso a generous 256GB SSD drive, which offers enough space for your music, movies and media. The 2012-vintage Air is not only a beautifully engineered piece of mobile technology, it s a solid value, powerful laptop too. The only slight drawback is battery life. Quoted at seven hours, it s not bad as such-we got about 220 minutes of nonstop HD video viewing out of it, the same as the Acer S5-but also not exceptional. Despite that, the superb screen, unusually large SSD and fantastic performance make this a truly next-gen machine, easily usable as a main laptop. If you re not permanently hitched to Windows it s well worth considering.


The Retina-less runt of the Pro litter is a less compelling proposition Weighing just 2.1kg. the more expensive of Apple s 13-inch MacBook Pros (15-inchers are also available, including all-singing, alldancing Retina Display versions) packs a 2.9GHz Intel Core i7 punched into a fat-free chassis. It ll slip into any bag or sleeve with zero hassle and minimal bulge. In addition to that powerful processor, you ll also find 8GB of RAM and a 750GB HDD drive. However, unlike the Air and 15-inch Pros, there s no SSD as standard, though you can add one for a price. Like the Air but unlike the bigger Pros there s no dedicated graphics chip. There is a DVD drive, at least. The battery yields decent longevity, scoring 220 minutes in our non-stop HD video test, which is excellent for a laptop of this power. Apple s stated seven hours of "wireless web" seems a tad on the optimistic side, mind-we managed about five hours of moderate use. While the standard MacBook Pro is without a Retina Display-that only comes with the top-level, ultra-spendy. 15-inch model-the screen still looks fantastic. However, the lack of dedicated graphics tells against it when it comes to more demanding gaming, plus more "pro" level design and video apps. The Pro s built-in speakers are the best on test, even drowning out the JBL-branded tweeters of the Samsung Series 5 550P. We d even dare to say that you could travel without an external sound bar and still enjoy your music and movies-impressive. This Pro isn t bad at all but there s been such a seismic change in Apple s MacBook line-up that it seems like a laptop whose time has run out. The Retina MacBook Pro makes it look underpowered, while the MacBook Air makes it seem oversized, svelte though it is. At this colossal price ithella hard to recommend. DELL XPS 15 Hard-slugging heavyweight offers stunning performance for its price Another longstanding favourite thatbeen updated for 2012. this is like a Windows equivalent of the MacBook Pro. Its full-HD screen is quite glorious, and impressive third-gen processing power means it storms through benchmark tests and real-world apps alike. Thanks to an Nvidia GeForce 640M processor with 2GB of memory it also makes light work of intensive tasks such as gaming and HD editing. Various configurations are available —as always with Dell-and you can get a Blu-ray drive. 8GB of RAM and a 1TB hard drive for a very attractive, sub?1,300 price point. There s no SSD option, so start-up is noticeably sluggish compared to the Acer S5 and MacBook Air. but once the XPS 15 is out of the blocks, it s got serious pace. It s a good looker too, with a brushed metal chassis opening to reveal a black interior that s soft to the touch. There s not a hint of cheap plastic, and the bezel on the screen is so narrow that the XPS 15 could be mistaken for a 14-incher in a certain light. The webcam is also very classy, with an HD resolution and quality to match any MacBook FaceTime cam. There are a few criticisms we could level at the Dell XPS 15: there s no SSD, battery life is barely longer than the much more compact MacBook Air and Acer S5 and noticeably shorter than the MacBook Pro. Possibly the most serious failing is the weight, which starts at 2.6kg for the most basic spec and bulges to about 3kg for the one tested here. Even so, if you want a sleek, powerful and stylish laptop that ll gobble up anything you throw at it, the XPS 15 is a great choice. Itwork as both a desktop replacement and (admittedly slightly hefty) portable and itat a price that s "premium" but by no means excessive for the quality of what you get. Great stuff. All about TomTop shop

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