Features

Super computers

29 Jan 2015 by GrahamSmith

Tablets might get all the attention these days, but a trusty laptop is still a traveller’s best friend. Steve Dinneen test-drives ten of the best


Recent laptop trends have been more about improvement than revolution. Predictions a few years ago that we’d all be hauling around machines capable of producing 3D images, for example, have proved largely unfounded (although some good ones do exist).

Instead, we’re seeing a space-race among manufacturers to produce ever thinner, lighter and faster laptops.

In the “ultrabook” category of super-slim devices, if the folded unit is thicker than 2cm, it’s already losing the race. Others, especially laptops designed to play next-generation games, focus on containing hardware that a few years ago would have taken up an entire desktop machine – now you need to be able to carry it in your hand luggage without straining your back.

Manufacturers are also introducing innovative materials: brushed aluminium, magnesium alloys and carbon fibre are being used to produce a generation of computers with unprecedented durability. What’s more, they’re sexier than ever, with curved edges, bold angles and bright high-definition screens.

Laptops are no longer simply utilitarian devices, they are the ultimate consumer products – here are ten top models now on the market.


TOSHIBA KIRA

£1,300, toshiba.co.uk

From a certain angle, with the screen open, you could be forgiven for mistaking Toshiba’s 13.3-inch Kira for a Macbook Air. It shares the same tapering chassis, ultra-thin lid and metal casing.

Things get a little more prosaic when it’s closed, but there’s no denying this is an attractive machine. Where it differs from the Air is its display – this one comes with Retina resolution, and you’ll need to upgrade to a Macbook Pro to find that in the Apple range.

What’s more, it’s a touchscreen, so if you get bored using the trackpad you can tap directly on the display (it comes with Windows 8.1).

A compact unit, it measures only 31.6cm x 20.7cm x 1.8cm and weighs 1.3kg. The internal speakers are powerful and the battery will give you up to nine hours of continuous use before it croaks.

PROS Looks great, good battery life, sharp screen
CONS Expensive compared with rivals


SCHENKER XMG C703

€999, mysn.eu

This 17.3-inch laptop is built for performance – the XMG stands for “Xtreme Multimedia and Gaming”.

It also claims to be the world’s thinnest gaming laptop, measuring 41.8cm x 28.7cm x 2.2cm. It’s light for a computer of this size, tipping the scales at 2.6kg.

For a gaming-oriented device – a category not known for its looks – it’s rather handsome, with a monolithic quality and slightly rounded edges.

Of course, it’s what’s on the inside that really counts, and it doesn’t disappoint, packing a quad-core Intel i7 processor, a 250GB solid-state drive and 8GB of memory. You can order it with Windows 7 or 8.1 (or without an operating system).

The large screen does take its toll on the battery – while six and a half hours is reasonable for a gaming laptop, it won’t last a long-haul flight.

PROS Fast, attractive
CONS Battery life is relatively brief, no optical drive


SAMSUNG ATIV BOOK 9 LITE
£550, samsung.com/uk

At just over £500, this Samsung model is something of a steal. The 13.3-inch device takes some design inspiration from the Macbook Air, although it is considerably heavier, at 1.6kg, and is finished in plastic instead of aluminium.

For the price, though, it’s surprisingly fun to use. The display is bright and zippy, and it feels quicker than its modest 1.4GHz AMD A6-1450 processor would lead you to believe.

It’s not recommended for anyone who uses heavy-duty software or games, but as a general-use laptop to sling in your bag when you’re out and about, it’s a great option (dimensions are 32.4cm x 22.4cm x 1.7cm). It comes with Windows 8.1 and has a 128GB solid-state storage drive.

If you have a colour preference, there is a choice between Mineral Ash Black and Marble White, and a non-touchscreen version is also available.

PROS Cheap and cheerful
CONS Will struggle with more advanced software or games


ASUS X55A
£230, simplyasus.com

At not far over £200, this 15.6-inch Asus will set you back less than an entry-level iPad.

For that price, you can’t expect the world in terms of performance, and its Intel Celeron 1000M dual-core processor and 4GB of RAM will struggle with anything too intensive.

However, the 500GB hard drive is relatively impressive (ideal for taking some movies on the road) and the screen is perfectly acceptable for everyday use. It’s not a bad-looking machine and is surprisingly well constructed. It’s also light for its size (2.5kg, measuring 37.8cm x 25.3cm x 2.6cm), although you’ll only get four hours of battery life out of it.

If you’re looking for a second laptop for taking away when you’re working abroad, this is a great, cost-effective option.

PROS Inexpensive, reasonably well constructed, plenty of storage
CONS Lacks processing clout


MACBOOK PRO WITH RETINA DISPLAY

13-inch from £999, 15-inch from £1,599, apple.com/uk

The Macbook Pro has long been the laptop of choice for creative types. The latest iteration has Apple’s stunning Retina display with 2,560 x 1,600 resolution (2,880 x 1,800 on the
15-inch model), making it ideal for editing photos and video.

At 31.4cm x 21.9cm x 1.8cm for the 13-inch version or 35.9cm x 24.7cm x 1.8cm for the 15-inch, and weighing 1.5kg and 2kg respectively, it’s compact enough to sling into a bag. Storage options vary from 128GB to 512GB (configurable to 1TB), with a battery life of about nine hours (eight for the 15-inch).

It integrates seamlessly with mobile devices using the new Yosemite operating system, allowing you to make calls from your laptop, send MMS messages, and share web pages or projects between devices.

PROS Looks great, works seamlessly with other Apple devices, superb display
CONS Not all software will run on a Mac


MACBOOK AIR
11-inch from £749, 13-inch from £849, apple.com/uk

In terms of battery life, Apple has stepped things up a notch with the impressive 12-hour staying power of its 13-inch Macbook Air (nine hours for the 11-inch).

Weighing a mere 1kg for the 11-inch and 1.4kg for the 13-inch, the dimensions (30cm x 19.2cm x 1.7cm and 32.5cm x 22.7cm x 1.7cm respectively) also make it incredibly portable. Storage starts at 128GB and goes up to 256GB (configurable to 512GB).

While it lacks the processing power of the Pro, unless you plan on using it to run heavy-duty design software, you won’t notice much difference. For an everyday web-browsing, movie-watching, spreadsheet-checking machine that won’t weigh you down, you won’t find better than this.

PROS Incredibly thin, by far the best-looking laptop on the market
CONS Doesn’t come with a Retina display


ACER TRAVELMATE P645
£871, acer.co.uk

As the name suggests, this 14-inch laptop is built for taking on the road. It’s sleek in a no-frills kind of way, with clean lines and a matt-black finish – not flashy by any means, but not unattractive, either.

Security on business machines is a major concern, and the fingerprint reader on this one should help to keep your data away from prying eyes should it disappear when you’re travelling – there are also a raft of other pre-loaded security features.

It ticks most of the other boxes to be a viable travelling companion: it’s light (1.5kg), compact (32.8cm x 23.6cm x 2.1cm) and has about eight hours of juice if you’re only using it for simple tasks, rather than watching movies or playing games. It comes with a 500GB hard drive and runs either Windows 7 or 8.1 Pro.

PROS Good all-rounder
CONS It won’t turn any heads when you get it out in meetings


LENOVO THINKPAD X240
From £837, shop.lenovo.com

Portability is the selling point for Lenovo’s business-orientated 12.5-inch laptop, which measures 30.6cm x 20.8cm x 2cm and weighs 1.4kg.

It has the option of connecting an external battery, which gives you upward of 17 hours of light use – enough for even the most gruelling of long-haul flights. If you need even more, you can switch between two external batteries without having to shut the device down.

If touchscreens are your thing, you’ll be able to take advantage of all the tactile elements of Windows 8.1. You can get up to 500GB of storage, which is enough to watch quite a few movies. It’s not exactly a looker, but if you’re a Lenovo user, it will be reassuringly familiar, with its carbon-fibre lid and magnesium alloy chassis.

PROS Plenty of battery life, compact
CONS Lacklustre display


DELL LATITUDE 14 7,000 SERIES
From £769, dell.com

Dell has a reputation for making solid, if rather unexciting, business-oriented laptops. The Latitude 14 7,000 Series is surprisingly slick and stands ahead of most competitors in terms of looks and performance.

It has a 14-inch display, which means you won’t strain your eyes when working on detailed spreadsheets, and weighs 1.6kg (dimensions are 33.7cm x 23.2cm x 2.1cm). Storage is from 128GB (solid state) up to 500GB (hard disk). It comes with Windows 7, but the customisation options allow you to upgrade to 8.1 Pro.

If you’re looking for a Windows-based laptop to stay connected with the office while you’re on the road, you could do far worse.

PROS A good all-round business machine with countless customisation possibilities
CONS You might want something a little more fun for non-business use


ALIENWARE 17
£1,349 + £150 for 3D displays, alienware.co.uk

If you’re a fan of 3D movies, this could be the laptop for you.

Its huge 17.3-inch display and 3D capability make it one of the most immersive movie experiences you can have on a laptop. Its top-of-the-range quad-core Intel i7 processor can handle even the most intense Blu-ray action sequences without a hint of lag.

While Alienware markets this laptop as primarily a gaming computer, nagging industry-wide problems with 3D gaming suggest it may best be used as a powerful multimedia machine. You could always ditch the 3D display and dedicate your life to being the best Call of Duty player there ever was.

Whatever you use it for, it has reams of storage (a 256GB solid-state drive as the boot drive and a 1TB hard drive), Windows 8.1 and a mean-looking angular chassis.

However, watch out if you’re taking it on a flight – the 41.4cm x 29.9cm x 4.9cm unit weighs in at a hefty 4.2kg and the battery will only give you three hours of use.

PROS Lush 3D display, powerful
CONS Limited battery life


ADD-ONS: PORTABLE HARD DRIVES

G-DRIVE MOBILE WITH THUNDERBOLT
£149, g-technology.com

This portable hard drive with brushed aluminium exterior has 1TB of storage and can transfer data at a rate of 136MB per second via Thunderbolt or USB 3.0.

It measures only 12.7cm x 8.3cm x 1.8cm, and is compatible with Macs but can easily be reformatted for PCs. It is able to function without being plugged into the mains, and also syncs with the back-up software application Time Machine.


SEAGATE GO FLEX ULTRA-PORTABLE DRIVE

£148, seagate.com

Capable of storing 1.5TB of files, this pocket-size (11cm x 8.3cm x 1.5cm) unit works with Macs and PCs interchangeably. It also features an NFTS driver to auto-format data uploaded from PCs to Macs.

Available in glossy black, it has USB 3.0 connectivity and back-up encryption software. (Lower storage capacities also come in red, blue or silver.)


LACIE RUGGED USB 3.0
From £230, lacie.com/uk

With universal connectivity via Thunderbolt and USB 3.0, this shock-proof device has a rubber coat to protect it from bumps and drops of up to 1.2 metres.

It converts data at a surprisingly speedy 385MB per second, and has AES 256-bit encryption software to protect your files. Auto back-up can be set up for both Macs and PCs.

It measures 8.9cm x 14cm x 2.4cm and is available in four versions, with capacities of 256GB to 2TB. Jenny Southan

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