Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Year In Laptops: 2009


2009 was a bumper year in the laptop arena. Instead of the usual and expected platform refreshes, we saw some pretty interesting designs and changes in the competitive notebook market. For one, well-known Alienware gaming machines have started appearing in Asia, years after being bought over by Dell. Other surprises include the appearance of CULV thin-and-lights that brought together the portability of a MacBook Air with the affordability of a budget machine. Without further ado, here's are a list of laptops that deserve special mention for changing, if not breaking, the frontiers of portable computing.

Alienware enters Asia
Alienware has been around a long time as a US-only premium gaming brand. Despite being bought over by Dell in 2006, it took three years before Asia had a taste of its notebooks which almost rival the performance of a gaming desktop. The first model to grace our shores was the Alienware M17x, which offered some of the most powerful Intel processors along with its dual graphics card setup. A smaller sibling, the Alienware M15x made an appearance recently and surprised us with an affordable price tag for the basic configuration.

But, in this case, great computing power requires an equally impressive shoulder strength, as both Alienware laptops make a mockery of the term portable. Still, it beats having to lug a desktop CPU and monitor to a LAN party any day.

Samsung returns to Asia

Despite an initial rollout that included the ground-breaking Q30 model, the Korean chaebol's premium laptops simply could not compete with the low-cost machines churned out by the likes of Dell and Acer and had to bow out of the Asia market in 2007. After licking its chops for two years, Samsung returned with a vengeance in 2009 with a small but impressive range. Not only are the price now within mortal reach, the company even upped the ante by using LED-backlit screens on the affordable R series models. The Samsung N310 Netbook was also different from its competitors, with a design that grabs attention without looking too toy like.

Dell launches Adamo series

We should have seen the writing on the wall. When Dell started to add more premium machines such as the Studio, Studio XPS and XPS series, we should have suspected that the Round Rock company has its sights on the premium market. Its first high-end fashion portable, the Adamo, created a stir with its unibody design and sky-high S$4,499 (US$3,312.40) price tag, making it more expensive than the MacBook Air. These are definitely NOT low cost Dell laptops. The timing was also rather unfortunate, as it was launched in the middle of the economic recession.

The following model, the Dell Adamo XPS, entered the world during the financial recovery phase and was helped along by a more realistic S$3,299 (US$2,428.90) price tag. The heat-sensing switch to open the laptop, exceptional thinness and unique design makes a bold statement as well. Though it's still not a laptop for the rank-and-file, the Adamo series has certainly elevated Dell's design team to the level of premium brands such as Apple and Sony.

Sony gets ridiculously thin with Vaio P and X series
Choosing a Vaio laptop is not just about specifications. The Japanese maker has a reputation of producing beautiful machines that stand out from the crowd and, almost every year, create laptops that push the boundaries of notebook design. 2009 was an exceptional year for low cost Sony laptops as it produced not one, but two models that redefined the term sleek.

Despite its Atom internals, the Sony Vaio VGN-P15G was emphatically not a Netbook. Even though it had an unusually wide screen, the chassis was formulated to fit a keyboard which was actually usable. But what captured the public's eye was its unbelievably slim profile, which was carried over to the Sony Vaio X series. The latter has a larger 11-inch display with a more conventional footprint. The Vaio X was so slim that the company had to redesign the Ethernet port to fit the chassis.

Though both notebooks are certainly more expensive than your average Atom-based machine, they pushed the frontiers of portability and made impossibly thin, possible.

Apple laptops wave goodbye to replaceable batteries

It all started with the MacBook Air. Possibly the first laptop to sport a unibody body, the manufacturing process allows for a slim yet strong shell which was not possible with traditional methods. Apple then continued the trend by switching its MacBook Pro series to the unibody bandwagon and, with the latest version of the Apple MacBook White that sports a unibody plastic chassis, the transition was completed.

But there was one trade-off. The unibody design precludes user-replaceable batteries, which means consumers will have to send the machine to the service center if the power cells require replacement. This also means no more carrying extra cells when traveling on long-haul flights or remote locations. On the plus side, the internal batteries have significantly longer uptimes and no doubt consumers will continue to seek out low cost Apple MacBooks. So are unibody designs the way of the future, or a fad like the FireWire standard? Only time will tell.

ThinkPad goes dual-screen
There are some who feel that a 12-inch display is all they need, while others who think that even a 18.6-inch desktop replacement is still not big enough. Lenovo ThinkPads are legendary when it comes to toughness and reliability, but one rarely sees cutting-edge design for this range. When the Chinese maker showed off the ThinkPad W700ds, it broke new ground as the first to supplement its main 17.1-inch LCD with a slide-out 10.6-inch panel. The secondary display can be used for easy access to emails and IM chat windows while doing real work on the larger screen. Though this is unlikely to start a trend, this ThinkPad is one which we will not forget anytime soon.

CULV laptops breaks through price barriers
Netbooks were hot in 2008, but consumers soon found that the underpowered Atom processor was simply too limited even for Web surfing, especially when visiting Flash heavy sites. To bridge the gap between low-cost minilaptops and full-fledged notebooks, the Intel Consumer Ultra-Low Voltage (CULV) processor was born.

Priced lower than Intel's full-powered chips, the first CULV machines like the Acer Aspire Timeline 3810T and MSI X-Slim X340 were certainly costlier than Netbooks, but were several hundred dollars cheaper than traditional ultraportables. This new range of machines were not only sleek and sexy, the low power consumption of the platform and LED-backlit screens allowed for impressive battery lives. It's a pity that the optical drive was sacrificed in the process, but some vendors have overcome that obstacle by bundling external optical drives.

Later in the year, a new line of ultrathins came into the picture. While the first wave of CULV laptops sit squarely in the thin-and-light and midsized categories, the Acer Aspire AS1410, Dell Inspiron 11z and Gateway EC series sport 11.6-inch displays and are about as portable as similarly-size Netbooks. Though the battery life is significantly shorter, these new ultrathins give minilaptops a run for their money as they cost only a little more but offer much faster performance.

Will 2010 see even more upheavals in the laptop market considering this was a bumper year for the mobile computing industry? We'll leave that thought for another article.