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Engadget's Holiday Gift Guide: Netbooks and laptops

Joanna Stern
November 22, 2010

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Welcome to the Engadget Holiday Gift Guide! The team here is well aware of the heartbreaking difficulties of the seasonal shopping experience, and we want to help you sort through the trash and come up with the treasures this year. Below is today's bevy of hand curated picks, and you can head back to the Gift Guide hub to see the rest of the product guides as they're added throughout the holiday season.

We're not going to lie, buying a laptop as a holiday present can be seriously scary. Not only are there tons of systems to choose from, but you're about to put down quite a bit of cash on something that's probably going to end up being someone's primary machine for a few years. Does your giftee need a netbook for just getting on the web to check e-mail? Or something thin and light with enough power to watch HD movies on the go? How about a Core i7-powered rig with discrete graphics to handle that Call of Duty: Black Ops that was in the stocking? You see, it's a daunting task, but fear not, we're here to ease the pain. Our breakdown of the best laptops is after the jump.

Stocking stuffers: Netbooks

Toshiba Mini N305

Flat out, Toshiba's Mini NB305 continues to be our favorite no-frills 10.1-inch netbook. Its single-core Atom N455 processor, 1GB of RAM, and six-cell battery aren't gonna cut it for editing movies, but its all you need to comfortably surf the web and check email for over seven hours without having to recharge. There's also no beating its chiclet keyboard and wide touchpad. So, it doesn't have dual touchscreens -- we promise you, it'll be money well spent.

Key specs: 2.8-pounds, 1.66GHz Intel Atom N455, 1GB of RAM, and a 250GB hard drive

Price: $360

Acer Aspire One 521
- $350

A 10.1-inch netbook that can push along full HD content? The AMD Athlon II Neo /ATI Radeon HD 4225-powered Aspire One 521 is your answer. In addition, it has an HDMI port and 250GB of storage -- but watch out, its battery only lasts for 4 hours on a charge.

Samsung NF310
- $399

Rarely would we say a netbook turns heads, but that's exactly what NF310's wave shaped edges and gunmetal-colored chassis does. Sporting a 1366x768-resolution 10.1-inch display and Intel's latest dual-core N550 processor, it's got a bit more on the average netbooks out there, but will still only sets you back $399.

Stocking stuffers: Laptops

ASUS Eee PC 1215N

Some may feel that the 1215N belongs up there in the netbook category, but with a 12.1-inch display, dual-core Atom D525 processor, and NVIDIA Ion graphics its closer to an ultraportable laptop than a secondary machine. The system can rock full HD video while running multiple programs. Yeah so, we felt that its chiclet keyboard was a bit flexy, but we'd still call it one of the best laptops under $500.

Key specs: 1.8GHz dual-core Intel Atom D525, 2GB of RAM, 250GB hard drive, NVIDIA Ion graphics with Optimus switching

Price: $500

Lenovo ThinkPad Edge
- Starts at $550

There are lots of budget systems roaming the earth, but the Edge has always been one of the most solidly build laptops under $600. Its curved keys and touchpad / pointing stick navigation options make for a seriously comfortable experience and its AMD / Intel processor choices won't leave you low on power.

Gateway NV Series
- $550

The NV series isn't the most attractive rig, but there's no beating the specs for the price. For $650 you can snatch up the 15.6-inch system with a Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive.

Oh, you shouldn't have

HP Envy 14

We'll admit it: we have a real crush on the Envy 14. Beyond its beautiful anodized aluminum chassis, backlit chiclet keyboard, and high resolution display, its Core i3 processor, 1GB ATI Radeon HD 5650 graphics, and 500GB 7,200rpm hard drive provide a seriously solid performance and gaming experience. And yes, you get all that for just a grand. Seriously, wrap it up and they'll love you forever.

Key specs: Available with Core i3, i5 and i7 processors, ATI Radeon HD 5650 graphics, 7,200rpm hard drives.

Price: Starts at $1,000

11.6-inch Apple MacBook Air
- $999

We know this one doesn't have as much power as the rest, but it doesn't get much more portable than its .68-inch / 2.3-pound body. It may not be your primary system, but thanks to its 64GB SSD it can be ready whenever. Oh, and if they'll want a built-in SD card slot, spend a few hundred more and pick up the 13-inch.

Toshiba Portege R705
- $800

A 3.2-pound, Core i3-powered PC under $800? Oh yes, it exists. Toshiba's Portege R705 has pretty much everything your giftee could ever want in a thin and light package, including a DVD drive, 4GB of RAM, Intel's Wireless Display, and a 500GB hard drive.

Dell XPS 15
- Starts at $850

If you're seeking raw power under $900 there's no beating Dell's new XPS line. The 15.4-inch system boasts a Core i5-460M processor, 1GB NVIDIA GeForce 420M GPU, a 500GB hard drive, and incredible JBL speakers. 'Nuff said.

- $999

A Bamboo chassis? Core i5? NVIDIA GeForce 310M graphics? Intel WiDi? And a USB 3.0 port? Oh yes, the 14-inch ASUS U43JC's list could go on... No really, they'll think you had to take out a second mortgage for this one.

We can't afford the rent now, can we?

Apple 15-inch MacBook Pro

Oh sure, there are 13-inch and 17-inch MacBook Pros, but the 15-inch screen size is just right. The machine still has the aluminum unibody construction you've come to know and love, but the new series packs Core i5 or i7 processors as well as intelligent NVIDIA graphics, which doesn't require you to lift a finger to turn the GPU on or off. We know, the Apple tax is strong for the specs, but there's no beating those Geniuses if anything goes awry.

Key specs: Core i5 / i7 processor options, up to 4GB of memory, NVIDIA GeForce GT 330M graphics, 320 / 500GB hard drive choices

Price: Starts at $1,799

- Starts at $1,800

An aluminum and carbon fiber clad 13.3-inch / 3.4-pound laptop with a Core i5 processor and NVIDIA GT 330 graphics? Oh yeah, that's the VAIO Z and there's really nothing else like it out there. You will not be disappointed with this PC, though it'll probably take a few months to pay it off.

HP Envy 17 3D
- Starts at $1,600

There have been plenty three-dee laptops lately, but HP's Envy 17 seems to be one of the most quality machines with its AMD 3D tech, integrated transmitter, and Blu-ray drive. On top of that it's got Core i5 / i7 CPU options and that same anodized aluminum chassis as the Envy 14. Yes, of course, the active shutter glasses are included!

Alienware M15x
- Starts at $1,200

We wouldn't forget about the gamers! The M15x has just been updated with NVIDIA 460M GTX GPU and a Core i7 940XM quad-core processor. Configure it with an 1920x1080p-resolution 15.6-inch display, 8GB of memory, and SSD and you've pretty much got the world's most powerful laptop.

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