Engadget's holiday gift guide 2011: laptops

Welcome to the Engadget Holiday Gift Guide! We're well aware of the heartbreaking difficulties surrounding the seasonal shopping experience, so we're here to help you sort out this year's tech treasures. Below is today's bevy of 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.

Let's get this out of the way: a laptop is an intimate gift. Even if you were to get away with paying just $400, it's a lot to spend on even your spouse (ten years is the netbook anniversary, right?). Not to mention, your lucky giftee will be spending more time with it, perhaps, than they do their friends, families and pets. At the same time, the selection is nothing if not overwhelming, and if you were to make a spreadsheet tallying prices and specs, you'd notice an uncomfortable similarity across different brands. So, we rounded up some of the best we've seen -- everything from all-purpose notebooks to Ultrabooks to high-end dream machines. If you're thinking of pulling the trigger, hop past the break for a few ideas and the (very brief) low-down on the trade-offs you'll be making.

On the cheap

HP Pavilion dm1

Engadget's holiday gift guide 2011 laptops

The dm1 has long been one of our favorite ultraportables, and it remains relevant even today thanks to a smart redesign that gives people the choice between an AMD E-series APU and a Core i3 processor. With this generation, you'll enjoy Beats Audio, a flush battery that doesn't jut out of the back, a flush trackpad, a soft, non-reflective lid and a re-tooled chassis that makes it look like one of HP's higher-end Pavilions, cut down to size. As for that Core i3 model, it starts at $600, but for the money you at least you get an external optical drive thrown in, gratis.

Key specs: 11.6-inch (1366 x 768) display, 1.65GHz dual-core AMD E-450 APU, 4GB of RAM, 320GB 7,200RPM hard drive, rated for 9 hours of battery life, weighs 3.52 pounds.

Price: $465 on Amazon

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Engadget's holiday gift guide 2011 laptops

Dell Inspiron 14z

At the moment, the 14z happens to be one of our top picks for students and families, thanks to its clean, mostly metal design, comfortable keyboard, fast performance and insanely long battery life (what other $600 machine lasts nearly seven hours unplugged?). Just make sure you uninstall all that bloatware before you get too comfy.

Price: From $650 on Amazon

Engadget's holiday gift guide 2011 laptops

Sony VAIO SB Series

The SB's price keeps dropping, but even when it cost more we declared it one of our favorite laptops with a built-in optical drive, because of its impressively lightweight design, long battery life, matte display and switchable graphics. The trade-offs: the trackpad isn't the smoothest, and the fan is loud.

Price: From $700 on Sony


HP Folio 13

Engadget's holiday gift guide 2011 laptops

In retrospect, it's obvious that while we sat around wondering when HP would unveil its first Ultrabook, the company was biding its time, watching the market very closely. At $900, the Folio undercuts most everything else out there while cramming in more features -- namely, a 128GB SSD and backlit keyboard. And though it's plumper than the others, at 3.3 pounds, its extra girth means it has room to accommodate more ports, including HDMI, Ethernet and USB 2.0 and 3.0. And at that price, it's also more polished than the identically priced Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook, with its brushed metal lid and keyboard deck.

Key specs: 13.3-inch (1366 x 768 display), starts with a Core i5 CPU and 128GB SSD, rated for 9.5 hours of battery life, weighs 3.3 pounds.

Price: $900 and up, available December 7th

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Engadget's holiday gift guide 2011 laptops

ASUS Zenbook UX31

Though it wasn't the first Ultrabook, it was the first to give the MacBook Air a run for its money. The UX31 is striking with screaming performance, long battery life and a high-res display. Our biggest caveat is that its touchpad remains flaky, even after an update. Anyone who buys this needs to have faith that ASUS will tweak the trackpad until it gets it right.

Price: From $1,100 on Amazon

Engadget's holiday gift guide 2011 laptops

Lenovo IdeaPad U300s

Okay, it's missing an SD slot and backlit keyboard, and its display is fairly low-res, but hear us out: the U300s is one of the best Ultrabooks you can buy. We love its tasteful, rock-solid aluminum design, sub-20-second boot time and -- most of all -- the comfortable keyboard and glass trackpad.

Price: $1,062 on Amazon

Money's no object

Apple MacBook Air (13-inch)

Engadget's holiday gift guide 2011 laptops

The MacBook Air's met its match in the form of featherweight upstarts such as the Zenbook UX31 and IdeaPad U300s, and it's been bested outright as far as port selection and screen resolution go. But for now, the Air remains one of our favorite laptops because it succeeds where so many other Ultrabooks have struggled: to this day, its bouncy keys and smooth, reliable trackpad remain unrivaled. The 13-inch Air's user experience makes it worth the extra Benjamins, even if other models offer similar specs for less money.

Key specs: 13.3-inch (1440 x 900) display, starts with a Core i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, rated for 7 hours of battery life, weighs 2.96 pounds.

Price: From $1,235 on Amazon

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Engadget's holiday gift guide 2011 laptops

Sony VAIO Z Series

It's a good sign when one of our few complaints about a gadget is how pricey it is. The Z is impossibly light and makes fine use of dual SSDs. This time around, it trades switchable graphics for an external dock housing a discrete GPU and an optical drive. We're impressed with its brisk performance and high-res display, but be prepared for some serious fan noise.

Price: From $1,857 on Amazon

Engadget's holiday gift guide 2011 laptops

HP Envy 17 3D

Sitting at the top of HP's redesigned Envy series, the 17 3D sports a 1080p, display powered by ATI's 3D tech. Like the Envy 15 and Envy 17, its design is half Beats, half MacBook Pro, with a seamless aluminum chassis, backlit keyboard and a sprinkling of red accents. The 17 promises up to eight hours of runtime, support for three monitors and up to either a 128GB SSD or two 1TB drives.

Price: From $1,800 on Amazon