The Best of 2011

Wow!!! 2011 has been such a pivotal year in mobile technology - it just boggles the mind thinking about everything this year has brought consumers. With the onslaught of slate hardware to the arrival of mobile Sandy Bridge, 2011 has certainly set the stage for some of the best gadgets we've seen, and has given quite the indication of what 2012 has in store.

Indeed, with CES just four weeks away, manufacturers are eagerly waiting to take the wraps of their latest high-tech gadgets. But before our jaws drop, it's only appropriate that I wrap up 2011 with my list of top notebooks and netbooks.

Best Notebook for 2011

As was the case in 2010, Clevo again takes the cake for having the best notebook. The obscure Taiwanese ODM, selling through various boutique builders as Sager, Eurocom, and AVA Direct, among others, offers power users and enthusiasts the no-frills performance of a desktop in a fire-breathing 17.3" chassis. Packing a Core i7-990X Extreme hexa-core desktop-class processor clocked at 3.46GHz, 24GB of DDR3 RAM, a whopping 1.8TB of pure SSD speed and two GTX580M GPU cards paired in SLI, the X7200 dials up performance never before seen in a notebook. Granted, for the $8500 sticker price as configured, I would expect absolutely nothing long as you can live with the horrible keyboard!

For those on a slightly slimmer budget, but still looking for impressive performance with modern styling, Sony also showed off it's best this year with the Vaio Z. This no-compromise notebook mocks netbooks with it's 2.6lb weight and 0.66" profile. Yet despite the svelte exterior, Sony has managed to cram a full 1080P screen on it's 13.1" display, mobile Core i7-2640M CPU, 256GB of SSD storage in RAID 0, backlit keyboard and can be ordered with a signature gold paint job that screams opulence. It's external power media dock rounds out the hardware with a dedicated GPU in the form of an AMD Radeon HD6650M, Blu ray disc burner, and an array of ports for connectivity. Travel with the included slate battery, and you'll see up to 10 hours of work and play. Priced at $2999, it's a relative bargain for senior executives and socialites who travel on a weekly basis.

Another fine notebook worthy of mention amongst gamers comes from Alienware in the form of the M18x. Available with a manufacturer-overclocked mobile Core i7-2960XM 4C/8T processor, this 18.4" behemoth delivers nothing but high performance courtesy of 16GB of 1666MHz DDR3 RAM, SLI GTX580M graphics cards and 512GB of RAID 0 SSD storage. Priced at $5124 (as configured above), it represents the pinnacle of mobile gaming, decked out with an array of customizable LED accents complete with a backlit keyboard + numpad.

Finally, buyers on a budget may be tempted to take a look at Toshiba's Qosmio X775. It's 120Hz 3D 1080P display paired with harman/hardon 2.1 speakers, GTX560M graphics and mobile Core i7 quad-core Sandy Bridge processor offer the best performance yet for under $2000. An impressive backlit keyboard, Blu ray disc burner and textured chassis that resists finger prints rounds out the package. Toshiba has promised to push forward a firmware update to get around the gaming issues I experienced when testing my unit - good news for existing owners.

Best Netbook for 2011

I didn't give an award to HP's 210 Mini netbook, despite having purchased one for myself and being exceedingly satisfied with it after more than 6 months of daily use. Part of the reason for my lack of overwhelming praise was that it did not beat their existing effort with Nile as shown with the 11.6" dm1, and also because I was anticipating new, more improved hardware this year from both AMD and Intel. Sadly, AMD's E450 didn't impress me enough, and Intel has yet to take the wraps off their Cedar Trail successor. That all but leaves the 210 Mini 2100 series with it's N570 2C/4T Atom and Broadcom Crystal HD video accelerator as my pick for best netbook in 2011.

When you look at the $400 price, you do get a lot of bang for the buck. Windows 7 runs great with the 2GB DDR3 RAM, the 1366x768 HD display is perfect for HD video and productivity, while it's long battery life lets me run it all day without looking for an outlet. Most importantly, it's smaller, lighter and cheaper than any 11.6" netbook, making it perfect as a grab-and-go tool for road warriors looking for performance AND maximum mobility.

If I did have to pick an 11.6" netbook, however, I would shift my gaze towards a ULV Sandy Bridge variant. Luckily, HP has just that in the form of the just-released Pavilion dm1-4050us. Packing a Core i3-2367M, the $569 price includes an external DVD burner, 500GB of HDD storage and Beats Audio sound. Even better, the HD3000 integrated graphics will allow use of Intel's Quick Sync feature, making video fans that use software to encode/transcode very happy indeed.

Best Slate for 2011

Having seen the deluge of first-generation slate hardware flood the market this year, it's impossible for me to make a recommendation based on what I have looked at. For those who own a BlackBerry smartphone, the RIM PlayBook may be the best device yet, but I'm still waiting to get my hands on a Windows slate. Manufacturers had plenty of Windows 7 slates showing off at CES2011, except very few actually went to market. Hopefully 2012 will give manufacturers impetus as Microsoft pushes forward with Windows 8.

Those on a budget may like the $199 Kindle Fire, but the experience depends heavily on what functionality Amazon provides. Savvy enthusiasts and developers can of course cook and flash custom ROM images, and gauging by consumer response the market for sub-$200 slates is prime for competition.

Best Notebook Accessory for 2011

It's unfortunate that I've yet to be impressed with anything in 2011 in regards to notebook accessories. There isn't really anything out there that can beat my Logitech m570 wireless trackball, and it continues to be my gear bag's most used extra.

Sadly, Virgin Mobile ended the all-you-can-eat 3G buffet with the MiFi2200 last year, as did Sprint more recently on it's 4G network . That today relegates unlimited mobile broadband to just one sole carrier - Clearwire. My disappointing experience with their mobile hotspot and WiMax service, however, has left me still wanting. It is a crying shame that in the US, mobile professionals must still deal with data caps and price-gouging from carriers. With tethering capabilities now common in every type of mobile device sold (smartphones, slates, netbooks and notebooks), and with the move to 4G now on track for every major carrier, one would have thought that 2011 would see more competition in mobile broadband. Too bad that situation doesn't look to improve in 2012 either, but I'll leave the discussion on corporate greed for a future article.

Best Notebook Innovation for 2011

Without a doubt, Intel's mobile Sandy Bridge architecture has made a major splash in the notebook market, and models like the 10" Fujitsu T580 show just what is capable today when it comes to pushing the hardware envelope. The improvement in battery life and performance alone is worth the upgrade, and for fans of video, Quick Sync cuts down encoding and transcoding times dramatically.

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