The Best of 2012
The issue perhaps is not so much as picking my favorite items, but more trying to figure out how 2013 will unfold as far as changes go given the shifts observed during 2012. With that pondering thought in my mind, however, let me present my top picks for the year.
Notebooks made major headway this year, thanks of course to Intel/nVidia for their Ivy Bridge + Kepler marriage, although it would be unfair not to mention AMD for it's mobile Radeon derivatives. Building on the success of last year's mobile Sandy Bridge and Fermi technology, 2012 proved to be a perfect year for purchasing or upgrading a notebook.
Clevo that unsurprisingly stole the performance crown with it's upgraded X7200 behemoth. The socket-2011 17.3" desktop replacement now ships with a workstation-class 8C/16T Xeon E5 processor, alongside options for a GTX680M SLI, 7970M CrossFire, or a pair of heavyweight 4GB K5000 Quadro graphics cards. Tack on a 1080P IPS display, 1.5TB triple-SSD RAID 0 arrangement and four 8GB sticks of RAM, and you end up with a notebook that will exchange for a cool $10,000 and then some. Horrible keyboard included!
Alienware. The easily-overclockable M18x I reviewed recently will handily beat your average desktop with a 3DMark11 score breaking P12,000. Priced at a (what some would call) more favorable $5400, the 18.4" aluminum-clad chassis offers up the latest mobile Ivy Bridge Core i7 paired with nVidia's latest Kepler graphics cards in SLI. Suitable for gaming, folding, and heavy-multitasking likewise, it's impressive battery life and backlit keyboard make it a lgpOnTheMove Performance Notebook Award winner. Just make sure Dell doesn't ship you one with a dodgy sound card!
The more sensible option this year for folks on a budget would have been the HP Pavilion dv6t-7000 Quad Edition. Priced as low as $1400 with HP's online coupon, the 15.6" notebook comes very nicely equipped with the latest Ivy bridge + Kepler goodness, a 1080P IPS display, full-size backlit keyboard, mSata SSD option, BD burner and an extended-capacity 9-cell battery.
Kudos too for Toshiba continuing their Qosmio line. The 17.3" X875 offers audiophile-quality harman/kardon sound alongside GTX670M graphics, 3D 1080P display, BD burner and a Core i7 quad-core all for under $2000.
It was with great disappointment that I had to see netbooks take the demise in 2012. Intel sat on it's laurels with Atom for far too long, releasing Pine Trail at a time when it should have in fact been shipping performance akin to Cedar Trail. Very few manufacturers offered N2800 systems in 2012. Those that did were the usual watered-down variants with a 1024x600 display, 1GB RAM and Windows Starter - hardly the Swiss-army-knife productivity tool that my custom-configured 10" HP 210 Mini is, and why I'm so critical of the form factor as an ultra-mobile work solution.
What options are there for the netbook fan in 2012? With 10" display production migrating to slates, you had to shift to 11.6" models. While it does mean compromising for a larger/heavier chassis, you do get the benefit of using a non-Atom platform with other performance perks in line with notebooks.
You could go AMD and shop a Brazos 2.0 solution, but Intel's ULV Ivy Bridge was the real star in 2012. Available in all three performance options (i3/i5/i7), and with a potent HD4000 IGP on board, it's ideal for use inside the ultra-mobile 11.6" footprint. Actually finding it in shipping products, however, has been rather elusive.
HP has their enterprise-class Elitebook 2170p. It's expensive, starting at $750 WITH coupon, but the chassis and build-quality of the 11.6" 3 lb device is exceptional. It's also fully-configurable, allowing you to choose the performance level you want with HDD/SSD, RAM and even opt for built-in 4G. While I have yet to obtain a review unit, I'm guessing a Core i3 variant with a 6-cell battery should produce battery life numbers approaching 7-8 hours, matching Atom for unplugged run time.
For an alternative solution, you could choose an ultrabook. The Asus UX21 Zenbook priced around $650 is another 11.6" ULV Ivy Bridge variant suitable as a 10" netbook replacement. The only downside is that it's now unavailable based on latest inventory. Also, in line with other ultrabooks, you give up on a replaceable battery making swapping for a 2nd midway through your day impossible, and potentially a deal-breaker for all-day mobile road warriors.
Google Nexus 7. The $199 7" handheld does a lot that in the past required a netbook to enjoy, and can make for a great companion device for either a smartphone or a traditional notebook. Sadly, I decided to return mine due to a lack of available accessories, and the fact that it still does not match my netbook for performance/productivity.
Best Notebook Accessory
Clear Apollo 4G mobile hotspot back in February, an article that continues to generate record hits almost a year later. While now discontinued and replaced with the more compact Voyager model, this impressive and incredibly useful device won the lgpOnTheMove Best Accessory Award, thanks in large part to it's unlimited data plans, competitive pricing and always-on capability. Were I shopping for a mobile broadband solution today, my choice would still be Clear's mobile hotspot rather than a capped shared data plan from another carrier.
Buffalo LinkStation Duo NAS. This compact desktop box offers up a whopping 6TB of capacity, all network-accessible to every device in my arsenal, be it my notebook, netbook or newer slate/smartphone, both at home over Ethernet/wifi and on the go over 4G. Priced at an affordable $379, it will help not only with streaming media but serve as a backup solution for multiple PC/Mac machines. Likewise, it can store files from your Android/iOS smartphone/slate, making paid cloud storage a thing of the past. This was another lgpOnTheMove Best Accessory Award winner.
Best Notebook Innovation
As I did so last year, I have to give this award again to nVidia and Intel. Their mobile Ivy Bridge and mobile Kepler architecture continue to push the envelope of mobile performance, and have in fact closed the gap with desktop solutions to the point that many mobile products can now match and rival desktop alternatives. It's a trend that Intel is set to continue with Haswell, and should find it's way into not just performance products, but handheld and ultramobile devices as well.