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Smart choices

A computer for every task

There’s no one-size-fits-all system, but what features are right for you?

Consumer Reports / January 2, 2011

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Touchscreen tablets are the newest development in computers, and competitors to the benchmark iPad are cropping up mostly with 7-inch to 10-inch displays. And netbooks are undergoing a smaller, though still significant, change: They are getting more powerful processors. Some desktops and laptops are also gaining new features, including touchscreens and 3D capability.

Consumer Reports recently looked at what each of those developments offers and whether any of the products should be on your list.

More powerful netbooks. Traditionally the weaklings of the computer world, netbooks have always been geared toward simple tasks like word processing, e-mailing, and Web browsing. But Intel just introduced a beefed-up processor for notebooks, the dual-core Atom, which the company claims offers similar battery life and improves your ability to view videos.

All-in-ones with touchscreens. Standard on smartphones and tablets, touchscreens are showing up on some desktop computers. They provide an easy way to share memos, calendars, and photos in a family room or home office. Several all-in-one systems in CR’s Ratings also include multitouch capability, which lets you use two or more fingers to zoom and scroll. A few laptops, including the Dell Studio 17 Touch, also offer touch.

Built-in wireless video. Intel’s Wireless Display (WiDi) capability is built into a few new computers, including the Toshiba Satellite E205-S1904, $900. WiDi lets you stream any kind of video, whether from iTunes or Netflix, or even those you’ve produced yourself, from your laptop to a TV without a cable. It requires a $99 external box called NetGear Push2TV that hooks up to your TV.

So-so 3D capability. Although CR has liked what it has seen on TVs, so far 3D on computers has been a washout. Its first impressions of 3D models weren’t favorable. It encountered software problems and found the 3D less than eye-popping. Games, where 3D should really shine on computers, were also largely unimpressive.

A glut of memory. On desktops, 8 gigabytes is common, and a few laptops include up to 6 gigabytes. Unless you do heavy multitasking or video editing, 4 gigabytes is plenty.

Game-ready laptops. Until recently, retailers rarely offered a graphics processor with dedicated video memory on a laptop smaller than 17 inches. Now many 15-inch models have one. Combining that with laptops’ powerful main processors and generous hard drives makes even 15-inch models appealing to gamers.

Consumer Reports ratingsIn its tests, CR rated the Dell Studio XPS SX8100-1408NBC, $950, and the HP Pavilion Elite HPE-240f, $1,100, the most powerful desktops. Best full-size desktops included the Dell Studio XPS 8100, $700, and the Dell Studio XPS 7100, $700.

CR’s best general-purpose netbooks included the Toshiba Mini NB2255-N250, $330, and the Lenovo Ideapad S10-3, $300.

For laptops, recommended models include the Apple MacBook MC516LL/A, $1,000, (11-13 inches), the HP Pavillion dm4-1065dx, $800,(14-inch), and the Toshiba Satellite A665-S6050, $700 (15-16 inches), a CR Best Buy.

Consumer Reports writes columns, reviews, and ratings on cars, appliances, electronics, and other consumer goods. Previous stories can be found at consumerreports.org.