With laptop innovation moving faster than just about any other area of consumer technology, it seems rather unfair to do a best laptop of the year category. Anything released back in January is comparatively obsolete next to anything from the last few months. The arrival of both Windows 7 and CULV technology in the latter half of the year has distorted matters even more. That said, 2009 started with some memorable moments at CES and a definite clutch of landmark releases that have managed to stay in contention for the Vodafone Pocket-lint Gadget Award for Best Laptop. Here's a little reminder of some of the highlights for you, and don't forget to tell us just which would get your vote.
Multimedia & Games
The laptop industry has moved into three clear areas of machines over the last 2 years although more recently it's threatened to fragment even further. One of the sectors beginning to divide in 2009 is the multimedia notebooks which, since the rise of the netbook and the slimline PC, now consists of just about anything over 2kg in weight with a 15-inch or more screen size. The point is that whereas once they might have been considered portable, the only moving anyone would do with them now would be short distances within the home. And, as for them being lap-tops, well there's now a select few of them that would crush your thigh bones even if you thought about it.
As a consequence of being housebound, these have predominately become entertainment units fit with powerful graphics cards, Blu-ray players, quad core processors, HDMI ports and, of course, HD quality widescreens. Some of the better examples of the year include the Samsung R720, the Asus F70, the Acer Aspire 7540 & 5542, MSI GX723, HP Pavillion DV8, Packard Bell EasyNote DT85 and the Sony Vaio NW series. That's been pretty much the middle bench of this category.
However, beyond these entertainment machines are the slightly lower spec and more portable professional type traditional laptops in the same vein as the MacBook Pro range which was itself refreshed right from the beginning of the 2009. The addition of a 17-inch model and later the 15-inch and 13-inch upgrades helped to remind us that although their specs may be lower, these are still machines to be reckoned with. Toshiba very much has its own take on the market with the Satellite series as re-released throughout the year, Dell has its Studios with an impressive update to the Studio 15 seen in 2009 and the one that got most tongues wagging was the HP Envy laptops with their Core i7 processors and enormous wedges of RAM available up to a slightly insane 16GB.
At the very other extreme of this category is a growing number of monster machines for gamers. It's a tricky area given that most self-respecting VG-heads will build their own PCs, but there is an ever-growing PC gaming market once more and plenty of consumers who want to buy something tailor made. What 2009 has continued to show here is that even this end of computing is moving away from desktops, which were normally classed as the only machines to offer the necessary power and screen size.
The minimum you'd expect to pay for these mostly 17-inch beasts would be a cool £1000 like we saw in the Packard Bell iPower GX at the beginning of the awards year and the budget but effective Advent 6555 which has arrived since. However, Dell's Alienware, the Demios X-10 and the Asus G60 were also there in case you really wanted to start splashing the cash on dual GPUs and more lights, bells, whistles and sub-woofered sound hot-rods. Hard to tell how big this niche will get in the future but it's certainly been a feature this year.
Finally, and just to be typically awkward Apple finally brought us a new version of their £799 entry level machine - the 13-inch unibody white MacBook. 2006 was the last time the company refreshed that model and we were beginning to think they would leave it at that.
By far the biggest growth area in laptops has been the thin, slim, ultra-portable, ultra-stylish machines. Consumers have been crying out for something with the portability of a netbook but with the battery and processing capabilities nearer the multimedia muthas as well as larger screen sizes to match - typically between 13 and 15 inches. We'd already seen the beginnings of this with the MacBook Air and the Toshiba Porteges but it was at CES 2009 when the fashion really hit home as MSI released their X-Series of laptops with the X320, which has now matured through the X400 and X600 too. Dell managed to eke out the tease on the style-conscious Adamo for nearly 6 months before more recently blowing us all away with even thinner and more unique Adamo XPS and it's the launch of the Intel CULV platform that's really produced the gold rush we're seeing right now.
Asus were quick to move from the already good looking brushed aluminium UX series to the new low voltage, longer lasting system take on the same design with the near enough Asus UL series. There must have been a secret meeting in a darkened smoky room between the marketing chiefs a few months back because it seems X-series has become synonymous with this laptop form. Samsung's X-series arrived with typical gusto in October after the announcement at IFA and once Sony had decided that the trend was here to stay, they produced an Vaio X-series of the company's very own too. And, just to prove they're not all about stacking them high and selling them cheap, Dell produced a slightly less premium take on the trend with both the Inspiron and Lattitude Z-series. Presumably, there were no Xs left. Finally both Toshiba and Acer, with the Timeline range, went about more portable solutions although in a slightly more sedate and less thin-crazed way.
Interestingly, because of the focus on efficiency and form, what we haven't seen, and perhaps for the first time, is any significant increase in RAM and processor cores - typical signs of raw power. Instead 2009 has given the consumer laptops with a definite purpose. We have more battery power, a lighter load, more power-friendly LED screens, often with SSD internal storage solutions as well. Throw Windows 7 into the mix and there's never been a better time to buy a laptop.
If 2008 was the arrival of the netbook, then 2009 has most certainly represented its peak. According to Samsung, Q4 of 2009, now, is when we should expect to see the largest sale in netbooks worldwide. Simply everyone makes them including Orange, LG, Nokia, BlackBerry and even Hello Kitty. There is some suspicion that the wave will roll back once more with the ultra-slims taking a lot of that market share away, with a solution that most people were probably after in the first place, but it seems there will always be a place for devices like these that simply need to be carried in a smaller space.
That said, there have been one or two standout innovations in the netbook field starting at the very beginning of the year in Las Vegas with the arrival of three very important machines. The first was from the inventor of the netbook, as Asus held aloft the touch and swivel screen Eee PC tablet, the T91. The second was the HP Mini 2140 and its near full size keyboard and, perhaps most famously, was Sony's half admission that netbooks were here to stay with the release of the Vaio P not-netbook. The company has since gone the whole hog with the Vaio W.
It's almost seemed that the manufactures themselves have sensed that the traditional netbook might have been a fad. Most have ditched the early 8.9-inch models with 10-inch machines being the baseline these days, the best of the current crop are the Dell Mini 10v, the Toshiba NB200, the Medion E1312, HP Mini 5101, Asus Eee PC 1008HA, Samsung N510 and the Acer Aspire One D250, many of which now come with 2GB of RAM, near full QWERTYs and better graphics than ever before. There's been a recognition that it's hard to get much done on such small machines so we've seen the addition of the Nvidia ION platform to allow gaming and HD video playback to help bolster the trade too. The other way to go has been the blurring of the very definition of the category by creating a series of 11-inch not-netbooks, which straddle the gap in machine class, and often come with non-Atom processors like the HP Pavillion DM1 and the Packard Bell dot m/u.
Aside these small boosts and the touchscreen capabilities, perhaps the only real innovation has come from Acer who has brought out a version of the D250 that comes with both Android and Windows operating systems installed as well as, of course, the offering of a 3D laptop too. It'll be interesting to see how Google's desktop OS takes off and who'll choose to run netbooks on Windows 7. But, most of all, it'll be interesting to see what's come of the netbook in 2 year's time.
What do you think?
But these are just some of the fantastic choices our readers have had in 2009. What would you like to see held aloft as the winner of Pocket-lint Best Laptop 2009? Who have we missed out? Which are your unsung heroes and of those we've already mentioned, which would get your vote? Let us know in the comments below and you can help our panel decide which make the shortlist of nominees to be announced here on Pocket-lint on 16 November. We'll have all out coverage of the Vodafone Pocket-lint awards 2009 right here. Don't miss a minute of it.