Walt Mossberg

Two Little Laptops With a Lot to Offer Their Core Users

For all the talk about new tablet computers like Apple’s iPad, laptops remain the computer industry’s bread and butter, and smaller laptops are especially popular with consumers.

So, I’ve been testing two diminutive laptops, both with 11-inch screens, that show how clever engineering can take a familiar device and customize it for particular audiences. These two machines couldn’t be more different, and they are aimed at radically different customers. Neither is a bargain-priced netbook, but both were designed with compactness in mind.

One of these products is from Dell’s Alienware group, which specializes in potent computers for hard-core gamers. The device is called the M11x, and it came out this week at a base price of $799. It’s an attempt to pack much of the power gamers typically tote around inside thicker, heavier laptops into a much more portable chassis. The M11x weighs about 4.4 pounds, which in the gaming world is svelte, and is about 1.3 inches thick.

The other machine I’ve been testing was released by Sony over the holiday shopping season with relatively little mass-market fanfare. It’s called the Vaio X, starts at $1,299 and is easily the lightest laptop I’ve ever reviewed.

In fact, it’s so light, at just 1.6 pounds, that at first I thought it must be a mock-up made of cardboard. The Vaio X is also just a tad over a half an inch thick. Its processor and graphics system are like a netbook’s, so it can’t come close to matching the Dell (DELL) in performance. But it isn’t meant for the performance market. It’s meant for highly mobile users who do typical computing, want to show off something sleek and can tolerate a high price and weak battery life in the standard configuration.

The M11x is a chunky box that, despite its size, is immediately recognizable as an Alienware product. The power button looks like a space alien’s face, and, along with the keyboard and some other features on the front edge, it can be made to light up and pulse in a variety of bright colors.

Inside, it sports dual graphics systems—one powerful discrete graphics card for heavy-duty gaming, and one lesser integrated card for other tasks or when you want to save battery life. You can switch between them quickly, without rebooting.

I am not a serious gamer, but I briefly tested the M11x on some included 3D games, and they ran smoothly and well. The machine also did great on high-definition video and on common tasks like Web browsing, email and word processing. It’s also packed with ports, including an HDMI connector, the new standard for easy hookup to a TV.

On my tough battery test, the Alienware did pretty well, clocking in at just under four hours with the more potent graphics in use, and just under five hours with the lesser graphics turned on. In normal usage patterns, you could stretch these figures.

The downsides to this machine are that the keyboard is cramped, and the specs on the $799 base model might not satisfy a serious gamer or video creator. It has a relatively small 160-gigabyte hard disk and a low-end Pentium processor. The model I tested, with a 500-gigabyte hard disk, a Core 2 Duo processor and twice the base 2 gigabytes of memory, costs $1,099.

The Sony Vaio X is a world apart, a reminder that the company, which years ago pioneered small, thin, costly laptops, can keep doing so. This little computer can get lost in your briefcase.

The Vaio X comes in several colors, but has modest specs for the price. It uses the Intel Atom processor, common in netbooks, and integrated graphics. It only comes with 2 gigabytes of memory, and the base $1,299 model has a very small 64-gigabyte solid-state drive for storage. You can double the storage on the $1,499 model I tested.

The Sony (SNE) is gorgeous, and its lightness amazed everyone to whom I showed it. It handled all the common tasks I threw at it, including some HD video from YouTube, which played fine. But it also has a cramped keyboard, plus a tiny touch pad.

In addition to Wi-Fi, the Sony also includes a 3G cellular modem from Verizon, which I tested and which worked well. If you opt to use it, you have to pay Verizon, with monthly contracts starting at $40 and no-contract usage at $15 a day or $30 a week. All these plans have usage caps.

The Achilles’ heel of the Sony is battery life. Its petite built-in battery got a miserable one hour and 48 minutes in my test, which might mean 2.5 hours in normal use. Sony does include an expanded battery with the unit, which got an impressive eight hours and 11 minutes in my test, or perhaps as much as 10 in typical use. But this battery is huge. It covers the entire bottom of the machine and must be affixed with screws. The battery roughly triples the computer’s thickness and brings its weight to nearly three pounds.

These two creative designs show that, despite the coming wave of tablets, the laptop is still a platform for innovation.

Find all of Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos online, free of charge, at the All Things Digital Web site, walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at mossberg@wsj.com.

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