Friday, July 31, 2009

How to Make Windows Start Up Faster

I don't know about you, but I love spending the first 10 minutes of every workday watching Windows start up. It's like a Zen thing. If you'd rather get right to work, though, the following tips should help you make Windows start much more quickly.

Lighten the Load

A typical PC loads a lot of programs every time it starts. Each of the icons in your system tray (the area near your clock) represents an auto-start application. And there are probably other programs on your machine that start automatically but don't make their presence known so easily. Each autoloading app slows your boot time--a little or a lot. And because most of them continue to run in the background, they rob you of a little performance.

Before you start eliminating autoloaders, though, make sure you can undo your changes. In Windows XP, SelectStart, All Programs, Accessories, System Tools, System Restore. Select Create a restore point, click Next, call your restore point something like before removing autoloaders, and choose Create. Click Close once you've created the restore point.

In Windows Vista, select Start, Control Panel, System. Under 'Tasks' on the right side of the window, clickSystem Protection. In the System Properties box that comes up, click Create at the bottom of the window.

XP users should now select Start, Run, type msconfig, and press . (In Vista, select Start, typemsconfig into the Search box, and press .) Click the Startup tab, and you'll see a list of all your autoloading programs, each with a check box. Uncheck an item, and it will no longer load at startup.

Choose Your Autoloading Apps

Which applications should you leave checked so that they continue to autoload? First and foremost, you don't want to operate without your antivirus, firewall, and other security programs. Yes, these programs slow your PC's boot-up and shutdown, and they can even cause conflicts, but the cost of not having them running is too high to bear.

For any other program in the list, use your judgment. Don't ask yourself "Is it a good program?" but "Does it need to be on all the time?" For instance, I unchecked Adobe Elements' Photo Downloader, a program that I use whenever I download photos from my camera, because it serves no purpose when I'm not downloading photos. On the other hand, I allow Copernic Desktop Search to autoload because it needs to index my data files continually.

After unchecking the programs that you don't need to autoload at startup, click OK and reboot. Windows will load with a very wordy message box that might look like an error message. Just check Don't show this message or launch the System Configuration Utility when Windows starts (the wording is slightly different in Vista) at the bottom of the dialog box and click OK.

Windows Dusting and Cleaning

If an autoloader diet doesn't sufficiently accelerate your boot-up, try these tweaks:

Clean out the Registry. The larger your Windows Registry, the longer the OS will take to boot. My favorite Registry cleaner is ChemTable's $30 Reg Organizer, which is both a powerful Registry editor and a general Windows maintenance tool. If you don't want to pay to put things in order, try the less-powerful EasyCleaner from ToniArts.

Use fewer fonts. Loading hundreds of system fonts takes time. If you have more than 500 fonts on your PC, remove a few. Sue Fisher's free The Font Thing utility will help you whittle your font selection down to size.

Add RAM. Faster hardware means faster boots (and shutdowns, and everything in between). There's no cheaper, more effective way to improve your hardware's performance than by adding RAM. See our video tip, "How to Upgrade Your RAM" for step-by-step instructions.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Pirates have cracked Windows 7

Pirates have cracked Windows 7's product activation just a week after the operating system made RTM and a week before it's slated to reach users, Microsoft confirmed today.

The product key posted on the Web purportedly comes from Lenovo, one of Microsoft's major OEM partners, and allows users to activate downloaded copies of Windows 7 Ultimate RTM (release to manufacturing), which leaked to the Internet last week, shortly after Microsoft announced it had finished the operating system.

According to Windows enthusiast site Neowin, one of the first to report the crack, a Lenovo disk image of Windows 7 leaked to a Chinese Web site, then moved to English-language domains. Pirates proceeded to retrieve the master OEM key and the OEM activation certificate from the .iso file. Microsoft lets major computer makers like Lenovo, Dell and Hewlett-Packard pre-activate new PCs at the factory to save customers the hassle, and provides OEM master keys for that purpose.

Windows 7 uses an updated activation scheme, dubbed OEM Activation 2.1, which is an updated version of the activation software that first appeared in Windows Vista. The technology, ironically, has been the focus of a Microsoft lawsuit filed last January against a former employee charged withstealing company documents related to the anti-piracy software that computer makers use to lock Windows to their PCs.

The crack is not for the faint of heart, as it also requires a hack of the PC's BIOS; Activation 2.1 demands a BIOS that supports the new technology. In fact, forums on sites such as My Digital Lifewere full of questions from users unfamiliar with hacking a BIOS.

But scores of users on My Digital Life's forum have reported that the leaked key -- and the process that others laid out to use it -- activated their pirated copies of Windows 7 Ultimate. "Activated 3 computers with SLIC 2.1 (DELL) modified BIOS + DELL certificate for Vista + this key," said a user identified only as "thavmym."

This isn't the first time that Microsoft's copy protection technology has been cracked. Vista's activation has been hacked several times, and in volume sufficient to prompt Microsoft to issue updates that busted the most popular cracks. When it delivered Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1), for example, it cracked down on a pair of cracks that pirates had been using to activate downloaded copies of the OS.

Microsoft acknowledged the crack today, but its reaction was in line with past takes on the topic. "We are aware of reports of activation exploits that attempt to circumvent activation and validation in Windows 7," said a company spokeswoman in an e-mail. "[But] Microsoft strongly advises customers not to download Windows 7 from unauthorized sources," she added, then reminded users that "peer-to-peer Web sites exposes users to increased risks, such as viruses, Trojans, and other malware and malicious code."

In May, a leaked copy of Windows 7 Release Candidate (RC) posted on file-sharing sites turned out to be infected with a Trojan horse.

Windows 7 is slated for public release Oct. 22, but subscribers to the for-pay TechNet and MSDN services will be able to download the final code, along with legitimate product activation keys, starting next Thursday.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Dell Studio XPS 16 Review

When it comes to style, the Dell Studio XPS 16 is a step up from typical smalll business notebooks. Make that a big step up. A stunning 16-inch screen adds to its allure, making it a fitting choice as a desktop replacement or presentation machine. A starting price of around $1,100 might keep bargain shoppers at bay, but if you're willing to ante up you'll be rewarded with a laptop that performs well and looks even better.

Strikingly Elegant Design

Dell's XPS line ranks above the company's business-oriented Vostro and Inspiron families, and is intended to appeal to home buyers and discriminating business customers alike. The relatively recent Studio XPS models—the Studio XPS 13, Studio XPS 15 and Studio XPS 16—employ the latest components and share a strikingly elegant design. The outer shell is done in glossy obsidian black with brushed-metal trim. A wide band of genuine leather near the spine looks great and provides a comfortable surface to grip when you carry the machine.

Inside, the black-on-black color scheme gives a modern, uncluttered feel. The full-size keyboard is exceedingly comfortable to type on, and the flat-top keys feature letters and symbols that are pleasantly backlit by a soft white glow. The same light illuminates the strip of multimedia control keys above the keyboard; those controls give quick access to volume/mute commands, play/pause/skip for music and DVD playback, and so on. Below the keyboard you'll find a large touchpad that makes controlling the mouse easy, but note that there is no pointing stick navigator common on many business notebooks.

The Studio XPS 16 includes all the ports you are likely to need. There are three USB ports, one of which can also accommodate external SATA (eSATA) peripherals such as the latest portable hard drives, plus a FireWire port. Dell has thoughtfully included VGA, HDMI and DisplayPort connectors for attaching an external display; having all three means no matter what projector or big-screen you run across in the future, you'll be able to connect.

Expansion comes in the form of an 8-in-1 memory card reader and an ExpressCard/54 slot. The latter is now the standard for external expansion cards, but if you have older PC Card/CardBus or PCMCIA peripherals that you can't part with, you'll have to invest in an adapter (like the DuelAdapter from Duel Systems). As for connectivity, the Studio XPS 16 includes 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi standard. Bluetooth is an option, as is a built-in 3G wireless broadband radio for use with Sprint's high-speed data network.

In LCDs, 16 is the New 15.4

The most striking feature of the Studio XPS 16 is its 16-inch LCD. This is a relatively new size of glass that gives you more viewable real estate than the 15.4-inch panels that have become the norm on mainstream notebooks, while keeping the machine fairly portable. At 6.4 pounds, the Studio XPS 16 is no bantamweight, but it's better suited to occasional travel than the often-unwieldy 17-inch laptops on the market.

The LCD features a high-def resolution of 1,920 x 1,080, and its LED backlight helps the panel deliver a wider color range than lower-end screens while also consuming less energy. Image and video reproduction on the Studio XPS 16's screen is particularly noteworthy: Colors are vibrant and well-saturated, making the machine a joy to use for photo and video work.

The screen is also brighter than on most laptops—Dell claims a brightness level of 300 nits for the panel, versus 200 nits for typical notebook LCDs—and the wide 130-degree viewing angle means you can use the machine to present to a group gathered around a conference table. One caveat: As with all high-def screens, default text sizes in applications and on Web sites can be pretty small, but at least text is amazingly crisp.

Plenty of Component Choices

Configurability is Dell's hallmark, and the Studio XPS 16 is no exception. You can choose one of the two suggested configurations and be done, or customize your machine to your needs and budget. Hard drive choices include the 320GB unit that comes standard (and that should prove enough for most uses), a whopping 500GB model, plus three flash-memory solid state drives for crash-proof performance. An 8X multi-format DVD/CD burner is standard, but high-def movie fans can step up to a DVD burner/Blu-ray reader combo.

The Studio XPS 16 comes standard with 4GB of RAM, which is more than enough to run its Windows Vista operating system; if you run a demanding application that can take advantage of more RAM, you can configure a machine with up to 8GB of memory. And you won't find any two-generation-old processors here: Choices range from a 2.4-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8600 to a 2.93-GHz Core 2 Duo T9800. The included ATI Mobility Radeon M86XT (with 512MB of dedicated video RAM) is a good choice for business 3D, and powerful enough for the occasional gaming session when work is done.

Good Value Overall

n LCDs, 16 is the New 15.4

The most striking feature of the Studio XPS 16 is its 16-inch LCD. This is a relatively new size of glass that gives you more viewable real estate than the 15.4-inch panels that have become the norm on mainstream notebooks, while keeping the machine fairly portable. At 6.4 pounds, the Studio XPS 16 is no bantamweight, but it's better suited to occasional travel than the often-unwieldy 17-inch laptops on the market.

The LCD features a high-def resolution of 1,920 x 1,080, and its LED backlight helps the panel deliver a wider color range than lower-end screens while also consuming less energy. Image and video reproduction on the Studio XPS 16's screen is particularly noteworthy: Colors are vibrant and well-saturated, making the machine a joy to use for photo and video work.

The screen is also brighter than on most laptops—Dell claims a brightness level of 300 nits for the panel, versus 200 nits for typical notebook LCDs—and the wide 130-degree viewing angle means you can use the machine to present to a group gathered around a conference table. One caveat: As with all high-def screens, default text sizes in applications and on Web sites can be pretty small, but at least text is amazingly crisp.

Plenty of Component Choices

Configurability is Dell's hallmark, and the Studio XPS 16 is no exception. You can c

Dell backs the Studio XPS 16 with a one-year warranty that includes on-site service and toll-free tech support. You can expand that in yearly increments to get up to four years of coverage.

Granted, the Dell Studio XPS 16 isn't cheap, but it does represent an excellent value. By the time you add the necessary upgrades to a lesser machine with a teaser bargain price, you'll likely be near the Studio XPS 16's $1,099 price—and you won't be getting its slick design and high-end features.

Toshiba Fashionably Late to Netbook Party

Toshiba may be a bit late to the netbook party, but it hopes to differentiate the Toshiba mini NB205 by offering features that focus on design, comfort and durability.

People love netbooks because they're small and portable. Of course the trade-off for that portability can be a cramped keyboard and touchpad. Toshiba claims it designed the mini NB205 for comfort without the compromise. It includes features such as a 10.1-inch diagonal widescreen LED backlit display, full-size QWERTY keyboard and a traditional, laptop-sized touchpad - all designed to make extended typing and Web browsing more comfortable.

Moving beyond comfort to portability, the mini NB205 comes with a hard drive impact sensor that's designed to protect data from bumps and dings, and it also features a "sleep-and-charge" USB port for charging various electronic devices whether the mini is powerd on or off. A six-cell battery provides up to nine hours of life, according to the company stats.

The Toshiba mini NB205 series is available in two configurations that feature distinctly different styles. The mini NB205-N310 sports what Toshiba calls a "unique and stylish textured finish" with a chrome hinge in a choice of four metallic accent colors: Sable Brown, Frost White, Indigo Blue and Posh Pink.

The mini NB205-N210 has a more sedate look about it, which Toshiba refers to as "fusion finish in Black Onyx cover." The keyboard's done in a black matte finish.

Toshiba hopes the combination of stylish design, comfort and durable portability will make the mini NB205 stand out from a crowded field.

"We're raising the bar in the mini notebook category with a premium brand that truly delivers on the portability promise these companion PCs were originally designed for," Jeff Barney, vice president and general manager of Toshiba America Information Systems, said in a written statement.

Toshiba mini NB205 Features

  • 10.1-inch diagonal widescreen TruBrite backlit LED display (WSVGA)
  • Windows XP Home operating system
  • Intel Atom N280 processor (1.66GHz)
  • 1GB DDR2 800MHz RAM, upgradeable to 2GB
  • Spacious storage with a 160GB HDD
  • 802.11b/g wireless and 10/100 Ethernet
  • Bluetooth V2.1 + EDR (mini NB205-N310 only)
  • Toshiba Hard Drive Impact Sensor
  • Lightweight at only 2.9 lbs.
  • Six-cell battery
  • One USB port with Sleep-and-Charge and two USB 2.0 ports
  • Built-in Webcam, speaker and microphone
  • Toshiba PC Health Monitor
  • RGB port for connecting to external displays
  • Memory Card Reader Slot
  • Security lock slot
  • One-year international limited warranty


Available June 23, the Toshiba mini NB205-N310 will sell for $399, while pricing for the mini NB205-N210 will be $349. You can purchase both netbooks at major retailers, e-tailers and direct from Toshiba. You can also buy the mini NB205-N210 through Toshiba Preferred Partner Program resellers.

HP Mini 2140 Review

A year ago, HP jumped into the netbook market. Well, stepped in. Well, put a toe in. The HP 2133 was a 2.9-pound portable with a glossy 8.9-inch display and one of the nicest, nearest-to-full-sized keyboards — 92 percent of full size, HP bragged — yet seen in the segment.

But while the 2133's specifications more than stood up to the 7-inch screen and crowded keyboard of the pioneering Asus Eee PC 4G, it was saddled with a sluggish VIA C-7 processor and marketed mostly as a backpack buddy for students in grades K through 12. Not until last fall did HP step up with a full-fledged consumer netbook, remodeling the 2133 around Intel's ubiquitous Atom CPU and a 10-inch screen to make it the Mini 1000 (and giving it a glossy red case and artistic frills to appeal to fashionistas with a pricey Vivienne Tam Edition).

Like other netbooks, of course, the 2133 and Mini 1000 have been purchased and used by bunches of businesspeople as well as kids and consumers — the idea of an easy-to-afford, easy-to-carry PC companion for checking e-mail, browsing the Web, and doing a little touch-up work on a report or presentation created on a desktop is what's made the category a smash.

But now HP has gotten around to getting specific: The 10.1-inch-screened Mini 2140 is the company's first netbook aimed specifically at mobile professionals. Externally, this means an aluminum rather than plastic case — plain silver-gray, without the squiggle-and-swirl patterns that decorate HP's (and other vendors') consumer notebooks or the Crayola red, blue, and pink hues available on other netbooks. We find it handsomely understated, or understatedly handsome if you prefer.

There's also some extra engineering done with reliability in mind, led by a technology HP calls 3D DriveGuard — a three-axis accelerometer that senses a sudden drop or shock and instantly parks the hard drive. We've seen this safety feature in HPs, Lenovos, and many other business laptops. It's a pleasure and a plus to see it in a netbook, although you shouldn't mistake any 2.6-pound compact for a truly ruggedized system. Our test unit sailed through a few bumps and fumbles, but we refrained from dropping it more than an inch or two onto a desk.

If you're truly terrified by the prospect of a hard disk crash, you can custom-order a Mini 2140 with an 80GB solid-state drive. However, that no-moving-parts solution costs $575 more than the 160GB, 5,400-rpm Hitachi drive in our model. Actually, our model in its entirety cost $449.

Your OS of Choice

That gets you a Mini 2140 with the abovementioned 160GB hard disk, Windows XP Home Edition, and the same Atom N270 processor seen in nearly every netbook at your local electronics outlet — a 1.6GHz single-core chip (well, one-and-a-half-core for applications that can take advantage of Intel's Hyper-Threading Technology) with 512K of Level 2 cache.

One gigabyte of DDR2 memory is standard; the system maximum of 2GB is a $50 option, and also requires a change from Win XP Home to another operating system — HP offers Windows Vista, Vista with a "downgrade" to Windows XP Professional, and SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10. The McAfee online security suite and trial version of Microsoft Office 2007 are preinstalled.

On the HP's left side you'll find microphone and headphone jacks, a USB 2.0 port, and a VGA connector for an external monitor. A second USB port is at the right, along with an Ethernet jack and Secure Digital and ExpressCard/54 slots — the former for a flash memory card, the latter just right for a wireless broadband add-in. That's not to say the 2140 doesn't have wireless chops of its own — Broadcom's 802.11a/b/g/draft-n adapter covers every WiFi variation, and Bluetooth is built in as well.

The flush-fitting, three-cell battery pack barely gets a passing grade: HP claims it provides up to four hours of life, but our real-world work sessions (with WiFi switched on and screen brightness at its next-to-top setting) ended after two and a half hours. A six-cell battery that juts slightly from the back of the case is a $25 option.

Fujitsu M2010 Review

Hey, good lookin'. Fujitsu is late to the netbook party, but dressed for the occasion: The new Fujitsu M2010 flaunts a glossy fire-engine/candy-apple red lid and palmrest, the former decorated with a big, bold rendition of the company's infinity-symbol logo. It's arguably the sharpest style in the netbook swarm.

Something else that's easy on the eyes is the unit's screen, a 10.1-inch, LED-backlit panel that's one of the brightest in its class, even with the backlight dialed down to save battery power, with rich, saturated colors and sharp details.

Its resolution is a bit skimpy at 1,024 by 576 pixels -- as on the HP Mini 2140 we reviewed in March, it's a number chosen for fashion or marketing reasons, namely the 16:9 aspect ratio of HD video, on a netbook that'll likely never be used for HD entertainment (and is over 330,000 pixels shy of 720p resolution anyway). But even though we consider other netbooks' 1,024 by 600 more sensible, we'll award the Fujitsu's display best in class.

Still another attraction is the M2010's portability. At 2.5 pounds, the 7.4 by 10.2 by 1.3-inch system is one of the lightest among lightweight travelers, saving half a pound or more over many of its peers. It's no burden in a briefcase even when accompanied by its AC adapter (three-quarters of a pound).

So is Fujitsu the new king of the netbook category? Unfortunately not, for two reasons. One is a price that's a little higher tha

the norm, and the other is battery life that falls short of spec
Discretionary Income

That price is $449, which isn't outrageous but is $49 above the almost universal or knee-jerk answer when someone asks, "How much does a netbook cost?" Fujitsu points out that the M2010 -- just M2010; the machine doesn't wear the LifeBook label of the company's laptops -- includes Bluetooth as well as the usual 802.11b/g wireless. Point taken, but so does the Asus Eee PC 1000HE we nominated as our all-around favorite netbook in May, and the 1000HE has a street price of $380.

The battery issue is more serious. The flip side of the Fujitsu's light weight is its relatively puny 3-cell battery pack, which lasted only one hour plus forty to fifty minutes in our real-world work sessions. That's the kind of unplugged life we'd expect from a jumbo-screened desktop replacement, not a netbook. To perform acceptably for the category, we suspect, the M2010 would need to be fitted with its optional 6-cell battery, raising its price another $129 (a spare 3-cell pack is $109).

As for otherwise acceptable performance, the Fujitsu loads and runs programs snappily enough for netbooks' traditional light-to-moderate office productivity and online browsing and e-mailing applications. That's not a surprise, because its 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270 processor, Intel 945GSE integrated-graphics chipset, 1GB of RAM, and 160GB hard disk (in this case a 5,400-rpm Fujitsu drive) are all familiar from other vendors' boilerplate or cookie-cutter netbook recipes.

The M2010 places toward the back of the pack in benchmark tests, posting a score of 1,148 in PCMark05 (CPU 1,17; memory 2,300; hard disk 4,552; graphics 519) and 384 in PC Wizard's global performance metric. Like other netbooks', its 945GSE graphics are embarrassingly unable to play the simplest games (3DMark06 score 77).

Close Quarters

A vent for the Fujitsu's audible but not annoying cooling fan is on the system's left side, along with VGA and USB 2.0 ports. Two more USB ports are at the right, as are an Ethernet port, headphone and microphone jacks, and a Secure Digital/Memory Stick flash-card slot.

With many netbooks sporting 92- and 95-percent full-sized keyboards, the M2010 settles for 90 percent -- a 17.2mm key pitch, with the A through apostrophe keys spanning a hair under seven and a quarter inches versus a desktop's eight. It's a slight but noticeable squeeze compared to the 7.5 inches of the Eee 1000HE, requiring more conscious, careful fingerwork yet still suitable for touch typing. The keyboard's typing feel is good, as is the smooth response of the touchpad, although the latter's mouse buttons are noisy.

Right now, we can't recommend the Fujitsu, but with its red-hot red to catch and its stunning screen to hold the eye, the system needs only one change to be fully competitive in the crowded netbook market: Make the 6-cell battery standard equipment. That would eliminate the M2010's biggest disappointment, leaving its screen to win over shoppers bemused by its slightly higher price.

And if Fujitsu dared to offer the unit with a bigger battery and a $50 lower price? We'd be introducing you to our new favorite netbook.

Acer Aspire 3935 Review

Woo woo. Or if you prefer, hubba hubba. The Acer Aspire 3935 is a brushed-metal slimline just 1-inch thick and just 4.2 pounds, including the DVD±RW drive missing from ultralight notebooks like Apple's MacBook Air (and the Ethernet port and swappable battery missing from the Air as well).

No, it's not quite as skinny and sexy as the Apple status symbol or Lenovo's magnesium-alloy ThinkPad X301. But this 13.3-inch widescreen traveler is about half the price -- $900 at Newegg and J&R.

And that's not for a stripped-down model, either. The CPU is one of Intel's up-to-date "Penryn" Core 2 Duos -- the P7350, a 2.0GHz dual-core with 1066MHz front-side bus and 3MB of Level 2 cache -- teamed with 3GB of quick DDR3 rather than more mundane DDR2 memory and an ample 250GB Toshiba hard disk, itself a lighter, cutting-edge 1.8-inch compact rather than a more mundane 2.5-inch model.

Both Bluetooth and 802.11 draft-N WiFi wireless are built in, as are a fingerprint reader and Webcam. The 32-bit version of Windows Vista Home Premium anchors a software bundle that includes 60-day trial versions of McAfee Security Center and Microsoft Office Home & Student 2007; NTI Backup Now and Media Maker; the eSobi RSS-feed reader and Orion instant-messaging client; and Acer's (really CyberLink's) Arcade Deluxe, an alternative to Windows Media Center for enjoying DVDs, photos, and music. There's also a handy window-tiling utility dubbed GridVista that makes it easy to arrange, say, one application on the laptop's LCD while two others share a split-screen external monitor.

Lovely to Look At, Delightful to Hold

Acer's press release describes the 3935 -- its official configuration name is the Aspire 3935-6504 -- as a "golden-brown [color] that evokes both glamor and efficiency." It also takes vigorous buffing to remove what you might call a thumbprint-polka-dot pattern after you've picked up and carried the thing a few times, but picking up the 9.3 by 12.7 by 1.0-inch Acer is never a chore, even when lifting the opened notebook one-handed.

There's a Secure Digital/MultiMediaCard/xD/Memory Stick/Pro flash-card slot on the system's front edge, with USB 2.0 and Ethernet ports beside the DVD burner on the right. At the left are two more USB ports, microphone and headphone/SPDIF audio-out jacks, and a VGA port. The Aspire loses points for not providing a more contemporary HDMI port, but Acer's designers presumably thought the system more likely to be plugged into a business-presentation projector than a high-def-video-viewing TV set.

One very contemporary feature is the Aspire's iPhone-style, gesture-enabled touchpad, which combines the usual tapping and dragging with auto-scroll through long documents (a circular motion starting at the top right corner of the pad) and zooming in and out of documents and images (pinching two fingers together or spreading them apart). An adjacent button turns off the touchpad for users who prefer an external mouse.

HP ProBook 4510s

What should you look for in a new notebook? In this economy, price ranks first followed closely by reliability and security. Way down at the bottom of that list comes styling, bells and whistles.

With that in mind, consider the Hewlett-Packard ProBook 4510s, a well-priced, reliable yet attractive 15.6-inch widescreen laptop. Prices range from $529 to $949 and HP offers both pre-configured models and custom configurations.

The unit we tested, model FM849UT#ABA, came with Windows XP Professional, 3GB of RAM, a 300GB hard drive, 2.1 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, Intel Wi-Fi Link wireless network adapter and standard CD-DVD writer. Price: $799. Dell's Vostro line, also aimed at the small business market, costs about the same.

Reputation for Reliability

While there certainly are less expensive brands, HP laptops have a reasonable reputation for reliability, and as the top-selling laptop maker in the world, HP has the market presence and infrastructure to provide better-than-average after-sales service.

That said, in a recent customer satisfaction survey published by Forrester Research, Gateway was the only Windows-based PC maker rated above 65 percent - equivalent to an "OK" rating. HP, Dell and others scored less than 65 percent, while Apple scored 80 percent. (Customer satisfaction isn't a pure measure of product reliability, however.)

The 4510s warranty includes one-year parts and labor, pick-up or carry-in (HP pays for shipping), plus toll-free 7/24 hardware technical phone support (for the life of the product). You can upgrade the warranty to get on-site service, and the primary battery comes with a one-year limited warranty.

Sturdy and Solid

The quality of the 4510s appears solid, though the notebook is mainly plastic. One nice feature: the keyboard has less space around keys, which should make it more resistant to spills.

HP also claims that as part of its HP Total Test Process, it performed more than 95,000 hours of quality testing on this product - which of course doesn't preclude the possibility of getting a lemon.

HP's 3D DriveGuard helps protect the hard drive against bumps or drops - although HP makes no claims about how high a drop. Like similar systems it uses an accelerometer that notifies the system software of any sudden movement and sends a command to temporarily park the hard drive to help avoid the worst damage.

While Windows Vista (boo, hiss) is the standard-issue operating system for this model, you can arrange to have it shipped with XP Professional, which will certainly make it more reliable.

Serve and Protect

HP builds in some security features you won't find standard on other makes and models, and it provides HP ProtectTools software to manage them all in one place.

The tools let you manage and secure Windows accounts on the machine, making it easier to use the computer even with the kind of strong security in place that usually causes users headaches. You can also configure HP ProtectTools to prevent unauthorized people from tampering with BIOS (pre-boot) settings.

Most importantly, you can use Drive Encryption for HP ProtectTools to encode data on your hard drive so that it's unreadable by an unauthorized person if the computer is lost or stolen.


In our testing, the 2.1 GHz core duo processor with 3 GB of RAM was more than adequate for running common business applications concurrently - browser, Outlook, Word, Excel and even Photoshop. It's not for power users or gamers, but it provides horsepower for the rest of us. (Yes, even if you're using Vista.)

The 15.6-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit HD display screen (1366 x 768 pixels), features HP's BrightView technology, a coating that provides a glossy, but easy-on-the-eyes, low-glare finish.

The screen is very easy to read with good, bright contrast. But dot-pitch, the distance between dots - a specification not generally cited for laptop monitors - looks to be fairly high, giving an appearance of coarse grain. This won't be an issue for most work-related applications, but it does mean it's not the most pleasing screen for watching DVD movies or working with photography.

Note that HP's ProBook line - the 4710s series - now includes models with 17-inch screens. Pricing starts at $900 and up.

The keyboard is unconventional-looking with its square keys, but the generous spacing and the travel - the distance the keys move - provides a comfortable feel.

The look might remind some people of unsatisfactory computer keyboards from the last century that featured similar "chiclet" keys, but once you start typing on it, it feels like any other lapboard keyboard, better than many in fact.

The standard Synaptics touchpad also works well. The bar along the right side, which allows you to scroll down a page with a stroke of a finger, works more smoothly and reliably than on some laptops we've tried recently.


The 4510s doesn't have every connection you might want. Notably, it lacks the older PS2 mouse and keyboard ports, and an RJ-11 (telephone) jack is optional. But it does have a standard VGA monitor connector, four USB ports located on the sides - which you could use for external mouse and keyboard - and an HDMI port.

The HDMI port allows you to plug your laptop into a high-definition (HD) TV for movie watching using the highest-quality all-digital connection. Or you could use it with an HDMI-DVI adapter or cable to connect the 4510s to an external monitor - again, using an all-digital DVI connection which will give the best image quality.

Good Looks

The 4510s is surprisingly slim for a standard laptop - i.e. not a 'thin-and-light' variety. It measures 14.6- x 9.83- x 1.24-inches and weighs as little as 5.7 lbs. (depending on battery and other options.)

The notebook features the same modern squared-off look as the keyboard design. Available in either Merlot (pictured here) or a glossy piano-black chassis (HP calls it Noir) the 4510s might remind some of Apple's MacBook Pro - as, indeed, might the line's name.

Is HP deliberately trying to compete with the MacBook Pro with this product? We're not sure, but if you move in circles where industrial design matters - if colleagues and/or clients like to flaunt their work-of-art Macs - the 4510s should let you hold your head up a little higher.

The 4510s doesn't come with a vast array of pre-installed software, but it does have InterVideo's WinDVD software for playing DVDs. And it does come with Microsoft Office 2007 pre-installed - but don't get too excited: it's only a two-month trial version. If you want to use Office 2007 permanently, you'll have to shell out $230 for a Small Business license.

Bottom Line

The price is reasonable and HP includes reliability extras - hard-disk impact protection, disk encryption - that not all laptop makers offer. As for functionality, the 4510s does the job for all but the most media-intensive tasks.

Lenovo ThinkPad T400s Notebook Review

Nobody does notebooks better. Most of the time Lenovo makes solidly capable systems, whether style-conscious consumer models like the IdeaPad Y450 or corporate fleet fodder like the ThinkPad T400 and T500. But every so often, Lenovo lets its engineers loose on a showpiece and we end up swooning like schoolgirls at a Jonas Brothers concert. Fourteen months ago, it was the 13.3-inch ThinkPad X300/X301, and we gushed, "Best notebook ever." Now it's the 14.1-inch ThinkPad T400s. Brace yourself. The s stands for swoon.

Actually, Lenovo will probably tell you it stands for slim: The T400s takes the T400 and gives it the X301 treatment, with a carbon- and glass-fiber lid and magnesium alloy case helping to trim its weight by 20 percent (to 3.9 pounds, including the optical drive omitted from many lightweight laptops) and its thickness by 25 percent (to 0.83 inch). Along the way, it turns what was an IT department workhorse -- a bread-and-butter system for the suit-and-tie set -- into a state-of-the-art temptation for small-business and solo operators as well, a 14.1-inch notebook that's more portable than many vendors' 13.3-inch models. You find yourself picking it up with one hand and waving it around just because you can.

And while the T400s is far from cheap, it stays short of the X301's super-premium price: A base model is $1,599 with a somewhat skimpy 120GB hard disk, adequate 2GB of RAM, and more-than-adequate CPU -- Intel's Core 2 Duo SP9400, with a 1066MHz front-side bus and whopping 6MB of Level 2 cache shared between two 2.4GHz cores. The model you probably want, with 3GB of memory and a 250GB drive, will cost you $1,729.

Our test unit was the 2GB version with three options -- Bluetooth ($29), a 1.3-megapixel webcam with noticeably above-average low-light reception ($30), and a whizzy 128MB solid-state drive in lieu of a hard disk ($240).

Deep-pocketed shoppers can substitute a Blu-ray burner for the ultrathin DVD±RW drive ($560); step up to a 2.53GHz Core 2 Duo SP9600 processor ($125); upgrade memory to 4GB ($100) or 8GB ($1,160); and add integrated AT&T or Verizon mobile broadband ($80 or $150, respectively). Our system also came with the 32-bit version of Windows Vista Business; Lenovo offers direct buyers both a free downgrade to Win XP Professional and a free upgrade to Windows 7.

The Keys To Quality

The T400s is a 9.5 by 13.3 by 0.8-inch matte black slab with the square-cornered styling of ThinkPads throughout history. A manual on/off switch for the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios is next to the DVD burner on the system's right side; at the left are a USB 2.0 port, headphone jack, and ExpressCard/34 slot. The last can be replaced by a 5-in-1 memory-card reader as a $10 option.

At the rear are old-fashioned VGA and newfangled DisplayPort connectors -- the video generations in between, DVI and HDMI, are not supported -- along with an Ethernet port and two more USB ports, one powered to recharge peripherals and the other serving double duty as an eSATA port for external storage devices.

The newest ThinkPad lives up to the brand's reputation for keyboard comfort with a full-sized keyboard with a, well, perfect typing feel. The layout does take a day or two's getting used to, with a Fn key usurping Ctrl's proper place in the bottom left corner and Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn keys clustered at top right, but the Delete key is double-sized, as on many desktop keyboards, for easy access.

So is another frequent finger target, the Escape key -- an example of Lenovo's incremental improvements over the original T400 keyboard, along with narrower spaces between keys to resist crumbs and crud plus drainage holes in the system's bottom to combat liquid spills. There's also a cute and genuinely handy little lamp, turned on and off with a function-key toggle, that shines down from above the display to illuminate the keyboard in dark environments. A fingerprint reader is standard, as are separate mute buttons for the speakers and microphone.

Only real rodent diehards will buy a notebook mouse to use with the T400s, because the keyboard offers not one but two pointing devices -- both Lenovo's TrackPoint mini-joystick embedded mid-keyboard and a good-sized, textured touchpad, with two pairs of mouse buttons to match. The touchpad supports multi-touch gestures, pinching or spreading two fingers to zoom in and out of images or swiping with two fingers to scroll a document.

The Fn key pairs with the cursor arrows to provide play/pause, stop, and previous/next track keys, but multimedia isn't the main point of the ThinkPad; the display snubs the currently fashionable 16:9 HD aspect ratio in favor of the older 16:10 widescreen layout (1,440 by 900 pixels). The LED-backlit screen is bright and crisp, though, with vivid colors and fine details.

Plenty of Power

The system also snubs wild arcade-game and FPS action, with mediocre Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 4500 MHD integrated graphics the only video hardware option (the regular ThinkPad T400 is available with discrete graphics). But while its 3DMark06 score was a tepid 1,083, its potent processor and Samsung SSD gave our test unit otherwise impressive benchmark performance, including a SysMark 2007 rating of 133 and PCMark05 score of 6,179 (CPU 6,054; memory 5,101; hard disk 15,402; graphics 2,041). The Lenovo rendered Cinebench R10's sample scene in 3 minutes and 3 seconds.

Battery life was moderately impressive as well, with real-world work sessions -- well, work mixed with viewing some favorite DVD scenes, though not entire movies -- lasting between three and a half and four hours in our tests. A second, lithium-polymer battery pack can be fitted in place of the optical drive for another two to three hours' runtime, though we couldn't find the pack listed or priced on Lenovo's online accessories page.

All told, the T400s is simply another of the simply exceptional notebooks that Lenovo produces on a regular basis. The older, chunkier ThinkPad T400 is still available starting at $749, but if your company gives you one your boss is either on a tight budget or doesn't like you very much.