Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University prides itself on being a PC pioneer. In 1984 the Blacksburg, Va., school was the first public institution to require incoming engineering students to buy a desktop. The mandate for this year's engineering frosh: slick laptops that can double as tablet PCs.
Tablets that can switch their displays to allow users to take notes by hand have been around since 2002. Most PC makers, such as Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, and Toshiba, offer a version more to fill a niche than to sub as a full-featured PC. In the past, buying a tablet generally meant giving up extras you may need or want.
That's not the case with Fujitsu's newest convertible tablet, the LifeBook T4210, which starts at $1,729. It runs the latest Intel processors as other speedy laptops do and comes with optional Bluetooth wireless capability and multiple slots for memory cards. And unlike Lenovo's ThinkPad X41 Tablet, say, you can have an onboard CD or DVD drive. You can even order the T4210 with a DVD burner.
Most students, though, will probably choose one of the mainstream notebooks. A good choice is HP's Pavilion dv5000, one of the best all-around laptops. It starts at a mere $729, but the price can climb to well over $1,000 with a performance-enhancing processor or a DVD burner for digital moviemaking. Still, the dv5000's elegant silver and piano-black finish, smart layout of ports and inputs, and front-mounted speakers make it look and feel like a much pricier machine.
The dv5000's 15.4-in. wide-screen display, which is coated with a new glossy finish designed to boost brightness for movie viewing, is an optional feature that most manufacturers are offering for the first time. It produces a brilliant picture when showing an episode of Lost on DVD in a darkened room, but under bright lights you'd be hard put to get away from the glare. Those who plan to use the laptop under bright, classroom lights or outdoors might want to stick to the standard screen. Another good choice: Dell's Inspiron E1505, a similarly versatile and customizable laptop that starts at just $669.
These days, Apples are equally affordable, and they now use Intel's Core Duo chips, just like HP and Dell models. That means that they can boot up Windows XP and run applications designed for PCs, which eliminates the main argument against choosing an Apple.
The new MacBook starts at $1,099. The minimalist design will attract students, but it's full of practical innovations that parents will appreciate, too, such as a magnetic power cord connector that safely snaps off if someone trips over it. Its skinny 1-in. profile and 5.2-lb. heft make it highly portable, but there are drawbacks: The 13.3-in. display is too diminutive to double as a dorm room DVD theater, and 64 MB of video memory isn't enough for serious gaming and multimedia. If that's what's needed, step up to the MacBook Pro, which comes in 15- and 17-in. varieties that start at $1,999.
True graphics hogs, though, will opt for what the PC industry refers to as "desktop replacements." A better name might be "desktop destroyers," since the machines now perform comparably with minitower desktops, and their portability, though just barely for some models, makes them a far better option for anyone who doesn't want to be tied down. At the top of that list are hard-core gamers, but it also includes amateur Scorseses.
Take Dell's XPS M1710 with its high-resolution 17-in. wide-screen display. Starting at $2,400, it's way pricey. But you would be hard-pressed to find a laptop with more real estate for the eyes and fingers. No machine beats it on speed, thanks to options like a dual-core processor running at 2.33 GHz and the most powerful graphics chip Dell has ever put in a laptop, an NVIDIA GeForce Go 7900 GTX with 512 MB of dedicated video memory.
The M1710's garish metallic black or red case with glowing XPS logos is designed to get gamers' hearts racing, but there's a wider audience for this 9-lb. beast. The standard features include Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 and Dell's MediaDirect system. The latter allows quick access to music, photos, and movies without booting up Windows (and puts the control buttons conveniently on the front edge).
Unfortunately, Dell left out an internal TV tuner for those who want to watch and record live TV. Instead, it offers one on a $130 card that slides into the side of the laptop. The company says that making space for an internal tuner would have added unnecessary weight and bulk. If you disagree, you should look to Alienware's Aurora m9700, which starts at $1,799, has a tuner and optional dual graphics cards, and boasts a more graceful design than the Dell.
If that's not good enough, a few top-of-the-line laptops promise a home theater-like experience but are still portable. Dell's XPS M2010, with its 20-in. liquid-crystal display, is a stunner, and so is the price tag, $3,500 or more. A more reasonable choice is Toshiba's $2,300 Qosmio G35-AV600, the latest in its line of mediacentric portables. It's difficult to imagine that Toshiba left anything out of this more than 10-lb. laptop. There's a dual-layer DVD burner, powerful Harman Kardon speakers, and a dozen ports for connecting to other gadgets.
But it's the multitalented tablet PCs with their show-off appeal that are capturing the fancy of the incoming class. When Virginia Tech freshman Walter Mangual is finished doing homework on his LifeBook T4210, he switches to the shoot-'em-up Half-Life 2. When he's in class, the 12.1-in. display swivels around into slate mode, allowing him to take notes by hand, mark up professors' presentations, and collaborate with classmates on team projects. Says Mangual: "I don't really need the keyboard."