The 10 Coolest Notebooks Of 2011

Smaller Footprint, Bigger Performance

Slim, light and powerful. Those are the three key traits of the modern laptop computer these days. While tablets have been stealing thunder from traditional PCs over the last year, the notebook has undergone a somewhat quiet evolution as the device's profile has shrunk, while the specs inside have become more and more impressive. Even some of the most powerful laptops, such as mobile workstations, have increased their mobility.

Here are 10 standout notebooks of various shapes, sizes and styles, reviewed by the CRN Test Center this year.

Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook

Hoping to capitalize on Intel's Ultrabook, Acer unleashed its Aspire S3 model to compete against sleeker laptops like Apple's MacBook Air. And while Acer is best known for producing competitively-priced yet somewhat bland PCs, the Aspire S3 Ultrabook shows the computer manufacturer can still dial it up and make a top-tier notebook.

Acer's Apsire S3 Ultrabook comes with an alluring case design that's almost as thin as the MacBook Air (0.68 inches), a 13.3-inch display and compact keyboard and trackpad. The base model Aspire S3 features an Intel Core i5 1.6 GHz dual core processor, 4 GB of RAM, a 20-GB SSD as well as a separate 320-GB hard drive. Thanks to the SSD, Acer's Green Instant On technology allows the Aspire S3 to boot up in less than three seconds. Weighing around 3 pounds, this Ultrabook is easy to carry around. And the price is compelling, too. At $899.99, the Aspire S3 is cheaper than the MacBook Air and well under the intended $1,000 price range of Ultrabooks.

Apple MacBook Air 2011

Apple improved its already-popular MacBook Air this year with a few nice upgrades. First, the ultra-thin laptop now features a more powerful Intel Core i5 processor, replacing the Intel Core 2 Duo chip of older models. The new MacBook Air can also support up to 4 GB of memory and comes with an Intel HD Graphics 3000 processor for better visual performance, as well as a new Thunderbolt port. While the MacBook Air lacks some amenities like a USB 3.0 port but Apple's sleek notebook is still the gold standard for the new ultra-thin movement. The MacBook Air starts at $999.

Dell Precision M6600

At nearly 9 pounds, Dell's Precision M6600 bucks the trend of smaller and lighter notebooks; in fact, it's the biggest, heaviest laptop on this list. But it's also a beast. The 17-inch laptop contains a second generation Intel Core processor (i5 or i7), and can house up to 32 GB of DDR3 memory at 1333 Mhz (16 GB at 1600 Mhz) as well as up to 512 GB of SSD storage and 750 GB of traditional hard drive storage. The Precision M660 also comes with a discrete graphics card (AMD FirePro or Nvidia Quadro), which is key because the mobile workstation can support up to four different external displays. And let's not forget Dell's mobile workstation comes packed with plenty of ports, including two USB 3.0 hubs. Starting at $2,218, the Precision M660 is an expensive machine but one that can rival a traditional desktop workstation.

Dell Latitude E6320

In contrast to the Precision M6600 mobile workstation, Dell's Latitude E6320 notebook is light as a feather. The 13.3-inch laptop has a lighter and slimmer form factor compared to the Precision M6600, but the Dell Tri-Metal case is durable enough to protect the device for frequent travelers.

The Latitude E6320 is built to withstand the kind of wear and tear that's common for road warriors. The notebook has a backlit, spill-proof keyboard and a fast-charging battery that can recharge at 80 percent in just an hour. The E6320 also has an anti-glare LED display and can support up to 4 GB of RAM, a 320 GB hard drive and either an Intel Core i5 or i7 processor. The base E6320 model starts at $1,019.

Fujitsu LifeBook T580

Okay, so Fujistu's LifeBook T580 isn't really a tablet -- at least not in the way we've come to know tablets today. But the T580 has some pretty compelling tablet capabilities, including a 10.1-inch four-point touch screen and accompanying "digital pen" that's more advanced than your typical stylus. A bi-directional display hinge allows users to convert the notebook into a tablet form or simply rotate the display.

The LifeBook T580 also has some other compelling features, such as a spill-resistant keyboard and an embedded fingerprint scanner, along with an Intel Core i5 processor and support for up to 500 GB in a traditional hard drive or 128 GB for an SSD. The LifeBook T580 starts at $1,399.

GammaTech DuraBook U12C

Ruggedized notebooks are becoming more popular these days as the mobile device revolution expands into the workplace. What makes DuraBooks different from other ruggedized notebooks is the compelling price point: GammaTech's DuraBook U12C, for example, starts at around $1,450.

GammaTech's laptop contains the kind of features you'd expect from a ruggedized notebook, such as a drop- and shock- resistant case, a spill-resistant keyboard, dust-resistant input/output ports and a user-friendly form factor that's easy to carry. Plus, the U12C has a 12.1-inch convertible display that can be turned into a tablet. The display is attached to a sturdy swivel mount that can be turned at just about any angle. The GammaTech notebook also offers strong performance with an Intel Core i5 processor and up to 8 GB of memory. Sturdy and attractively priced, the U12C DuraBook is a winner.

HP EliteBook 8560p

HP already established its EliteBook as a force to be reckoned with earlier in the year with the EliteBook 8540w, which at the time was the highest-performing notebook the CRN Test Center ever evaluated. But HP raised the stakes recently with the 8560p, which starts at $1,079.

A business class laptop with a sturdy exterior and a whopping 15.6-inch HD display, the EliteBook 8560p is the kind of notebook that can truly replace a desktop, especially when customized to the extreme. The notebook can support up to 16 GB of RAM, 750 GB of hard drive space, and 256 GB of SSD space. The 8560p can also house chips as powerful as the Intel Core i7-2640M 2.8 GHz processor, as well as a discrete graphics card like AMD's Radeon HD 6470M. There's also USB. 3.0 ports, a 720p HD webcam, and a fingerprint scanner.

Lenovo ThinkPad W520

As Lenovo likes to say, the ThinkPad W520 delivers workhorse power in a pony-size device. Lenovo's mobile workstation isn't small or light -- it starts at just under 6 pounds and boasts a 15.6-inch (HD or full HD). But the ThinkPad W520 is surprisingly mobile for a notebook that packs so much power.

The ThinkPad W520 was one of the highest performing notebooks to ever grace the CRN Test Center; the notebook can support up to Intel's i7 Extreme quad core processors and house up to a whopping 32 GB of RAM, along with 160 GB of SSD space and an Nvidia Quadro discrete GPU. The mobile workstation also comes with an HD webcam, USB 3.0 port and -- best of all, perhaps -- superior battery life that can last more than 14 hours with a 9 cell battery and external slice battery. The ThinkPad W520 starts at $1,299.

Samsung Chromebook Series 5

Google announced its Chromebook notebook model this year, and one of the first vendors to jump on it was Samsung. The Chromebook Series 5 runs on Google's Chrome OS and features a 12.1-inch display in a slim, light form factor.

The Chromebook Series 5 comes with a Intel Atom 1.66 GHz-processor, 2 GB of RAM and a 16 GB SSD. While those specifications pale in comparison to some of the higher-end notebooks on this list, the Chromebook was designed to be an inexpensive, easy-to-use notebook that runs the Chrome OS and Web browser fast and takes advantage of Google's cloud offerings. Plus, the Series 5 model has more than 6 hours of battery life. The Chromebook Series 5 starts at $349 for the Wi-Fi only version.

Toshiba Tecra R850

Toshiba's comeback in the notebook market owes a lot to products like the Tecra R850 laptop. Designed for SMB customers, Toshiba's notebook is protected by a spill-resistant keyboard and Toshiba's EasyGuard technology, which gives the case an extra layer of protection for road warriors.

The Tecra R850 isn't light – it starts at around 5.29 pounds – but the 15.6-inch notebook is thin and sleek for a high-performance business-class device. Featuring Intel's Sandy Bridge Core chips (from i3 to i7 2640M), the Tecra R850 also comes with USB 3.0 and HDMI ports as well as Toshiba's power-saving Eco Utility feature to help stretch the already-formidable battery life. The Tecra R850 comes in eight different models and starts at $899.