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Netbooks are great for surfing the web and pounding out e-mails. Traditional notebooks let us get our work done and can pull double duty as a DVD player in a pinch. But if you want to get down and dirty with an image or video-editing application, experience the full richness of 1080p Blu-ray movies, or play the latest 3D games, you'll need to invest in a big rig; a laptop that delivers desktop-like performance.

Sean Higgins, a fourth year Business Administration student at the University of Waterloo, is that sort of user.

"I use it as a TV replacement, to maintain my music library, for photo and video editing, and to run resource-intensive applications, such as Adobe PhotoShop, Adobe Illustrator, and Adobe Premiere Pro," said Mr. Higgins.

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When shopping for one of these (semi) portable powerhouses, you'll want to consider display size and resolution, memory, and storage. The higher the numbers, the better. We're talking about displays 17-inches or larger with 1920-by-1200 resolution, a minimum of 4GB of RAM, and hard disks 500GB and greater.

Of course, there are downsides to such machines -- most notably their enormous size and back-breaking weight.

But power users like Mr. Higgins don't seem to mind.

"I don't carry my notebook with me regularly," he said, noting that he uses a BlackBerry for e-mail and instant messaging. "My laptop serves as a desktop replacement. Only I can take it with me when I head home or am away for a few weeks and still use all of the programs I regularly use."

An even greater concern for some will be their extravagant price. Performance laptops can range from around $2,000 to well over $5,000-the same cost as a year's tuition at some schools.

However, if you have the scratch (and a big enough backpack) there's no denying the satisfaction of knowing your notebook can handle anything you throw at it.

Alienware M17x

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Alienware calls the M17x "the most powerful 17-inch laptop in the universe." We're not sure how the Dell-owned PC maker can verify the interstellar aspect of that claim, but we have to admit that it is the most powerful portable PC we've encountered on this planet.

Armed with an Intel Core2 Extreme Quad QX9300 processor (four cores running at 2.53GHz each with a 12MB Cache and 1066MHz front-side bus), a pair of NVIDIA GeForce GTX 280M graphics processors with 2GB of dedicated video memory, and 8GB of DDR3 memory running at 1333MHz, it's difficult to imagine another laptop with more awe inspiring guts.

We ran 3DMark Vantage's performance benchmark test on the M17x and it came out at with a massive P12084 points. That number probably means little to most people, but to give it some context it's nearly triple that of the score of the next most powerful laptop in our big rig test pool (the ASUS G51Vx). Simply put, it's a monster performer.

It's also the first notebook we've ever seen ace the World in Conflict benchmark, serving up an average of nearly 50-frames-per-second with all of the game's settings at maximum and at full HD resolution.

Other hardware highlights include a gorgeous, glossy, 17-inch 1920-by-1200 widescreen display, a sleek, slot-loading Blu-ray burner, and a wide variety of storage options, ranging from a high performance 256GB solid state drive to up to 1TB of RAID 0 or RAID 1 hard disk storage.

And it's big on frills. Like a facial recognition system called AlienSense that learns the contours of your face via the onboard camera so you need not type your password each time you log onto Windows. And the ability to switch from those power-hungry GTX 280M graphics cards to the much more energy-efficient integrated motherboard graphics to save juice when you haven't the need for maximum horsepower.

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The unit's anodized aluminum chassis, complete with Alienware's trademark customizable lighting system, won't be to all tastes (this is, after all, a machine designed first and foremost for hardcore PC gamers), but if it strikes your fancy then the M17x might well be the perfect big rig.

Assuming you can stomach the price. At $4,949 (U.S. - our review unit was completely decked out), you may find that you're buying a laptop in lieu of, say, a car.

Sony VAIO AW Series VGNAW170C

The primary draw of Sony's top-of-the-line laptop is its absolutely stunning 18.4-inch extra-widescreen display, which was developed using the same XBRITE-FullHD technology found in Sony's high-end televisions. It's a dazzling LED that employs Adobe RGB colour correction to deliver bright, vivid colours while at the same time rendering surprisingly deep blacks and dark scenes with plenty of detail.

What's more, its extra-wide design -- it's not 1920-by-1200, as is the case with most high-resolution laptop displays, but instead 1920-by-1080 (or 16:9; the same as your flat panel TV) -- means thinner black bars during widescreen movie playback. Indeed, movies displayed on the VAIO AW appear downright massive relative to those of other portable PCs.

A Blu-ray disc drive, integrated subwoofer, mini RF port (to plug in a TV signal), 1TB hard disk (to store scores of hours of high-def content) and a full-sized Windows Media Centre remote complete the laptop-as-TV experience. Support for Bluetooth headsets is here as well.

Then, of course, there's Sony's elegant VAIO aesthetic. A glossy black lid with silver accents covers a minimalist interior that features a full-sized keyboard and a comfy black rubberized wrist rest. No flashing lights, save a faintly glowing band on the machine's thick and sturdy hinge that shines green when charging and orange when running off the battery.

But spending $3,300 on a chic laptop with the intention of using it only as a TV doesn't make much sense. Good thing the VGNAW170C has some pretty powerful guts.

A 2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 4GB of RAM, and NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT graphics card provide enough juice to capably handle most consumer image and video-editing applications (if not necessarily the latest PC games).

There are just a couple of downsides:

  • That big, beautiful screen drains power like a sewer grate slurping up storm water. Don't expect to get through a full movie on a plane. (Come to think of it, don't even think about pulling this giant notebook out of your carry-on, unless you're flying executive.)
  • The VGNAW170C's ultra-wide profile will almost certainly mock your existing laptop bag, which means you'll need to invest in a new sack -- consider something by Samsonite.


A machine for the consideration of budget conscious big rig hunters, ASUS' shiny black G51Vx - part of its "Republic of Gamers" line -- has not only the most appealing price tag of all the machines in our big rig test pool (just $2,049), but also the most diminutive form factor, thanks to a 15.6-inch display and a weight of just 3.3kg.

And yet its spec sheet is remarkably similar to that of its bigger competitors.

An Intel Core 2 Quad Q9000 processor delivers terrific multitasking performance while 4GB of general-purpose RAM and an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 260M graphics card with 1GB of dedicated video memory ensures strong performance in graphics intensive applications, from high-def video editing suites to 3-D gaming.

And the LED backlit display, though small compared to those of the other laptops looked at here, still boasts an impressive 1920-by-1200 resolution and is capable of playing back 1080p high-definition video in its native format -- though that video won't be originating from a Blu-ray disc, as the G51Vx comes equipped only with a DVD burner. Luckily, the system's 640GB of storage provides plenty of room for high-def movie files.

Given the notebook's traditional physical profile and high level of portability there's a much better chance of it being tossed into a bag and toted around campus, and students who do so will appreciate a nifty feature called ASUS ExpressGate. Just press a hotkey above the keyboard and you'll bypass the lengthy Windows Vista start-up to arrive at a menu providing instant access to your photos, music, Skype account, chat programs, a simple Web browser, and scores of quick, free, time-killing casual games.

The G51Vx isn't the ultimate gaming or movie machine, but its hardware is definitely a cut above your average portable PC. Students who want to use their laptop to do more than just write essays and surf the web -- and who'd rather not be forced to eat ramen noodles for the rest of the year -- would be wise to consider it.

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About the Author
Game and Gadget Reporter

Chad Sapieha has been writing about video games and consumer gadgets for the Globe and Mail since 2003. His work has been published in magazines, newspapers, and Web sites across North America, and he has appeared as an expert on television and radio newscasts. More

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