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Earlier this year we reviewed another hybrid ULV/gaming laptop from Asus, the Asus UL50VT-RBBBK05. Featuring a Core 2 Duo ULV processor and switchable Nvidia graphics, we lamented that the machine didn't have better performance for its size. Sadly, even though Asus has upgraded to a new Intel Core i3 ULV processor, the UL80J-BBK5 still underperforms for its price and size class. Because the included i3 processor is an ultra-low-voltage variant, it runs at half the speed of standard voltage Core i3s. The speed gap shows up clearly on our benchmarks, where the UL80J-BBK5 finished dead last against its other mainstream peers in this retail batch. That's not surprising, since the other laptops we've looked at all have standard-voltage processors operating at faster speeds. This laptop is functionally fine for video streaming and handling nearly all everyday tasks we could think of: it feels a bit more sluggish than a normal Core i3 laptop, more of an equivalent in feel to a Core 2 Duo machine. It's a bit misleading for consumers because the sticker on the front of the laptop boasts "Core i3" without specifying that it's in fact a slower-functioning variant. In fact, it actually performs slightly more slowly than the aforementioned Asus UL50VT-RBBBK05 in our benchmark tests, despite the higher price. The good news, however, is that the gaming graphics part of the Asus UL80J-RBBK5 actually overdelivered on our performance expectations. It only packs an Nvidia GeForce 310M GPU, which is a mainstream graphics processor we've seen in other laptops, but it has double the video memory--1GB as compared to 512MB on most 310M GPUs. That's reflected in fast frame rates on our benchmark tests: Unreal Tournament III ran at a surprising 76.8 frames per second at 1,280x720-pixel resolution. For more modern games, we didn't see quite the same results, but Transformers: War on Cybertron ran at a decent clip and was very playable. Coupled with Nvidia's Optimus graphics-switching technology, the 310M GPU switches itself on and off when needed to save battery life. We applaud that concept, but in practice we found disappointing results on the battery-life front. Sony's Vaio line has always been a reliable go-to for mid-to-high-end media center laptops because of its sharp designs, decent components, and specialized media software. In our current roundup of back-to-school retail laptops, we're looking at two variations on the same Vaio F model; both are a 16-inch desktop replacement with Blu-ray and discrete graphics.The $1,349 Vaio F126 and the $999 Vaio F12A look nearly identical at first glance. The main visual difference between them is that the F126 has a dark-gray body and the F12A has a light silver-gray body. Both Vaios have a Blu-ray drive and a 1,600x900-pixel resolution display.For an extra $350, Sony gives the F126 a powerful Intel Core i7 processor and an Nvidia GeForce 330M GPU--instead of the Intel Core i3 CPU and Nvidia 310M GPU it gives the less-expensive Vaio F12A--along with more RAM (6GB versus 4GB) and a bigger hard drive (640GB versus 500GB). Comparing the two systems, there's no doubt the expensive F126 is a much more powerful system. The Intel Core i7 is about the best processor you can get in a consumer laptop right now, whereas the Nvidia 330M is a strong graphics performer. That said, saving $350 and sticking with Sony's $999 F12A version might make more sense. That model still has Blu-ray and its display has the same 16:9 aspect ratio as that of the F126, and its Core i3 processor is more than fast enough for nearly any mainstream computing task. Though gaming isn't the laptop's strong suit, it will work fine for casual games--especially if you don't set the screen resolution terribly high.Next to Apple, Sony's Vaio designs are probably the easiest to pick out of a lineup. The company uses the same distinct tapered-lip body and rounded hinge on nearly all its systems, along with a subtly chromed Vaio logo on the back of the lid. Sony constructed the Vaio V126 from plastic and metal (mostly plastic) with a monochrome dark gray color, giving it a low-key, sophisticated look. The Vaio's full-size keyboard features flat-topped, widely spaced keys that are similar to what you'd find on MacBooks. It's a nearly universal key style now, but it is one that Sony deserves credit for pioneering years ago. As this is a desktop replacement laptop, there's plenty of room for a full number pad to the right of the keyboard, as well as separate Page Up and Page Down keys. A row of quick-launch and media control buttons sit above the keyboard; these launch Sony's proprietary media software and a built-in Vaio Care tech support app that offers one-stop shopping for troubleshooting and diagnostic tools.The Vaio's keyboard is also backlit, a great extra feature that is not nearly common enough in laptops. Once you get used to having a backlit keyboard, there really is no going back. In this case, the keyboard lights up automatically when the ambient light sensor activates, so you don't have a full-time light source eating away at the battery. The touch pad is a decent size, but not overly generous. Its left and right mouse buttons are excellent--large and just stiff enough. However, the Vaio's touch pad lacks some of the multitouch gesture controls that you'll find in some less-expensive laptops. The touch pad supports the pinch-to-zoom gesture, but not two-finger scrolling, for example. That's a shame, as the vertical scroll zone on the right side of the pad is set too sensitive by default. Sony is well known for larding up its laptops with proprietary software--some of which are handy to have, whereas some are useless. In this case, Sony included overlapping media apps: Vaio Picture Motion Browser, Vaio Media Gallery, and Vaio Media Plus. These are all perfectly fine apps, but they are not essential and each app has its own learning curve. However, Sony's Vaio Care tech support software is a winner.You can access all these apps with Sony's version of a software dock. The Vaio Gate, as it's called, sits along the top edge of the screen. For a software dock, it looks nice and has some cool animations when activated; however, it commits the unforgivable sin of popping up what are essentially spammy messages about how great Sony's software and dock are. The messages are controlled via an RSS feed that you can turn off in the Vaio Gate settings, but Sony should have turned it off by default. The message pop-ups are Sony's most egregious violation of personal laptop space since it preinstalled several gigabytes worth of movies on a previous Vaio laptop's hard drive and then charged you to unlock them for viewing.The Vaio's 16.4-inch display has a 1,600x900-pixel native resolution, which is a definite step up from the standard 1,366x768-pixel resolution you'll find on most up-to-15.4-inch laptops. Sony's display, as usual, looks clear and sharp, but not overly bright. However, for $1,350, we'd expect it to have a true HD display with a 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution--especially since that's the native resolution of Blu-ray discs.The rapidly vanishing ExpressCard slot makes an appearance here, as does eSATA, along with an HDMI port for outputting Blu-ray content to a big-screen TV. The laptop even has a holdover FireWire connection, and, of course, Sony always adds a Memory Stick slot just in case you use its proprietary memory card format. Another nice feature is that the Vaio's headphone jack doubles as an optical audio out port if you're connecting the laptop to a high-end audio system. Powered by an Intel Core i7 CPU, the Vaio F126 is among the fastest laptops in our back-to-school roundup. Apple's 13-inch MacBook runs some of our specific benchmarks tests extremely well, but those tests use some Mac-centric software, such as iTunes and QuickTime, which can skew the results. In terms of everyday computing and high-end tasks such as video editing, this Vaio is more than enough for anything you'd expect to do on a home computer.If you were to look for the definition of "perfectly average laptop," you'd probably find a picture of the Toshiba Satellite L645D-S4030. It has a solid dual-core AMD Turion II processor, 4GB of RAM, a 320GB hard drive, and a decent 14-inch screen that complements its fair-looking, but forgettable, chassis.There is good and bad news here: the good is that this Toshiba laptop is zippier than we expected. The bad is that it has an underwhelming, nearly useless battery life. Its $599 price knocks on the door of slightly higher-priced laptops that offer better performance, and other budget systems--such as the Asus K50IJ-BBZ5--are cheaper and faster. If this laptop were to cost less than $499, we'd say it was a steal; however, at $599 you can find a better system. Since it lacks an HDMI port, has tinny-sounding speakers, and has an overly thick chassis, we'd skip the L645D if we were shopping for a computer in this price range; however, if you end up with this model, at least take heart that it won't disappoint you performancewise--provided you keep it plugged in to a nearby electrical outlet.Toshiba tends to make its budget products sturdier feeling than that of other manufacturers, and the L645D is definitely a solid-feeling chunk of plastic. It's 1.5 inches thick, which is a bit more than we'd prefer on a 14-inch laptop. Toshiba covers this Satellite with a dark silvery-gray patterned finish. It's a more attractive looking than an overly glossy monochrome finish, but it still looks a bit generic. The screen and surrounding bezel are glossy black, as is the wide and flat keyboard. Even though this Satellite is bulky, it's fairly light; at 4.7 pounds, it doesn't weigh you down. The flat-style keyboard, which Toshiba has largely moved away from in favor of raised keys on many other models, is quite familiar to us--we saw it in nearly all Satellites last year. We used to complain that this type of keyboard felt squishy and uncomfortable, but for some reason--possibly the extra elevation due to a thicker base--typing on the L645D is actually comfortable.The matte multitouch touch pad lies flush with the rest of the keyboard deck and can get a little lost under your fingers, but it works well. Its large curved buttons beneath the pad are firm and click solidly, but there is no practical reason for them to have a convex shape. The L645D-S4030 has a 14-inch screen with a 1,366x768-pixel native resolution, like 11- to 15 inch laptops have, and it has a fairly bright LED backlight. For a budget laptop, the Toshiba's screen is crisp and colorful enough to provide decent video playback, and it looked fine when browsing and reading documents. Its exposed stereo speakers, which are above the keyboard, disappointed us. Unlike with higher-end audio components on other Satellites, the audio TV shows and music on the L645D sounded tinny and underpowered, even when maxing the volume out. The Toshiba Satellite L645D-S4030's connection options are a little bare bones. A USB/eSATA combo port is about the only special feature the laptop has. As it doesn't have Bluetooth, HDMI, or ExpressCard, Toshiba limits your expansion options even though the laptop certainly room on its sides and front to fit these features in.The Satellite L645D-S4030 is powered an AMD Turion II dual-core CPU that offers surprisingly good performance for everyday use. It works particularly well in single-task and video playback functions and has nearly comparable performance to an Intel Core i3 processor, handling single-core tasks in our benchmark tests just a little slower some higher-end retail machines do. The Satellite takes a performance score hit as it isn't as efficient when multitasking. However, it is zippy when navigating around Windows 7 and opening programs.
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