If you're not a hard-core action gamer but you want a snazzy laptop for playing movies and casual gaming, you can spend less and still get an excellent multimedia performer. Multimedia notebooks typically have large displays, discrete graphics and high-quality speakers, and the best of the best is the Asus Zenbook UX51VZ (*Est. $1,840 and up) . It's the closest you can get to a MacBook Pro with Retina Display (*Est. $2,200 and up) , Windows-style, which experts say is a very good thing. "Closer to perfect than any laptop we've ever reviewed," says Matt Smith at DigitalTrends.com. "Only the MacBook Pro 15-inch with Retina [Display] might stand toe to toe."
It all starts with powerful components. The UX51VZ shrugs off just about every task testers throw at it, thanks to its quad-core Core i7 processor, 8 GB of RAM, discrete Nvidia graphics and smoking-fast dual 128 GB solid-state drives. If that's not enough, try the upgrade with dual 256 drives and a more powerful Core i7 version. It even handles many games, although the most demanding ones make it run way too hot.
Movies look fantastic on the 15.6-inch, 1,080p HD anti-glare display. Soundtracks and music are rich-sounding with a tiny, 3.5-inch portable subwoofer that adds depth to the on-board Bang & Olufsen ICEpower speakers. And it's all packed into a beautifully slim aluminum case. At 4.6 pounds and just under 0.8 inch thick, the UX51V commutes comfortably.
Asus backs the Zenbook UX51V with an outstanding one-year warranty that covers accidental damage for drops, spills, power surges and fire damage, 24/7 tech support, free two-way standard shipping and a 30-day flawless display guarantee. Only a few imperfections emerge: There's no touch screen, battery life is limited to four to six hours of web surfing or video playback, and there's no built-in optical drive (although you can add an external one).
If you can put up with the extra weight and bulk, Dell offers two cheaper options with full-HD, 15.6-inch screens that get good reviews, and CD/DVD burners with Blu-ray Disc players available. The XPS 15 (*Est. $1,300 and up) looks the part, too, with its MacBook-copycat aluminum case and Nvidia graphics. The Inspiron 15R Special Edition (*Est. $900 and up) shaves costs with its plastic case and switches to discrete AMD Radeon graphics.
Neither can keep up with the speedy Asus, though. While the base Dells both use run-of-the-mill Core i5 processors, you could step up to a Core i7 with solid-state cache drive, which would cost you $1,700 on the XPS 15 and $1,050 on the Inspiron 15R SE. Still, you'd have to spend even more to get an all-solid-state XPS 15 (*Est. $1,300 and up) , and that's not an option on the Inspiron 15R at all. Still, the Dells' spinning hard drives just can't match the Asus and MacBook Pro in speed tests. The Asus also has better screens and speakers, and Dell's phone support is awful in a Laptop Magazine test. Both of the Dells are thicker and heavier than the Asus, so they're not ideal for commuting. If you can swing the extra cash, reviews say you'll probably be happier with the Asus.