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Review: These chic notebooks are all business

Lenovo's monolith-like ThinkPads have traditionally been the antithesis of sleek and hip computer design. Purposefully business-y in both form and function, they're not the sort of notebooks one whips out at Starbucks in hope of generating a little geek envy.

The $1,299 ThinkPad X1 is a subtle attempt to change that image.

It still has many recognizable ThinkPad markers – black matte case, iconic red mousing nub in the centre of the keyboard, and practical interface features, such as a set of handy, dedicated web conferencing/voice calling keys – but it's also the kind of notebook that could prompt a second look from style-conscious technorati.

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For starters, it's only 21 millimetres thick at its chubbiest point, and just 16 millimetres at its thinnest. It also weighs just over 1.5 kilograms – light for a 13-inch notebook, though perhaps a little heavier than you'd expect given its svelte dimensions. And it has some nice flourishes, including a raised, backlit keyboard with rounded keys , and even a bit of gloss in the form of a sheet of Corning Gorilla Glass that extends all the way through the bezel almost to the display edge (though, sadly, the 1360-by-768 resolution screen behind it appears a bit grainy).

The unit I tested had a second-gen Intel Core i5 processor with integrated graphics and 4-gigabytes of RAM, which is certainly speedy enough for multitasking with standard productivity applications. Power users can upgrade to an i7, while budget conscious folks who want to save about $100 can downgrade to an i3. The standard 320-gigabyte hard drive can be swapped out for a solid state solution to speed up loading time and increase battery performance.

Users looking to install apps from disc or watch DVDs may lament the lack of an optical drive, but no one can poke holes in the port package, which includes HDMI, eSATA, USB 3.0, DisplayPort, and a SIM card slot. If it's a modern peripheral with a plug, you can probably connect it to the X1.

The integrated 38.5 Watt hour battery is rated for only around five hours – which could be a deal-breaker for road warriors – but Lenovo's RapidCharge tech recharges it to more than three-quarters full in under 30 minutes. You can almost see the power bar filling. An additional slice battery (not tested) that raises the back of the notebook a few degrees adds up to 10 hours of extra juice.

It's not likely to convert any MacBook Air users, but ThinkPad fans looking for Lenovo's familiar usability and time-tested reliability with just a dash of panache should be tickled.

Dell XPS 15z

The secret is out: Dell's designers use Apple computers at home.

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This is evident based on the American company's powerful new XPS 15z, a notebook with a sleek and curved silver metallic body, raised and rounded backlit keys, and a trim height of just 24 millimetres, which makes it the thinnest 15-inch Windows laptop around. It's more or less a MacBook Pro that just happens to run Microsoft's OS.

Of course, Apple fans will be quick to point out differences beyond operating systems. A plastic chrome line that rings the edge of the base ever so slightly cheapens the 15z's otherwise clean, simple look and serves as evidence that Dell's machine does not have Apple's patented aluminum unibody design. Plus, the thick, grooved metal hinge connecting screen to base as well as the grids of holes carved into the base beside the keyboard seem just a little too industrial to meet Mac aesthetic guidelines.

Still, average users could easily confuse the XPS 15z with a MacBook Pro from a distance – which, it seems to me, makes for a pretty good selling point for Windows fans who have quietly envied Apple's computers.

Of course, there's more to Dell's sleek new machine than just looks. It's available in multiple hardware configurations, and the test model provided for this review was primed to perform. Running off an Intel i7-2620M processor set to 2.7 GHz and 8-gigabytes of memory, it was fully capable of meeting everyday productivity needs and then some.

Discrete NVIDIA GeForce GT 525M graphics – quick, for a mid-range card – provide good rendering capabilities for video editing. I cut up a lengthy 1080p AVCHD video and it handled the large files quite well. It can even handle modern games, if not necessarily at maximum detail. Regardless of media type, everything looks great on the glossy 1920-1080 display.

The sides, meanwhile, play host to a slot-loading DVD drive as well as HDMI, DisplayPort, eSATA, SD Card, and two USB jacks. A battery status indicator sits on the left.

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The XPS 15z starts at $999, but the lower-end model comes with specs noticeably less impressive than those described here. It's not cheap, but keep in mind that, as with all the notebooks in this roundup, you're paying extra for its unusual form. Thin and pretty laptops don't design themselves, after all.

Samsung Series 9 (NP-900X3A-A01CA)

Say the word "Samsung" to a Canadian and he or she will immediately imagine televisions, phones, home theatre systems, and even tablets, but probably not laptops. However, our impression of the Korean consumer tech giant – which sells notebooks in large quantities in other parts of the world – might change if we were to catch a glimpse of the Series 9.

Measuring just 16 millimetres at its thickest point and weighing under 1.3 kilograms, it's in clear competition with Apple's MacBook Air, though it has a slightly more sophisticated, executive aesthetic. Its brushed black body made me think of aerodynamic luxury cars, perhaps because its duralumin case is sharply hewn along the sides, creating a gracefully curving, shiny metallic line reminiscent of the outer edges of a lavish automobile.

Open it up and you'll find a glossy 13-inch 1366-by-768 LED above a gently backlit keyboard with slightly raised keys and an unusual "clickable" touchpad with no markings. You can press down virtually anywhere on the pad to left click (complete with tactile depression and clicking sound), while a portion of the lower right side is reserved for right clicks. It's refreshingly minimal in appearance for a Windows touchpad, but takes some time to grow accustomed to – I found I often accidentally moved the pointer when trying to click.

Another stylistic flourish comes in the form of the Series 9's cleverly concealed port hatches, which flip down from the curved edge of the base, revealing the basic essentials of modern laptop connectivity, including HDMI, a memory card slot, two USB ports, and a mic jack. A miniature Ethernet port can be found here as well, but it requires users to carry around a converter cable.

Of course, high-end styling like this doesn't run cheap. Starting at $1,699, the Series 9's price will probably cause most shoppers without a corporate credit card to bow out.

The base model runs off an Intel Core i5 2537M processor clocked to 1.4 GHz, 4-gigabytes of memory, and integrated Intel graphics – all fine for day-to-day tasks, but perhaps less than ideal for power users.

The standard 128-gigabyte solid state drive is suitable for storing documents, photos, and music, but heavy app and media users could run out of space in a jiffy. However, this drive does make for speedy startup; it takes just over 20 seconds to go from a completely cold machine to fully loaded Windows 7 desktop. I'm not sure I've ever seen Microsoft's operating system load so quickly.

The Series 9 is clearly comparable to a MacBook Air in terms of size and performance, but costs hundreds of dollars more. It's good that it has such obvious eye-catching appeal, because, in the end, that's what you'll be paying for.

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