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Letters to the Editors: Ultraportables, A/V cables, more

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From ultraportable laptop recommendations to advice on overpriced A/V cables, we answer our first batch of reader mail.

I would like to know how expensive cables (HDMI, speaker, etc.) compare to cheaper ones. Can the average person see or hear the difference? Is there some kind of spec to help you decide which to buy? — David G.

When it comes to cables, it's been proven that spending more money on "boutique" cable brands does not result in better performance. This has been verified by tests run by the Audioholics Home Theater Forum and PC World. In both occasions, expensive A/V cables were compared against cheaper ones and the less expensive ones wound up being nearly as good as the costlier ones. Our recommendation — save your money and buy the most affordable cables you can find from sites like Monoprice. Name brand will not make a difference.

I was wondering, what is the smallest laptop with a CD/DVD drive? I think it would have to be one of the HP 12" models. Are there any that are cheaper? — Jerry

Compact laptops have gained popularity in the past year, thanks in part to the introduction of the netbook. However, in order to reach their sub-4-lb. size (the maximum weight for an ultraportable or netbook), many manufacturers have ditched the optical drive. For impossibly thin laptops with optical drives, there's only one place to turn — Japan. Dynamism, an online retailer that specializes in importing Japanese gadgets, carries a good number of these laptops at different price points. Unfortunately, most come with a premium.

At the high end there's the 2.1-lb Sony VAIO G3 Intel Core 2 Duo 1.4GHz 12.1" Widescreen Notebook ($2,749 at Dynamism.com), which inlcudes 2GB of RAM, a 160GB hard drive, a dual layer DVD burner, 802.11n, and Windows Vista Business. Although not as powerful, there's also the 2.7-lb Vye S41 Intel A110 800MHz 7" Widescreen Netbook ($849 at Dynamism.com, pictured), which houses 1GB of RAM, an 80GB hard drive, dual layer DVD burner, and 802.11g, but no operating system.

If you require a built-in optical drive, we recommend frugal shoppers look at thin and light models instead (between 4 to 6 lbs), such as the 4.9-lb Dell Inspiron 13, which is 0.3-lbs heavier than the more expensive HP TouchSmart series. Or you could wait for the forthcoming 3.1-lb. ASUS Eee PC 1004DN Intel Atom 1.66GHz 10.1" Widescreen Netbook, which will be the first Eee PC in the U.S. to include an optical drive.

There are so many laptops out there for gamers, but is there any laptop suitable for Photoshop, video editing, and heavy engineering software like MATLAB, since these things do not require great graphics cards? — Khan

Actually, from our experience we've found that Photoshop and video editing apps work best on laptops with dedicated video cards and sufficient system memory. The reason? These apps tax your computer's processor (especially your graphics processor) and programs like Adobe Photoshop run best when fed plenty of RAM. Complex video editing (whether it's HD or standard definition) also requires a capable video card (256MB or more) that can render your files without slowing your system to a crawl.

Apple's MacBook Pro line (pictured) has consistently won rave reviews for these types of tasks, but if your programs are Windows-based, there are plenty of PC laptops that can step up to the plate. Noteworthy models include HP's HDX Premium series, Toshiba's Qosmio line, and Sony's VAIO AW series. Unfortunately, these laptops are expensive as you'll want to configure them with the best processor (a 2GHz or faster Intel Core 2 Duo), RAM, and video card you can afford. In addition, you'll want to make sure your notebook has a sizeable hard drive (preferably at 7200 rpm for fast data transfer) and a good LCD that can properly represent colors and cut down on glare.

Have a question or comment for us? We want to hear from you. Submit your thoughts to us here and we may choose your letter for our next segment.

Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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