Design

Dan: Samsung's Series 9 looks great, but it feels surprisingly cheap in the hand. The Air feels like it'll stop a bullet, although that's one test we haven't started doing yet. Compared with the other two, the Toshiba doesn't compete, but if you factor in the price, it's a looker.

Scott: The thinner designs of the MacBook Air and Samsung Series 9 grab my eye; to me, the Portege looks like a clunker by comparison. Hard to beat the Air, really. That blade of metal is more elegant than the curvy Series 9, which feels like what it is: a design knockoff of Apple's laptop.

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Size/weight

Dan: Because it's thicker but only a touch heavier, the Portege feels less dense than the two slimmer laptops. All are pretty easy to tote around in a small laptop bag, but the Air and Series 9 are both impressive feats of engineering.

Scott: The Air and the Series 9 are both less than around 3 pounds. The Portege's not as light (3.2 pounds), and it's also thicker. The MacBook Air is the thinnest laptop, even if the Series 9 comes awfully close. An Air and a Series 9 held together feel like the size and weight of a normal notebook.

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Display

Dan: The MacBook Air wins, as it's the only one of these three that offers a higher-than-average screen resolution, at 1,440x900 pixels--even the 13-inch MacBook Pro doesn't have that. The Portege, on the other hand, doesn't have great off-axis viewing.

Scott: That superbright 13-inch screen on the Series 9 has great viewing angles, almost as good as the iPad's; it beats the MacBook Air's higher-res, less poppy display. The Portege's screen is pretty good, too, but nothing notable.

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Keyboard

Dan: A three-way photo finish. All three of these systems have excellent keyboards, but they're all of the same flat-topped, widely spaced style. If you want something different, you're out of luck. But serious props to the Series 9 for the backlit keyboard, which isn't nearly as common as it should be.

Scott: I love raised keyboards, and all three of these laptops have them. The Air and the Series 9 are incredibly similar; the edge goes to the backlit Series 9. The Portege's larger keys might be more comfortable, but we'll take that Series 9's backlight.

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Touch pad

Dan: For whatever reason, no one can come close to the responsiveness and gesture controls of the big MacBook clickpads, with four-finger commands, inertial scrolling, etc.

Scott: Larger is better with multitouch pads; the Portege's still-large touch pad feels like a postage stamp compared with the epic space on the MacBook Air's clickpad. The Series 9's large pad comes close, but it's slightly smaller and less responsive.

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Ports and connections

Dan: The second-generation MacBook Air certainly beats the original's single USB port, by adding a second one and an SD card slot. The Series 9 does a little better, but all that thinness comes with a price in terms of layout and selection of ports. The Portege is the most standard. It's always a good idea to seriously sit down and think about what you'll want to plug in--people often need more USB ports than they think they will.

Scott: The Portege has the normal laptop features, because it's a normal-size laptop...comparatively. Between the thinner laptops, the Series 9 has the Air beat on ports, but they're small and tucked away behind flip-down doors, which gets annoying. Convenience: the Air. Choice: the Series 9. A normal laptop experience: the Portege.

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Battery

Dan: That mix of Intel's new Core-i CPUs, Toshiba's normally good power management, and a bigger body that allows for a bigger battery all comes together to give the Portege a pretty amazing battery life. The Samsung is helped by its low-voltage processor, but in a slim shell, there's not much room for a battery.

Scott: The Portege takes the crown with more than 7 hours. The Series 9 comes in second with 5 hours and 22 minutes, which is not bad at all for a thin laptop--but for run time, go with Toshiba.

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Value

Dan: We thought last year's $800 to $900 Portege R705 was a great overall value for a full-featured 13-inch laptop, and looked like a more expensive machine. The R835 is faster, with much better battery life, and keeps the price around $900. The Air and Series 9 are priced based on design, not specs or performance, but they sure are fun.

Scott: Clearly, the under-$1,000 Portege is the winner here--but you'll be going with a porkier laptop. The Air and the Series 9 make you pay for their ultrathin designs. At $1,649, the Series 9 makes the Air look cheap by comparison.

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Photo by: Matt Fitzgerald/CNET / Caption by: ,
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