9 computers for your holiday gift list

For serious work, a computer still beats a tablet hands down, and the newest computers are becoming more tabletlike. Some new Windows 8-based laptops can even morph into a tablet on demand.

Thanks in part to solid-­state drives, laptops have generally become thinner and lighter. Many laptops boast a battery life of 8 hours or longer—enough for a full day's work. Touch screens are almost standard on space-saving all-in-one desktops and fairly common on laptops, too. Hybrid drives use a solid-state drive for faster start-up and a hard drive for more storage.

It's not easy to find the perfect gift for the family room. The kids want to play games and watch TV, your spouse wants a computer that serves as the hub of family activities (calendar, photos, home movies, and more), and you just want a quick and easy way to browse the Internet. Enter the Dell XPS 27 Touch, $1,600.

This all-in-one has an excellent 27-inch display that handles everything. The touch screen lets you swipe and tap your way through apps (courtesy of Windows 8), and the big screen and fine sound are great for multimedia and gaming. The speedy processor minimizes wait time, and the wireless keyboard and mouse reduce cord clutter. And the 1-terabyte hard drive has room for the whole gang to stash photos, videos, and lots more.

If your budget is tighter, consider the HP Envy 23-d150, $1,250, which has excellent performance, can play demanding video games, and has a very good 23-inch touch-screen display.

Is there a road warrior or globe-trotting tourist on your gift list? It’s all about portability for her. Weighing in at just 2.3 pounds, the 13-inch Sony Vaio Pro SVP13213CXS Ultrabook, $1,250, is the lightest 13-inch laptop we’ve seen. (Consider the 11-inch sibling, which costs $100 less, to shave off a few ounces.) It's made of carbon fiber, and it's thin. But you don't sacrifice performance—this Vaio Pro is speedy, with great battery life of 10 hours.

One trade-off with such a lightweight laptop that uses solid-state storage instead of a hard drive: You get just 128GB storage. For more capacity at a similar price, consider the Asus Zenbook Prime UX32VD-DH71 Ultrabook, $1,100, or Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch MD101LL/A, $1,200, which weigh a pound or two more but offer 500GB of storage.

Find the right model for your needs and budget with our computer buying guide and Ratings.

Your freshman's room is what real estate agents call "cozy." Translation: It's cramped! But he wants to squeeze in a TV, a stereo, a computer, and a microwave. You can give him all of that in one small device (well, everything but the microwave) by getting him a 17-inch laptop that's compact but mighty, with a screen that's big enough for watching TV and speakers that are good enough for casual listening.

One fine candidate is the Toshiba Satellite S75-A7270, $725. It's an excellent performer with enough oomph for demanding video games. The 750-gigabyte hard drive (generous for a laptop) lets you store music, videos, photos, and more. And it can charge other devices while asleep, including a smart phone.

Give your gadget-loving teenager two for the price of one. The Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro XE700T1C-A01US, $1,100, is a tablet and a laptop using Windows 8. Use it as a touch-screen laptop when it's in the keyboard dock, or pull the 11.6-inch screen out and carry it around like a tablet. The 128GB solid-state drive accesses data more quickly than a conventional hard drive and uses less power, extending battery life, though it offers only modest storage.

Like many other detachable computers, this one has advantages and disadvantages as a tablet. It's heavier than other tablets, and its battery life of 7 ¼ hours is mediocre. The large, 11.6-inch display makes it bulkier than other tablets, but it also gives you plenty of screen real estate. And you can use all of your  Windows applications on this one.

Someone in the family spends more time than he'd like in the home office paying bills, balancing the checkbook, and doing tax returns. What he'd appreciate most is a capable full-sized desktop without the bells and whistles that would jack up the price and blow the holiday budget.

A good candidate: the Acer Aspire AT3-605-UR20, at $650 a CR Best Buy. It's an excellent performer, with 12GB of memory and 2TB of storage. You can save the cost of a monitor by reusing one from your previous desktop. This baby has no dedicated video memory, but it can handle all but the most demanding video games, just in case your number cruncher needs a break.

If space is tight and you can spend more, consider an all-in-one such as the Asus ET2220IUTI-B019K, $875, which has 8GB of memory and 1TB of storage.

This article appeared in the December 2013 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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