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Specs bomb: Ivy Bridge laptops

The first models sporting third-gen Intel chips have hit our lab

Ivy Bridge processors from Intel are still thin on the ground - in their mobile form at least. But we’re just starting to see the first laptops sporting Intel’s new chip line trickle on to the market.

First to hit the PC Advisor test lab was a gaming machine from Dell’s sci-fi gaming subsidiary, the moody Alienware M14x. The second was Apple’s unprecedented MacBook Pro with Retina display. The two machines are streets apart in style - and buying audience, too, I’d wager - but share a niche at the top end of the market for people who take their portable computing seriously.

For spec followers, they also curiously have in common a near-identical choice of Core i7 quad-core CPU and nVidia graphics processor, and similar Samsung mSATA solid-state storage. Yet the machines couldn’t be more different.

Alienware manages to make a 38mm-thick chassis weighing nearly 3kg look chic, in its inimitable Area 51 kind of way. More than just a lightshow to entertain the cat, the backlit keyboard and those Knight Rider underlamps alert you that something potent lurks within its futuristic frame. It’s a gimmick, but an impressively colourful development of the backlit keyboard technology Apple started with its PowerBook G4 laptops in 2003.

Contrast the dark angular aesthetic of Alienware with Apple’s clean minimalism. A zen-like purity that now stretches to near-silent operation, thanks to the application of clever cooling-fan science.

In the MacBook Pro with Retina display, the inch-thick case of the original unibody has been milled down to 18mm, the weight reduced to 2kg. And some how, Apple still finds room for a supercharged 99Wh battery, 50 percent larger than Alienware’s or the older Pro.

And it needs that extra juice to help power the main attraction, a 2880x1800-pixel display that stands today as the highest-resolution monitor you’ll find on any computer, desktop or laptop.

At the risk of repeating previous musings, such hyper-res displays will soon become the norm across the industry. Retina-like displays are long overdue, and they will shake off the legacy of fuzzy LCDs that should have been obsolete years ago. Considering the amazing advances in both processor and graphics performance, and storage capacity and speed, why have we been forced to peer into our computers’ graphical interface at 20th-century resolutions?

The question’s not entirely rhetorical: operating system support is one answer, as the popular Windows and OS X systems have had mixed results with resolution-independent interfaces. That’s set to change this year, too, with today’s OS X Lion and this summer’s Mountain Lion already optimised for high-resolution displays; and Microsoft’s Windows 8 should add some support for HiDPI monitors when it appears in the autumn.

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