Moderately powerful laptop has dedicated nVidia graphics, HDMI output, and an HD DVD reader.

The Acer Aspire 5920-6954 just slips under the $1000 mark, at $999 (as of 2/7/08); it's worth every penny. Except for business applications, which it lacks, this Vista Home Premium laptop has just about everything home-office buyers could ask for in a solid budget notebook.

The notebook looks different without being too flashy. It has a black-and-cream-colored case set off by blue accents, including a big, easy-to-press triangle-shaped shortcut key set in the corner of the keyboard like a high-tech sapphire (hence Acer's so-called "gemstone" designation).

At 7.3 pounds, the Aspire 5920-6954 is the heaviest budget laptop we looked at, but it has a 250GB hard drive and a fairly nice 15.4-inch screen (it's a bit too reflective). Though it lacks a few things like Bluetooth, the 5920-6954 is the most high-definition-ready unit here, including both an HDMI port and an HD DVD reader. It has a subwoofer for better-than-average sound and a handy volume wheel. The terrific keyboard boasts loads of shortcut buttons that do everything but take out the trash. One set, on the left side of the keyboard, launches applications. A second, right-hand row controls multimedia, including an instant-on button that lets you play music and movies without launching Windows. A button placed between the mouse buttons scrolls documents in all four directions.

Finally, this is the only sub-$1000 laptop we reviewed that had a dedicated graphics chip--an nVidia GeForce 8600M GS with 256MB of memory. Thus it was the only one powerful enough to properly play the 3D games such as Doom 3 and Far Cry. Its frames-per-second rates weren't the highest we've recorded for a laptop, but are more than enough for smooth, glitch-free play.

Equipped with a 1.66-GHz Core 2 Duo T5450 and 2GB of memory, the Aspire 5920-6954 earned a solid WorldBench 6 Beta 2 score of 70, the second best on the. The score is five points higher than the group average of 65, and it's one point better than the average of 70 earned by the in any price range. Battery life was average, lasting 3.8 hours.

The cost of applications will make the Acer Aspire 5920-6954 spill significantly over $1000, but if you can afford to splurge a bit, it brings a little extra panache to your home office.

Designer notebook with excellent battery life will appeal to both multimedia fans and frequent travelers.

The $899 (as of 2/7/08) HP Pavilion dv2660se offers strictly budget performance, but its battery life and a great design make it our winning laptop under $1000.

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The dv2660se (the se stands for "special edition") comes with a 1.5-GHz Core 2 Duo T5250 processor coupled with 2GB of memory shared with the laptop's Intel 965 Express integrated graphics. The notebook's score of 67 is significantly lower than the high-eighties scores of , but it's not bad for a budget machine.

In fact, the score beats the average of 65 earned by the and is only five points below the average for all the , regardless of price. However, don't expect its graphics power to be good enough to play 3D games well.

Battery life was just short of amazing. This six-pound unit's high-capacity 12-cell battery endured for a whopping 6.3 hours on one charge in our tests. That's about 2.5 hours longer than the average mainstream laptop. The way the big battery protrudes from the bottom of the notebook does not make the dv2660se the most briefcase- or backpack-friendly model in our test bunch, but it does give the keyboard a very nice slant for extra-comfortable typing. The dedicated on-off touchpad button, slightly concave keys, and deep-depressing mouse buttons help typing, too.

The overall design of this Windows Vista Home Premium laptop is just about the best you'll find among budget units. For one, as the latest in HP's designer line of notebooks, this model is stamped with an embedded motif--sweeping tendrils that drape partway over the touchpad like a vine.

Another nice extra is the notebook's instant-on capability via HP's QuickPlay menu, accessed through a touch-sensitive media control panel at the top of the keyboard; it lets you play a CD or DVD without first launching Windows, so it's a great time saver. Two other nice multimedia touches: a Webcam and dual headphone ports on the front so two people can listen in private at once. (Not that you really need headphones because the built-in speakers sound pretty darn good without them.)

The 14.1-inch, 1280-by-800-pixel screen could be a tad brighter, but it's easy enough to read, and it has enough room to comfortably view several open windows at once. The dv2660se does lack some increasingly mainstream features, such as 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, gigabit ethernet, and a fingerprint reader. However, it has 802.11g Wi-Fi, which should provide fast-enough wireless connectivity for most. It also has a DVD writer and an ExpressCard slot. And the dv2600se is one of the few laptops in this price range to bundle a full-fledged set of productivity applications in the form of Microsoft Works 8.5.

Finally, the dv2660se has the most upgrade potential thanks to a side connection that all Pavilion laptops have for HP's Swiss knife-like xb3000 Notebook Expansion Base. Though you're looking at an investment of several hundred dollars more, this stand/storage docking station lets you add better speakers and another hard drive, a nice option for those who might have the itch to improve the system later on.

All told, the dv2660se is pretty impressive for budget fare and well-deserving of our Best Buy.

Obama Lauds Intel Plan to Invest $7B in Chip Plants

Intel plans to invest $7 billion to revamp factories in three states to manufacture chips based on its new technology. The move, which attracted the attention of , may be the first real good news has seen in months.

The announcement comes as Congress works out a details of an $800 billion-plus . Obama warned during a press conference last night that the U.S. faces catastrophic consequences to the economy if a stimulus isn't acted

will be drawing into its own cash reserves to upgrade facilities in Arizona, New Mexico and Oregon, said Intel president and at an Economic Club forum here today. "Taking that leap can be downright scary but it is the only proven path to pull out of bad times," he said. "If we want to see a return to American prosperity, we have no choice than to invest in creating the future, not merely preserving the past."

Otellini called on other companies to make such private investments. "I am asking other companies to join us," he said.

Otellini said Obama called him last night to congratulate him on company's decision. The president "reminded me that he sees the Intel logo every morning when he opens up his laptop - I was please to hear that," he noted

Otellini also noted that he told Obama "that I thought there were many elements of [the proposed stimulus package] that I could get behind," particularly health care IT, alternative energy, broadband investments, and money for the , which funds basic research at U.S. universities. "Those kinds of things are spectacular," he said.

The new Intel manufacturing facilities, which will build , will employ some 7,000 U.S. workers, Otellini said.

This announcement comes less than a month after . Otellini said today that most the cuts have come overseas, where Intel has closed obsolete smaller plants. He added that once the factories are completed, Intel's U.S. workforce be larger than today, though he didn't provide specifics. Intel today employs about 45,000 people in the U.S., and 83,000 worldwide, he noted. The worldwide total is about 25,000 less than the company employed at its peak in 2005, Otellini said.

Construction of the manufacturing facilities will take 18 to 24 months by thousands of contractors and construction workers, said Otellini.

Intel could have built its 32 nanometer manufacturing facilities overseas, and foreign countries, unlike the U.S., were ready to offer hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more, in incentives, said Otellini.

Many U.S. tech firms have shifted work overseas because of lower labor costs, but Otellini said that the chip manufacturing factories "are not driven by labor costs." He said that taking advantage of the company's existing U.S. workforce allows Intel to bring these manufacturing facilities "up much faster," which "outweighs any offsetting costs."

Today, chip makers are producing 45nm chips. Moore's Law states that the number of transistors on a chip doubles about two years. A 45nm quad core chips has about 800 million transistors. Intel's first 32nm chip, code named Westmere, is expected later this year.

Intel to Launch 32-Nanometer CPUs by September 2009

Well that didn't take long! Soon after started launching its first 45-nanometer chips into the market, the company's Phenom II CPUs, has announced plans to push into an industry-first 32-nanometer architecture. According to Intel CEO Paul Otellini, the company is planning a massive financial push--approximately $2 billion in new U.S. manufacturing investments over the next two years--to begin bringing 32-nanometer Westmere chips into servers, desktop, and notebook PCs as early as September of this year.

"We recognize risk-taking is not a move that is common at the moment," said Intel Executive Vice-President Sean Maloney in . "But when you can build faster, cheaper, simpler, more attractive, and more compelling devices, it's a safer bet than you'd imagine."

The move comes as a bit of a surprise for industry analysts. While Intel's roadmap is no secret, the company was expected to delay its launch date for new 32-nanometer chips as a result of the weakening decline for computers during .

According to Intel, Westmere processors will launch in two- and six-core variants: Clarkdale and Gulftown, respectively. Both processors will feature an integrated graphics controller, a first for Intel, as well as the standard integrated memory controller that's being carried over from the company's 45-nanometer Nehalem processors. Clarkdale processors will launch in September of 2009 alongside their mobile variants, codenamed "Arrandale." Expect to see the six-core Gulftown processors in 2010.

What remains to be seen is how the news will affect already beleagured AMD, who came into 2009 sitting on a $1.6 billion loss. Phenom II processors weren't designed to compete with Intel's top-notch 45-nanometer Nehalem chips. How will the company respond to Intel's 32-nanometer switch when it's just now getting its 45-nanometer production into line? When two- and six-core Westmere processors begin taking over the high end of the CPU charts, bumping the best of the 45-nanometer chips into striking distance of Phenom II prices... Well, it's going to be quite a showdown come September.

Will Google’s PowerMeter Be Home Automation’s Savior?

Google’s PowerMeter, which will enable consumers to see is one of the best home automation ideas to come along in a long time. Although still being put through its paces by Google employees, PowerMeter may allow users to cut their power usage by up to 15 percent, a green benefit that transcends the Prius crowd. Indeed, once people find out how much money their '80s-era Frigidaire is costing them, they’ll see the cost benefits of upgrading to a new, more energy-efficient model. Talk about a stimulus plan.

But the real benefactor here may be the home automation vendors who’ve toiled for decades in the consumer electronics shadows. Home-control gadgetry that turns lights on and off, and operates Web-enabled security cameras and thermostats, has been around for two decades or more. Do-it-yourself nerds are familiar with , X10, and products. (Aside: X10 its video wares as spy cams for peepers.) And the ultrawealthy who can drop six figures on remote-controlled home theaters and motorized venetian blinds often hire high-end automation installers such as .

But with Google bringing its star power to the sector, there’s a good chance that home automation may finally go mainstream. For years, the problem with home control hardware was that regular folks just didn’t see the benefits. Lights that automatically turn on and off? A microwave that starts five minutes before I get home? Yawn. The benefits didn’t outweigh the costs. And just as important was the fact that home control gadgets were often flaky and didn’t work as advertised. I certainly found this to be true when testing X10 hardware.

Google’s PowerMeter, on the other hand, has a very compelling proposition: It’ll save you money -- potentially a lot of money. True, the verdict is still out on how well it’ll work, but Google certainly has the resources to make PowerMeter a success. If the software works as advertised, we’ll likely see a sales surge of smart utility meters and thermostats, two energy-saving products that exist today.

LightEdge Combines Hosted PBX With Unified Communications

A Microsoft partner Tuesday launched a new service for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) that combines hosted unified communications with a hosted PBX (private branch exchange) service.

LightEdge, based in Des Moines, Iowa, rolled out a hosted version of Microsoft Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007 with an option for customers to integrate the service with an existing Hosted PBX service the company already offers.

The integrated service gives customers the ability to make calls on a PBX desktop phone using the Office Communicator client software interface, said Scott Riedel, director of marketing for LightEdge. Office Communicator is Microsoft's desktop software for OCS.

The integrated service can also show a user's availability via Office Communicator. For example, if someone is talking on a PBX phone, the user's presence information will show up as "unavailable" to other users in Office Communicator, Riedel said.

While LightEdge has been offering Hosted PBX for some time, Tuesday is the first time the company is offering hosted OCS, though some other Microsoft partners already do so. Microsoft recently rolled out an update to the software, called OCS 2007 R2. However, Riedel said his company's service is based on the first version of OCS 2007.

LightEdge is offering two flavors of hosted OCS. The premium service, which includes integrated Hosted PBX as well as Microsoft Office Live Meeting, is available for US$10.95 per user, per month. The standard version, which does not include these services, is available for $6.95 per user, per month.

With IT budgets tight and companies cutting costs, hosted services are becoming an increasingly attractive option for many companies, particularly for those in the SMB market. The emerging unified communications market is not immune to this trend, said Blair Pleasant, president and principal analyst for research firm COMMfusion.

"With the economy the way it is, people don't have the money to buy any equipment," she said. "By paying for someone to host the service, it avoids the capital issue."

She added that hosted unified communications and PBX services are a particularly attractive option for SMBs, as well as for companies with a geographically dispersed workforce that don't want to purchase software and hardware for each office. Buying and managing a PBX on site can be an expensive proposition.

Riedel agreed that SMBs and companies with a lot of small offices are probably the most likely to purchase LightEdge's integrated service, but she added that larger companies that have outdated PBXes also might want to give them up for a hosted option.

Court Agrees That Verizon Marketing Tactics Are Illegal

An appeals court judge agreed with an earlier Federal Communications Commission ruling that found in trying to retain phone customers who decide to

Bright House Networks, Comcast and Time Warner filed the initial complaint against Verizon, arguing that the operator runs afoul of the Telecommunications Act when it contacts customers to offer them incentives to stay rather than switch operators.

At issue is how Verizon knows the customers are going to switch. When a customer decides to cancel service and go with another provider, the two providers work together to port the user's phone number to the new operator. The Telecommunications Act specifies that any information operators share with each other in order to provide telecommunications services must be kept private and not used for marketing purposes.

While Verizon already had contact details for its customers, the information exchange tipped the carrier off that the customers had decided to switch to another service provider. Verizon argued that it was receiving that information so the other operator, not Verizon, could offer telecommunications services. Thus, the information wasn't subject to the rule set in the Telecommunications Act and could be used for marketing purposes, Verizon argued.

But the judge agreed with the earlier FCC ruling that the Act meant to protect all exchanged information between carriers in this kind of situation.

Verizon said it is reviewing the order. "This looks like a loss for consumers, who now will have less information available when choosing between different competitors," David Fish, a Verizon spokesman, said in a statement.