More for Less: 4 Budget Laptops

How much laptop does $700 buy today? More than you'd think.

As the economy slowly improves, things are finally looking up for laptops.

"This year and next should be banner years for notebook sales," says Bob O'Donnell, vice president for clients and displays at market research firm IDC. "There's a lot of variety out there, prices are going down, and buyers have two years of pent up demand."

Slideshow: Laptop Sweet Spot: 12 Winners That Cost $650 or Less

Certainly, there's a lot of catching up to do. Many companies are still using antiquated Windows XP systems, some of which are being held together by duct tape and luck. O'Donnell forecasts an 18% boost in the number of portable computers sold in the U.S. this year, to 50 million systems. This surge in sales could rise to as many as 92.4 million portables in 2014, more than double the level sold in 2009.

However, although companies may be willing to start buying again, they're probably going to be cautious. When upgrading the technology of a department, or an entire company, you're still going to be watching the budget line.

There are, of course, a lot of laptops and other portable devices that can be bought for considerably less than $700. For about $350, you can buy a basic netbook, while $500 gets you a minimalist laptop with a 15.6-in. screen. But despite their seductive price tags, netbooks are limited in performance and power, while basic laptops are often bigger and heavier, are less robustly built and use slower and older components.

To get a system that will run the applications they need and that will be usable for at least four years, organizations will have to spend around $700, O'Donnell says. That amount "buys a lot of notebook," he contends.

To see just how much about $700 buys today, I gathered four of the latest systems. Three of them -- the Acer Aspire 5740, the Sony Vaio E Series and the Toshiba Satellite L505 -- have a common configuration that includes a 2.13-GHz Intel Core i3-330M processor, 4GB of RAM, a 320GB hard drive and a 15.5- or 15.6-in. screen. The fourth system, the Dell Inspiron 15R, has the same specs, with one exception: It was not available with that specific processor but uses the slightly faster Intel Core i3-350M chip, which runs at 2.26 GHz.

In the end, I found it to be truly amazing how much $700 -- or even less -- buys. Some of the systems include luxuries like surround sound, Bluetooth and dedicated multimedia controls. All have fast memory chips, high-resolution screens and the latest Wi-Fi networking.

But there are some things you won't get, such as USB 3.0, high-end graphics, full 1080p HD screens and Blu-ray drives. In addition, all the laptops do without a Trusted Platform Module, or TPM, to make corporate online connections more secure. These features are still reserved for more expensive machines.

The biggest surprise was that they came in sleek and surprisingly colorful cases. Forget about dull-gray basic rectangular systems -- these are budget notebooks that don't cut corners on style. In other words, you don't have to spend a lot to look good.

4 low-cost laptops -- specifications

Acer Aspire 5740 Dell Inspiron 15R Sony Vaio E Series Toshiba Satellite L505
Dimensions (in.) 1.5 x 15.1 x 9.8 1.3 x 14.6 x 10.1 1.3 x 14.4 x 9.7 1.5 x 15.1 x 10.4
Weight / travel weight (lbs.) 5.8/6.3 5.8/6.4 5.8/6.3 6.0/6.5
Processor / speed Intel Core i3 330M / 2.13 GHz Intel Core i3 350M / 2.26 GHz Intel Core i3 330M / 2.13 GHz Intel Core i3 330M / 2.13 GHz
Hard drive / speed 320GB / 5,400rpm 320GB / 5,400rpm 320GB / 5,400rpm 320GB / 5,400rpm
RAM 4GB 4GB 4GB 4GB
Screen size / resolution 15.6 / 1366 x 768 15.6 / 1366 x 768 15.6 / 1366 x 768 15.6 / 1366 x 768
Graphics engine Intel GMA HD Intel GMA HD Intel GMA HD Intel GMA HD
Ports

4 USB, HDMI,

VGA, headphone, microphone, S/PDIF
3 USB, 1 eSATA / USB, HDMI, VGA, headphone, microphone 3 USB, 1 eSATA / USB, HDMI, VGA, headphone, microphone 2 USB, 1 eSATA / USB, RGB, headphone, microphone
Express card / flash card reader No / yes No / yes Yes / yes No / yes
Networking Gigabit Ethernet / 802.11n / modem Ethernet / 802.11n / Bluetooth Gigabit Ethernet / 802.11n Ethernet / 802.11n / modem
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium Windows 7 Home Premium Windows 7 Home Premium Windows 7 Home Premium
Warranty 1 year 1 year 1 year 1 year
Price (as tested) $630 $640 $700 $700

Acer Aspire 5740

At $630, Acer's Aspire 5740 offers excellent performance, the features of a laptop that sells for hundreds of dollars more (such as four USB ports and high-end audio) and the lowest price tag of the four systems I looked at.

Housed in a bright-blue plastic case, the Aspire 5740 is 1.5 by 15.1 by 9.8 in. and is thicker, longer and wider than the Vaio but matched its 5.8-lb. weight as the lightest of the gang of four budget laptops. When you throw in the AC adapter, the Aspire's travel weight is 6.3 lbs.

It's the only one of the four with a lid latch, which will be liked by some and hated by others. The interior is demure, with a dark-gray base and black keys, which is in stark contrast to the Dell Inspiron 15R's mirrorlike finish.

The 19mm keys are comfortable, and the system's touchpad has a switch just to the right of it for turning it off so that inadvertent swipes don't delete entire paragraphs. While the pad works with multifinger gestures, like spreading your thumb and forefinger to zoom in on an image, an annoying sticker explaining this feature was attached using an adhesive from hell. After many attempts, I finally removed the glue with WD-40 lubricant, followed by window cleaner and elbow grease.

My favorite feature is the button in the upper-right corner that starts up a favorite app. It takes about 15 seconds to add the program you want it to open. Oddly, there's also a button for Bluetooth, but the model I looked at doesn't support Bluetooth.

Like the Inspiron 15R and Satellite L505, the Aspire 5740 uses Intel's Graphics Media Accelerator HD and has a 15.6-in. display that can show 1,366-by-768 resolution (the Vaio's display is slightly smaller, at 15.5 in.). The Aspire's screen was the brightest of the bunch. It has a webcam above it.

Surprisingly, for a notebook at this price, the Aspire 5740 comes with a Dolby Home Theater sound system that sounds as good and is as loud as a compact stereo. While it has handy buttons for turning the volume up and down, the system lacks a mute button and the excellent multimedia controls of the Satellite L505.

The assortment of ports on the notebook is impressive. Connections include 4 USB, HDMI, external monitor, headphone and microphone. It also has a Sony Philips Digital Interface (S/PDIF) digital audio connection, the only one of the four to have this audio luxury. On the other hand, the Aspire 5740 doesn't come with either an e-SATA connection for an external hard drive or an ExpressCard slot for expansion.

On top of the latest Gigabit Ethernet networking and a traditional modem for dial-up communications, the Aspire 5740 has an 802.11n Wi-Fi system. It stayed online 110 feet from the router, which ties the Satellite L505 as the second longest of the group, behind the Inspiron 15R.

Like the Satellite and the Vaio, the Aspire was configured with an Intel Core i3 330M processor, 4GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive. Look for a version with the faster Core i3 350M processor later this summer. The Aspire 5740 also includes a Super Multi DVD burner that works with double-layer media (but can't engrave a label on the disk as the Satellite L505 can).

The laptop is a good performer, with a score of 905.2 on PassMark's PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark, within a point or two of the Satellite and the Vaio. It was 4% slower than the Inspiron 15R, which had a slightly faster processor.

Product Facts

Acer Aspire 5740

Acer Inc.

Price (as tested): $630

Model: AS5740-5513

Pros: Low price, good assortment of ports, reasonable battery life, good audio

Cons: Touchpad sticker hard to remove, no Bluetooth, no ExpressCard slot

The Aspire 5740's 4,400mAh battery pack ran for 2 hours 42 minutes on a charge, making it the long-distance runner of the four reviewed here; its runtime was half-an-hour longer than the Vaio system. Acer doesn't offer a high-capacity battery for this laptop.

With Windows 7 Home Premium, the Aspire 5740 is the bargain of the group with a price of $630 -- about $70 less than the Vaio or the Satellite. Unlike the other vendors, Acer doesn't sell extensions on its one-year warranty; for extended coverage, you'll have to look to the retailer.

Bottom line

The Acer Aspire 5740 performs well and comes with features that are usually reserved for more expensive systems, such as S/PDIF digital audio and a Super Multi DVD burner. Once you get the annoying touchpad sticker off, it's a great machine at an enviable price.

Dell Inspiron 15R

If you like flashy, Dell's Inspiron 15R is your kind of laptop. It's a real stunner -- it comes in red, blue, pink or black, with a shiny exterior and a mirrorlike finish inside. While it has a faster processor than the other laptops in this roundup, the Inspiron 15R is the second-cheapest device among the four, at a cost of $640.

At 1.3 by 14.6 by 10.1 in., the Inspiron 15R is as thin as the Sony Vaio but is wider and deeper front-to-back, making it a tight fit on an airline tray. The notebook's extra depth serves a purpose, however -- it allows the screen hinge to be recessed by a half an inch, protecting it from falls, a design that Dell plans to use on other laptops.

Its 5.8 lb. weight makes it as light as both the Aspire 5740 and Sony Vaio. The AC adapter increases the Inspiron 15R's travel weight to 6.4 lbs., only an ounce lighter than the Satellite L505, the weightiest of the group; it's also the only one of the four to require a three-prong outlet, which might be awkward in some places.

As with the Satellite L505, I felt that the Inspiron 15R's keyboard flexed too much. The 19mm keys are accurate, and the lightly textured touchpad can handle two-finger moves like squeezing the thumb and forefinger together to zoom out of an image. It does without the dedicated multimedia controls and mute button of the Satellite, instead using keyboard controls for these functions.

The Inspiron 15R has a pair of speakers along the front edge of the laptop and sports built-in SRS Premium Sound. There are a number of settings to customize the audio, including boosting the bass and simulating surround sound, but despite that, I found the sound quality to be hollow, and it couldn't get as loud as the Aspire 5740.

The Inspiron 15R has four USB ports (one of which doubles as an e-SATA connection), traditional analog headphone and microphone jacks, external monitor and HDMI jacks, and a flash card reader. It does not offer an ExpressCard reader or an S/PDIF digital audio jack.

As far as wireless gear goes, the Inspiron 15R comes with Bluetooth (the only one of the four laptops in this roundup to do so) and 802.11n Wi-Fi, which, in my tests, had a range of 120 feet, the best of the bunch. It also includes a 100Mbit/sec. Ethernet jack but does not have a dial-up modem.

Like the others, the Inspiron 15R came with 4GB of RAM, a 320GB hard drive and a 15.6-in. screen with an Intel Graphics Media Accelerator HD that can show 1,366-by-768 resolution. The display was sharp and rich, but not quite as bright as the Aspire 5740's. The Inspiron 15R also includes a DVD Super Multi digital drive and a webcam.

Unlike the others, the Inspiron 15R came with an Intel 350M Core i3 processor that runs at 2.26-GHz, about 6% faster than the 2.13-GHz chip the others used. This led to it outrunning the others, with a 938.2 on PassMark's PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark suite -- an advantage of slightly under 4%, which few people would be able to notice.

As with the Sony Vaio, the Inspiron 15R's weak link is its battery life. The 4,400mAh battery pack lasted a disappointing 2 hours and 14 minutes on a charge -- three minutes longer than the Sony, but a half-hour less than the Aspire 5740. You can get an 8,100mAh high-capacity battery for $155, which offers about 4.5 hours of use between charges but adds 6 oz. to the system and extends its width by nearly an inch.

Product Facts

Dell Inspiron 15R

Dell

Price (as tested): $640

Model: 15R

Pros: Excellent performance, good price, includes Bluetooth, protective hinge, instant app bar

Cons: Large case, no ExpressCard, short battery life, 3-prong AC plug

The system comes standard with Windows 7 Home Premium, a month's subscription to Norton Internet Security, and Roxio software for DVD burning and playing. Another add-on, and one that I found useful, is Dell's instant-start app bar that can be placed anywhere on the screen and modified with new programs in a few seconds.

The Dell system includes a one-year warranty that can be upgraded to three years of coverage for $119.

Bottom line

High-performance, rugged design and style go hand in hand with the $640 Inspiron 15R. Too bad it doesn't measure up on battery life, or it would be a keeper.

Sony Vaio E Series

Not known for its budget systems, Sony's specialty is sleek machines with an emphasis on multimedia. The Vaio E squeezes a lot of laptop into a small, thin system.

Housed in a silver case, the Vaio E that I looked at has a cool white interior with a sparkling finish. If that's not your thing, Sony sells the system in black, blue, gray, pink and green.

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