More for Less: 4 Budget Laptops

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

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Easily the smallest of the four reviewed here, the system measures 1.3 by 14.4 by 9.7 in. but at 5.8 lbs. equals the weight of the larger Aspire 5740 and Inspiron 15R. With its AC adapter, it weighs 6.3 lbs. -- 4 oz. lighter than the Satellite L505.

Like the Satellite L505 and Inspiron 15R, the Vaio E gets by without a lid latch; its 19.2mm raised keys were comfortable to type on. The system's textured touchpad lets you use two-finger moves, like squeezing two fingers together to zoom out of an image.

Sony offers $20 flexible plastic keyboard covers for the system in green, violet, black, pink or blue for those who want a little extra color or are paranoid about spilling coffee on their notebook.

While it lacks the dedicated multimedia controls of the Satellite L505, the Sony system has three instant dedicated buttons. One accesses Sony's Vaio Care maintenance software, while the second brings up Sony's Media Gallery software. The third does double duty: When the system is turned on, the button opens your default Web browser. But when you're in a hurry and the system is turned off, it opens a Linux-based Splashtop Web browser in about 20 seconds without starting up Windows. Unfortunately, you can't reassign any of the three buttons.

At 15.5-in., the Vaio E's display is slightly smaller than the others, although you'll be hard-pressed to notice the difference. It uses the same Intel-made Graphics Media Accelerator HD as the others to display 1,366-by-768 resolution. I found it to be not quite as bright as the Aspire 5740's display; I also noticed a blue cast.

With four USB ports, one of which can be used as an e-SATA connection to a hard drive, the Vaio E also has jacks for HDMI, an external monitor, a headphone and a microphone. It also offers an ExpressCard slot and a pair of flash card readers.

Communications are a mixed bag -- the system comes with a Gigabit Ethernet port and 802.11n Wi-Fi wireless but lacks Bluetooth or a modem. In testing, its wireless range was a disappointing 95 feet, a full 25 feet short of the Inspiron 15R's range.

Like the Satellite L505 and Aspire 5740, the model I tested came equipped with a 2.13-GHz Intel Core i3 330M processor, 4GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive. The slightly faster 2.26-GHz version of the chip is available starting at $720. The Vaio E comes with a webcam and a Super Multi DVD burner.

Its performance profile was on par with the other 2.13-GHz Core i3 laptops, with a score of 905.2 on PassMark's PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark. Powered by a 3,500mAh battery, the smallest of the four, it's no surprise that the Vaio E ran for just 2 hours 11 minutes. Sony's 5,000mAh high-capacity battery should translate into about 3.5 hours of runtime but is an expensive option at $200.

Product Facts

Sony Vaio E Series

Sony Electronics Inc.

Price (as tested): $700

Model: VPCEB11FX

Pros: Small and lightweight, instant Web button, ExpressCard slot

Cons: No dedicated multimedia controls, no Bluetooth, short battery life, short Wi-Fi range

On top of Windows 7 Home Premium, the Vaio E includes a one-month subscription to Norton Internet Security as well as Sony's Creativity Suite, which includes a slew of image and video software.

The laptop comes with a standard one-year warranty; extending it to three years costs $180. This is slightly more than double what the others charge, but it includes on-site service.

Bottom Line

The $700 Sony Vaio E Series delivers a lot of laptop in a thin package but falls short on battery life.

Toshiba Satellite L505

Clothed in corporate pinstripes, Toshiba's Satellite L505 is an inexpensive, high-performance system that is on the pudgy side.

Easily the biggest system of the bunch, the Satellite L505 is 1.5 by 15.1 by 10.4 in. and weighs 6 lbs. That's several ounces heavier than the others -- with its AC adapter, it has the heaviest travel weight of the four, at 6.5 lbs. It's also deeper than the others in this roundup. Travelers, beware: Like the Inspiron 15R, the Satellite L505 is a tight fit on an airline tray table.

While the others in this roundup have shiny, colorful cases, the Satellite L505's look is straight-laced black with diagonal gray pinstripes. It does without the lid latch or instant-start app button of the Aspire 5740. The keyboard, which has 19.1mm black keys, flexes too much, but I really like the lightly textured touchpad, which works with two-finger gestures.

Below the screen are excellent multimedia controls for playing DVDs and audio. The Satellite L505 also has a handy thumbwheel volume control and a separate mute button. There's nice chrome trim around the speakers, but the audio doesn't get as loud as the Aspire 5740's, and it sounded tinny to my ears.

With a 15.6-in. screen and Intel's Graphics Media Accelerator imaging engine, the system can show 1,366-by-768 resolution. There's a webcam, but the display wasn't nearly as bright as the Aspire 5740's, and the whites had a blue tinge.

The system comes with three USB connections, one of which doubles as an e-SATA link to an external hard drive. It also has connections for an external monitor (but not HDMI), a microphone and a headphone (but no optical S/PDIF). It has a modem for online emergencies but doesn't include an ExpressCard. Its wired LAN is limited to 100Mbit/sec. service, not the faster gigabit-per-second variety.

The Wi-Fi system uses the latest 802.11n spec; in tests, it tied with the Aspire 5740, with a range of 110 feet. There is no Bluetooth option, and it comes with 100Mit/sec. Ethernet. On the other hand, the Satellite L505 comes with a Super Multi DVD drive, which is the only one of the four to be able to etch labels onto special discs.

As with three of the others in this roundup, the system comes with a 2.13-GHz Intel Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive. Toshiba won't be offering the 350M Core i3 processor on this line of notebooks but will make it available for other Satellite models.

The notebook scored a 906.8 on PassMark's PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark suite of tasks, or roughly what the Satellite L505 and Sony Vaio were capable of.

Product Facts

Toshiba Satellite L505

Toshiba America Information Systems

Price (as tested): $700

Model: L505-GS5035

Pros: : Multimedia controls, textured touchpad, classy design

Cons: Large and heavy case, display not as bright as others, short battery life, no Bluetooth

The system's 4,400mAh battery was able to go for only 2 hours 24 minutes on a charge, or about 20 minutes short of the Aspire 5740's runtime. There's a $150 high-capacity battery available that holds 9,000mAh of capacity and that should double runtime to about 5 hours, but it adds an inch to the height of the system at the rear and 11 oz. to its weight.

The review system came with Windows 7 Home Premium and a slew of software, including a 30-day subscription to Norton Internet Security 2010, Microsoft Works 9.0 and Corel Label maker for CD disc labels. Toshiba's one-year warranty can be extended to three years for $79.20.

Bottom line

At $700, the L505 is a competent laptop, but it is the bulkiest of the four and has a screen that isn't as bright as the others I looked at. Also, it doesn't include some of the luxuries that the others have, like the extra USB ports on the Acer, the ExpressCard slot of the Vaio or the look of the Dell.

Conclusions

Budget laptops are about three things: price, price, price. But like economy cars, what a budget laptop leaves out is often more important than what's included. All of these four inexpensive laptops have surprising extras and leave some things on the table.

While I really like the Sony Vaio's slim and light case, the battery runtime of 2 hours and 11 minutes was just not enough to make it a mobile winner. In contrast, the Satellite L505 ran for an extra 13 minutes and came with excellent multimedia controls. It's a bit heavy, however. Both sell for $700 and are good deals.

The newest of the bunch, the $640 Inspiron 15R, has the coolest appearance and was second only to the Aspire 5740 on price. It was the only one of the four to come with Bluetooth, but -- like the Sony -- its battery life was relatively short. Plus, the three-prong plug could be very inconvenient.

That leaves the Acer Aspire 5740, which combines low weight with a great set of ports and a bright screen at $630 -- $10 less than the Inspiron 15R and $70 less than the Sony Vaio and the Satellite L505. It's not perfect -- for example, it doesn't include Bluetooth -- but it offers the fewest compromises and is a bargain to boot.

How we tested

To keep everybody honest, I first went online and verified that the systems I was looking at did indeed sell for $700 or less. All passed the test.

Each laptop was used over a three-week period for writing, preparing, editing and presenting slide shows, for nosing around the Web and for watching videos.

Every aspect was measured, weighed and examined. I used a mock-up of the typical airplane seat-back table tray to see if it fit. Each notebook accompanied me on a short business trip. While on the road, each notebook was connected to a Wi-Fi network and used for a presentation.

I ran PassMark's PerformanceTest 7.0 on each laptop. The application exercises every major component of the system, including processor, hard drive, 2-D/3-D graphics and memory, and it compiles the results into a single score that represents the machine's performance potential. I ran the test three times and averaged the results.

With the Wi-Fi on, Internet Explorer tuned to an Internet radio station and the audio set to three quarters of full volume, each system was run down as PassMark's BatteryMon application charted the battery's capacity and the time it shut down.

Using a Linksys WRT54GS Wireless-G BroadBand Router, I tuned the notebook to an Internet radio station and walked away from the router with the notebook in hand. I measured the spot farthest from the router where it still remained connected.

4 low-cost laptops -- performance ratings

Acer Aspire 5740 Dell Inspiron 15R Sony Vaio E Series Toshiba Satellite L505
PassMark PerformanceTest 7.0 905.2 938.2 905.2 906.8
Battery life (hours:minutes) 2:42 2:14 2:11 2:24
Wi-Fi range (feet) 110 120 95 110

Note: In all ratings, a higher number is better.

Brian Nadel is a freelance writer based near New York and is the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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