Pluses and Minuses
Though these notebooks are reasonably capable, they lack several amenities common in more mainstream models. For example, only Acer's Aspire 3003LCi included integrated Wi-Fi support; Dell's Inspiron 1200 and HP's Compaq Presario M2000 omitted wireless functionality. None of these systems came with a reader for removable flash media cards; they also lack a rewritable DVD drive.
Storage capacity was limited in two of our models, with the Dell and the Compaq offering 30GB and 40GB hard drives, respectively. The Acer included a more mainstream 60GB drive. The Acer and Dell each had a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combination drive, while the Compaq was equipped with only a DVD-ROM drive.
On the plus side, however, each of the systems came with ports for USB 2.0, ethernet, a modem, headphones, and a microphone, as well as one PC Card slot. The Compaq even featured a fast FireWire port.
And there was something about each notebook that pleasantly surprised us. The Compaq turned out to have great sound and design. The Acer came with user-programmable shortcut keys for instantly launching your favorite applications and Web sites, and its touch pad had an extra mouse button in the middle for four-way scrolling. The Dell offered a generous three USB ports and had a good, 2.4-hour battery life.
You can also upgrade each of the notebooks, which has not always been true of budget systems we've looked at in the past. For example, each accepts memory upgrades and lets you swap the hard drive for something bigger.
You get a reasonable warranty from Acer and from HP: Their systems each come with a one-year service and telephone-support contract. Dell includes no phone or hardware support beyond the skimpy 90-day warranty, but a full year of mail-in service and telephone technical support costs just $25 extra.