Laptops

Cheap Laptops Offer Solid Value

The $500 laptop isn't news. Way back in October 2005 we tested three cheap notebooks and found they were quite capable. I reported last fall on laptops that cost between $400 and $700.

Recently I've noticed that finding a capable laptop for $500 or less has been getting easier. For example, a recent check on Best Buy's Web site uncovered no fewer than 16 laptops selling for $350 to $500. (Netbooks weren't included in my tally.) And those laptops were from major computer manufacturers, including Acer, Toshiba, HP, and Dell. When I checked PC World.com's Shop & Compare, I found several models for $500 or less from Acer, Apple, Dell, HP, and Toshiba. For example, the Dell Inspiron 1525 was $449 and the Dell Vostro 1510 sold for $479 when I checked in mid February.

So what do you get for $500 or less? I took a look at the specs of the laptops in this price category offered on BestBuy.com and on PC World.com's Shop & Compare to find out.

Main Processor and Graphics

Among the $500-and-less laptops I've seen, the processor I noticed most frequently was Intel's dual-core Pentium T3400. This chip isn't the latest or fastest mobile processor, but it's probably sufficient for most computing requirements.

The majority of laptops in this price range have integrated graphics, which means the laptop's system memory is shared with the graphics processor. The alternative is to get a computer with a dedicated graphics processor, but of course that will cost more. Integrated graphics boards, which usually come from Intel, are fine for everyday computing tasks but not ideal for 3D games and other video-intensive applications.

Memory

While some laptops in this price category have only 1GB of memory, most have 2GB--which I consider the starting point for computers in general, and laptops running the resource-hungry Windows Vista in particular. Some $500-and-under laptops, such as the Acer Aspire AS5735-4950, come with 3GB of memory.

Hard Drive

The majority of the $500-and-under laptops I found have a 160GB hard drive. That's okay, as long as you don't plan to store lots of image, music, or video files. HP's G60-235DX ($500) is the standout here, with a 320GB drive--along with 3GB of memory and some other compelling features, such as a built-in Webcam.

Other Features

Here are some other things to expect in most laptops costing $500 or less:

  • Built-in wireless networking, with most supporting 802.11b and 802.11g and a few supporting the newer 802.11n specification;
  • Weight of 5 pounds or more;
  • Glossy widescreen displays of 14.1 inches or 15.4 inches;
  • Windows Vista Home Basic, though some offered Vista Home Premium;
  • Microsoft Works office productivity suite;
  • DVD burner (but no Blu-ray Disc drive);
  • Two USB 2.0 ports, though some had three;
  • ExpressCard slots were usually not available on the cheapest laptops (around $350) but were usually offered in models costing $400 and up.

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Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. Martin is also author of the Traveler 2.0 blog. Sign up to have the Mobile Computing Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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