5 budget laptops for college students: We name the best
Lenovo IdeaPad Z400 Touch
This solidly built notebook features a great touchscreen display, an even better keyboard, and a huge and fast hard drive. But Lenovo’s networking component choices are a bit disappointing.
Lenovo laptops are the models of choice for many corporate IT departments, and the company manufactures some very good consumer-oriented machines, too. The IdeaPad Z400 Touch is a case in point. You wouldn’t mistake it for a sleek Ultrabook—it’s thick and heavy, and its battery life is wretched—but the Z400 did finish second on Notebook WorldBench 8.1 in our five-laptop competition. And despite Lenovo’s copious use of plastic, the Z400 is built like a brick outhouse.
Lenovo stuck with Intel’s third-generation Core processor for this budget-priced machine, pairing a 1.6GHz Core i5-3230M with 6GB of DDR/1600 memory. At 14.0 inches, its 1366-by-768-pixel display is much smaller than the Acer Aspire E1-572-6870’s 15.6-inch display; but the IdeaPad Z400 boasts a ten-point touchscreen, whereas the Acer does not.
The Z400 is an attractive PC, with charcoal-colored soft-touch paint on the outside and a pretty carbon-fiber look on the inside. Lenovo’s computer feels as rugged as Acer’s feels fragile. Though the display exhibits a little flex, the lower chassis is as rigid as some all-metal bodies I’ve tried to bend. The downside to the solid construction is weight gain: Despite its smaller display, the Z400 outweighs the Acer by 0.7 pound. Still, it comes by most of that weight honestly. Lenovo provides 6GB of memory (as against Acer’s 4GB); packs a 1TB, 7200-rpm hard drive (versus the Aspire’s 500GB drive); and includes a DVD burner (Acer provides no optical drive at all).
The IdeaPad Z400 comes with the type of top-notch keyboard that Lenovo is famous for building. The island-style keyboard is fully backlit and feels great under the fingers. It lacks a dedicated numeric keypad, and there’s no provision for temporarily assigning letter keys on the right side an alternative function to serve as one, but I was happy to see the full-size arrow keys in the familiar inverted-T formation at the far edge.
Augmenting the touchscreen is a responsive trackpad that supports most Windows 8 gestures, including two-finger scrolling, swipe, zoom, and rotate. The trackpad doesn’t have distinct right and left mouse buttons, but clicking in the lower right and left areas of the pad perform the same function. Unlike Lenovo’s higher-end notebooks, the Z400 does not embed a trackpoint in its keyboard; however, I found that the trackpad and the touchscreen were all I really needed.
The IdeaPad Z400 took a solid second place in our Notebook WorldBench 8.1 benchmark competition (behind the Acer Aspire E1-572-6870), with a score of 132, marking it as 1.3 times faster than our reference Asus VivoBook S550CA, which comes outfitted with a 24GB SSD cache for its hard drive.
The Lenovo placed third in the PCMark 7 Productivity, despite having a 7200-rpm hard drive (both the Acer Aspire E1-572-6870 and the Toshiba Satellite L55Dt-A5253 were much faster). But the IdeaPad captured first place on our media editing and encoding tests. It finished in the middle of the pack on our gaming tests, delivering a leisurely frame rate on BioShock Infinite of 18.4 frames per second, even with resolution set to just 1024 by 768 and visual quality set to Low.
Connectivity and conclusion
The IdeaPad Z400’s networking capabilities are a bit disappointing. Though Lenovo selected a high-quality Wi-Fi adapter—Intel’s Centrino Wireless-N 2230—it’s a single-band adapter that doesn’t give you any choice but to connect to crowded 2.4GHz Wi-Fi networks. On the bright side, it’s a 2x2 adapter, meaning that it supports a maximum physical link rate of 300 mbps. It also provides Bluetooth 4.0 support, and is compatible with Intel’s WiDi video-streaming technology. The wired ethernet adapter, meanwhile, is limited to 100 mbps—I thought those adapters had gone the way of the PS/2 port.
In addition to WiDi, you have your choice of HDMI or VGA video outputs for connecting to external displays. And like the Acer Aspire, the IdeaPad has three USB ports, but only one of them is the speedy USB 3.0. Lenovo does provide a memory card reader that supports both SD and MMC media, and the company includes Dolby Home Theater technology and a set of decent speakers, so you won’t have to rely on headphones for an enjoyable audio experience.
The Lenovo IdeaPad Z400 Touch is a heavy computer for its size, its network connectivity is weak, and its battery life is very poor. But this laptop is a very good performer, with a great keyboard, an optical drive, and the largest, fastest hard drive in this group. It’s also the machine I’d recommend if you need a computer in this price range that’s rugged enough to tolerate a little rough handling. Overall it finishes a solid second in our roundup.
- Great backlit keyboard
- Solid construction
- Chintzy network connectivity options
- Poor battery life
If you tend to be rough on your gear, Lenovo’s IdeaPad Z400 is among your best choices among laptops priced at $650 or less.
Toshiba Satellite L55Dt-A5253
The buyers that Toshiba targets with its luxury Kirabook wouldn’t touch a Satellite L55Dt-A5253 if Neiman Marcus was giving them away. That’s too bad, because this laptop actually offers a much better price-to-performance ratio.
Toshiba selected AMD’s 2.0GHz A6-5200 APU to power this $650 notebook. That chip features an integrated AMD Radeon HD 8400 graphics processor, which helped Toshiba secure a second-place finish in the games portion of our benchmark suite. But the machine’s 6GB of DDR3 memory runs at only 1333MHz, which held its performance back in comparison to some of the laptops equipped with Intel CPUs and faster DDR3/1600 memory.
Like most notebooks in its price range, the Satellite is composed primarily of plastic, but Toshiba’s attractive material does a nice job of resisting smudges and fingerprints. The computer’s lid and chassis also feel more rigid than most, though it does weigh a full pound more than the Acer Aspire E1—a significant consideration if you’ll be carrying your laptop on your shoulder for extended periods every day.
The Satellite L55Dt features a 15.6-inch, LED-backlit touchscreen display with a native resolution of 1366 by 768 pixels. The display is attractive enough, if you position it just so. Text appears most legibly when the screen is tilted back; but bring it even slightly forward—as you might have to do when using the computer on your airline tray table, if the passenger in front of you decides to recline—and you may not be able to read it at all.
If your arms get tired from reaching out to stroke the Satellite’s screen, you can use its touchpad, instead. The touchpad is centered beneath the keyboard, so it’s off center from wrist rest, but that’s where it should be. It supports all of the usual Windows 8 gestures, including two-finger scrolling, zoom, rotate, and flip. And you can slide in from the right border to call up the charm bar, or slide it from the left to switch between applications. The setup lacks distinct left and right mouse buttons, but you can click the lower area of the pad to obtain the same actions.
Toshiba took advantage of the display’s width to provide a numeric keypad next to the alphanumeric keyboard. The half-size function keys in the top row have useful default actions mapped to them—including controls for such features as volume, brightness, and a media player.
The island-style keyboard has short-travel keys that nevertheless provide a desirable amount of tactile feedback while remaining nearly silent. I wouldn’t have minded the half-size arrow keys if they hadn’t been located so close to the edge of the wrist rest. The entire keyboard is recessed in a well, making it nearly impossible to tell whether your finger is tapping the up arrow or the down arrow without taking your eyes off the screen to look.
The Satellite L55Dt-A5253 finished third in our Notebook WorldBench 8.1 benchmark suite, a scant 2 points behind Lenovo’s Intel Core i5–powered IdeaPad Z400 Touch, but 16 points behind the Intel Haswell–powered Acer Aspire E1-572-6870. The Toshiba’s 750GB, 5400-rpm hard drive helped it grab a second-place finish in the PCMark7 Productivity component, but the faster CPU in the Acer Aspire more than compensated for that computer’s smaller drive.
Given the amount of hay AMD has made over what it describes as its superior GPU/CPU integration, I had expected to see this A6-powered notebook clean up on the gaming benchmarks. It did reasonably well, but fell 5 fps short of equaling the performance of the Intel-powered Acer Aspire E1.
Connectivity and conclusion
Toshiba provides the usual three USB ports on its Satellite: Two of these are USB 3.0 and you can use the one USB 2.0 port to charge your smartphone (or other USB device) even while the computer is sleeping—a very handy feature. The media card reader in the front of the PC supports only SD media.
Aan HDMI-out supports digital display connections, and VGA handles analog. I don’t want to see HDMI go away, but I’d like to see laptop manufacturers include DisplayPort 1.2 ports on their consumer offerings. A DisplayPort 1.2 connection would let you daisy-chain displays, and you could buy an adapter to handle just about anything else, including VGA.
Like the Lenovo IdeaPad Z400 Touch, the Toshiba Satellite L55Dt-A5253 provides a single-band 802.11n Wi-Fi adapter that limits you to accessing overcrowded 2.4GHz networks; worse, the Toshiba’s Realtek RTL8188SU supports a maximum physical link rate of just 150 mbps, whereas the Lenovo’s Intel adapter delivers a 300-mbps maximum link rate and support for Intel’s WiDi media-streaming technology.
Though the Satellite bears a DTS Sound logo, I found its audio capabilities wanting. Music sounded thin and flat, with very little of the oomph I crave from bass response. Stick with headphones, and you should be fine. Finally, this may reflect my right-handed bias, but I found it odd to access the Satellite’s DVD burner on the left side of the computer. The hardwired ethernet port—100 mbps max—is located here, too.
The Satellite L55Dt-A5253 is a well-built laptop that delivers good performance, but many of its drawbacks don’t show up in its benchmark numbers: It’s weighs 5.6 pounds, its off-axis viewing is abysmal, and it has third-rate wireless networking capabilities. Clearly, it’s not the best notebook in this collection, but it’s still a decent value.
- 15.6-inch touchscreen display
- 750GB hard drive
- Rigid construction
- Poor off-axis viewing
- Weak networking features
- Uses 1333MHz memory
Toshiba’s mainstream notebook won’t launch you into orbit, but it is a solid value.
5 budget laptops for college students: We name...