To get a notebook for about $500, however, you'll need to jump through some hoops. The Acer Aspire 3003LCi, for instance, has a retail price of $649. But rebates and special offers make it available for $499 at certain stores. Likewise, HP's Compaq Presario M2000 retails for $579, and rebates can give you $50 back. The Dell Inspiron 1200 is regularly priced at $549; with an instant rebate at purchase time, you can get it for $499.
Living with a cheap laptop requires making some compromises. Predictably, these low-cost systems didn't set any performance records, and they lagged well behind the mainstream laptops in our WorldBench 5 suite of tests. Acer's unit scored the highest of the three, with a mark of 68--it had the fastest chip (a 1.8-GHz AMD Mobile Sempron 3000+) and the most memory (512MB versus the others' 256MB). Still, the Acer's score was about 10 points below the average mark for mainstream notebooks in this month's Top 10 chart. And its 1-hour, 19-minute battery life means you'll have very limited use away from power outlets.
Featuring a 1.3-GHz Intel Celeron M 350, the Dell Inspiron 1200 earned a WorldBench 5 score of 57; the Compaq Presario M2000, with a 1.4-GHz Celeron M 360, managed a score of 60. You'll want at least to upgrade to 512MB of RAM--the minimum we recommend for Windows XP--for more comfortable computing. That will tack on about $50 to the overall cost.
All three notebooks also relied on lower-end integrated graphics that use the PC's chip set and main memory instead of a dedicated graphics chip and memory. Such a graphics setup won't cut it for serious gaming or video editing, but in our tests it was fine for DVD playback.
These models scored about on a par with more mainstream systems in the portion of WorldBench 5 dealing with common productivity tasks, such as surfing the Net with the Mozilla Web browser, using Microsoft Office 2003, and editing photos with Adobe Photoshop. If you're a buyer on a budget, a student, or a home or home-office user looking for an inexpensive second system, you should find any of these notebooks suitable. Gamers and users of more demanding graphics and audio applications, however, should stay away.