Low-Cost Laptops in the Spotlight

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And now for something completely different: a bit of bright economic news. Several laptops with reasonably robust specs are available for $500 to $700.

It's probably no surprise that laptop prices have continued to fall. But those who need a new laptop now might be heartened to learn that there are some compelling bargains out there. We'll probably see even more this holiday season, as retailers and computer makers--hammered by the gloomy economy--try to push products by slashing prices.

You'll have to make some compromises with a budget laptop. Full-featured notebooks (as opposed to mini-notebooks) in this price range tend to be a bit heavy and not as zippy as the most powerful laptops. Still, when budget is a primary concern, you're not aiming for perfection, right?

If you're in need of a new laptop right now, here are a few worth considering. Next week: tips for saving money when buying a laptop.

Acer AS5735-4624

Let's start with one of the least expensive laptops on the market, Acer's Aspire AS5735-4624. Not long ago, this laptop was selling for only $400 on BestBuy.com. A recent check found that the site is now offering the laptop at its list price, $500.

Even so, the Aspire looks like a good deal, given its specs. It's an especially attractive price if you compare it to some mini-notebooks, which sell for around the same money but don't offer the same features. Mini-notebooks lack a built-in optical drive, for instance. Also, I configured four other laptops--three from Dell, one from HP--with specs reasonably close to the Aspire's. The Dell Inspiron 1525 was the least expensive, comparably configured laptop, and it cost $117 more (keep reading for details on the Dell).

Briefly, the budget Aspire laptop features:

  • Intel dual-core T3200 processor at 2.0GHz;
  • Integrated graphics processor (Intel GMA 3400MHD);
  • 2GB of memory at 667 MHz, expandable to 4GB;
  • 15.6-inch widescreen display (1366 by 768) with Acer's glossy CrystalBrite technology;
  • 160GB hard drive (at 5400 rpm);
  • Built-in CD/DVD burner;
  • Windows Vista Home Premium;
  • A weight of 5.9 pounds;
  • Three USB 2.0 ports;
  • 802.11 b/g/n wireless networking;
  • Multiformat card reader;
  • ExpressCard/54 slot.

There's really not much missing here, except Bluetooth, S-video output, FireWire, and a built-in Webcam--features I suspect most laptop owners wouldn't need anyway.

The budget Aspire became available in early fall. As of this moment, reviews are scarce (PCW is awaiting a unit for testing), and I can't personally vouch for this laptop's worthiness. However, it's worth noting that some Acer laptops have made it into PCW's top laptop charts. Most recently, for example, the Acer Aspire 5920-6954, currently selling for about $800, received a PCW rating of 82 (very good) and was number three on our Top 10 All-Purpose Laptops chart.

Dell Inspiron 1525

The Inspiron 1525 is another contender for the budget laptop crown. The unit we tested earned a PCW rating of 81 (very good).

As with most Dell computers, you can customize the daylights out of an Inspiron 1525, which you can't do with the Aspire.

Dell's low-cost laptop can be purchased for as little as $499. However, for that price, you only get 1GB of memory, compared to the Aspire's 2GB; an Intel Celeron 550 processor at 2.0 GHz, compared to the Aspire's dual-core chip; Microsoft Vista Home Basic, which is, as the name implies, a fairly basic OS and less attractive than the Vista Home Premium you get preinstalled on the Aspire; and a 120GB hard drive (the Aspire offers 160GB).

Recently, I configured an Inspiron 1525 to closely match the Aspire's specs. The price of the Inspiron I configured was $679, compared to the Aspire's $500.

Dell has a few other budget laptops available. Dell Vostro 1000 configurations start at $399, though a unit reasonably close to the Aspire's specs recently went for $617. Dell Latitude 531 business-class laptops begin at $499. Recently, a unit I configured with approximately the same specs as the Aspire priced out at $783.

HP Compaq CQ50Z

This budget laptop from HP starts around $450 and goes up from there.

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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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