Laptop Sweet Spot: 12 Winners That Cost $650 or Less

Need more PC punch than a netbook but less than a top-of-the-line desktop replacement? Here's a clutch of laptops that will get the job done.

Solid Laptops at Good Prices

Whether you're a mobile gamer with a minuscule budget, a business traveler who puts a premium on portability, or a starving student who needs an all-purpose PC, there's a laptop for you.

What's more, if you're willing to make a few trade-offs, you won't have to spend more than $650--not bad compared with the $1000 price point that the industry touted as cheap just 18 months ago.

Read on for the scoop on a dozen sturdy laptops priced at $650 or less. One of them just might fit your priorities--and your paycheck.

Dell Studio 14z Laptop -- $650

The Dell Studio 14z is for people who know what they want--especially if they're gamers and they're willing to give up a few conveniences. It's a sleek, light laptop with an nVidia GeForce 9400M discrete video card (perfect for portable gaming) powering its 14-inch, 1366-by-768-pixel display, which is about the average size you can get in a $650 laptop. It lacks an optical drive and a flash card reader; but Dell offers an external 8X DVD-RW drive for $120, as well as a flash card adapter for the ExpressPort slot for $20.

We reviewed a configuration available at Best Buy for $750, but Dell's Web site lists a slightly slower version than our review unit. The model on the Dell site packs a 2.0GHz T4200 dual-core processor, 3GB of memory, a 250GB hard drive, and 802.11g Wi-Fi, all for $650.

Full Review

Pros: 4.5-hour battery life; fairly light weight (4.3 pounds); good for gamers

Cons: Optical drive and card reader cost extra

Lenovo IdeaPad G530 Laptop -- $500

Cost is king with the Lenovo IdeaPad G530, as $500 will get you a laptop offering a 15-inch display with 1280-by-800-pixel resolution, a 2.16GHz Intel Dual Core T3400 processor, 3GB of memory, a 250GB hard drive, and 802.11g Wi-Fi.

The Intel GMA 4500 integrated graphics makes heavy gaming difficult, and it won't push out any digital video (it has VGA output only, so if you're looking to use an HD display as a second monitor, you'll need to choose a laptop with HDMI instead). We tested the battery life at about 3.5 hours.

This laptop will get your work done and save you $150 in comparison with other laptops in this slide show. However, the G530 is slightly heavy for its class (about 6 pounds), so it's not ideal for the highly mobile.

Full Review

Pros: Cheap; large display; solid all-purpose laptop

Cons: No gigabit ethernet or 802.11n Wi-Fi; no standout features

Toshiba Satellite M505 Laptop -- $650

The Toshiba Satellite M505 is a practical counterpart to the Dell Studio 14z. With the Satellite M505, $650 buys a 2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 4GB of memory, a 320GB hard drive, and a 14-inch display with 1366-by-768-pixel resolution.

A DVD-RW optical drive and a flash card reader are included, as well. This laptop also has an eSATA port if you need to add a high-speed hard drive; but since it has no HDMI port, you won't be able to use it with an HD display.

It's no lightweight, either: Compared with the Dell Studio 14z, the Satellite M505 weighs more (5.4 pounds versus 4.3 pounds). Its battery life is an hour less than that of the Dell, too, and it offers only a run-of-the-mill integrated graphics chip (no gaming here). On the flip side, however, the M505 has more memory than the Dell, and a larger hard drive. We also liked its speakers and its case design.

Full Review

Pros: Good specs for the price; cool design

Cons: Average battery life; no HDMI port

Gateway NV5807u Laptop -- $600

The Gateway NV5807u delivers slightly stronger specs than the Toshiba Satellite M505, for $50 less: It has a 2.1GHz T6500 Intel Dual Core processor, a 15-inch display with a decent (1366-by-768-pixel) resolution, VGA and HDMI ports for external displays, 4GB of memory, and a spacious 320GB hard drive.

This laptop also has a full complement of connectivity options, namely 802.11n Wi-Fi, gigabit ethernet, a card reader, four USB ports, and a DVD-RW optical drive. Its battery life was higher than our test average (4.3 hours), as well.

Despite all of the value the NV5807u offers, its design is a drawback: The full keyboard and number pad aren't clearly divided, the trackpad button is a pain to use, and the system is a bit heavy (5.8 pounds) compared with the Satellite M505 (5.4 pounds) or the IdeaPad Y450 (4.7 pounds).

Full Review

Pros: Very good specs; large display

Cons: Heavier than most similarly priced laptops; poor keyboard and trackpad design

Lenovo IdeaPad Y450 Laptop -- $600

The Lenovo IdeaPad Y450 manages to cram solid performance into a smaller body than that of the IdeaPad G530, for only $100 more.

While the $800 unit we reviewed was slightly beefier (with a 2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T6400 processor), $600 will buy you a laptop that has a 2GHz T4200 Intel Dual Core processor, 3GB of memory, a 250GB hard drive, and a 14-inch 1366-by-768-pixel display.

The starting configuration omits Bluetooth, but you still get FireWire and eSATA for digital video camera and hard-drive connectivity, VGA-out and HDMI-out for external displays, a DVD-RW optical drive, a flash card reader, and 802.11n Wi-Fi.

In our battery-life tests the Y450 survived for 4.5 hours, an hour longer than the G530. It's also lighter than the G530, weighing about 4.7 pounds versus about 5.9 pounds.

Full Review

Pros: Versatile connectivity options; good portability

Cons:: Keyboard feels cheap; touchpad not very responsive

MSI C-Series Laptops -- $550 and up

The verdict is still out on MSI's C-series laptops, but with five models all starting at $550, the company definitely offers a variety of choices.

All five models sport a six-cell battery for portable productivity, 4GB of memory, a 320GB hard drive, gigabit ethernet for speedy networking, a card reader for digital camera media, and three USB ports.

From there, however, you have a choice of a 16-inch (1366-by-768-pixel resolution) or 17-inch (1600-by-900-pixel resolution) screen; a 2GHz or 2.1GHz Intel Dual Core processor; ATI Mobility Radeon HD4330 discrete graphics (excellent for gamers) or nVidia GeForce 8200M G integrated graphics (with HDMI-out, if you need to use an external HD display); and a standard DVD-RW optical drive or a Blu-ray drive for watching HD movies.

We haven't yet reviewed any of these laptops.

More Information

Toshiba NB205-310 Netbook -- $400

While this slide show is devoted primarily to full-fledged laptops, some higher-end netbooks are starting to blur the boundaries. A case in point is Toshiba's NB205-310, which has all the fundamental features of a netbook (a 1.6GHz Atom N280 processor, 1GB of memory, and a 160GB hard drive) plus a netbook-standard 10.1-inch (1024-by-600-pixel resolution) display.

Its impressive battery lasted just 7 minutes short of 10 hours in our tests. Despite its small size, this netbook also has a pleasing keyboard and touchpad, which is unusual in the netbook category. On top of that, the NB205-310 offers a USB pass-through port, which lets you keep your USB devices charging while the netbook's power is off.

Full Review

Pros: Cheap; long battery life; well-designed keyboard and trackpad

Cons: Not quite as versatile as an all-purpose laptop; lacks Bluetooth connectivity

HP Pavilion DV2 Laptop -- $659

The HP Pavilion DV2 is another ambiguously categorized portable. It costs way more than most netbooks (its list price is $659, but you can find it for less), and it performs better than a netbook, but with its 12-inch 1280-by-800-pixel display, it kind of looks like an oversize netbook.

Powering the DV2 are a 1.6GHz Athlon MV-40 processor and an ATI Radeon HD 3410 discrete graphics card, which pack a punch that the combo in most netbooks (a 1.6GHz Atom CPU and integrated graphics) simply can't match. Even with those components, the DV2 is still fairly svelte at 3.8 pounds.

This laptop comes with a 320GB hard drive and 4GB of memory, so you won't be caught short on either; but since it lacks an optical drive, you won't be able to watch any DVDs here.

Full Review

Pros: Solid processor and graphics card compared with laptops of a similar size; HDMI-out

Cons:: Subpar battery life (3 hours)

Acer Aspire Timeline 3810TZ Ultraportable -- $620

If portability is your primary concern, you can spend $620 on a svelte ultraportable with more beef than a netbook and more battery life than the full-fledged laptops mentioned in this slide show.

The slender Acer Aspire Timeline 3810TZ packs a 1.3GHz Intel Single Core Consumer Ultra Low Voltage (CULV) processor, 4GB of memory, a 320GB hard drive, and a 13.3-inch display with a decent 1366-by-768-pixel resolution.

Acer doesn't skimp on the Timeline's functionality, either: Gigabit ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, and VGA-out and HDMI-out are all included, so networking and using external displays are a breeze. The Timeline's light weight (3.5 pounds) and 8.3-hour battery life also help to make this PC a portable winner.

Full Review

Pros: Excellent battery life; light weight; solid specs

Cons:: No discrete graphics hardware or optical drive

Samsung Go Netbook -- $450

Samsung netbooks consistently occupy our Top 10 Netbooks Chart, and the $450 Go (currently number two) shows why.

While this small PC has the same specs as most other current netbooks (a 1.6Ghz Atom CPU, 1GB of memory, and a 160GB hard drive), it does a few things better. The battery life is strong (9 hours in our tests), the keyboard is excellent, and the display is crisp. VGA-out is available, too, if you want to use a larger monitor.

If the Go catches your eye, you also might want to check out Samsung's other netbooks, the N110 and the N120, which boast slightly different specs.

Full Review

Pros: Attractive design and screen; excellent battery life

Cons:: Slightly expensive for a netbook

Lenovo IdeaPad S12 Laptop -- $500

The $500 Lenovo IdeaPad S12 is another smaller laptop. Its 12-inch display, with a resolution of 1280 by 800 pixels, pulls it out of the netbook category; but its guts (a 1.6GHz Atom Z270 CPU, 1GB of memory, and between 160GB and 320GB of hard drive space depending on the configuration) are only slightly beefier than those of 10-inch netbooks such as the Samsung Go or the Toshiba NB205-312.

The next revision of the S12 will blur the line even more: For an extra $50, you'll be able to get a version with an nVidia Ion GPU, which lets even a netbook play HD video stutter-free and conceivably get in a game or two.

Though the Ion S12 won't be available for some time, check out our impressions of a proof-of-concept box to see if this version might be for you.

Full Review

Pros: Solid netbook; attractive 12-inch design

Cons: Expensive for a netbook

Toshiba Satellite L355-S7915 Laptop -- $350 (When Available)

Today you can sometimes buy a fully functional laptop--often bearing a 17-inch screen with a resolution of 1440 by 900 pixels--for about $300 to $350 from big-box retailers such as Best Buy or Wal-Mart.

One of the most discussed recently was the 17-inch Toshiba Satellite L355-S7915, which showed up at Wal-Mart in early August for $350. The drawbacks: The processor is older (2.2GHz Celeron 900), the graphics hardware is subpar (HD-video playback will lag), the machine lacks newer networking options (it has 802.11g Wi-Fi instead of 802.11n), and its battery life is moderate (2.5 hours advertised).

Still, if you have simple needs and a skinny wallet, the Satellite L355-S7915 might be worthwhile if you can find it (or one like it). Look often and move fast--deals like this one come and go quickly.

Pros: Cheap; large screen

Cons: Older parts; short battery life; not always available

Today's Best Tech Deals

Picked by PCWorld's Editors