Mobile Buyers' Guide, December 2009by Jarred Walton on December 6, 2009 12:00 AM EST
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There are many different types of laptops right now. They run the gamut from low cost, low performance netbooks that typically deliver good to excellent battery life up through high-end desktop replacement systems that offer performance similar to what you would find in a high-end desktop from a year or two back. In between those two extremes exists a kaleidoscope of options that are roughly classified as "Entry" to "Midrange". This mobile buyers' guide will look at what we feel are the best options for each price range right now, and in many instances there will be several alternatives depending on what sort of laptop you're after.
Before we get to the actual price segments, we want to set the stage for what we're looking at in terms of features and performance. The days where brand made a huge difference in terms of performance and/or reliability are past; these days the vast majority of laptops work well (though that's not always the case, so use your favorite search engine to look for reviews). If you get the same components, then regardless of brand - Dell, Acer, HP, ASUS, etc. - you will get the same performance. There are always exceptions to the rule, so if you're really concerned about how a laptop feels and whether or not it's reliable, we recommend purchasing locally where you can try before you buy and return for an easy exchange if you encounter problems. Beyond performance and reliability, there are a few areas that can and do differ among manufacturers.
One that we have harped on for quite some time now is laptop display quality. The potential to use a high quality LCD on any given laptop has been around for several years now, but pricing considerations frequently result in the use of substandard panels - even on expensive laptops. Unfortunately, LCD quality is something that can be very difficult to ascertain without actually using a laptop, which means judging LCD contrast based on laptop specifications is all but impossible. It's not such a big problem that you can't comfortably use a laptop with a lower contrast LCD, but all other areas being equal we'd like to see better LCDs - and more matte LCDs, please! Right now, your best bet for finding a matte LCD is to get a "business laptop"; apparently, regular consumers don't care about such things but businesses do? Finally, if all this talk of LCD quality isn't bad enough, most laptops use LCDs sourced from several panel manufacturers, so there's no guarantee that all laptops with the same model will have the same LCD. That's why laptop LCD statistics are generally limited to size and resolution. Ugh.
Like LCD quality, build quality is difficult to determine without actually handling a laptop. You can look for reviews online, but even then you have to be careful - what qualifies as "high build quality" for one person may be flimsy and cheap to another. Again, buying locally can help, but you can't always find what you want at local retailers. We're going to walk the aisles of some of our local stores to see if we can spot any clearly standout LCDs among the crowd, and we'll keep an eye one build quality as well; we'd suggest you do the same if these areas are important to you. For the most part, we don't find build quality to be a huge issue, but keyboard layout and feel as well as the touchpad are also an area you'll want to test if you're shopping local.
Battery life is another potentially critical element of any laptop purchase. We have praised Apple for the stellar battery life that even their high-end MacBook Pro systems provide, but there's a "tax" you generally have to pay for a MacBook. Thankfully, we have started to see a bigger focus on battery life from other companies. True, this is often accomplished by using lower power CPUs, particularly the Intel CULV (Core 2 Ultra Low Voltage) processors, but regardless it is now possible to get a reasonable laptop that can last all day on a single charge.
The rest of the equation is pretty much a matter of looking at specs, pricing, and features. Do you want Blu-ray support? What size LCD/chassis do you prefer? How much do you want the laptop weigh? How fast do you want the CPU, GPU, etc. to be? Do you want an SSD or is a conventional hard drive sufficient? Obviously, pricing is going to determine how far you can go in any particular area, and it's possible to upgrade certain areas. Want a larger hard drive or an SSD? You can add that without much difficulty. You can also add RAM quite easily with the vast majority of laptops, though with even $550 laptops providing 4GB these days most people won't need to upgrade memory any time soon; on the other hand, the next jump up to 4GB SO-DIMMs tends to be prohibitively expensive.
Okay, the stage is set, so let's move to the first price bracket: sub-$400 options.