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.

Sub-$400 Laptops
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  • kawatwo - Sunday, December 06, 2009 - link

    I have the G71x from Best Buy and the viewing angle is not great but for just you sitting directly in front of the laptop it is not an issue. The bang for the buck is still amazing. Don't know how long it will take for someone to come out with a 280m for ~ 1500, maybe never. I'm happy with the 260m though. Reply
  • fyleow - Sunday, December 06, 2009 - link

    The Studio XPS 13 is a better comparison to the MBP than the Studio 14z IMO. The XPS 13 and MBP both have the same screen size, optical drive, and better build quality. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Sunday, December 06, 2009 - link

    It's a different comparison which is more favorable towards the MacBook pricing, but the XPS laptops have always been a premium part. Given the price, I'd actually take the 14z, but some will prefer the XPS 13 with the slot-load DVD.

    It looks like you get about the same features for the same price, but Dell will get you 4GB plus the ability to upgrade quite a few other parts. I'd imagine the XPS 13 will need the 9-cell battery to match the MacBook battery life.

    LCD quality I can't say, since I haven't had a chance to look at either laptop in person. I'm guessing the XPS 13 is better than the 13" MacBook and possibly the 13" MacBook Pro. I know the other XPS laptops have generally had decent LCDs at least.
    Reply
  • Drag0nFire - Sunday, December 06, 2009 - link

    Thanks for the article. Clearly a lot of thought went into the recommendations at each price point.

    For future reviews, I was wondering if it might be practical to do a review of tablet technology? I evaluated the options a few years ago and decided it wasn't worth it. But Win7 brings some exciting new opportunities...

    Thanks!
    Reply
  • jabber - Sunday, December 06, 2009 - link

    Got mine delivered a few weeks ago. 1.3Ghz CULV works a treat, really slick and teamed with 4GB of ram, a 320GB 7200rpm HDD and a Geforce 105M grahics it zings. Joy of joys it has a decent sized screen and a DVD burner. Ran it yesterday at work for 7 hours and it still had 2 hours+ left to run when I got home.

    Playing Eve online I get around 40FPS at high quality settings and 60+ at mid settings.

    CULV is the way to go.
    Reply
  • Mk4ever - Sunday, December 06, 2009 - link

    Since their release, I haven't heard a word about them at Anand's.

    Do you hate them? Are they stealth to your radar?

    The HP Smart Touch tx2 has a lot of features that are not available on anything else. And afaik, it still has the best IGP/GPU on a Tablet PC.

    Popular, cheapest tablet, small size, good balance of performance/options...

    Are you willing to look into it?
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Sunday, December 06, 2009 - link

    Thanks for the comment. Tablets are certainly something to mention, and I'll see about updating post-conclusion tomorrow.

    Personally, I've never been sold on the tablet concept. I've used a couple and came away unimpressed... it's not a feature I feel I need. So yeah, I pretty much overlooked the category.

    Getting the price down is certainly a bonus, and the tx2z is about the cheapest I've seen for a tablet. I'm not sure if having a better GPU really makes a difference, but the HD 3200 is certainly 2-3 times faster in graphics tests than the GMA 4500MHD. For under $1000 for a reasonable configuration, it looks good for those that want a tablet PC.

    At least one review (CNet) for the tx2z says that the tablet input is sluggish, and battery life is mediocre with the default 6-cell battery (around 3 hours). The 8-cell battery can get about 5 hours of battery life, but it juts out the bottom of the chassis and that's not a good feature for a tablet IMO.

    At present, I don't know that there's much more to be said. If HP offered to send one, I'd look at it, but they haven't sent much of anything to us (the HP Mini 311 came direct from NVIDIA).
    Reply
  • Mk4ever - Monday, December 07, 2009 - link

    All the points you mentioned are absolutely valid. I'll add some points from my experience.

    I decided to get a small notebook with good IGP a bit more than a year ago. My best option was a ATI 3200 IGP, and I wanted a 12' notebook max. My only option at the time was HP tx2510us. It was a tablet. I didn't like that fact, but it was my only option. It was offered for around $950 back then.

    The tablet part turned out to be a great bonus indeed, that I can not overlook in a future purchase. I still rarely use the touch, but it is really useful when using Adobe Illustrator, and for commenting on word documents or solving math problems without a calc (to train my lazy brain) or taking notes. Also flipping the screen alone adds to the portability of the PC, as you can handle it easier when you are standing up or walking, or even wanna read a pdf or a file like how you would hold a book while reading.

    The thing is, for the price, the flipping screen and the touch part can be considered as a free bonus. It can be really useful. If you don't like it, simply don't use it, and it is still a great notebook.

    I agree with the abysmal battery life, but to tell the truth, and from my experience, it is in line with what most low/midrange laptop batteries offer. And my battery life saw an improvement with Win7.

    The HP tx series is popular. When my friend got me my tablet (I live in Middle east where the model wasn't available, he bought it for me from Circuit City or Wall Mart I guess), he told me he saw 2 other people buying the same tablet at that moment. Reviews of how convenient it is for guys in colleges fill the internet. They like the portability of it with the screen flipped to take notes during lectures.

    Also, HP tx2 series is especially interesting to review for 2 reasons: One of the few that support multi-touch ( Windows 7 finally supports that feature, and I guess it's worth reviewing this feature on a Technology website, whether it's bad or good, so we know what to expect), and because it has an AMD Turion Ultra, which I haven't seen reveiwed on Anadtech ( it should at least be compared to regular Turions, to test energy savings and battery performance claims to say the least, don't you think?)

    I hope you will consider reviewing an HP tx2, if you get the chance.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, December 07, 2009 - link

    Thanks for the feedback. Multi-touch on tablet might make it more useful, though I honestly don't like the idea of touching my screen... fingerprints, bad! :) I've actually tried (several times) to get a laptop with a Turion Ultra. Now I'm looking for Turion II Ultra. I'm hoping AMD can help out, but HP I think is one of the few currently making laptops with Turion II Ultra CPUs, and the big OEM thing can be a problem. We'll keep at it, though.... Reply
  • MrMom - Sunday, December 06, 2009 - link

    Any matte screens available for under $1k? All this glossiness makes my head hurt! Reply

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