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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  • notanakin - Monday, December 07, 2009 - link

    Unfortunately this guide came out just a few days too late, but fortunately I'd settled on the Acer 1410 (SU2300) and it's a nice little machine. Certainly fast enough for simple tasks and for my old eyes the screen size is better than the 10.1 inchers.

    Here's a very useful link to a table of laptops/CPUs/Screen size prepared for the recent PC Show in Singapore where I bought the laptop. Great for doing some quick comparisons.

    (Prices are in Singapore $ - about US$1=S$1.4, so the prices are a bit more expensive than in the USA, but they give some discounts off the published price and throw in stuff - I got an external DVD-writer plus a few smaller things with the Acer.)

    But how I HATE the glossy screen. Are they cheaper than matte screens or what? I'd gladly pay US$50 more for a matte screen.
    Reply
  • notanakin - Monday, December 07, 2009 - link

    Sorry - here's the link: http://pzportal.net/main/2009/11/notebooks-price-l...">http://pzportal.net/main/2009/11/notebooks-price-l... Reply
  • Roland00 - Sunday, December 06, 2009 - link

    I seconded this, I just bought the dual core su2300 model, and have no complaints so far about it besides the horrible viewing vertical angles due to the tn panel and glossy.

    I am very surprised on how fast the processor is for normal every day tasks. It isn't my overclocked I7 but for most everyday tasks you wouldn't care about the difference. This is what my opinon the netbook experience was supposed to be, save the atoms for things such as cell phones, gps, blu ray players etc.
    Reply
  • ImSpartacus - Sunday, December 06, 2009 - link

    I tried my best to goad my parents into getting my little sister a 1410 for her first laptop back when the SU2300 model was $399 (free shipping) on Newegg. They didn't want to buy it early.

    Then it ballooned to $409 (no free shipping) and they felt cheated.

    They ended up getting a bare-bones SL410 for it's ruggedness.
    Reply
  • AgeOfPanic - Sunday, December 06, 2009 - link

    It ballooned by 10 dollars? 10 Dollars is not ballooning, it's 10 dollars. Reply
  • bennyg - Sunday, December 06, 2009 - link

    Shipping.

    Just to compound your useless comment with another.
    Reply
  • GoodRevrnd - Sunday, December 06, 2009 - link

    I have much interest in the 1410 and am thinking it might be a good replacement laptop for my g/f. It is ridiculous what you get in this thing considering what I paid for my Vaio Z a year ago (granted the screen on it is to die for). Reply
  • KikassAssassin - Sunday, December 06, 2009 - link

    I'm curious about your statement that "(it takes about three seconds to turn off the discrete GPU and 15 seconds to turn it back on)" on the UL80Vt, because that hasn't been my experience at all. My UL80Vt takes the same amount of time to switch from the Intel to the nVidia GPU as it does to switch from the nVidia to the Intel GPU: About three to four seconds, both ways.

    The only time I've had it take longer is if I have a 3D game running when I try to switch graphics modes, in which case it forces me to close the game before it'll switch.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Sunday, December 06, 2009 - link

    Well, I can't even verify the time right now, since after updating the Intel and NVIDIA drivers I can't get the Hybrid GPU feature to work. Need to fix that and then I'll confirm, but I know that it took significantly longer to enable G210M at least the few times where I paid attention. I'll confirm when I get the driver situation sorted out. :) Reply
  • feelingshorter - Sunday, December 06, 2009 - link

    Try doing the test with all programs closed since i suspect that your running the flash 10.1 with GPU support, or even programs like the Zune software uses GPU acceleration. These little things might affect it. Maybe even having Win7 Aero on/off might make a difference. Looking forward to the full review of UL80Vt.

    Now back to studying exams at 4:10 AM...
    Reply

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