Welcome Holiday Shoppers! We Have a Laptop Special on Aisle Six!

I’ll be frank: I don’t like Black Friday or Cyber Monday. We’re all going to spend way more money than we probably should during the holiday season, and I don’t like to support the crowds and general craziness any more than I have to. So, now that the two biggest shopping days are behind us, we can settle in for more reasonable prices and recommendations. There will definitely be more sales, but what we’re going to look at are the products that we’d recommend even at the regular prices; if you can find these on sale, then by all means consider the recommendations even stronger.

Today’s buyer’s guide will focus on the mobile sector, but let’s not get carried away. Specifically, I’m going to be looking at netbooks, laptops, notebooks, ultrabooks, Chromebooks, etc. What I won’t be covering are other mobile devices like tablets, smartphones, and eReaders; I’ll save those for another guide by someone that knows those markets better than I do. So with that out of the way, let’s talk categories and specific recommendations.

As with our other guides, we like to stick with what we know where possible. That means we’re more likely to recommend something we’ve actually reviewed rather than a laptop we’ve only read about. However, there are products that we’ve had a chance to personally handle even if we can’t give a full review, so we’ll look at anything and everything related to laptops. We’ll break things up into a variety of categories, starting with netbooks and inexpensive ultraportables (i.e. anything less than 13.3” and under $600); we’ll also cover the emerging ultrabook market, but understandably even the cheapest ultrabooks tend to cost quite a bit more than the Atom and Brazos netbooks/ultraportables. Then we’ll start to break into broader categories focused on pricing, with budget, midrange, and high-end laptops and notebooks. We’ll discuss gaming potential, battery life, and other features that you’ll want to look for when shopping for a laptop.

Throughout the guide we’ll have specific recommendations, some alternative offerings, as well as general guidelines for what sort of components and features you should expect at various price points. One area that we tend to focus on far more than manufacturers is display quality; an otherwise good laptop with a mediocre display can feel like a letdown, and conversely an average laptop with a great display might be enough to garner our recommendation. Keyboard and build quality are two more elements that are important, though keyboard quality is often highly subjective. I know there are keyboards I’ve used and despised that others are fine typing on, so consider your own input in this area above what we might say. And with that out of the way, let’s start with the netbooks and other inexpensive offerings.

Going Cheap: Netbooks and Chromebooks
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  • aranyagag - Friday, December 02, 2011 - link

    I am also holding on to my core 2 duo until it either gives up the ghost or I get a taller screen Reply
  • Hrel - Friday, December 02, 2011 - link

    Gonna have to disagree on the midrange gaming laptop.

    http://www.cyberpowerpc.com/system/Xplorer_X6-9300...

    I have for some time, and continue to believe this is simply the best laptop per dollar you can buy right now.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, December 03, 2011 - link

    That's practically the same as our W150HRQ recommendation in many ways, only without Optimus and with a faster GPU. However, it's also $1200+ where we linked an ASUS G53SX going for under $1000. The Clevo P151HM is potentially faster, but having reviewed the P151HM I can say that the keyboard quality and overall build quality are nothing special. I would rather have the ASUS. Reply
  • Hrel - Saturday, December 03, 2011 - link

    Jarred, you and everyone else at Anand are always going on about laptop screens. How can you recommend the Asus when you know the screen is bog standard? Yes it's 1080p, which helps. But viewing angles, contrast, color accuracy, all those are areas where Asus consistently and inexplicably goes with a sub-par display. Reply
  • Hrel - Saturday, December 03, 2011 - link

    Also to clarify, from my perspective money isn't a concern as much as bang/buck is. And I care a great deal about the screen. I will say, while I'm satisfied with the quality of the speakers on the P151 Clevo, they could be louder. My only other complain though is the 10 key, the 0 needs to be moved over, if that means shrinking the arrow keys that's fine with me; then make the enter key larger or move it to the left. Build quality however and the rest of the keyboard, and tactile feedback, I find very impressive. I bought this laptop after asking you if I should get this or the MSI actually. You said Clevo or Asus, I went with the Clevo and couldn't be happier with it. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, December 03, 2011 - link

    My understanding is the G53SX has models in both matte and glossy, and that those are all higher contrast displays. However, I can't say for sure as ASUS is clearly sourcing from multiple vendors. Right now, I only know of two matte 1080p 15.6" LCD panels, both from AU Optronics and both good quality. One is high color gamut and the other is standard sRGB, and I would be happy with either one.

    If you've personally seen the G53SX and it does not have a decent contrast (e.g. it has a very poor black level), let me know, but the information I was able to dig up suggests the 1080p models are better than average displays.
    Reply
  • Hrel - Saturday, December 03, 2011 - link

    Oh, also the GTX560M is the slowest GPU I'd accept. It is a shame it doesn't have Optimus, especially since it's supported. But the battery life is quite impressive, in my own uses. Reply
  • pepperoni - Friday, December 02, 2011 - link

    Jarred - I was a little surprised by your dismissal of 3D panels on notebooks. I have never seen a 120Hz display, but I have been intrigued ever since I read this review by your colleague:

    "[It] was my first exposure to 120Hz refresh displays that aren’t CRTs, and the difference is about as subtle as a dump truck driving through your living room. I spent the first half hour seriously just dragging windows back and forth across the desktop - from a 120Hz display to a 60Hz, stunned at how smooth and different 120Hz was. Yeah, it’s that different." --Brian Klug 8/7/10

    Your critique of mobile 3D has mainly centered on the lack of utility -- a point I completely agree with. Like you, I have zero interest in viewing any 3D games or movies on a notebook (or in my living room or in a theater, for that matter), but if 120Hz benefits the 2D experience half as much as Brian Klug claims, it sounds great.

    The Toshiba A665-3DV you reviewed had crappy resolution and low contrast. I'm thinking about Dell's XPS 17 with 1080p 3D. Do you think 120Hz is a worthwhile upgrade for someone like me who hates 3D?
    Reply
  • snuuggles - Friday, December 02, 2011 - link

    I agree. I own an hn274h for 2d only, it makes a significant difference in my day to day activity and game playing. Everything just feels... Crisper? I'm not sure how to describe it

    One reason they might not want to do it it power use, I'm guessing if it's running twice as fast it'll use more juice. But the truth is that there's simply no market for better displays--witness all the 13" 1360x768 60hz tn panels on supposed high end ultra books. The average consumer is idiotic.

    Hey, not to put too fine a point on it, but our own jarred recommended the UTTERLY worthless ux31 based from what I can only guess is on the looks and specs. Certainly anyone who tried to use it to work would instantly find the keyboard--the single biggest differentiating factor between this and a tablet--completely unusable due to the short throw and stiff action of the keys

    Sorry Jarred, you blew it big time. I'm not normally this harsh to an individual, but you need to hear this: it is unacceptable for you to recommend something based on specs alone
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, December 03, 2011 - link

    Two things for you. First, here's the last part of my paragraph dismissing 3D: "Okay, sure, the 120Hz refresh rates would actually be nice, but does anyone want to view 3D content on a notebook?" I like the idea of 120Hz displays for non-3D purposes, but unfortunately you have to pay for all the 3D rigmarole to get there (e.g. glasses, emitter, etc.) and you generally can't get 120Hz displays unless you go with NVIDIA GPUs.

    Second, and this is specifically for snuuggles, I've got the UX31E sitting on my test bench right now. I can tell you the expected battery life and the performance. Given that it's an ultrabook, going outdoors into brightly lit environments is a very likely use case. A 500 nit display is going to be very useful. Would I prefer higher contrast? Of course, but at least the resolution is better than the competition. But you weren't talking about the display.... [To be continued!]
    Reply

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