The beauty of PC technology is that, unlike cars for example, the entry level model rarely makes you sacrifice all that much over the more expensive offerings.  With desktop PCs, entry level and mid-range solutions are usually a GPU and memory upgrade away from being considered high end, but with notebooks, there's a slightly different story. 

The problem is that notebooks are still not quite upgrade friendly, so you're usually stuck with what you get out of the box with the exception of a memory or drive upgrade.  So, the worry is that cheap notebooks make you sacrifice far too much to even consider, but do they in reality?  Special holiday deals aside, $600 is the sweet spot for entry level notebooks these days, so what do you get for $600?  That's what we're here to find out.

We've rounded up a total of five notebooks, each priced at $600 and put them through their paces - trying to find a winner.  An interesting point to note is that most of the manufacturers that we reviewed here today didn't actually want their notebooks reviewed.  While they would gladly send us more expensive models, most manufacturers shunned away the opportunity for their $600 notebooks to compete in this roundup.  The real reason is that the profit margins on these notebooks are basically non-existent; the real money is made on upgrades or on higher priced solutions.  Although virtually all notebook makers offer entry level solutions, at $600, no one wants to sell them. They do because they have to.  So, we went out and purchased the notebooks that we could not get; after all, what good is a $600 notebook roundup with only one notebook?

What do you get for $600?

On the CPU side, although all of the notebooks that we're comparing here offer the option of configuring them with a Pentium M or Turion 64, in order to meet the $600 price point, you're stuck with a Celeron M or Sempron. 

Intel's Celeron M is actually a pretty interesting chip.  It's basically a Pentium M, with half the L2 cache (1MB vs. 2MB) and no Speed Step, meaning that a 1.5GHz Celeron M 370 always runs at 1.5GHz.  Obviously, from a performance standpoint, the Celeron M should be fairly competitive with the Pentium M, since all it's lacking is half the L2 cache.  However, from a battery life standpoint, having no Speed Step and having a smaller L2 cache means that the Celeron M won't fare as well as its more expensive and better known brother.  Remember that with a smaller L2 cache, the Celeron M will be forced to go to main memory for data accesses more frequently, which not only means lower performance, but it means that Intel's clever power conscious cache can't work its magic as often, leading to higher overall power consumption. 

A trick that Intel used to employ was to cut the L2 cache associativity of their Celeron parts in half, resulting in an even greater performance hit.  Luckily, with the Celeron M, this is not the case - so you get half the cache, but it still remains an 8-way set associative L2.  The L1 cache remains unchanged.

AMD's Sempron is quite similar. In this case, it is a Socket-754 Athlon 64, but without 64-bit support and with half the L2 cache (256KB vs. 512KB).  What the Sempron does preserve, however, is AMD's PowerNow! support, meaning that the processor can underclock itself to save power.  This roundup features two Sempron 2800+ based notebooks, both clocked at 1.6GHz, but thanks to PowerNow!, they can run as low as 800MHz. 

Wireless support is a very necessary part of any mobile experience in our opinion. Unfortunately at $600, wireless networking isn't guaranteed.  Only three out of the five notebooks reviewed here today feature integrated wireless, but at least one of those has since added wireless without increasing the price of the notebook.  So, while wireless networking isn't guaranteed, it is quickly becoming expected. 

As far as displays go, a $600 notebook will usually get you either a 14" or a 15" display, with an XGA (1024x768) or WXGA (1280x768) panel.  For graphics, you can expect to get something with integrated graphics.  The Intel platforms that we looked at all used Intel's integrated "Extreme Graphics", while the AMD solutions used ATI's Radeon Xpress 200M.  Both will offer entry level gaming performance, but neither will make these notebooks extremely functional gaming machines. 

The two biggest sacrifices that you make at $600 are in memory and drive space.  All five of the machines reviewed today come with 256MB of memory, which ends up meaning that they are great single-tasking machines; but start multitasking, and their performance drops off significantly.  

As far as disk space goes, all five machines come with a 4200RPM 40GB drive, so you'll have to keep your installed programs and media collection as lean as possible.  If you can make due with the memory and disk limitations, however, you can get some serious work done on these machines, and for $600, it's tough to complain.

All of the notebooks reviewed today were reasonably portable, although not what we would consider thin and light.  They all weighed between 5 to 6 lbs, with a footprint hovering around 13 - 14" x 9 - 10".  All of the notebooks were over 1" in thickness, with the largest being around 1.5".  But thankfully, the construction of these entry level notebooks is seemingly on par with the more expensive models.  They may not be as sleek or compact as their more pricey alternatives, but at least they don't feel cheap. 

With that said, and you prepared for the roundup, let's get to the contenders.  We have three machines from Compaq: the Presario V2000, V2000Z and M2000Z; one from Dell (Inspiron 2200); and finally, the Gateway NX200S. 

Compaq Presario V2000, V2000Z and M2000Z
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  • johnsonx - Tuesday, November 29, 2005 - link

    Inspiron 6000 (can be had for $600 on the right day)
    Acer Aspire 3003

    Rudimentary gaming benchmarks. Yes, most current games are almost unplayable on these, but some would probably play fine. I played Dungeon Siege LOA quite happily on my Inspiron 6000, and old Unreal Tournament works great (even UT2k4 is just barely playable at 640x480x16, though very ugly). It would also be nice to see how much better ATI integrated gfx are vs. Intel (and SiS Mirage 2 in the case of the Acer).
  • hondaman - Tuesday, November 29, 2005 - link

    I agree that its long overdue for a laptop graphics gaming review. Using all the common graphics, integrated or not, like the mirage 2, x200m, 700m, 9700, and all the assorted nvidia ones.
  • johnsonx - Tuesday, November 29, 2005 - link

    "with the Dell doing absolutely dismally at only 144 minutes. The only tangible advantage we can see that Gateway has in this case is that they use an older chipset"...

    The tangible disadvantage for the Dell is that they use the old NiMH battery instead of Lithium ion. I have the original version of that laptop, the Inspiron 1000. It's battery life sucked even worse, plus it died after only 5 months.

    If you even remotely care about battery life, DON'T buy a dell with the NiMH battery. Don't buy a Dell without a 1-year warranty either.

  • ksherman - Tuesday, November 29, 2005 - link

    Is there any hope for upgrades in these laptops? Like if I poped the hood off the COmpaq (Smepron of course) and threw in a Turion MT processor... or even a pentium M for the others, is that something doable?
  • Hacp - Tuesday, November 29, 2005 - link

    I know for a fact that the compaqs are upgradable. you can upgrade the processor/ram/hd/optical drive.
  • bloc - Tuesday, November 29, 2005 - link">

    IT's TFT XGA, not WXGA.
  • SilverTrine - Tuesday, November 29, 2005 - link

    I'm amazed that Gateway tries to charge $50 shipping on a notebook. Anands assertion of $600 laptops is misleading, with shipping and tax this laptop is $800.
  • KCjeeper - Tuesday, November 29, 2005 - link

    I purchased one of these Gateway laptops a few weeks ago and am very pleased with it. Mine came with the wireless G and I only paid $579.
  • bldckstark - Tuesday, November 29, 2005 - link

    I am curious as to which company(ies) denied access to test parts. It doesn't make a whole lot of difference, but I wonder who is so embarassed of their product that they don't want them compared openly.
  • bjacobson - Tuesday, November 29, 2005 - link

    Something worth noting is that the good battery life on the V2000 is thanks to the Intel 2200BG integrated wireless, not the Broadcom wireless. The Broadcom is what made the V2000z Sempron's do so poorly.

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