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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  • zicozz - Friday, December 11, 2009 - link

    I'm looking for a smaller laptop and I'm currently aiming at either the Asus UV30 or the Asus F83. Can't seem to find any reviews of the F83, but the UV30 seems to be the king in this hill in it's class.
  • zicozz - Friday, December 11, 2009 - link

    Sorry UL30 not UV30
  • JarredWalton - Friday, December 11, 2009 - link

    The major difference between the UL80Vt and the UL30Vt is the screen size (13.3" for the UL30Vt) and the lack of an optical drive. It also weighs about 1 pound less. If you want something a bit smaller, go for it, but make sure you get the UL30Vt; there's an older UL30 that doesn't support Turbo33 and comes with a smaller battery I believe.
  • jtsarnak - Tuesday, December 8, 2009 - link

    I cannot recommend any Sony laptops, even the SR mentioned in this article for its good screen. I am the owner of a Z series and this laptop would have been near perfect except for one problem that is plauging most of Sony's line: Battery Drain.

    See here:">

    And here:">

    These are just two examples, there are a ton of threads out there discussing the problem. Sony's line has the unfortunate "feature" of draining the battery while the laptop is completely shut down. I say "feature" because numerous consumer attempts to get Sony to rectify the issue have been met with a canned response that this is typical for their laptops.

    I have also emailed various websites and publications in an effort to get someone with a little more visibility and press to address the issue with Sony but to no avail. Sony continues to get good reviews on their machines but I'm doubting the reviewers ever bother to look for the drain during the review process.

    Maybe Anandtech will take up the call. Sony is delivering a defective product (a mobile device that loses battery when it is shut off is, imho, defective) and claiming it as a "feature". Anandtech did a great job getting to the bottom of the SSD debacle with the JMicron drives, perhaps they can help us Sony owners as well. In the meantime, avoid these laptops if you don't plan on having it forever plugged in when you're not using it.
  • aznchum - Tuesday, December 8, 2009 - link

    I'm an avid fan of IPS panels, and the only notebooks that I know carried them were the Flexview Panels on the IBM/Lenovo Thinkpads. If LCD quality is of a huge concern to you, you probably are better off picking up a Thinkpad x200 (non s) and retrofitting a BOE-Hydis HV121WX4-100 panel (12.1" 1280x800) in it. However, most of these panels floating around the market have a digitizer attached, since they're sourced from tablet PCs. So the mod is kind of a pain in the ass. I personally have modded a T60p with a QXGA screen and found it to be a relatively easy mod with the hardware maintenance manual. The 4:3 15" chassis of the T60/61 and R60/61 are probably the fastest notebooks you can buy that come with Flexview panels. If you're not snobby about LCDs, then go with the recommendations in this guide.
  • CheesePoofs - Monday, December 7, 2009 - link

    Thanks for the article, I've been looking forward to something like this!

    The UL30VT seems pretty interesting to me - same specs as the UL80VT but smaller package making the low-res screen a bit more bearable (I hope).

    Also is there any word on when Arrandale laptops will come out? I've heard Jan 7th for Arrandale chips, but I have no sense of what the delay is between chip release and laptop availability.
  • btmedic04 - Monday, December 7, 2009 - link

    I recently purchased a Sony Vaio VPPCW17FX at Best Buy for $799 (before tax) and I am absolutely thrilled with it (especially since i was coming from an ancient HP ZV6000 series with a desktop Athlon 64 3200 that weighed 7 lbs and looks like hell. served its purpose though, but i sure was surprised to see it survive a deployment to Iraq lol)

    Specs are as follows:
    Intel Core2Duo T6600 2.2ghz 2MB L2 800mhz FSB
    4GB DDR3 1066 (for some reason at DDR3 800mhz with no option to set 1066 in bios >.< )
    500GB Hard Drive
    Nvidia G210M with 256mb GDDR3 ram
    Blue-Ray player
    14" Monitor @ 1366x768
    5.5 lbs
    Windows 7 Home Premium 64bit

    Not bad at all for the price I paid for it. It gets almost 3 hours of battery life with the Balance power plan in Windows 7. I also love the chic let style keyboard and theres no discernible flex in the chassis (as you can understand, im not about to try to fold my notebook in half long-ways LOL) It has 3 USB ports, a firewire 400 port, VGA port and HDMI. I havent tried any gaming on it yet, however I suspect with the lower resolution monitor, I should be able to play modern games with lower settings and older games with higher settings (much better than the integrated ATI Xpress 200m in my old laptop) I have hooked this laptop up to my 32" LCD TV and watched blue-ray movies at 720p with out any issues. Also, Sony released updated drivers for the G210M the day Nvidia did (I dont want to risk the nvidia release drivers as my friend totally destroyed all gaming capabilities on his laptop equiped with a Go7900GS. needless to say Toshiba sucks when it comes to driver updates) All in all, the VPCCW17FX is a great notebook at a great price
  • Roland00 - Monday, December 7, 2009 - link

    No intel Celeron t3000 dual core love?

    It is the same chip as the intel pentium dual core t4200 except it runs at 1.8 ghz instead of 2.0 ghz and intel speedstep has been disabled (thus it won't get good battery life). Yet I seen this chip routinely in the 320 to 450 price range for laptops and it should blow away the competition in that price range.">
  • JarredWalton - Monday, December 7, 2009 - link

    Is it really that much cheaper than the Pentium T4200/T4300 laptops? I see prices of $430 (Toshiba Satellite L455-S5980) to $500+ (Lenovo ThinkPad SL410/SL510), and that's not even with a well-equipped laptop (i.e. 2GB of RAM, 160GB HDD). The Lenovo G550 is 3GB, 250GB HDD, and T4300 for">$495 or so. It's obviously not a huge jump from 1.8GHz 1MB to 2.1GHz 1MB, but SpeeStep is a pretty big omission IMO.
  • Roland00 - Monday, December 7, 2009 - link

    The pentium t4200/t4300 will be about 50 dollars more on average. For example without any sale go to the Toshiba website and you can get a T3000, 2gb memory, 160 gb hd and wifi n For $400, it costs 44 more for the pentium dual core.

    Now the whole point of the t3000 though is not to buy the laptop at the normal price, the same or similar laptop will go on sale. For example fry's has had a similar laptop to the toshiba but an msi 14 inch on sale a couple times for $319 (once) and $349 (twice). The msi also didn't use intel integrated graphics but instead the 8200m (half the speed of the ion but still 30 to 40% faster than the 4500m hd)

    $319 is only 20 dollars more than those mythical $299 acers/hps that walmart was selling that was using the amd single core at 1.6 ghz (tf-20)

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