As the holidays draw closer and the shopping season gets under way, the team at Notebook Review is here to help you find the perfect laptop for your Christmas wish list.
Our comprehensive buying guide will help you narrow down the selection from the many bargain-priced notebooks at your local store or online retailer to just a few great notebooks that offer terrific value. This list includes traditional low-cost laptops as well as 2-in-1 notebook/tablet hybrids … all priced at less than $600. We’ve selected what we consider to be the “Top 5 Budget Laptops for 2014”. The key term here is “budget” since no one wants to break the bank for Christmas.
If you don’t see the perfect laptop for you in our list, or you’re looking for a more full-featured notebook than the low-cost models listed here, be sure to seek out buying advice in our “What Notebook Should I Buy?” discussion forum. Our forum members, moderators, and staff will graciously offer their insights to help you pick the best laptop for your needs.
|Asus Transformer Book T100
Although the Transformer Book T100 was first introduced in 2013, the latest configurations of the T100 series, such as the T100TAM, feature a more refined design with a new brushed aluminum cover. The defining elements of the T100 are still the same: a 10-inch detachable tablet with a keyboard dock, up to 11 hours of battery life, a full version of Windows 8.1, and a 1-year subscription for Office 365 Personal included.
The 2014 version of the T100 features the Intel Quad-Core Bay Trail-T Atom Z3775 processor (1.46GHz base, 2.39 GHz burst frequency). This makes it noticeably snappier than the original T100 when multi-tasking and means the T100 is still a very capable PC even when you’re using the tablet disconnected from the keyboard. The $399 configuration with 2GB of RAM isn’t ideal for RAM-hungry applications like Photoshop or Premiere, but this pint-sized laptop can handle complex photo and video editing in a pinch.
The down side to the T100 is the very cramped keyboard and small touchpad which make it painful to use when typing for prolonged periods of time.
|Asus Transformer Book T200
The Transformer Book T200 is essentially a slightly larger version of the T100 featuring an 11.6-inch screen, a slightly faster processor, and more system memory. The T200TA-C1-BL configuration is packed with a quad-core Intel Atom Z3795 Bay Trail-T processor running at 1.59 GHz (2.39 GHz burst frequency) with 4 GB of RAM.
This larger 2-in-1 also packs an Ethernet port and an extra USB 2.0 port in the included keyboard dock. The most notable design change beyond the larger screen and the extra ports is that the keyboard dock on the T200 features a “Smart HD Bay” where users can upgrade the dock with a standard 2.5-inch laptop hard drive or SSD.
The real reason to consider spending an extra $100 on the T200 ($499) is the noticeably larger keyboard and touchpad. This might seem like an almost insignificant thing, but the T200 keyboard dock delivers a far more pleasant typing experience while the new touchpad is just large enough to get things done without making you feel like you need a Bluetooth mouse. Unfortunately, the larger screen not only means added weight but slightly worse battery life (9 hours of battery life on the T200 compared to the 11-hour battery life of the T100).
|Toshiba Satellite Radius 11
This value-priced convertible laptop has a two-axis hinge that rotates 360-degrees, allowing it to convert from laptop to tablet by just pushing back the 11.6-inch touchscreen. This new 2-in-1 is powered by the latest Intel processors, runs Windows 8.1, and starts at $329.99.
Like most of the new 2-in-1 laptops that use the 4th generation Intel low-voltage processors, the Radius 11 features a fanless design, so there’s no annoying hum when you’re working or watching a movie in a quiet room. The Satellite Radius 11 is available with either Intel Pentium or Celeron processors, up to 4 GB of RAM, and either 32 GB of Flash memory or a standard 500 GB hard drive. The laptop also includes an HD webcam, plus one USB 3.0 port, one USB 2.0 port, HDMI, and a full-size SD card slot.
When the screen is rotated back for “tablet mode” the keyboard is automatically shut off, which prevents accidental keystrokes, but the device is heavy for a tablet since the keyboard isn’t removable like the two Asus Transformer Books we previously mentioned.
|Dell Inspiron 14 5000 series
The Inspiron 14 5000 Series is Dell’s traditional budget laptop offering that delivers a good batch of features at a low price at the expense of cutting edge performance. This 14-inch laptop features average hardware specs (4th generation Intel Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive) with generally good construction at a price of $599 or less for the base model.
Overall, the Dell Inspiron 14 5000 series has a decent build quality with reasonably good battery life for a relatively low price. You get a 14-inch Touch Display with HD resolution (1366 x 768), a nicely sized spill-resistant keyboard and touchpad and enough performance for most computing tasks. What you sacrifice is portability (this notebook tips the scales at almost 5 lbs.), wireless performance (our tests showed relatively poor Wi-Fi reception at long distances from a router) and the screen delivers relatively poor contrast and color compared to more expensive laptop displays.
The bottom line is that the Inspiron 14 5000 isn’t the greatest laptop we’ve seen, but it delivers all the basics is a solid package at a low price.
|Lenovo IdeaPad Z40
The IdeaPad Z40 performed well enough in our review to earn it a spot on our list of top budget laptops. Its healthy list of positives includes an attractive design, good keyboard and touchpad, ample performance for everyday tasks and its six plus hour battery life.
This notebook has several notable features that are less common at this price range: an internal optical drive, easily replaceable battery and dedicated Nvidia graphics card (just don’t expect to play the latest games; the enyty-level Nvidia card here isn’t designed for serious gaming). Our primary dislikes are the relatively low-resolution display (1366 x 768) and weak speakers, but that is typical of 14-inch budget laptops.
Overall the IdeaPad Z40 represents a solid value at just under $600. The configuration that we reviewed with the Core i5 processor, 6GB of RAM and 500GB drive is ideal as a home or college computer.