Recently the price of laptops have dropped below $800 for some name brand machines. But are these laptops any good and what do you lose by paying this low price? Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal investigated the Gateway, HP and Winbook offering of sub-$800 Notebooks.
By WALTER S. MOSSBERG
The price of a decent, entry level, name-brand Windows laptop has dropped below $800. I’m talking about new models, not the occasional obsolete edition being sold at a closeout price, or some refurbished machine.
This is a real milestone. It was only two summers ago that name-brand Windows laptops dropped below the $1,000 barrier. But now, you can pick up a pretty fair laptop for just $799, though reaching that price sometimes involves a mail-in rebate.
These $799 laptops aren’t the ultrathin, lightweight models you envy on airplanes. Nor are they screaming, do-everything behemoths with huge, wide-screen displays.
Instead, they are boxy, 6- to 8-pound computers with 14- or 15-inch screens that are perfectly suited for use by college or high-school students, or as the second or third PC in a household.
I have been testing three of these $799 models: Hewlett-Packard’s Pavilion ze4400, Gateway’s M305S and WinBook’s J4 731, from a small but respectable manufacturer based in Ohio. All of these $799 configurations can be bought from their manufacturers’ Web sites, though it can be confusing finding the exact combination of features, price and rebate.
None of these machines includes Wi-Fi wireless networking, though it can usually be added when ordering from the Web for about $50. All do include a phone modem and an Ethernet networking port for hooking up wired high-speed Internet connections at home or in a dorm room.
WinBook’s J4 731
These aren’t the only sub-$800 laptops around. Dell has a model, the Inspiron 1100, that sells for $799 or even a little less after rebate, but the company was unable to get me a machine to review in time for this column. Toshiba sells a low-end model, the Satellite A15-S127, which occasionally drops below $800 when various stores briefly place it on sale.
All three of the machines I tested are powered by relatively slow processors — Intel’s Celeron running at 2 gigahertz for the Gateway and WinBook, and AMD’s XP-M 2200+ running at 1.8 gigahertz for the H-P model. But in my tests of common computing tasks, all of the laptops seemed pretty crisp.
Of the three, I preferred the H-P Pavilion ze4400. It had the biggest screen — 15 inches versus 14.1 inches for the other two. It also had the largest hard disk — 30 gigabytes compared with 20 for the others. And it had the longest battery life — 2 hours and 27 minutes in my harsh test, where I turn off all power-saving features and play a continuous loop of music. That probably translates into nearly 3.5 hours of juice in more typical usage.
The H-P also had the best overall design, the smallest footprint on the desktop, the best touchpad and the best speakers. Right now, it even comes with a free extra battery. It also includes 256 megabytes of memory and the WordPerfect office suite. The keyboard is roomy, though the page-navigation keys are small and crammed into a corner. It weighs 7.25 pounds.
But there are two drawbacks to the H-P — one is easy to fix and one not so easy. Its disk drive is just a plain CD drive. If you order the laptop over the Web you can upgrade to a so-called combo drive that plays CDs and DVDs, and records CDs, for an extra $75.
The bigger problem is that the H-P’s two USB ports are the old, slow 1.1 versions, not the new, much faster, 2.0 type, which are required or preferred for things such as portable music players and camcorders. You can’t upgrade these USB ports, so to get USB 2.0 you’d have to buy an add-on card, for $35 to $60.
Gateway’s M305S doesn’t make that USB mistake. It’s the only one of the three tested machines that comes with the speedy USB 2.0 ports. And it has a couple of other nice touches, including a DVD drive and built-in slots for the most common types of memory cards used in digital cameras, music players and PDAs. Every laptop should have such slots eventually.
The Gateway is also the thinnest and lightest of the three machines. It weighs just 6.1 pounds, more than one pound less than the H-P. Battery life was only nine minutes shorter than the H-P’s. It has a good keyboard.
But the Gateway has only a barely adequate 128 megabytes of memory, the smaller 14.1-inch screen and only a 20-gigabyte hard disk. Also, its speakers were tinny, the worst of the lot, and I couldn’t get them to turn on again after muting them.
The WinBook J4 731 looks and sounds pretty good. Its keyboard is decent and roomy. But it’s the biggest and heaviest of this bunch, weighing in at a porcine 7.85 pounds. It turned in a pathetically poor result on my battery-life test — just 1 hour and 37 minutes, suggesting that, in more typical usage, its battery would be lucky to last 2.5 hours.
The WinBook does have a DVD drive and a decent 256 megabytes of memory, but it also has the smaller 14.1-inch screen and 20-gigabyte hard disk. There are four USB ports, but they’re all of the older, slower 1.1 type.
If you can bear to be without USB 2.0 ports, the H-P is a good choice, but the others are OK as well. For $799, it’s hard to go wrong on these laptops.