Under $500 Notebook And Netbook Guide

by Reads (22,539)

Not too long ago, Jerry published a 2008 Notebook Holiday Buyer’s Guide that ran the gamut and gave you a sense of what you could buy and where in the notebook and burgeoning netbook markets. He hit every price range with a quick synopsis of what that range offered. Today I’m here to stimulate the flagging American economy by discussing the cheaper laptops on the market.

It bears mentioning that while you generally do get what you pay for, inexpensive is not necessarily synonymous with cheap. This is a good thing, because if you’re a college student like me supplementing his meager financial aid writing for awesome websites like this one, you don’t have a whole lot of money to throw around and you need to be frugal. We’re going to be operating with a $500 maximum here. That’s a low ceiling to work with, but we don’t have a whole lot of money to work with either.

The merciful thing is that most quality netbooks easily cost less than $500 and indeed, this was the price range ASUS had in mind when it dropped the original Eee PC on a woefully unprepared world. Now that nearly every manufacturer has followed suit, we have a lot of options. Some great (Acer’s Aspire One), some less impressive than expected (Dell’s Mini 9).

Notebook shoppers are going to be in for a rougher time. While $500 can get you a very comfortable netbook, that’s a pretty tight budget for a full-powered notebook. You may very well be better off buying a netbook, but if Intel’s Atom processor just isn’t going to cut the mustard for you (and I don’t blame you), there are definitely options in this market segment, but they do come with caveats.

WHAT YOU DON’T GET

If you’re buying a netbook, you’re going to need to expect less screen real estate coupled with a smaller screen, small keyboard, and a system that’s really only designed for the basic computing tasks 90% of computer users enjoy. Netbooks are almost universally powered by Intel’s Atom processor, which is fine for garden variety work such as web browsing or using Microsoft Office but starts to really choke if you push it too hard. Even Windows Vista is often too much for this lowly CPU. Users expecting to run 720p video on the Atom are in for a rough time, and 1080p video? Forget about it. Keyboards in this market segment are almost universally smaller than their mainstream notebook cousins, and some may take some serious adjustment.

If you just need something for taking notes in class, checking your e-mail, and surfing the internet, a netbook may be just the thing for you. They almost never weigh more than four pounds, and they take up very little space. The screens tend to be low resolution, but they’re almost always LED-backlit and my experiences with them have been overwhelmingly positive. But if you’re planning on writing the next great American novel, the chiclet-sized keys used more often than not may prove to be too difficult for extended typing sessions.

Full fledged notebooks in this price range tend to have bottom of the barrel processors, dismal integrated graphics, and four-cell batteries that will give you two hours of battery life at most. These most commonly are 15.4″ notebooks as well, so they’re going to be a little heavy. That said, even a bottom line notebook processor is going to run circles around the Intel Atom, and the informed consumer can make a lot out of a little with the resources at hand. I can also make suggestions for laptops that can be used to play the odd game (hint: if the integrated graphics have the word “Intel” in them, they’re no good). Ultimately, you just need to know that when you’re budget is less than $500, you’re going to have to be prepared to make some tradeoffs.

WHERE TO BUY

Our prices are taken either directly from the manufacturer’s website or from NewEgg, although please be aware that outside of the usual Black Friday stampede, shops like Wal-Mart and Target oftentimes stock inexpensive laptops that may be up your alley.

THE NOTEBOOKS

ACER ASPIRE 5520

NewEgg offers Acer’s Aspire 5520 at just $399 at the time of this writing, making it the cheapest fully-fledged laptop on their site. In this price range, an AMD processor is exactly what you want to hope for, and the Aspire delivers, sporting a dual-core Athlon X2 clocked at 1.8GHz. The solid performance at a bargain price isn’t the only thing that makes AMD desirable in the low end, though; the GeForce 7000M integrated graphics are fast enough for the odd game and in many situations will best even Intel’s latest and greatest integrated graphics hardware. This isn’t saying much, and don’t expect to be running Crysis, but as you can see in my review of the slightly faster 7150M, it can definitely handle low end stuff.

The rest of the Aspire 5520 reeks of value. Though the 1GB of memory feels stingy with the included Windows Vista Home Premium, the laptop otherwise includes all the ports you’d expect to find on a more expensive machine and even a 6-cell battery, rarefied in this price segment. The 120GB hard disk seems small in recent months but should be more than adequate, and if all else fails, the unit also includes a full DVD-RAM drive for reading and writing CDs and DVDs.

Ultimately, the Aspire 5520 reviews fairly well on NewEgg and makes a convincing case for itself.


HP’s COMPAQ PRESARIO CQ50

While I’ve always been more than a little wary of the Compaq brand name (yes, I’m fully aware they’re just another HP arm now), the retail model of the CQ50 is fairly compelling at a $499 price point found easily enough online. For the extra $100, the CQ50 steps up everything about the aforementioned Aspire 5520. The processor gets a boost to an even 2.0GHz, memory is doubled to 2GB, hard disk space is increased to 160GB, and the integrated graphics get a healthy boost in the form of the GeForce 8200M. What you do lose from the previous model is a FireWire port, but this is a fairly unimportant omission relevant only to film students, really.

It stands to reason the CQ50 could offer a lot of value. The 2.0GHz dual core processor is certainly fast enough, and the GeForce 8200M brings hardware acceleration for high definition video with it in addition to marginally increased gaming performance. I’ve also found HP to be a generally more reliable brand, though the word “Compaq” may make come consumers cringe.

At $499, the CQ50 is an excellent budget notebook.


DELL INSPIRON 1525

Dell’s least expensive offering, the Inspiron 1525, may just be the least compelling option in this market segment. Intel hardware tends to command a slight premium, and that premium bears itself out here. The included Celeron 550 is certainly a capable single core processor, but it’s still a single core processor in a market where AMD offers virtually only dual cores. Likewise, the integrated graphics is the dismal Intel GMA X3100, which I reviewed here. The X3100 is capable of great things but is woefully inconsistent, and doesn’t offer the kind of hardware video acceleration that the GeForce 8200M in HP’s CQ50 does.

You also only get a 120GB hard disk and are forced to contend with Windows Vista Home Basic. Everything about this laptop screams “old technology.” The value just is not here and as a result, I have an awful hard time recommending it. In retail, a $50 bump will get you a Pentium Dual-Core processor, 160GB hard drive, and Vista Home Premium, but that bump brings it within striking distance of HP’s Turion-based laptops which are overwhelmingly superior options.


TOSHIBA SATELLITE PRO L300

Toshiba stretches our limit up to $529 with their L300, purchased direct from their site. Unfortunately, the stretch we make grants us little in return, offering the worst value since the Inspiron 1525. Though it bumps the processor up to a 2.0GHz Pentium Dual-Core and the integrated graphics up to Intel’s 4500MHD, the hard disk is just 120GB, and worse, it only offers just 1GB of memory. If you’re satisfied with specs like these, save yourself the $130 and go with Acer’s Aspire 5520. Otherwise the Satellite Pro L300 just doesn’t offer enough to make it a compelling purchase in this price range, largely due to the fact that it pole vaults clear over it.

The other Toshiba alternative is the A205 available at Wal-Mart, but again, this turns out to be as interesting as the L300 is. It trades in the Pentium Dual-Core for a miserable single-core Celeron 540 though at least it bumps up the memory to 2GB and offers Windows Vista Home Premium instead. Still, it’s just not as interesting as alternatives in this price range.

eMACHINES

Gateway bought out the eMachines brand some time ago, and they gradually disappeared from the laptop market. Now they have returned, and their flag-bearer is the eMD620. The eMD620 makes quite a case for itself. I’ve seen it running for as little as $299 on Best Buy’s website, which at that price makes it fairly compelling.

The most important point to make here is that this laptop is by far the weakest of the ones listed in this section. It offers only a 1.6 GHz single-core Athlon processor, just 1GB of memory, and Windows Vista Home Basic. But where it excels is its size: good luck finding a 14.1″ notebook in this price range. It also includes ATI’s Radeon X1200 integrated graphics part. Slightly antiquated by today’s standards, but still decent.

This unit more or less bridges the gap between netbook and laptop. If you need something larger with just a little more oomph than a typical netbook, the eMD620 might just be what you’re looking for.

THE NETBOOKS

I’m going to give you a much more casual rundown of the popular netbooks on the market. Note that all of these netbooks feature pretty much the same hardware, so I’m going to focus more on the little things that differentiate them.


DELL’S INSPIRON MINI 9

… is like punishment. Yes, it’s cute and small, but the awkward keyboard layout always makes me feel like I’ve done something wrong. I have pretty small hands to begin with, and I couldn’t adapt to using this at all. A close friend also tried using it, sporting some of the smallest hands I’ve seen on a grown woman, yet the strangely-sized and shaped keys have a bizarre tactile feedback that makes them hard to use and results in all kinds of unspeakable spelling errors even in garden variety Notepad. Though the Mini 9 is fairly popular with our forum members, I found the keyboard so close to being unusable that it threatened to bring down this entire ship.

Happily, there are plenty of other netbooks I’ve been able to use and had much more enjoyable experiences with, like…


MSI WIND

I’ve actually had the privilege of reviewing this netbook, and I was smitten with it. The system runs cool and the keyboard at least has a fairly sensible layout though the keys themselves are still fairly small. The screen in particular is matte and not glossy, which makes the Wind very usable in the outdoors.

The tradeoff lies in the mediocre battery life and the lack of polish when compared to competing units like Dell’s Mini 9 or the ubiquitous ASUS Eee PCs. Still, MSI has been pushing the Wind into retail and dropping the price on it, so if you find one to play with, it’s worth checking out.


ACER ASPIRE ONE

The Aspire One seems to be a real crowd pleaser and has proven itself popular all over the interwebs, boasting a healthy number of editors choice awards. This is understandable. The Aspire One has a respectably low price tag, starting at just $329, and brings with it all the trimmings you’ve come to expect from competing netbooks. A jaunt up to $349 finds the Aspire One at its sweet spot on NewEgg, with 1GB of memory and 120GB of hard disk space running on Windows XP Home.

Acer has chosen to outfit the Aspire One with your choice of Linux or Windows, and depending on your desired use, you may be able to get away just fine running Linux. The keyboard itself is still cramped given the lilliputian 8.9″ screen and corresponding chassis, but the Aspire One is nonetheless an excellent alternative to ASUS’ Eee PC line.


HP MINI

I’m keen to mention that I’m not talking about HP’s initial foray, the dismal Mini-Note. The Mini-Note used Via’s painfully slow C7M processor and priced itself fairly out of contention in the netbook market. No, the HP Mini I refer to is a recent release on their site which is available with minimal configuration options. The Mini uses a very similar chassis to their Mini-Note, which has one strong benefit: the best netbook keyboard in the business. The Mini also does away with Via’s C7M in favor of the standard Intel Atom.

Starting at $399 it creeps closer to the higher end of the netbook market, and when forced to compete with the likes of the Aspire One it loses a little bit of its luster. However, the inclusion of Windows XP Home standard coupled with the outstanding keyboard makes the HP Mini a welcome alternative and a nice change of pace from their professional-oriented-but-still-pretty-mediocre Mini-Note.


LENOVO IDEAPAD S10

This is an entry that surprised me. Even though every notebook company has been getting in on the netbook market, Lenovo always struck me as a company that catered to a different market segment. Still, judging from our review, the S10 has the same Lenovo touch that screams quality. For some odd reason, their engineers seem to be able to cull healthy battery life out of their notebooks, and the same rule applies to the S10, which offers nearly four hours of battery life – well ahead of the competing Wind and Aspire One.

The S10 feels like a bit of a dark horse alternative in this market just by offering the Lenovo brand on a netbook. It seems like an equally dark horse for Lenovo, given the choice of colors and fairly stylish design that are striking compared to their staid ThinkPad line and marginally less staid IdeaPad notebook line. There isn’t too much outside of that pedigree that really recommends it ahead of its peers, but it remains a worthy option and one to shortlist.


ASUS EEE PC

Finally, the big daddy. I challenge you to find a chart enumerating all the variants on the Eee PC that have flooded the market, but mercifully at the end of the day you need look only at the 10″ models. These offer the best compromise between size and practicality, but most importantly, they’re class leading in regards to battery life. With a six-cell battery, the Eee PC 1000 series has been known to push an incredible seven hours of useful running time, miles ahead of the competition and fulfilling the promises of Intel’s Atom platform.

The keyboards are still smallish but at least a usable size, which speaks to ASUS electing to discontinue the smaller 7″ models of the Eee PC in favor of the larger 8.9″ and 10″ models. Happily the 1000H units can be found for around $429 now, which feels a little pricey, but when you’re buying the best of the best, you get what you pay for. Though the competition is certainly respectable, at the end of the day ASUS still remains king of the hill.

CONCLUSION

The problem with the netbook market is that there’s little to differentiate them in terms of hardware, so you end up checking out battery life and build quality. The notebook market made options a little more clear cut; while 2GB or less of memory was the name of the game, reasonably priced AMD processors have this budget segment locked up. Though their processors underperform compared to their Intel counterparts, AMD preaches a balanced computing platform that bears fruit for frugal consumers who don’t need the fastest computers, just fast enough to be comfortable.

My netbook recommendation goes to the ASUS Eee PC 1000H. Available on NewEgg for $429 with the six-cell battery that pushes running time to seven hours and the largest reasonable netbook chassis, the 1000H strikes a perfect balance while emphasizing what I consider to be one of the most important tenets of netbooks: long useful life in a portable chassis. I’ve used too many laptops and netbooks that were certainly portable enough, but ultimately required being tethered to the wall outlet for power. After having used a couple laptops that lasted three or more hours on the battery, the idea of having the plug the AC adaptor in anywhere but the wall at my house is ludicrous to me.

My notebook recommendation gets split between Acer’s Aspire 5520 and HP’s Compaq Presario CQ50. At $399 the Aspire offers a great balance of features at a very attractive price tag, but that recommendation is reserved for those who just can’t hit that $499 mark where the CQ50 sits. The CQ50 probably features the most modern hardware in our lot, and copious amounts of it for the price tag. Competing Intel-based solutions from Dell and Toshiba just can’t touch it. I wish I could give the new eMachines laptop a more glowing recommendation, but the best thing it has going for it is its small size compared to its competitors. If you really need something more portable it’s a reasonable alternative, but otherwise I advise you to spend less for the Acer or more for the CQ50.

I do offer a third alternative, though it may be the least attractive one. These inexpensive notebooks and netbooks definitely fill their roles, and for many users – less web savvy parents and grandparents, for example – they’re adequate. Fairly serious students and serious users in general, however, should look into spending a little bit more to get something a little bit better. HP and Dell in particular compete hard for your dollars, and between $700 and $1,100 is where they oftentimes offer the best bang for the buck. Likewise, Asus also offers remarkably capable machines in that price range. All major laptop manufacturers offer some kind of payment plan, and NewEgg offers their Preferred Account which has excellent no interest deals that have saved my bacon many times over. For users who may need more than these sub-$500 machines offer but can’t spend that much more, I’ll have a guide to custom ordering notebooks up soon.

For everyone else, though, these units are evidence that you don’t have to spend a fortune to get something solid. AMD should be singled out for making the notebook market compelling and offering dual core solutions where Intel often dares not; likewise, Intel should be singled out for producing the remarkably efficient little Atom processor which has formed the backbone of an entirely new market.

As for the Eee PC 1000H and CQ50, well … do you want power or portability?


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