Being a cash-strapped student requires making a few hardware compromises, but a nice notebook is still within reach.
So you're heading back to school and you need a new laptop--but you didn't manage your finances over the summer. Your bank account is nearly tapped out, and you still need to buy text books and lay in enough ramen noodles to last through the winter.
Yeah, we've all been there. Fortunately, Moore's Law is still in play, so today's budget notebook is yesterday's workhorse. Pretty much any modern laptop can handle the gamut of productivity chores--word processing, number crunching, email, and the like--but all of the machines in this roundup can also tackle media editing and encoding sessions, and deliver respectable entertainment experiences.
To strike the best balance between performance and affordability, I gathered the top five notebooks I could find for $650 or less. Benchmark busters they're not, but they aren't budget busters, either.
CPU, memory, and storage specs
I used several criteria to evaluate these laptops, including benchmark performance, storage capacity, weight, battery life, and (of course) price. Three of the laptops use Intel CPUs and two are AMD-based, but no two machines use the same CPU. And though Intel's Haswell family has been justly lauded for its conservative power consumption, the one entry in this roundup equipped with a fourth-generation Core processor finished third in our battery rundown test.
When you're shopping in this price category, you can expect to make some trade-offs. If carry weight is your primary consideration, for example, you'll have to sacrifice display size. The lightest notebook I looked at weighs 2 pounds less than the heaviest, but it also has the smallest screen: 11.6 inches. On the other hand, all five models here deliver the same native resolution of 1366 by 768 pixels, and each has an HDMI output for connecting to an external display or a TV. Four of the five notebooks come with Windows 8 installed, but only three of them have touchscreens.
Graphics, display, and weight specs
You should consider relying on the cloud or on an external hard drive if you need a lot of storage, since most laptops in this price range have smallish hard drives (and none of the ones I looked at for this story have a solid-state drive). The two models with drives bigger than 500GB are also the heaviest and most expensive in the group.
You won't have to make too many compromises on connectivity, however: Each of the five laptops has at least one speedy USB 3.0 port, and all have both 802.11n Wi-Fi adapters and hardwired ethernet connections for networking. Even so, some models had better networking options than others.
Now all you have to do is decide out which laptop fits your needs best.
Acer Aspire E1-572-6870
For general use, Acer's Aspire E1 is the clear winner in this roundup. Acer crams a lot of value into this laptop's $580 price tag, including a Haswell-class CPU (Intel's 1.6GHz Core i5-4200U) and a 15.6-inch LED-backlit display with native resolution of 1366 by 768 pixels.
Though Acer uses quite a bit of plastic in the Aspire E1's design, you won't be ashamed to pull the notebook out of your bag. A smooth finish and rich color--Acer calls it Clarinet Black--make the 1-inch-thick machine very attractive.
The chassis and lid, on the other hand, exhibit quite a bit of flex, so you won't want to subject this machine to rough handling. The upside to all the plastic is low weight: At 4.6 pounds, this laptop has an advantage of more than 1 pound over the other 15.6-inch models I looked at, and it weighs just over a pound more than the ones with smaller displays.
Capitalizing on the display's generous size, Acer includes a full-size keyboard and a numeric keypad on the Aspire E1's deck. I expected the island-style keyboard to be somewhat flimsy, but I was pleasantly surprised by its solid tactile feedback. It's not backlit and it's a trifle noisy, but I have no complaints about how it felt under my fingertips.
The Aspire E1's display is plenty bright, producing vivid photos and videos, but off-axis viewing is merely adequate. Acer also shaved a few bucks off the Aspire E1's asking price by not including a touchscreen, but its highly responsive trackpad supports several Windows 8 gestures, including two-finger scrolling, zoom, rotate, and flip. You can also slide in from the right to open the charm bar, and slide in from the left to switch between applications.
The trackpad, which has a wide bar at its base that provides both right and left mouse-button functions, is off center in relation to the display, but dead center to the keyboard. It looks a little odd until you lay your hands on the keyboard's home row.
The Aspire E1 has only 4GB of DDR3/1600 memory, but you can open it up and pop in a second module to double that amount to 8GB. Storage takes the form of a 500GB, 5400-rpm hard drive. There's no SSD, to handle cache or anything else, and I noticed what appears to be an empty bay where an optical drive might go.
Acer's machine delivered a Notebook WorldBench 8.1 score of 177, the best of the group by a wide margin. It also outperformed our reference platform, an Asus VivoBook S550CA, which has both an SSD and a touchscreen (but costs more than any of the systems reviewed here). Diving into the individual components in our test suite, the Acer performed better than the rest of the field in the PCMark Productivity suite, but Lenovo's IdeaPad Z400, which has a larger and faster hard drive, handled our collection of media editing and encoding tasks better.
All work and no play makes for a boring lifestyle, but you'll want to stick with casual games on this computer. We dialed BioShock Infinite's resolution down to 1024 by 768 and its image quality to Low, and Acer's laptop still managed to render the game at no better than a sluggish 25 frames per second. Intel has made strides with its integrated graphics, but its Intel HD Graphics 4400 still isn't up to snuff for hardcore gaming. Even so, its gaming score beat everything else in the field (aside from our reference notebook).
Connectivity and conclusion
The Aspire E1-572-6870 offers a gigabit ethernet connection for occasions when you can plug into a network, and a Qualcomm Atheros AR956x dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi adapter for times when you can't. The laptop also has a Bluetooth 4.0 + HS adapter to support theoretical data-transfer speeds of up to 24 mbps, though the only good application I've ever found for Bluetooth is streaming audio).
Acer provides an HDMI-out for connecting the computer to digital displays and TVs, and a VGA output for older monitors and video projectors (the latter could come in very handy in classrooms and conference rooms, which tend to have vintage equipment). The system also has three USB ports, but only one of them is USB 3.0. The included memory card reader supports only SD Card.
i enjoyed using Acer's Aspire E1-572-6870. The machine is blessedly quiet, and it delivered a respectable 4 hours of battery life (middle-of-the-pack performance in this roundup).
- Haswell-class CPU
- Bright 15.6-inch display
- Relatively lightweight
- Dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi adapter
- No touchscreen
- Lots of flex in the chassis and lid
- Just one USB 3.0 port
You won't get everything in a 15.6-inch notebook priced below $600, but Acer made nearly all the right compromises to get to that price point.
Dell Latitude 3330
If someone tells you "Dude! You're gettin' a Dell!" in reference to the Latitude 3330, run away. Dell makes plenty of good computers, but this isn't one of them.
Admittedly, the Latitude 3330 didn't burst into flames or poke anyone's eye out during our testing. But you have many better choices in the same price range. Though one of the five budget notebooks in this roundup (HP's Pavilion TouchSmart 11z-e000) delivered even lower performance than this one--probably because it has an even less powerful CPU than the Dell's 1.5GHz Intel Core i3-2375m--the HP also costs $110 less than the Latitude 3330 and has a ten-point touchscreen. The Dell's 13.3-inch, 1366-by-768-pixel display doesn't support touch, though its trackpad does support simple gestures such as two-finger scrolling.
The Latitude has only 4GB of DDR/1600 memory, but an open and readily accessible slot accommodates a second module to double its memory. Its puny 320GB, 5400-rpm hard drive is similarly easy to access and upgrade. And this is one of only two notebooks in our roundup to include a removable and upgradable battery (the other one again being the HP Pavilion).
One component that won't be easy to swap out is the Dell Wireless 1504 single-band (2.4GHz), 1x1, 802.11n Wi-Fi adapter, which delivers a physical link rate of just 150 megabits per second. The laptop doesn't provide Bluetooth support, either. But it does have a gigabit ethernet interface.
Unlike most of the notebooks in this price range, the Latitude 3330's chassis contains some aluminum elements that render it considerably more rigid than the other machines we looked at. The lid, on the other hand, is rather flimsy, and the display inside doesn't feature edge-to-edge glass, as most of the others do.
The Latitude 3330's display isn't wide enough to accommodate a deck with both a full-size keyboard and a numeric keypad, but the system's arrow keys are full-size and not easily mistaken for anything else. Apart from not being backlit, the island-style keyboard is well designed and a joy to type on, delivering firm but springy tactile feedback. The Function keys in the top row play their traditional roles, so you'll need to hold down the Fn key and tap them to access their alternative assignments, such as controlling a media player.
The Latitude 3330 tied for dead last in our Notebook WorldBench 8.1 benchmark. Its overall score of 64 was more than 35% slower than our reference Asus VivoBook S550CA. Drilling down into some of the individual benchmarks from that suite, I note that the Dell finished next to last in the PCMark7 Productivity benchmark and the BioShock Infinite test, beating out only the HP Pavilion TouchSmart 11z-e000.
Connectivity and conclusion
Dell broke the pattern of Intel-powered laptops providing only one USB 3.0 port. The Latitude 330 boasts two, plus one USB 2.0 port that can charge a device whether the computer is awake or asleep. It doesn't have an optical drive, but its media card reader supports both SD and MMC media.
Dell follows the crowd by providing HDMI and VGA video outputs. Because the Latitude's Wi-Fi adapter isn't an Intel model, the system doesn't support Intel's WiDi wireless media-streaming. If your primary concern is long battery life, however, be aware that this machine turned in a first-place finish, running for 5 hours, 13 minutes. And you can quickly pull out a run-down battery and snap in a fresh one to double the laptop's useful life. But that's one of the system's few truly bright spots.
Note: We also reviewed this model as a small-business laptop. You can read that review here.
- Easily upgradable memory, battery, and hard drive
- Solid construction
- Lousy benchmark performance
- No touchscreen
- Weak Wi-Fi adapter
Dell's Latitude 3330 delivers very good battery life--but little else to recommend it at this price.
HP Pavilion TouchSmart 11z-e000
HP's Pavilion TouchSmart 11z-e000 is one the smallest, lightest, and least expensive notebooks we've ever reviewed. It's also one of the slowest, finishing dead last on nearly every criterion in our five-system roundup except two important ones: weight and battery life.
Despite carrying a price tag of just $410, this Pavilion has a touchscreen. It measures just 11.6 inches, but delivers ten-point touch and the same 1366-by-768-pixel resolution as the other budget notebooks we looked at. Once you get over its diminutive size, you realize that the display is actually pretty good. Though it has a minor issue with vertical off-axis viewing, it's much better than the screen on the Toshiba T Satellite L55Dt-A5253. Augmenting the Pavilion's touchscreen is a trackpad that supports Windows 8 gestures such as two-finger scrolling, zoom, and rotate. Mechanical right and left mouse buttons are situated beneath the pad.
Apart from its small size, the Pavilion doesn't look like a cheap PC. Though its case is composed almost entirely of plastic, the finishes on the lid and chassis are dead ringers for brushed aluminum, and the computer feels very sturdy despite being just 0.86 inch thick. Although this laptop was one of the lightest we considered for our roundup, its 3.4-pound heft is not especially impressive for its overall size.
If you have large fingers, you won't like the reduced size of the Pavilion's non-backlit keyboard. The keys are only slightly smaller than average, but the difference drove me crazy during touch-typing sessions. The laptop is too small to accommodate a numeric keypad, too--and I loathe its arrow keys' design. Rather than laying them out in the familiar inverted T formation, HP made the right and left keys oversize, and the up and down keys half-size--and bookended by the other two.
The Fn keys have common tasks (such as volume and media player control) assigned to them by default, so you don't have to hold down a second key to use them for those purposes. Speaking of media, the Pavilion has surprisingly good speakers, augmented by DTS Sound+ audio-processing software.
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