As the economy slowly improves, things are finally looking up for laptops.
"This year and next should be banner years for notebook sales," says Bob O'Donnell, vice president for clients and displays at market research firm IDC. "There's a lot of variety out there, prices are going down, and buyers have two years of pent up demand."
Certainly, there's a lot of catching up to do. Many companies are still using antiquated Windows XP systems, some of which are being held together by duct tape and luck. O'Donnell forecasts an 18% boost in the number of portable computers sold in the U.S. this year, to 50 million systems. This surge in sales could rise to as many as 92.4 million portables in 2014, more than double the level sold in 2009.
However, although companies may be willing to start buying again, they're probably going to be cautious. When upgrading the technology of a department, or an entire company, you're still going to be watching the budget line.
There are, of course, a lot of laptops and other portable devices that can be bought for considerably less than $700. For about $350, you can buy a basic netbook, while $500 gets you a minimalist laptop with a 15.6-in. screen. But despite their seductive price tags, netbooks are limited in performance and power, while basic laptops are often bigger and heavier, are less robustly built and use slower and older components.
To get a system that will run the applications they need and that will be usable for at least four years, organizations will have to spend around $700, O'Donnell says. That amount "buys a lot of notebook," he contends.
To see just how much about $700 buys today, I gathered four of the latest systems. Three of them -- the Acer Aspire 5740, the Sony Vaio E Series and the Toshiba Satellite L505 -- have a common configuration that includes a 2.13-GHz Intel Core i3-330M processor, 4GB of RAM, a 320GB hard drive and a 15.5- or 15.6-in. screen. The fourth system, the Dell Inspiron 15R, has the same specs, with one exception: It was not available with that specific processor but uses the slightly faster Intel Core i3-350M chip, which runs at 2.26 GHz.
In the end, I found it to be truly amazing how much $700 -- or even less -- buys. Some of the systems include luxuries like surround sound, Bluetooth and dedicated multimedia controls. All have fast memory chips, high-resolution screens and the latest Wi-Fi networking.
But there are some things you won't get, such as USB 3.0, high-end graphics, full 1080p HD screens and Blu-ray drives. In addition, all the laptops do without a Trusted Platform Module, or TPM, to make corporate online connections more secure. These features are still reserved for more expensive machines.
The biggest surprise was that they came in sleek and surprisingly colorful cases. Forget about dull-gray basic rectangular systems -- these are budget notebooks that don't cut corners on style. In other words, you don't have to spend a lot to look good.
Acer Aspire 5740
At $630, Acer's Aspire 5740 offers excellent performance, the features of a laptop that sells for hundreds of dollars more (such as four USB ports and high-end audio) and the lowest price tag of the four systems I looked at.
Housed in a bright-blue plastic case, the Aspire 5740 is 1.5 by 15.1 by 9.8 in. and is thicker, longer and wider than the Vaio but matched its 5.8-lb. weight as the lightest of the gang of four budget laptops. When you throw in the AC adapter, the Aspire's travel weight is 6.3 lbs.
It's the only one of the four with a lid latch, which will be liked by some and hated by others. The interior is demure, with a dark-gray base and black keys, which is in stark contrast to the Dell Inspiron 15R's mirrorlike finish.
The 19mm keys are comfortable, and the system's touchpad has a switch just to the right of it for turning it off so that inadvertent swipes don't delete entire paragraphs. While the pad works with multifinger gestures, like spreading your thumb and forefinger to zoom in on an image, an annoying sticker explaining this feature was attached using an adhesive from hell. After many attempts, I finally removed the glue with WD-40 lubricant, followed by window cleaner and elbow grease.
My favorite feature is the button in the upper-right corner that starts up a favorite app. It takes about 15 seconds to add the program you want it to open. Oddly, there's also a button for Bluetooth, but the model I looked at doesn't support Bluetooth.
Like the Inspiron 15R and Satellite L505, the Aspire 5740 uses Intel's Graphics Media Accelerator HD and has a 15.6-in. display that can show 1,366-by-768 resolution (the Vaio's display is slightly smaller, at 15.5 in.). The Aspire's screen was the brightest of the bunch. It has a webcam above it.
Surprisingly, for a notebook at this price, the Aspire 5740 comes with a Dolby Home Theater sound system that sounds as good and is as loud as a compact stereo. While it has handy buttons for turning the volume up and down, the system lacks a mute button and the excellent multimedia controls of the Satellite L505.
The assortment of ports on the notebook is impressive. Connections include 4 USB, HDMI, external monitor, headphone and microphone. It also has a Sony Philips Digital Interface (S/PDIF) digital audio connection, the only one of the four to have this audio luxury. On the other hand, the Aspire 5740 doesn't come with either an e-SATA connection for an external hard drive or an ExpressCard slot for expansion.
On top of the latest Gigabit Ethernet networking and a traditional modem for dial-up communications, the Aspire 5740 has an 802.11n Wi-Fi system. It stayed online 110 feet from the router, which ties the Satellite L505 as the second longest of the group, behind the Inspiron 15R.
Like the Satellite and the Vaio, the Aspire was configured with an Intel Core i3 330M processor, 4GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive. Look for a version with the faster Core i3 350M processor later this summer. The Aspire 5740 also includes a Super Multi DVD burner that works with double-layer media (but can't engrave a label on the disk as the Satellite L505 can).
The laptop is a good performer, with a score of 905.2 on PassMark's PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark, within a point or two of the Satellite and the Vaio. It was 4% slower than the Inspiron 15R, which had a slightly faster processor.
Acer Aspire 5740
Price (as tested): $630
Pros: Low price, good assortment of ports, reasonable battery life, good audio
Cons: Touchpad sticker hard to remove, no Bluetooth, no ExpressCard slot
The Aspire 5740's 4,400mAh battery pack ran for 2 hours 42 minutes on a charge, making it the long-distance runner of the four reviewed here; its runtime was half-an-hour longer than the Vaio system. Acer doesn't offer a high-capacity battery for this laptop.
With Windows 7 Home Premium, the Aspire 5740 is the bargain of the group with a price of $630 -- about $70 less than the Vaio or the Satellite. Unlike the other vendors, Acer doesn't sell extensions on its one-year warranty; for extended coverage, you'll have to look to the retailer.
The Acer Aspire 5740 performs well and comes with features that are usually reserved for more expensive systems, such as S/PDIF digital audio and a Super Multi DVD burner. Once you get the annoying touchpad sticker off, it's a great machine at an enviable price.
Dell Inspiron 15R
If you like flashy, Dell's Inspiron 15R is your kind of laptop. It's a real stunner -- it comes in red, blue, pink or black, with a shiny exterior and a mirrorlike finish inside. While it has a faster processor than the other laptops in this roundup, the Inspiron 15R is the second-cheapest device among the four, at a cost of $640.
At 1.3 by 14.6 by 10.1 in., the Inspiron 15R is as thin as the Sony Vaio but is wider and deeper front-to-back, making it a tight fit on an airline tray. The notebook's extra depth serves a purpose, however -- it allows the screen hinge to be recessed by a half an inch, protecting it from falls, a design that Dell plans to use on other laptops.
Its 5.8 lb. weight makes it as light as both the Aspire 5740 and Sony Vaio. The AC adapter increases the Inspiron 15R's travel weight to 6.4 lbs., only an ounce lighter than the Satellite L505, the weightiest of the group; it's also the only one of the four to require a three-prong outlet, which might be awkward in some places.
As with the Satellite L505, I felt that the Inspiron 15R's keyboard flexed too much. The 19mm keys are accurate, and the lightly textured touchpad can handle two-finger moves like squeezing the thumb and forefinger together to zoom out of an image. It does without the dedicated multimedia controls and mute button of the Satellite, instead using keyboard controls for these functions.
The Inspiron 15R has a pair of speakers along the front edge of the laptop and sports built-in SRS Premium Sound. There are a number of settings to customize the audio, including boosting the bass and simulating surround sound, but despite that, I found the sound quality to be hollow, and it couldn't get as loud as the Aspire 5740.
The Inspiron 15R has four USB ports (one of which doubles as an e-SATA connection), traditional analog headphone and microphone jacks, external monitor and HDMI jacks, and a flash card reader. It does not offer an ExpressCard reader or an S/PDIF digital audio jack.
As far as wireless gear goes, the Inspiron 15R comes with Bluetooth (the only one of the four laptops in this roundup to do so) and 802.11n Wi-Fi, which, in my tests, had a range of 120 feet, the best of the bunch. It also includes a 100Mbit/sec. Ethernet jack but does not have a dial-up modem.
Like the others, the Inspiron 15R came with 4GB of RAM, a 320GB hard drive and a 15.6-in. screen with an Intel Graphics Media Accelerator HD that can show 1,366-by-768 resolution. The display was sharp and rich, but not quite as bright as the Aspire 5740's. The Inspiron 15R also includes a DVD Super Multi digital drive and a webcam.
Unlike the others, the Inspiron 15R came with an Intel 350M Core i3 processor that runs at 2.26-GHz, about 6% faster than the 2.13-GHz chip the others used. This led to it outrunning the others, with a 938.2 on PassMark's PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark suite -- an advantage of slightly under 4%, which few people would be able to notice.
As with the Sony Vaio, the Inspiron 15R's weak link is its battery life. The 4,400mAh battery pack lasted a disappointing 2 hours and 14 minutes on a charge -- three minutes longer than the Sony, but a half-hour less than the Aspire 5740. You can get an 8,100mAh high-capacity battery for $155, which offers about 4.5 hours of use between charges but adds 6 oz. to the system and extends its width by nearly an inch.
Dell Inspiron 15R
Price (as tested): $640
Pros: Excellent performance, good price, includes Bluetooth, protective hinge, instant app bar
Cons: Large case, no ExpressCard, short battery life, 3-prong AC plug
The system comes standard with Windows 7 Home Premium, a month's subscription to Norton Internet Security, and Roxio software for DVD burning and playing. Another add-on, and one that I found useful, is Dell's instant-start app bar that can be placed anywhere on the screen and modified with new programs in a few seconds.
The Dell system includes a one-year warranty that can be upgraded to three years of coverage for $119.
High-performance, rugged design and style go hand in hand with the $640 Inspiron 15R. Too bad it doesn't measure up on battery life, or it would be a keeper.
Sony Vaio E Series
Not known for its budget systems, Sony's specialty is sleek machines with an emphasis on multimedia. The Vaio E squeezes a lot of laptop into a small, thin system.
Housed in a silver case, the Vaio E that I looked at has a cool white interior with a sparkling finish. If that's not your thing, Sony sells the system in black, blue, gray, pink and green.
Easily the smallest of the four reviewed here, the system measures 1.3 by 14.4 by 9.7 in. but at 5.8 lbs. equals the weight of the larger Aspire 5740 and Inspiron 15R. With its AC adapter, it weighs 6.3 lbs. -- 4 oz. lighter than the Satellite L505.
Like the Satellite L505 and Inspiron 15R, the Vaio E gets by without a lid latch; its 19.2mm raised keys were comfortable to type on. The system's textured touchpad lets you use two-finger moves, like squeezing two fingers together to zoom out of an image.
Sony offers $20 flexible plastic keyboard covers for the system in green, violet, black, pink or blue for those who want a little extra color or are paranoid about spilling coffee on their notebook.
While it lacks the dedicated multimedia controls of the Satellite L505, the Sony system has three instant dedicated buttons. One accesses Sony's Vaio Care maintenance software, while the second brings up Sony's Media Gallery software. The third does double duty: When the system is turned on, the button opens your default Web browser. But when you're in a hurry and the system is turned off, it opens a Linux-based Splashtop Web browser in about 20 seconds without starting up Windows. Unfortunately, you can't reassign any of the three buttons.
At 15.5-in., the Vaio E's display is slightly smaller than the others, although you'll be hard-pressed to notice the difference. It uses the same Intel-made Graphics Media Accelerator HD as the others to display 1,366-by-768 resolution. I found it to be not quite as bright as the Aspire 5740's display; I also noticed a blue cast.
With four USB ports, one of which can be used as an e-SATA connection to a hard drive, the Vaio E also has jacks for HDMI, an external monitor, a headphone and a microphone. It also offers an ExpressCard slot and a pair of flash card readers.
Communications are a mixed bag -- the system comes with a Gigabit Ethernet port and 802.11n Wi-Fi wireless but lacks Bluetooth or a modem. In testing, its wireless range was a disappointing 95 feet, a full 25 feet short of the Inspiron 15R's range.
Like the Satellite L505 and Aspire 5740, the model I tested came equipped with a 2.13-GHz Intel Core i3 330M processor, 4GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive. The slightly faster 2.26-GHz version of the chip is available starting at $720. The Vaio E comes with a webcam and a Super Multi DVD burner.
Its performance profile was on par with the other 2.13-GHz Core i3 laptops, with a score of 905.2 on PassMark's PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark. Powered by a 3,500mAh battery, the smallest of the four, it's no surprise that the Vaio E ran for just 2 hours 11 minutes. Sony's 5,000mAh high-capacity battery should translate into about 3.5 hours of runtime but is an expensive option at $200.
Sony Vaio E Series
Sony Electronics Inc.
Price (as tested): $700
Pros: Small and lightweight, instant Web button, ExpressCard slot
Cons: No dedicated multimedia controls, no Bluetooth, short battery life, short Wi-Fi range
On top of Windows 7 Home Premium, the Vaio E includes a one-month subscription to Norton Internet Security as well as Sony's Creativity Suite, which includes a slew of image and video software.
The laptop comes with a standard one-year warranty; extending it to three years costs $180. This is slightly more than double what the others charge, but it includes on-site service.
The $700 Sony Vaio E Series delivers a lot of laptop in a thin package but falls short on battery life.
Toshiba Satellite L505
Clothed in corporate pinstripes, Toshiba's Satellite L505 is an inexpensive, high-performance system that is on the pudgy side.
Easily the biggest system of the bunch, the Satellite L505 is 1.5 by 15.1 by 10.4 in. and weighs 6 lbs. That's several ounces heavier than the others -- with its AC adapter, it has the heaviest travel weight of the four, at 6.5 lbs. It's also deeper than the others in this roundup. Travelers, beware: Like the Inspiron 15R, the Satellite L505 is a tight fit on an airline tray table.
While the others in this roundup have shiny, colorful cases, the Satellite L505's look is straight-laced black with diagonal gray pinstripes. It does without the lid latch or instant-start app button of the Aspire 5740. The keyboard, which has 19.1mm black keys, flexes too much, but I really like the lightly textured touchpad, which works with two-finger gestures.
Below the screen are excellent multimedia controls for playing DVDs and audio. The Satellite L505 also has a handy thumbwheel volume control and a separate mute button. There's nice chrome trim around the speakers, but the audio doesn't get as loud as the Aspire 5740's, and it sounded tinny to my ears.
With a 15.6-in. screen and Intel's Graphics Media Accelerator imaging engine, the system can show 1,366-by-768 resolution. There's a webcam, but the display wasn't nearly as bright as the Aspire 5740's, and the whites had a blue tinge.
The system comes with three USB connections, one of which doubles as an e-SATA link to an external hard drive. It also has connections for an external monitor (but not HDMI), a microphone and a headphone (but no optical S/PDIF). It has a modem for online emergencies but doesn't include an ExpressCard. Its wired LAN is limited to 100Mbit/sec. service, not the faster gigabit-per-second variety.
The Wi-Fi system uses the latest 802.11n spec; in tests, it tied with the Aspire 5740, with a range of 110 feet. There is no Bluetooth option, and it comes with 100Mit/sec. Ethernet. On the other hand, the Satellite L505 comes with a Super Multi DVD drive, which is the only one of the four to be able to etch labels onto special discs.
As with three of the others in this roundup, the system comes with a 2.13-GHz Intel Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive. Toshiba won't be offering the 350M Core i3 processor on this line of notebooks but will make it available for other Satellite models.
The notebook scored a 906.8 on PassMark's PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark suite of tasks, or roughly what the Satellite L505 and Sony Vaio were capable of.
Toshiba Satellite L505
Toshiba America Information Systems
Price (as tested): $700
Pros: : Multimedia controls, textured touchpad, classy design
Cons: Large and heavy case, display not as bright as others, short battery life, no Bluetooth
The system's 4,400mAh battery was able to go for only 2 hours 24 minutes on a charge, or about 20 minutes short of the Aspire 5740's runtime. There's a $150 high-capacity battery available that holds 9,000mAh of capacity and that should double runtime to about 5 hours, but it adds an inch to the height of the system at the rear and 11 oz. to its weight.
The review system came with Windows 7 Home Premium and a slew of software, including a 30-day subscription to Norton Internet Security 2010, Microsoft Works 9.0 and Corel Label maker for CD disc labels. Toshiba's one-year warranty can be extended to three years for $79.20.
At $700, the L505 is a competent laptop, but it is the bulkiest of the four and has a screen that isn't as bright as the others I looked at. Also, it doesn't include some of the luxuries that the others have, like the extra USB ports on the Acer, the ExpressCard slot of the Vaio or the look of the Dell.
Budget laptops are about three things: price, price, price. But like economy cars, what a budget laptop leaves out is often more important than what's included. All of these four inexpensive laptops have surprising extras and leave some things on the table.
While I really like the Sony Vaio's slim and light case, the battery runtime of 2 hours and 11 minutes was just not enough to make it a mobile winner. In contrast, the Satellite L505 ran for an extra 13 minutes and came with excellent multimedia controls. It's a bit heavy, however. Both sell for $700 and are good deals.
The newest of the bunch, the $640 Inspiron 15R, has the coolest appearance and was second only to the Aspire 5740 on price. It was the only one of the four to come with Bluetooth, but -- like the Sony -- its battery life was relatively short. Plus, the three-prong plug could be very inconvenient.
That leaves the Acer Aspire 5740, which combines low weight with a great set of ports and a bright screen at $630 -- $10 less than the Inspiron 15R and $70 less than the Sony Vaio and the Satellite L505. It's not perfect -- for example, it doesn't include Bluetooth -- but it offers the fewest compromises and is a bargain to boot.
How we tested
To keep everybody honest, I first went online and verified that the systems I was looking at did indeed sell for $700 or less. All passed the test.
Each laptop was used over a three-week period for writing, preparing, editing and presenting slide shows, for nosing around the Web and for watching videos.
Every aspect was measured, weighed and examined. I used a mock-up of the typical airplane seat-back table tray to see if it fit. Each notebook accompanied me on a short business trip. While on the road, each notebook was connected to a Wi-Fi network and used for a presentation.
I ran PassMark's PerformanceTest 7.0 on each laptop. The application exercises every major component of the system, including processor, hard drive, 2-D/3-D graphics and memory, and it compiles the results into a single score that represents the machine's performance potential. I ran the test three times and averaged the results.
With the Wi-Fi on, Internet Explorer tuned to an Internet radio station and the audio set to three quarters of full volume, each system was run down as PassMark's BatteryMon application charted the battery's capacity and the time it shut down.
Using a Linksys WRT54GS Wireless-G BroadBand Router, I tuned the notebook to an Internet radio station and walked away from the router with the notebook in hand. I measured the spot farthest from the router where it still remained connected.