Back-to-school buying season is underway.
"The month before school starts is bargain time for notebook buyers with lots of new models and heavy discounting," says Stephen Baker, vice president at NPD for industry analysis.
Students (or parents of students) who intend to buy a new Windows 8-based laptop will probably be looking for one with a touch screen. Although Microsoft's latest operating system is useable with keyboard-only systems (and the latest version, Windows 8.1, makes that even easier), a touch screen is a definite plus. And while laptops with touch screens tend to be expensive, there are some entry-level systems out there that can be had for a reasonable price.
To see how far the laptop-buying dollar could be stretched, I looked at two new and relatively inexpensive models: the Asus VivoBook V400CA and the HP Pavilion TouchSmart 14z Sleekbook. Each of these laptops costs under $600, yet they have a surprising array of amenities, from mid-range processors and plenty of RAM to spacious hard drives and free online storage.
In order to keep the price low, each vendor has made some compromises. For instance, HP's TouchSmart 14z offers one of the latest quad-core AMD processors, but comes with a traditional 500GB hard drive. By contrast, Asus' VivoBook V400CA has a second-generation Intel Core i3 dual-core processor but beefs it up with a hybrid drive that combines a 500GB hard drive with a 24GB SSD.
Regardless of how they get to their price, these two machines offer a lot for a little. This may only be just the start for inexpensive touch-screen systems, though. Before he retired earlier this year, during a discussion of Intel's earnings for the first quarter of 2013, CEO Paul Otellini predicted that by the end of the year there could be $200 touch notebooks available.
That would leave a lot more money left over for students to get books, clothes and other necessaries for the upcoming school year. (Watch for Computerworld's back-to-school tech guide, coming soon.)
What follows are the facts about -- and my opinion of -- these two low-cost but good-quality touch-screen Windows 8 laptops.
2 touch laptops: Product specs
|2 touch laptops: Product specs||Asus VivoBook V400CA||HP Pavilion TouchSmart 14z Sleekbook|
|Processor||1.4GHz Intel Core i3 2365M||1.5GHz AMD A4-5000|
|Measurements (WxD)||13.3 x 9.4 in.||13.6 x 9.4 in.|
|Max. height||1.0 in.||0.9 in.|
|Weight||4.1 lb.||4.7 lb.|
|Display size||14 in.||14 in.|
|Display resolution||1366 x 768||1366 x 768|
|Graphics||Intel HD 3000 Graphics||AMD Radeon HD 8330|
|RAM installed/Max capable||4GB/8GB||4GB/8GB|
|Storage||500GB HD/24GB SSD||500GB HD|
|Ports||1 USB 3.0, 2 USB 2.0, HDMI, VGA, audio, SD card||2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, HDMI, audio, SD card|
|OS||Windows 8||Windows 8|
|Warranty||1 year||1 year|
|Price||$540 - $590||$450|
The Asus VivoBook V400CA excels at delivering an enviable mix of performance and features. At about $540 - $590, it is a real back-to-school value.
The system's black-and-silver case measures 13.3 x 9.4 in., making it slightly narrower than the TouchSmart. When closed, the slim system is 0.9 in. high in front and a tenth of an inch higher at the rear; it slides into and out of a backpack without a problem.
Asus VivoBook V400CA
On its own, the notebook weighs 4.1 lb. -- about half a pound lighter than the TouchSmart. Plus the VivoBook uses a relatively small power adapter that brings its travel weight only up to 4.6 lb., compared to the TouchSmart's 5.8-lb. travel weight. And a bonus: It doesn't require a three-prong outlet.
Rather than use a new processor design, Asus chose to cut corners with a second-generation dual-core Intel Core i3-2365M, which runs at 1.4GHz and has 3MB of built-in cache. Asus offers a Core i5 model as well, but that raises the price of the computer to over $650. The VivoBook comes with 4GB of RAM and can handle up to 8GB.
Unlike the TouchSmart, the VivoBook uses a hybrid storage arrangement. It includes both a 500GB hard drive and a 24GB SSD; the latter makes starting the system and waking it up from sleep mode much faster. Asus also includes three years of up to 32GB online storage.
The VivoBook comes with a 14-in. touch screen that is capable of 1366 x 768 resolution; it uses Intel's antiquated HD 3000 graphics accelerator with 32MB of dedicated video memory. I found that the display could interpret up to 10 independent finger moves and handle two-finger gestures without a problem; it also worked well with a Wacom Bamboo stylus.
While the hinge on the competing TouchSmart allows its screen to sit at a 45-degree angle, the VivoBook's display can be lowered to 35 degrees, allowing a more natural feel when using fingers or a stylus. The VivoBook's screen also wobbled less than the TouchSmart's when it was tapped.
The display's bezel is slightly narrower than the TouchSmart's and is slightly raised, which made some finger movements on the screen near the edge a little awkward.
The keyboard has 19mm black keys that show up well against the notebook's silver background. There's also a 4.1-x-3-in. touchpad that's 50% larger than the one on the TouchSmart.
Above the screen is a single microphone and a webcam that can capture 1200 x 800 video or still images.
The VivoBook comes with Asus' Sonic Master speakers that fire out of the sides of the system. The sound is full, rich and can get quite loud. The system also includes software that allows you to fine-tune the audio.
Connections include an HDMI port, two USB 2.0 and a single USB 3.0 port, audio connections and an SD card slot. Unlike the TouchSmart, the VivoBook includes a traditional VGA port for connecting with an older projector or monitor, making it more versatile. The system comes with 802.11n Wi-Fi, an Ethernet connection and Bluetooth.
With a PassMark PerformanceTest score of 915.9, the VivoBook outperformed the TouchSmart by a little under 10%. It fell short on graphics, though, with a Cinebench graphics score of 6.95 fps compared to the TouchSmart's 12.78 fps. Its Cinebench processor score of 1.33 was also slightly behind that of the TouchSmart.
At a Glance
AsusPrice:$540 - $590 (retail)Pros: Hybrid storage drive, good overall performance, accidental damage warranty, lightweightCons: Older processor, mediocre battery life
The VivoBook was able to play a continuous series of HD videos from a USB drive for 3 hours and 39 minutes, about than an hour less than the TouchSmart. With some judicious power conservation, it should be good enough for a school day, but if it's not, you can't swap the battery.
Thanks in part to the system's hybrid storage system, it took just 4.9 seconds for the VivoBook to wake up from hibernation mode. By contrast, the TouchSmart took 19.0 seconds.
Like the TouchSmart, the VivoBook comes with Windows 8 and the usual mix of software, including a one-month subscription to Trend Micro Titanium Internet Security.
There's also a neat utility: Tap the "<>" key in the upper right corner and the VivoBook interface comes up, which shows how much RAM and storage remains and provides access to Asus' online Cloud Storage and a variety of configuration options.
The system's one-year warranty includes accidental damage, including spills, drops, power surges and fire damage. A warranty extension to three years of coverage adds $129.
It may cost a little more than the TouchSmart and use some older technology, but the Asus VivoBook V400CA provides a lot of entry-level notebook for the money, including accidental damage coverage. For most students, it should be more than enough computer for schoolwork.
The watchword for HP's Pavilion TouchSmart 14z is economy, but ironically, its $450 price might actually be a bit too low -- it leaves out some must-have items, like Bluetooth.
HP Pavilion TouchSmart 14z Sleekbook
At 4.7 lb., the TouchSmart is more than half a pound heavier than the 4.1-lb. VivoBook. Although the laptop still easily fits into a backpack, its traditional AC adapter (with a three-prong plug) adds another 1.1 lb. to the weight.
With a footprint of 13.6 x 9.4 in., the system is a fraction of an inch wider than the VivoBook. Its height of 0.9 in. is about as slim as it gets for a budget machine these days.
The silver and black plastic case has rounded corners with sophisticated silver edging. HP also sells a similar model in white that costs $10 extra.
Inside is AMD's quad-core A4-5000 processor, which has 2MB of cache and a clock speed of 1.5GHz. HP also sells a version of the system with a 2GHz clock speed for an extra $30.
The system includes 4GB of RAM and can handle up to 8GB. It comes with a 500GB hard drive; HP offers 5GB of online storage through Box.
Like the VivoBook, the TouchSmart's 14-in. display offers a 1366 x 768 resolution. It uses AMD's Radeon 8330 graphics accelerator, which comes with a generous 512MB of dedicated video memory.
The TouchSmart's screen has a wide bezel around it which is slightly raised from the display, which makes some touch maneuvers near the display's edge a bit awkward -- it could be hard to get into the corner of the screen to pull out the menus. In testing, the screen could respond to up to 10 independent finger inputs and worked well with two-finger gestures as well as a Wacom Bamboo stylus.
The system's hinge stops at a 45-degree angle and wobbled too much when tapped. In day-to-day use, I frequently found myself bracing it with my left hand while working with my right.
A responsive keyboard offers 19.0mm keys; however, they seemed to disappear into the black background, particularly when I was trying to work in the dark. The textured touchpad measures 3.9 x 1.8 in. and felt slightly cramped compared to the larger one on the VivoBook.
Above the screen is a webcam that can capture 0.9-megapixel video, along with a dual-microphone array that was able to cancel out some background hum and extraneous noises. The system has DTS+ digital audio enhancement, but the two speakers just above the keyboard tended to sound hollow and weren't as loud as the VivoBook's.
The TouchSmart comes with an HDMI port, one USB 2.0 port and two USB 3.0 ports. There's also an SD card slot. If you're planning to use it with older monitors or projectors, be aware that the TouchSmart lacks a VGA port.
The system comes with both an Ethernet port and 802.11n Wi-Fi built in. However, if you want Bluetooth, that's a $15 option.
The TouchSmart is a good performer in terms of graphics. The system's PerformanceTest 8.0 score of 823.7 makes it 8% slower than the VivoBook in terms of general tasks and overall performance. It makes up for that with a 12.78 fps score on the Cinebench 11.5 graphics benchmark, blowing away the VivoBook's 6.95 fps score.
At a Glance
Hewlett-PackardPrice: $450Pros: Inexpensive, good battery life with a swappable battery, quad-core processor, good graphics performanceCons: Bluetooth an extra, heavier than usual
The TouchSmart also did well in terms of battery life with a runtime of 4 hours and 49 minutes -- an hour longer than the VivoBook. And you can quickly swap battery packs, something the Asus system doesn't allow.
On the other hand, the TouchSmart was slow to emerge from hibernation mode. It took 19.0 seconds for the laptop to wake (vs. 4.9 seconds for the VivoBook).
The TouchSmart comes with a standard one-year warranty; a three-year warranty costs $160. While both of these budget notebooks come with Windows 8, HP adds a nice printed primer on getting acquainted with the new OS that includes tips on using multi-finger gestures. The system includes a two-month subscription to Norton Internet Security 2013, along with the usual additional software.
If you really need to economize, HP's Pavilion TouchSmart 14z is a competent laptop with fine graphics that is also one of the cheapest touch machines you'll find. Unfortunately, it's more weighty, which can make a lot of difference if you're going to be carrying it around campus all day.
Rarely do you come across two systems that are so different -- and yet are so well matched.
As a parent with two teenagers in need of laptops, I am drawn to the HP Pavilion TouchSmart's sub-$500 price tag, better battery life (along with a swappable battery) and excellent graphics. However, it lacks two must-haves on my personal list: a VGA port and Bluetooth. (If you do decide on the TouchSmart, by all means get the $15 Bluetooth option.)
It's also more than half a pound heavier than the Asus VivoBook (which can be significant when you're carrying it around a campus) and requires a three-prong outlet to power up -- not a showstopper, but a definite inconvenience.
The overall configuration and performance of the Asus VivoBook is superior, and it is much lighter. It also comes with a hybrid storage system that increases the speed of the system, along with 32GB of online storage. There are also small conveniences like the two-prong power adapter (the prongs conveniently fold out of the adapter and go right into the power outlet). However, the battery life could be better and the graphics aren't anything to write home about.
But the VivoBook also has something that any parent loves to see: a warranty that covers accidental damage. At a retail price of $540 - $590, it is a little more expensive than the TouchSmart, but to my mind, it could be money well spent.
How we tested
To see how these inexpensive notebooks stack up for the back-to-school crowd, I used them at my office and on the road for two weeks. I spent some time getting to know each system. In the office, I connected to a Wi-Fi network and while on the road each was connected to a mobile hotspot as well as a public Wi-Fi network at my local library.
After measuring the thickness of each system with a digital caliper at its feet, I measured its length and width. I weighed each on a digital scale with and without its AC adapter and then slipped each into a Brenthaven Expandable Trek backpack.
To evaluate the touch screens, I used my fingers and a Wacom Bamboo stylus to maneuver around the Windows 8 Start Screen. To gauge if it could work with 10 individual inputs I opened Paint and drew all 10 of my fingers across the screen. Next, I tilted each screen as far as it would go and measured the angle with an inclinometer. I also noted how much each wobbled when it was tapped.
To test the performance of each system, I used PassMark's PerformanceTest 8.0 benchmark test. The software exercises every major component of the system, including processor, hard drive, 2D and 3D graphics, and memory operations. It adds several game routines as well as a visualization of a Mandelbroit fractal set. I ran the software three times and averaged the results.
I also ran Maxon's Cinebench 11.5 benchmarks for graphics and processor performance. The software renders several photorealistic scenes that stress the processor and graphics chip by manipulating up to a million polygons. I averaged the results of three runs.
To gauge how long each laptop could run on a single battery charge, I loaded PassMark's BatteryMon, fully charged the system, set its power management options to Balanced and adjusted the settings to prevent the computer from going to sleep. The screen brightness and volume were set to 6/10. I used the shuffle feature on Windows Media Player to continuously play six videos from a USB drive as Battery Mon charted the battery's capacity. I report the average of three runs.
Finally, I timed how long it took for each system to wake up from hibernation mode. Again, I reported the average of three runs.
2 touch laptops: Test results
|2 touch laptops: Test results||Asus VivoBook V400CA||HP Pavilion TouchSmart 14z Sleekbook|
|PassMark PerformanceTest 8.0*||915.9||823.7|
|CineBench 11.5 CPU/GPU*||1.33 fps/6.95 fps||1.4 fps/12.78 fps|
|Battery Life (hrs: mins)**||3:39||4:49|
*Higher is better. **Continuously running videos
This article, 2 Windows 8 touch-screen laptops for tight budgets, was originally published at Computerworld.com.
Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.
Read more about laptops in Computerworld's Laptops Topic Center.