More for less: 4 budget laptops

How much laptop does $700 buy today? More than you'd think.

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.

(Next: Acer Aspire 5740)

4 low-cost laptops -- specifications

Acer Aspire 5740 Dell Inspiron 15R Sony Vaio E Series Toshiba Satellite L505
Dimensions (in.) 1.5 x 15.1 x 9.8 1.3 x 14.6 x 10.1 1.3 x 14.4 x 9.7 1.5 x 15.1 x 10.4
Weight / travel weight (lbs.) 5.8/6.3 5.8/6.4 5.8/6.3 6.0/6.5
Processor / speed Intel Core i3 330M / 2.13 GHz Intel Core i3 350M / 2.26 GHz Intel Core i3 330M / 2.13 GHz Intel Core i3 330M / 2.13 GHz
Hard drive / speed 320GB / 5,400rpm 320GB / 5,400rpm 320GB / 5,400rpm 320GB / 5,400rpm
RAM 4GB 4GB 4GB 4GB
Screen size / resolution 15.6 / 1366 x 768 15.6 / 1366 x 768 15.6 / 1366 x 768 15.6 / 1366 x 768
Graphics engine Intel GMA HD Intel GMA HD Intel GMA HD Intel GMA HD
Ports

4 USB, HDMI,

VGA, headphone, microphone, S/PDIF
3 USB, 1 eSATA / USB, HDMI, VGA, headphone, microphone 3 USB, 1 eSATA / USB, HDMI, VGA, headphone, microphone 2 USB, 1 eSATA / USB, RGB, headphone, microphone
Express card / flash card reader No / yes No / yes Yes / yes No / yes
Networking Gigabit Ethernet / 802.11n / modem Ethernet / 802.11n / Bluetooth Gigabit Ethernet / 802.11n Ethernet / 802.11n / modem
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium Windows 7 Home Premium Windows 7 Home Premium Windows 7 Home Premium
Warranty 1 year 1 year 1 year 1 year
Price (as tested) $630 $640 $700 $700
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