Cheap business laptops: 3 for under $850

We test 3 low-cost laptops to find out whether they can stand up to typical business tasks.

The stock market's a mess, your company's balance sheet looks like a sea of red ink and your budget for outfitting 50 employees with new notebooks has been slashed to the bone. What's a poor buyer to do?

You could try those new under-$400 ultrasmall notebooks, but that's not really the answer. In most cases, bargain-basement notebooks are meant to be adjuncts to another computer and don't offer enough speed, storage or substance to make it in the rough-and-tumble world of business.

The simple truth of the matter is that the notebooks that businesspeople carry with them need to be a cut above the rest. They need to be comfortable enough to use in a variety of places, have the power to churn through corporate databases, be effective Web surfboards and -- above all else -- be reliable and ready for work every day.

But while you may not be able to find a full-power notebook for $400, you can get a solid working system at a relatively low price. To test this idea, I put together a group of three business notebooks that cost $850 or less.

The systems were the $782 Dell Vostro 1510, the $800 Toshiba Satellite Pro L300D EZ-1003X and the $829 HP Compaq 6735b. All had 15.4-in. screens, midrange Intel or AMD processors and wireless networking capability. They all weighed between 5 lbs. and 6 lbs. and offered a reasonable amount of memory and hard drive space.

What was left out? Some cut corners on graphics, and some weren't yet up to the latest 802.11n standard in Wi-Fi networking. None had Bluetooth, and only the Compaq 6735b came with a fingerprint scanner, which some businesses prefer as security tools. Each came with a one-year warranty -- with these lower-cost notebooks, the gold-standard three-year warranty is not standard.

To separate the wheat from the chaff, I next did what millions of employees do every day. With notebook in hand, I downloaded e-mail, did research on the Web and wrote and ran the numbers with spreadsheets. I even watched a few YouTube videos and listened to some Internet radio.

In this time of tight cash, one of these contenders could be your next, best business notebook. Let the battle begin, and may the best notebook win.

Features/specs

Dell Vostro 1510

HP Compaq

6735b
Toshiba Satellite Pro L300D
Dimensions (inches) 1.1 x 14.0 x 10.1 1.3 x 14.0 x 10.5 1.5 x 14.3 x 10.5
Weight/travel weight (lbs.) 5.7/6.6 6.1/7.0 S5.7/6.8
Screen size (inches)/resolution 15.4/1280 x 800 15.4/1280 x 800 15.4/1280 x 800
Video processor/Max. memory Intel X3100/ 348MB ATI Radeon HD3200/ 1.5GB ATI Radeon X1250/ 700MB
Processor/speed Intel Core 2 Duo/2.0 GHz

AMD Turion X2/

2.0 GHz

AMD Turion X2/

2.1 GHz
RAM 2GB 2GB 2GB
Hard drive capacity/speed (rpm) 160GB/5400 120GB/5400 120GB/5400
Ports 4 USB, external monitor, headphone, mic 4 USB, headphone, mic, serial, external monitor, S-Video Out, FireWire 3 USB, external monitor, mic, headphone, modem

PC Card/

Flash card
Express Card Express Card, Secure Digital, Memory Stick, Smart Media, xD Express/Secure Digital, Memory Stick
Optical drive DVD+-RW DVD+-RW w/Light Scribe DVD Super Multi
Wireless G802.11b/g 802.11a/b/g/n 802.11b/g
Fingerprint scanner/webcam No/Yes Yes/No No/Yes
Battery capacity (milliamp hour) 5,000 4,400 4,000
Operating system Vista Business Vista Business Windows XP Pro
Price for 3-year warranty $80 $169 $149
Price (as tested) $782 $829 $800
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