More for less: 4 budget laptops

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

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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.

Acer Aspire 5740
Acer Aspire 5740

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.

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.

Bottom line

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.

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