More for less: 4 budget laptops

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

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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.

Dell Inspiron 15R
Dell Inspiron 15R

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.

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.

Bottom line

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.

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