More for less: 4 budget laptops

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

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Sony Vaio E Series

Not known for its budget systems, Sony's specialty is sleek machines with an emphasis on multimedia. The Vaio E squeezes a lot of laptop into a small, thin system.

Housed in a silver case, the Vaio E that I looked at has a cool white interior with a sparkling finish. If that's not your thing, Sony sells the system in black, blue, gray, pink and green.

Sony Vaio E Series
Sony Vaio E Series

Easily the smallest of the four reviewed here, the system measures 1.3 by 14.4 by 9.7 in. but at 5.8 lbs. equals the weight of the larger Aspire 5740 and Inspiron 15R. With its AC adapter, it weighs 6.3 lbs. -- 4 oz. lighter than the Satellite L505.

Like the Satellite L505 and Inspiron 15R, the Vaio E gets by without a lid latch; its 19.2mm raised keys were comfortable to type on. The system's textured touchpad lets you use two-finger moves, like squeezing two fingers together to zoom out of an image.

Sony offers $20 flexible plastic keyboard covers for the system in green, violet, black, pink or blue for those who want a little extra color or are paranoid about spilling coffee on their notebook.

While it lacks the dedicated multimedia controls of the Satellite L505, the Sony system has three instant dedicated buttons. One accesses Sony's Vaio Care maintenance software, while the second brings up Sony's Media Gallery software. The third does double duty: When the system is turned on, the button opens your default Web browser. But when you're in a hurry and the system is turned off, it opens a Linux-based Splashtop Web browser in about 20 seconds without starting up Windows. Unfortunately, you can't reassign any of the three buttons.

At 15.5-in., the Vaio E's display is slightly smaller than the others, although you'll be hard-pressed to notice the difference. It uses the same Intel-made Graphics Media Accelerator HD as the others to display 1,366-by-768 resolution. I found it to be not quite as bright as the Aspire 5740's display; I also noticed a blue cast.

With four USB ports, one of which can be used as an e-SATA connection to a hard drive, the Vaio E also has jacks for HDMI, an external monitor, a headphone and a microphone. It also offers an ExpressCard slot and a pair of flash card readers.

Communications are a mixed bag -- the system comes with a Gigabit Ethernet port and 802.11n Wi-Fi wireless but lacks Bluetooth or a modem. In testing, its wireless range was a disappointing 95 feet, a full 25 feet short of the Inspiron 15R's range.

Like the Satellite L505 and Aspire 5740, the model I tested came equipped with a 2.13-GHz Intel Core i3 330M processor, 4GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive. The slightly faster 2.26-GHz version of the chip is available starting at $720. The Vaio E comes with a webcam and a Super Multi DVD burner.

Its performance profile was on par with the other 2.13-GHz Core i3 laptops, with a score of 905.2 on PassMark's PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark. Powered by a 3,500mAh battery, the smallest of the four, it's no surprise that the Vaio E ran for just 2 hours 11 minutes. Sony's 5,000mAh high-capacity battery should translate into about 3.5 hours of runtime but is an expensive option at $200.

On top of Windows 7 Home Premium, the Vaio E includes a one-month subscription to Norton Internet Security as well as Sony's Creativity Suite, which includes a slew of image and video software.

The laptop comes with a standard one-year warranty; extending it to three years costs $180. This is slightly more than double what the others charge, but it includes on-site service.

Bottom Line

The $700 Sony Vaio E Series delivers a lot of laptop in a thin package but falls short on battery life.

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