More for less: 4 budget laptops

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

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Conclusions

Budget laptops are about three things: price, price, price. But like economy cars, what a budget laptop leaves out is often more important than what's included. All of these four inexpensive laptops have surprising extras and leave some things on the table.

While I really like the Sony Vaio's slim and light case, the battery runtime of 2 hours and 11 minutes was just not enough to make it a mobile winner. In contrast, the Satellite L505 ran for an extra 13 minutes and came with excellent multimedia controls. It's a bit heavy, however. Both sell for $700 and are good deals.

The newest of the bunch, the $640 Inspiron 15R, has the coolest appearance and was second only to the Aspire 5740 on price. It was the only one of the four to come with Bluetooth, but -- like the Sony -- its battery life was relatively short. Plus, the three-prong plug could be very inconvenient.

That leaves the Acer Aspire 5740, which combines low weight with a great set of ports and a bright screen at $630 -- $10 less than the Inspiron 15R and $70 less than the Sony Vaio and the Satellite L505. It's not perfect -- for example, it doesn't include Bluetooth -- but it offers the fewest compromises and is a bargain to boot.

How we tested

To keep everybody honest, I first went online and verified that the systems I was looking at did indeed sell for $700 or less. All passed the test.

Each laptop was used over a three-week period for writing, preparing, editing and presenting slide shows, for nosing around the Web and for watching videos.

Every aspect was measured, weighed and examined. I used a mock-up of the typical airplane seat-back table tray to see if it fit. Each notebook accompanied me on a short business trip. While on the road, each notebook was connected to a Wi-Fi network and used for a presentation.

I ran PassMark's PerformanceTest 7.0 on each laptop. The application exercises every major component of the system, including processor, hard drive, 2-D/3-D graphics and memory, and it compiles the results into a single score that represents the machine's performance potential. I ran the test three times and averaged the results.

With the Wi-Fi on, Internet Explorer tuned to an Internet radio station and the audio set to three quarters of full volume, each system was run down as PassMark's BatteryMon application charted the battery's capacity and the time it shut down.

Using a Linksys WRT54GS Wireless-G BroadBand Router, I tuned the notebook to an Internet radio station and walked away from the router with the notebook in hand. I measured the spot farthest from the router where it still remained connected.

4 low-cost laptops -- performance ratings

Acer Aspire 5740 Dell Inspiron 15R Sony Vaio E Series Toshiba Satellite L505
PassMark PerformanceTest 7.0 905.2 938.2 905.2 906.8
Battery life (hours:minutes) 2:42 2:14 2:11 2:24
Wi-Fi range (feet) 110 120 95 110
Note: In all ratings, a higher number is better.

Brian Nadel is a freelance writer based near New York and is the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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