Donâ€™t tell the hordes swarming into the Apple Store every weekend, but the days of needing to spend over $1,000 to get a quality laptop passed by while most of them were still in high school. Even before netbooks came along sending manufacturers into a frenzy while chewing their own margins down to pennies just to compete, prices on Windows laptops were in a freefall, leaving todayâ€™s prices at rock bottom. With Windows 7 now standard, you wonâ€™t have to deal with Microsoftâ€™s last dud of an operating system this year either. Just about any notebook under $500 will serve your most basic needs, but some inevitably do it a whole lot better than others. Here are some of our favorites.
Note: All prices reflect what you can find these notebooks for on the street or online, not necessarily MSRP.
Dell Vostro V13,Â $449.00 and up.
If you thought this 0.65-inch-thick, aluminum-shelled beauty shared a bloodline with Dellâ€™s ultra-premium Adamo XPS, you would be right. If you thought it shared the price, you would be dead wrong. An ultra-low-voltage processor and a handful of other minor sacrifices (like only two USB ports) keep the 13.3-inch notebook from pulling ahead as the workhorse of this pack, but itâ€™s hard to beat the knife-like 3.5-pound body for traveling in style.
Asus Eee PC Seashell 1201N-PU17, $483.41
Not all netbooks are built alike. Asus sets its Eee PC 1201N apart with some of the brawniest silicon to be planted in such a tiny package: a dual-core Intel Atom processor and Nvidiaâ€™s Ion graphics processor. Together, they give the 12.1-inch netbook pep above and beyond even some full-size notebooks in this price range, including the ability to run many modern games on the 1366 x 768 display. The dynamo GPU also makes the 1201N adept at 1080p video playback, which it can even pump out to a flat-screen TV via a standard HDMI port.
Gateway NV5387u, $499.99
Don’t let the obtuse name deter you: This is one of the most powerful laptops in our round up. Gatewayâ€™s NV5387u offers AMDâ€™ Turion II Ultra Dual-Core M600 processor clocked at 2.4 GHz, not to mention 4GB of RAM, a 320GB hard drive, 15.6-inch display, and ATI Radeon HD 4200 graphics. The estimated battery life under three hours wonâ€™t make it much of a travel machine, but users who need the extra power will be amazed how much grunt they get for the dollar.
Lenovo X100e, $499.00 and up.
Lenovo treads the line between notebook and netbook with the X100e, one of the few computers in the respected ThinkPad line to fall below the $500 mark. While the 11.6-inch screen and weight under 3 pounds might qualify it as a netbook, an AMD Athlon Neo MV-40 processor, rock-solid build quality and trusty ThinkPad keyboard with built-in TrackPoint joystick elevate it to a machine worthy of wearing the ThinkPad badge. Users who need a little extra power can also upgrade to the dual-core Neo X2 for another $50.
Asus Eee PC Seashell 1005PE, $377.80
The Energizer Bunny of netbooks uses a capacious six-cell battery to deliver 14 hours of run time â€“ according to Asus, anyway. As with all notebook battery estimates, itâ€™s a bit of a pie-in-the-sky estimate, but even after accounting for the optimism of Asusâ€™ marketing department, you can expect honest all-day computing. And at only 2.8 pounds, you wonâ€™t throw out your back carrying it around all day, either. A 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor wonâ€™t get anything done in a hurry, but for surfing the Web, rearranging spreadsheets and writing papers, you wonâ€™t find yourself pining for anything more.
HP Pavilion dm1z Series, $449.99 and up.
HP’s dm1z stacks up similar to the Lenovo X100e with an 11.6-inch screen and choice of AMD Neo processors, but youâ€™ll get the faster Neo K125 CPU in the base price, a superior Radeon HD 4225 graphics chip that handles HD video, as well as more memory (2GB instead of 1GB) and hard drive space (320GB to 160GB). Specs donâ€™t tell the whole story, since we find Lenovoâ€™s build quality is hard to match, but the dm1z makes yet another excellent alternative for folks looking for a little more power than the average netbook supplies.
HP Mini 5102, $415
HP means business, quite literally, with this rare corporate-class entry in the netbook category. Although the guts look a lot like any other, HP has wrapped them in a sturdy magnesium chassis trimmed with aluminum, which looks, well, ready for the boardroom. It also gets the same drop protection as full-fledged business notebooks, an almost-full-size keyboard, and Corel Home Office preinstalled. (Yes, it’s the poor man’s Microsoft Office, but it will save you $150).
MSI X Slim X340-021US, $499.99
OK, it’s a blatant rip-off of Apple’s MacBook Air. But for a penny under $500, what’s not to like? The X340 features the same rounded clamshell edges, 13.3-inch screen, and even a 0.78-inch thick profile that’s only a hair away from the Air’s 0.76 inches. Of course, you get a 1.4GHz Intel Core 2 Solo chip instead of a 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo, integrated Intel graphics instead of a Nvidia GeForce 9400M, and a glossy plastic body instead of an anondized alumimum unibody one. But hey, what do you expect for a third the price?
Sony Vaio W Series, $449.99
Looking for a netbook with some style? Sonyâ€™s Vaio W Series delivers with classy pink, blue and white finishes, along with a swank Billabong edition you can pick up for an extra $50. As with most devices bearing the Sony name, youâ€™ll pay a little more for it than the generic equivalent, but a peppier 1.83GHz Intel Atom processor and large-capacity battery both come standard, negating some of the brand name price inflation.
Compaq Presario CQ62Z, $379.99
This spacious 15.6-inch machine offers the comfort of a notebook, with the price of a netbook. The AMD V Series CPU youâ€™ll find on the base model wonâ€™t get out of its own way in a hurry, so we recommend dropping $30 to step up to a significantly faster Athlon II dual-core processor. As on the HP dm1z, ATIâ€™s Radeon HD 4250 should make short work of HD video on the (admittedly low resolution) 1366 x 768 display, but wonâ€™t leave much headroom for gaming.