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Budget Laptop Roundup

Tom's Back To School Guide: Gear for Work

By Barry Gerber

All of these notebooks retail for under $800, except for the Apple MacBook Pro, and all are available as of this writing. Pricing in the portable computing market is volatile — most manufacturers release new models on a quarterly basis, often whether there are changes in hardware components or not. These particular models will be readily available at least through the middle to end of August. So, they are truly back-to-school laptops, and if you want one for that or any other purpose, I suggest you buy one ASAP.

If I could, I would have listed only laptops based on Intel’s new Centrino 2 technology. However, most of those won’t hit the market until the same middle-to-late August timeframe. Also, because the new technology will cost more early on, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to buy Centrino 2 laptops for the same price range with the features of the models I discuss here. Check out what the new Managing Editor of Tom’s Hardware, Chris Angelini, has to say about Centrino 2 .

While all of these laptops are fine for standard school use, they’re not super-powered gaming machines or heavy duty graphics workstations. If you want something like that, you’ll need to focus on higher-end, super-large, super-heavy notebooks from the likes of Dell, Alienware, Toshiba and the myriad smaller scale manufacturers and vendors out there.

Note that, at least for budget notebooks, vendors report battery information in different ways. Some list the number of cells in a battery, while others provide battery capacity numbers in milliamp hours (mAh). Though this is not a hard and fast rule, more cells or more capacity equal longer battery life for notebooks in the same hardware component class. Fortunately, the notebooks in this roundup are very similar in their hardware components; for example, each comes with a read/write optical CD/DVD drive.

So, let’s take a look at the six budget laptops I’m recommending for those going back to school this fall. I’ve included specific model numbers and links where available. There were no specific model numbers for the Dell or Apple models, but there are links for these. If you’re hitting this article after mid-August and a specific link doesn’t work any more, try going to the company’s home page and surfing for a similar model.

Dell Inspiron 1525 ($799)

From its Core 2 Duo T5750 2.00GHz CPU to 3 GB of shared memory and 9-cell battery, the Inspiron 1525 is chock full of respectable mobile hardware.

If you’re into color and style, the 1525 line offers a lot to like, whether it’s the basic black model or the black one shown here with cool white racing stripes. (The design is called "Street Pattern" and costs $25 extra.) Also available at the same $25 premium are nine other colors, including Alpine White, Ruby Red, Midnight Blue, Flamingo Pink and Sunshine Yellow. In addition to Street Pattern, there are two other patterned designs: Chill and Commotion.

Features: Dell Inspiron 1525
Component Model
CPU Core 2 Duo T5750 (2.00 GHz / 667 MHz FSB / 2 MB Cache)
Memory 3 GB Shared Dual Channel DDR2 at 667 MHz
Graphics Controller Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X3100
Display Widescreen 15.4" display (1280x800)
Hard Disk Drive 250 GB SATA Hard Drive (5400 RPM)
Wireless Networking up to 802.11g
Battery 6-Cell
Size (WxHxD) 14.05" x 1.00" front - 1.48" back x 10.08"
Weight 5.9 pounds
Operating System Windows Vista Home Premium SP1

Dell Inspiron 1525 Homepage

HP Compaq 6720s PC (KR915UT) ($799)

Though it’s far from super stylish, HP’s Compaq 6720s PC (KR915UT) comes ready for work. It has a little less CPU power and memory than the Dell Inspiron 1525, but it matches the 1525 in all other categories.

One difference, though, is that the HP comes with Vista Business, which has some features you won’t find in the other five laptops in this guide. Vista Business supports full disk image backup, while Vista Home Premium lets you backup files, but not a full image of your disks. Vista Business also features built-in remote desktop access and the ability to use your laptop to send and receive faxes and images. Vista Business doesn’t support “fun and games features” such as Media Center, so you won’t have as much fun with a Vista Business based laptop, but you’ll be happy with it if you plan to use your laptop mostly for serious work.

Of course, Microsoft’s Windows Vista Ultimate retails at only $20 more than Vista Business ($199 vs. $219) and it has everything but the kitchen sink, including all of the features of Home Premium and Business — plus a few of its own, like file encryption (BitLocker). So if Ultimate is available as an option for the notebook you want to buy, I suggest you go for it. I use it and love it on both my notebook and desktop.

Features: HP Compaq 6720s PC (KR915UT)
Component Model
CPU Intel Core 2 Duo Processor T5670 (1.80 GHz / 800 MHz FSB / 2 MB L2 cache)
Memory 2 GB Shared Dual Channel DDR2 at 667 MHz
Graphics Controller Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X3100
Display Widescreen 15.4" display (1280x800)
Hard Disk Drive 250 GB SATA Hard Drive (5400 RPM)
Wireless Networking up to 802.11g
Battery 6-Cell
Size (WxHxD) 14.10" x 1.27" x 10.50"
Weight 5.5 pounds
Operating System Windows Vista Business SP1; XP downgrade media included

HP Compaq 6720s PC Homepage

Toshiba Satellite L305-S5883 ($799)

The version of Dell’s Inspiron featured here and Toshiba’s Satellite L305-S5883 look like clones. If it weren’t for slight differences in size and weight, and possible battery life, I’d suspect they came from the same source.

I have used Toshiba laptops for years; the only thing that has ever given me trouble is the disk drives, and in that I am not alone. I don’t mean in having problems with Toshiba’s laptop drives in specific, but in having troubles in general with notebook drives. Until fairly recently, laptop disk drives were quite vulnerable, because they could be damaged easily if a laptop was dropped even a few inches.

Newer mechanisms that lock a drive’s heads over an area of the disk that contains no data have helped prevent some disasters, but problems still exist. The new solid state drives promise much better protection against dropping, but they’re still quite expensive and they just might drain more battery power than similarly-sized magnetic disks.

What to do? See my discussion of backup in the section on HP’s Compaq 6720s PC (KR915UT).

Features: Toshiba Satellite Pro L305-S5883
Component Model
CPU Core 2 Duo T5750 (2.00 GHz / 667 MHz FSB / 2 MB Cache)
Memory 3 GB Shared Dual Channel DDR2 at 667MHz
Graphics Controller Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X3100
Display Widescreen 15.4" display (1280x800)
Hard Disk Drive 250 GB SATA Hard Drive (5400 RPM)
Wireless Networking up to 802.11g
Battery 4000 mAh
Size (WxHxD) 14.2" x 1.30" front - 1.48" back x 10.08"
Weight 5.7 pounds
Operating System Windows Vista Home Premium SP1

Toshiba Satellite L305-S5883 Homepage

Apple MacBook ($1099)

The MacBook is the lowest cost product in the Apple laptop lineup, and the one we’re looking at here is the very lowest model in the MacBook line. If you haven’t been following Apple computers for a while — though I can’t imagine how you could have missed this — Apple has gone over to the devil and now uses Intel products in its Macs. The MacBook under the microscope here has both a solidly performing Intel Core 2 Duo T8100, and the same Intel X3100 Graphics Media Accelerator used in the other laptops included in this roundup.

However, compared to the other five notebooks presented here, the MacBook is both more expensive and includes lesser hardware in some areas. The CPU is fine and the laptop has some enviable multimedia capabilities such as a DVI output. However, it comes with only 1 GB of memory, the disk drive has a capacity of just 120 GB, and unlike the other five laptops, the MacBook’s display is two inches smaller. On the plus side, the laptop does include 802.11n wireless support, but the good stuff isn’t worth the premium price.

So, what’s up?

As I note at the end of this piece, much of the extra cost of Apple products must be going into providing the very best customer and technical support in the business. So, as usual, you pay your money and you make your choice.

Features: Apple MacBook
Component Model
CPU Core 2 Duo T8100 (2.10 GHz / 800 MHz FSB / 3 MB Cache)
Memory 1 GB Shared Dual Channel DDR2 at 667 MHz
Graphics Controller Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X3100
Display Widescreen 13.3" display (1280x800)
Hard Disk Drive 120 GB SATA Hard Drive (5400 RPM)
Wireless Networking up to 802.11n
Battery 5200 mAh
Size (WxHxD) 12.78" x 1.08" x 8.92"
Weight 5.2 pounds
Operating System Mac OS X Leopard 10.5.2 or greater

Apple MacBook Homepage

Sony VGN-NR460E/P and VGN-NR460E/L ($749)

These two Sony VGN models are almost exactly the same. The only difference is in the colors the two come in: Textured Nightfall Blue (VGN-NR460E/L) and Cherry Blossom Pink (VGN-NR460E/P). These two laptops clearly offer a set of one-for-the-boys and one-for-the-girls alternatives.

Although the Sony VGN-NR460E/P and VGN-NR460E/L models feature slightly less impressive CPU, memory and hard disk options than the Dell Inspiron and Toshiba laptops, there is still some basic value to be had here. However, the $50 lower price of the Sonys hardly makes up for the hardware differences.

To be fair, after knocking Apple, I should note that Sony charges a premium compared to most other computer manufacturers. Unlike with Apple, though, I find it difficult to understand what the company does with the premium: it’s not known for world class customer service.

Sony is offering back to school bonuses with some of its laptops, including the two VGN models featured here. Check the company’s website for details.

Features: Sony VGN-NR460E/P and VGN-NR460E/L
Component Model
CPU T2390 (1.86 GHz / 533 MHz FSB / 1 MB L2 Cache)
Memory 2 GB Shared Dual Channel DDR2 at 667 MHz
Graphics Controller Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X3100
Display Widescreen 15.4" display (1280x800)
Hard Disk Drive 200 GB SATA Hard Drive (5400 RPM)
Wireless Networking up to 802.11n
Battery 4800mAh
Size (WxHxD) 14.2" x 1.20" front - 1.50" back x 10.6"
Weight 6.3 pounds
Operating System Windows Vista Home Premium SP1

Sony Vaio VGN-NR460E/P Homepage Sony Vaio VGN-NR460E/P Homepage

Lenovo IdeaPad Y510 - 77582CU ($779)

The IdeaPad line includes Lenovo’s more consumer-oriented laptops. These contrast nicely with the still very successful ThinkPad line of business laptops inherited, at least in name, from IBM.

Like the Sony models, Lenovo’s Y510 - 77582CU comes in a bit less expensive than the Dell and Toshiba models, and with slight less heft on the hardware side. Again, the $20 difference between the Y510 - 77582CU and the Dell and Toshiba can’t be explained away by Lenovo’s use of lower performance hardware. Assuming efficient component purchasing, manufacturing and sales/distribution practices, the company is making more on the Y510 - 77582CU than either Dell or Toshiba are on their products. However, unlike Sony, according to a number of independent assessments of tech support offered by different research organizations, Lenovo has figured out how to use those extra bucks to provide technical support at a level of quality that makes it second in the industry behind Apple.

Features: Lenovo IdeaPad Y510 - 77582CU
Component Model
CPU Core 2 Duo T5550 (1.83 GHz / 667 MHz FSB / 2MB Cache)
Memory 2 GB Shared Dual Channel DDR2 at 667 MHz
Graphics Controller Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X3100
Display Widescreen 15.4" display (1280x800)
Hard Disk Drive 160 GB SATA Hard Drive (5400 RPM)
Wireless Networking 802.11g
Battery 6-Cell
Size (WxHxD) 14.10" x 1.14" front - 1.42" back x 10.30"
Weight 6.49 pounds
Operating System Windows Vista Home Premium SP1

Lenovo IdeaPad - Y510 Homepage

What To Buy

You’ve probably already noticed the similarity of these six laptops: even the Apple MacBook has a lot of the same hardware components as the other models. Except for the MacBook, all of the computers are also similarly priced. So what does the extra you pay for the MacBook buy you? Well, there might still be a bit of Apple snobbery appeal in the price, but one of the main benefits of Apple products is the company’s strong customer service reputation. No other company scores as high as Apple in this area in surveys by reliable, well respected consumer-oriented research organizations.

Does this mean that Apple always provides great service, or that other companies never do it right? No way. Right now, as an iPhone owner, I’m following a very interesting set of forum threads that are seriously questioning the ability of the new iTunes-iPhone OS 2.0 to handle synchronization between the iPhone and Microsoft’s Outlook email, calendar and contacts software — and Apple’s attitude about fixing the problem. And, I have to say that I’ve had very good service from the other manufacturers whose laptops I’ve covered here.

I recommend that you select your back to school laptop based on your own interests and needs. If performance is your main concern, go for the laptops with the fastest components. Here, your choice is pretty much limited to CPU speed, though the differences in CPU performance among the laptops presented here are going to be quite minimal anyway.

If you’re a serious, work-oriented player, go for the Vista Business operating system. If you want to play or mix work and play, Vista Home Premium or Ultimate are for you.

If you’re concerned about running out of disk space with all the new and exciting things you can store on your laptop these days, then go for the biggest hard disk. But remember that the more capacity you have, the more content you have to back up. So, think about getting an external drive and either using the notebook’s operating system itself to backup your notebook, or find some software and maybe even an online backup service to save all that good stuff to another place.

If you’re a design hound, then select from the variety of styles and colors available for at least some of the notebooks presented here. From the racing stripes and rainbow of colors available for the Inspiron 1525, to the hot pink and electric blue colors Sony has dreamed up for its Vaio models, there’s plenty for you to choose from.

Finally, don’t think you have to buy the configurations in this article. As you may have noticed if you surfed to some of the company site links above, they offer a lot of configuration options, both more and less expensive. Fiddle around a bit to see what might be best for you.

Whatever you do, buy that laptop now and avoid the late August and early September rush...

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