Laptop For All Budgets (Part 1)

9/10/2012 6:54:06 PM

The laptop market is more confusing than ever. Let James help you make sense of it before school starts

The laptop market has become increasingly fractured over the last couple of years. Between netbooks, notebooks and ultrabooks, picking the right system is now more difficult and confusing than at any other time. Laptops have enjoyed years of popularity as the favoured choice of the casual computer user, but their position is looking increasingly endangered by the surge in tablet usage and the general trend away from high-powered computing.

Description: Laptop For All Budgets

Laptop For All Budgets

Of course, none of that means shops are any less eager to relieve students and parents of their cash. As summer speeds towards autumn, you're bound to see more and more deals on laptops, from shops hoping to unload their stock on the eager and naive buyers attempting to prepare for the new academic year.

Luckily we're on hand to help you negotiate the laptop minefield and tell you what class of device you need, why you might need it, and what, in practical terms, the difference is between a cheap, low-end notebook and an expensive, high-end ultrabook. To make it clear, we've hand-picked a selection of laptops and arranged them by category and budget. If you can't find what you're looking for here, then let's face it - it probably doesn't exist.

Why Buy A Laptop?

Laptops are probably now the first port of call for anyone thinking of buying a PC. After all, they're space-efficient, easily portable, simple to set up and there are thousands of available configurations to suit every need. There's nowhere near as much messing around as with a desktop PC - you only have to plug in a power cable to charge it up, switch it on and you're practically ready to go. It could scarcely be simpler.

There are other benefits too. Their appearance, for one, utterly shames the hulking plastic behemoths that call themselves desktop PCs - but the immediate benefit of laptops is their portability and compactness. Where a desktop will require a dedicated space for it to be set up and used, laptops will fit neatly out of sight until they're wanted. Rather than huddling your entire family or workgroup around one screen, you can simply pass it from person-to-person if the need for communal use arises.

Description: Why Buy A Laptop?

Why Buy A Laptop?

Indeed, the increasing availability of public wi-fi access means that a laptop can be used to access the Internet from basically anywhere - if you feel like doing your work in a library, a cafe or even your grandparent's house out in the sticks, chances are you'll be able to set your PC up, connect it to the Internet and work as if you were at home. That's something desktops can't compete with, and tablets - while portable - aren't exactly best-adapted to typing long passages of text one.

There is one area where they can't ever compete with desktops, though, and that's on value for money. Laptops tend to be a couple of hundred pounds more expensive than a desktop PC of equivalent power, and they won't come with as much in the way of extra software or peripherals. In an effort to flog desktops, big chains practically throw printers and webcams at you, but there's rarely such luck with laptops. Unfortunately, if you're doing schoolwork, a printer is a virtual necessity and the purchase of one should certainly be factored into the price as well.

Another problem is that students are disproportionately vulnerable to crime. Ask yourself: how enthusiastic are you about carrying around the best part of a grand's worth of easily-pinched computer equipment in your bag? Are you opening yourself to the loss of your desperately-needed money - and worse, irreplaceable university work? It's a sad fact that you have to consider the effects crime might have when buying a computer, but it's nothing short of unrealistic not to do so.

Likewise, parents of homework-stricken children will have to ask themselves - is it best if the computer they're using has a permanent 'work1 space set up, or if they have to use the laptop in the living room where there are many potential distractions? It's important to remember that there are more issues at work when you're looking to buy an educational PC than simply how powerful it is and whether it runs Word and Excel or not. The environment a computer gets used in is almost as important as its capabilities.

Still, if you're convinced you to buy a laptop. You've now got to pick the category of device you're interested in. We've split them up to make it easier for you to choose, so read on and you'll soon know what class of device is appropriate to you.

Budget Device: Netbooks

For one short, shining moment in computer history, people were calling netbooks the future of computing. And then tablets arrived and sucked the market from under them. To be fair, there's still a place for netbooks, and especially for students. A device that can browse the Internet, fit in your rucksack and has a proper keyboard is of particular use to a section of society who might have to write long e-mails or essays on their portable PC, rather than casually scroll Twitter or jab at webpages. And let's not forget, they're still much cheaper than tablets!

Asus Eee PC X101CH - $318.4

Description: Description: Asus Eee PC X101CH

The Asus Eee PC is one of the more recent additions to the brand that first kicked off the netbook boom, and one of the few names still plugging away as manufacturers abandon the form in favour of tablets.

At $320 RRP, it remains one of the cheapest netbooks you can buy new, and even in spite of this, its specs are competitive for the field: A 10.1 -inch 1024 x 600 screen, Intel Atom N2600 1,6GHz CPU, 1 GB RAM and a 320 GB hard drive. Connectivity features include wi-fi, Bluetooth 3.0, USB 2.0, a network connection and VGA & HDMI video-out.

Like virtually all current netbooks, it runs Windows 7 Starter Edition, but not very well. The CPU at its heart struggles to keep up. HDMI-out is a nice idea in theory, but in practice it struggles to perform at resolutions any higher than its paltry native one. If its capabilities are unimpressive, at least it's thin and light, and nice to look at. Meanwhile, the fanless, effectively noise-free design is a gift to the ears.

The keyboard and touchpad are sound, and the screen is rather good, with a strong backlight and a matte finish that keeps it a glare- and reflection-free. However, the resolution is unreasonably low, inadequate for performing even the most basic tasks without being forced to scroll around. HD video is now decoded in hardware, so at least it can manage that without slowing down, but its screen isn't actually HD, and when connected to a higher resolution display the video often does stutter, so it's a lose-lose situation.

The battery life is also very poor even for a netbook. Five hours is about the average, and that's clearly poorer than it could be. A typical smartphone does just as much and stays alive for longer. Even the fast-boot 'instant on' feature - which should really be called 'almost instant-on' due to the couple of seconds of waiting time - isn't enough to save this from mediocrity.

Acer Aspire D270 - $367.98

Description: Description: Acer Aspire D270

The D270 is one of Acer's latest netbooks, and that's reflected in the price, which is about as expensive as you'd want to pay for a device like a netbook. An updated Aspire One, the D270 newly features an Intel Atom N2600 1,6GHz processor, Intel GMA 3600 graphics, and a 10.1 -inch 1024 x 600 screen. You also get 1 GB of RAM and a reasonable 320GB hard drive. Although the lack of USB 3.0 support is a little eyebrow-raising, it's not going to put you off in the long run, and Bluetooth 4.0 support is, in some ways, a decent alternative.

Extras include an HDMI-out port, a VGA port, a LAN port, wi-fi and a memory card reader. The battery is better than most (it lasts for around seven hours of normal use) but still low, as you'd expect for a netbook. At least the keyboard and touchpad are comfortable and responsive.

The screen has been improved from older Aspire models and now has an AR coating making it more suitable for outdoor use. There's also a webcam integrated into the top of the device. Viewing angles aren't spectacular, but that's a property of all netbooks, so we wouldn't worry too much.

In practical terms, it's quite slow when multi-tasking and you shouldn't expect to play games at all, not least because the graphics compatibility is shot - Intel threw in the towel on on DX10.1 support and you can only play DX9 games, assuming you can even make them run at a playable speed. HD video, at least, runs fairly well on both the screen and output to a larger display.

Ultimately, it's a solid performer for a netbook, but its similarity to the current Eee PC suggests that they're both at the limits of the form's capabilities. If you're okay paying £30 for a better battery and Bluetooth 4.0, get this one. If not, get an Eee PC.

Dell Latitude 2120 - $612.8

Description: Description: Dell Latitude 2120

Described by Dell as "the ideal netbook for business", what you really get is something closer to an under-sized notebook than a netbook. The price reflects this, costing $612.8 at a minimum, and even more if you pack it full of the best components.

At its cheapest, the Dell Latitude 2120 has a single-core Intel Atom N455 processor, 1GB of RAM, and a 250GB hard drive. And it runs Windows 7 Home Premium. The display is a standard 10.1-inch 1024 x 600 screen, but you can pay extra (a lot extra) and get a 1366 x 768 version. The problem is that by that point, you're competing with full-size notebooks.

At least the keyboard is great, the HD webcam is fantastic, and the touchpad is decent enough too. Connectivity comes in the form of wi-fi, Gigabit Ethernet, USB 2.0 ports and a VGA out. The lack of HDMI is a pity, but then it struggles to run HD video as it is, lacking the hardware decoding of newer netbooks. The rubberised exterior gives the PC a vaguely 'rugged' feel, but it's not a protective case so much as a non-slip one. The real surprise is the battery - a monolithic beast which doubles as a stand. Bizarrely, despite its size, it manages only six to seven hours of operating time on a single charge, probably because the computer has a lot of components that are a bit more powerful than a netbook normally asks for.

Ultimately, this is a device which combines all of a netbook's flaws with none of its advantages. It's quite powerful, which is a good thing, but it's also expensive, which negates that. In the end, it's just hard to imagine what Dell was really thinking when it put this together. It's a prime example of what not to look for in a netbook. A laptop would be a better bet.

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