Do-It-All Laptops: An Open And Shut Case

8/11/2013 11:19:59 AM

Tablets are convenient and fun, but if you want to do anything more than the lightest tasks, you need a laptop.

Tablet PCs may be all the rage these days, but when you want to get down to some serious emailing do some proper work or enjoy the latest immersive games, you need a laptop. The good news is that it's possible to buy a seriously high-quality laptop for only slightly more than the price of a tablet.

We’ve looked at 10 budget- to mid-range laptops that cost between $396 and $867 including VAT. Each model comes with at least 4GB of RAM, which is plenty for running Windows 8, and is powerful enough to provide a fast, smooth desktop experience. Despite their low prices, the laptops on test all have impressive specifications, and some even include touchscreens and come with Intel’s Ultrabook branding, which guarantees a powerful PC in a lightweight chassis.

It’s what's inside that counts

Eight of the 10 laptops we‘ve looked at this month have Intel processors, ranging from a low-end Celeron B820 to the latest mobile Ivy Bridge Core i7 chip Most mid-range laptops use either Core i3 or Core i5 Ivy Bridge processors. But even the stripped-down Celeron processor proved much more capable in our tests than netbook-style processors such as Intel’s Atom and AMD’s E-series.

Dell Inspiron

Dell Inspiron

We also saw a couple of quad-core AMD A8 Trinity processors, which achieve similar scores to a low-power Intel Core i3 in our multimedia application benchmarks but have much more powerful on-chip graphics. Some of the laptops have 6GB or even 8GB of RAM. Although this won't make much difference when running normal Windows applications, it will help when running several memory-intensive programs at once and can make a big difference during intensive tasks such as image editing.

Intel Core i3

Intel Core i3

“Despite their low prices, the laptops on test have impressive specifications, and some even come with touchscreens and have Intel’s Ultrabook branding”

All the laptops we’ve tested have at least a 500GB hard disk, which provides room for thousands of image and music files, and some have up to 1TB of storage. You’ll rarely run out of space on a modern laptop. Not all have built-in optical drives, though, so if you prefer to watch DVDs than stream movies from the internet or you like to archive to CD, make sure you choose a laptop with a DVD writer.

Game on

Most of the laptops we’ve looked at this month use their processor's integrated graphics chipset. This shares memory with the operating system, leaving less for your programs. Few integrated graphics chipsets are powerful enough to run modern 3D games unless you lower the resolutions and quality settings, but they should cope with older titles and can handle HD video with ease. Integrated graphics are also fine for casual games from the Microsoft Store, which is built into Windows 8.

3D Game on Laptop

3D Game on Laptop

Dedicated graphics chipsets have their own memory and are faster than integrated graphics when it comes to gaming, but they vary widely in power, so having a dedicated graphics chipset is no guarantee that a laptop will be able to play the latest games. We test laptop graphics by running a timed benchmark in Dirt Showdown at high quality, 4x anti-aliasing and a 1,280x‘720 resolution. If a laptop can run the test at 30fps or more, it should be able to provide smooth gameplay in modern titles at high detail levels. Laptops with dedicated graphics don't necessarily suffer from poor battery life, either. Many laptops switch to using the laptop’s integrated graphics when the extra power of a dedicated chipset isn’t needed, so using less power.

Screen scene

You can’t upgrade a laptop’s screen, so it's vital that you choose one with a decent display. We mention the quality of the screen in each review. Most laptops with 15in screens or smaller have resolutions of 1,366x768, which is fine for web browsing and 720p video, but 1,600x1,200 and even 1,920x1,080 screens are starting to appeal; too. Larger resolutions are useful for multitasking as you can work on two documents side by side, and 1080p displays are perfect for watching full HD video, but you won't generally find one on a laptop for less than $913.

Asus Taichi

Asus Taichi

Many laptop screens have a glossy finish, which can produce more vibrant colors and deeper contrast but can also cause reflections. If you work in a room with bright overhead lights, the glare can make it tricky to see what's on the screen. Business-oriented laptops often have glare-reducing matt screens, but the trade-off is a less punchy display that doesn't show off games and films at their best.

Windows 8 has more touchscreen-friendly features than any previous version of the operating system, so we were pleased to see a couple of touchscreen-equipped laptops in the test. The Windows 8 Start Screen and many of the associated apps have been optimized for touch control, but the operating system is very easy to use with a keyboard and touchpad. A touchscreen will inevitably pick up fingerprints, so it's worth having a cleaning kit to hand.

Weighty matters

A laptops size, weight and battery life are less important if you plan to keep it on your desk all the time, but if you want to carry it around and use it while travelling you’ll need to consider how long its battery lasts.

Judging the longevity of a laptops battery is always difficult, as it depends on the applications you use. Relatively undemanding programs such as web browsers, email clients and word processors use far less battery power, for example, than games and video playback. The batteries in most modem 15in laptops last for at least five hours in our light-usage test, which simulates web browsing but lighter laptops that are designed to be carried around should last longer, and a typical ultraportable should work for at least six hours on a full charge.

Laptop Asus U46

Laptop Asus U46

Screen size is a good indicator of how heavy a laptop will be. Ultra-portables tend to have 13in screens or smaller and weigh between 1kg and 1.6kg, but they often sacrifice power and features such as an internal optical drive Larger 15in models often weigh between 2kg and 3kg, while models with 17in screens or larger can weigh over 3kg.

A light touch

No matter how powerful a laptop is, it will be unpleasant to use if its keyboard or touchpad are badly designed. The best keyboards have well-spaced keys for easy typing. So-called ‘Chiclet-style’ keyboards have flat keys with rounded comers and space all round them. Smaller laptops often have keyboards that deviate from the standard layout or include half-size keys that can be fiddly to use. Some 15in laptops and most 17in models also have separate numeric keypads. Our reviews describe what each keyboard is like to use.

Few people use a mouse with their laptop, so it's important to have a good touchpad. We state whether a touchpad is responsive and accurate Most new touchpads support multi-touch gestures, which are useful for zooming in or accessing shortcuts to bring up Windows 8 features such as the Charms bar.

Emergency rescue

Warranties vary greatly. The minimum warranty you can expect lasts for a year and offers return-to-base service so you’ll have to pay for any shipping costs incurred when sending the laptop back to the manufacturer for repair. Some warranties are longer or offer a collect-and-return service, where the manufacturer covers shipping costs. Onsite warranties are rare for consumer laptops but are more common for business models. With an onsite warranty, the manufacturer repairs the laptop on your premises or swaps the faulty unit for a replacement.

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