Welcome Holiday Shoppers! We Have a Laptop Special on Aisle Six!

I’ll be frank: I don’t like Black Friday or Cyber Monday. We’re all going to spend way more money than we probably should during the holiday season, and I don’t like to support the crowds and general craziness any more than I have to. So, now that the two biggest shopping days are behind us, we can settle in for more reasonable prices and recommendations. There will definitely be more sales, but what we’re going to look at are the products that we’d recommend even at the regular prices; if you can find these on sale, then by all means consider the recommendations even stronger.

Today’s buyer’s guide will focus on the mobile sector, but let’s not get carried away. Specifically, I’m going to be looking at netbooks, laptops, notebooks, ultrabooks, Chromebooks, etc. What I won’t be covering are other mobile devices like tablets, smartphones, and eReaders; I’ll save those for another guide by someone that knows those markets better than I do. So with that out of the way, let’s talk categories and specific recommendations.

As with our other guides, we like to stick with what we know where possible. That means we’re more likely to recommend something we’ve actually reviewed rather than a laptop we’ve only read about. However, there are products that we’ve had a chance to personally handle even if we can’t give a full review, so we’ll look at anything and everything related to laptops. We’ll break things up into a variety of categories, starting with netbooks and inexpensive ultraportables (i.e. anything less than 13.3” and under $600); we’ll also cover the emerging ultrabook market, but understandably even the cheapest ultrabooks tend to cost quite a bit more than the Atom and Brazos netbooks/ultraportables. Then we’ll start to break into broader categories focused on pricing, with budget, midrange, and high-end laptops and notebooks. We’ll discuss gaming potential, battery life, and other features that you’ll want to look for when shopping for a laptop.

Throughout the guide we’ll have specific recommendations, some alternative offerings, as well as general guidelines for what sort of components and features you should expect at various price points. One area that we tend to focus on far more than manufacturers is display quality; an otherwise good laptop with a mediocre display can feel like a letdown, and conversely an average laptop with a great display might be enough to garner our recommendation. Keyboard and build quality are two more elements that are important, though keyboard quality is often highly subjective. I know there are keyboards I’ve used and despised that others are fine typing on, so consider your own input in this area above what we might say. And with that out of the way, let’s start with the netbooks and other inexpensive offerings.

Going Cheap: Netbooks and Chromebooks
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  • JarredWalton - Saturday, December 03, 2011 - link

    ...You wanted to talk about the keyboard experience, so let's do that.

    You're correct: the key depth is very shallow, but how much that matters is largely up to personal taste. It's the placement of the keys as much as the shape that helps me with typing, and I can definitely type on the UX31E. It won't win any awards for the keyboard, but to utterly dismiss it just because the key travel is shallow (which seems to be part of what we'll see on ultrabooks in general)? Nope, I don't buy that argument at all.

    I'd suggest getting keyboard backlighting in place would be higher on my list of priorities than key travel, and I'd really like ASUS to move the power key out of the current location (which is where the Delete key belongs--I had to sset Windows to ignore pressing the power button after the third time I inadvertently "typed" Power Off).

    Anyway, the keyboard isn't a ThinkPad or a Dell Latitude, but it's also not an Acer. I'd rate the layout as decent (outside of the power key) but the feel of the keys as below average. And I would much rather be typing on my Microsoft Natural Keyboard. Still, if I were in the market for an ultrabook (I'm not), out of the three or four 13.3" models currently available I'd go for the ASUS, mostly because 1600x900 with a so-so keyboard beats 1366x768 with a slightly better keyboard. I just don't think anyone is going to give me an excellent keyboard in an ultrabook.

    And yes, this whole comment was written on the UX31E and I'm not feeling any worse about the experience than I did before starting. Fact is, I've got the Acer S3 sitting right next to me as I type this and having just typing a few quick sentences on it I can say that key travel isn't much better there. I think ultrabooks are going to be about compromise, and one of those compromises is in the keyboard travel. When you set the maximum thickness of the laptop at 0.8", you won't get the quarter inch of travel found in a desktop keyboard.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, December 03, 2011 - link

    PS: Just for you I've added a note about the keyboard on the UX31E in the article, suggesting potential customers try one out in person if that's an area that matters to them. Reply
  • Penti - Friday, December 02, 2011 - link

    You miss a whole category I bought a Arrandale (before SNB) CULV 11.6" (1366x768) laptop some while ago for basically as cheap as you get, for the same price as Atom netbooks which comes with decent battery, W7HP instead of W7 Starter and so on. With basically better battery life (got the slightly larger battery, cheapest model don't have them regardless if it's netbook or cheap ultraportable), cpu, software support and it feels like a real computer. Netbooks have no place when you get better hardware for the same price and power envelope. It's nothing to recommend.

    I'm not terribly sure what you got in that market now in the states, but I would prefer cheaper Intel chips here they are simply much higher end then Brazos or Atom. But you can get something like Toshiba L735-S3350 with Pentium B950, 4GB, 500GB 13.3-inch 1366x768 for 500 USD, Acer TimelineX AS3830T-6870 with Core i5 2430M 2.4GHz, 4GB, 500GB 13.3-inch 1366x768 for 600 USD. HP Pavilion dm1-4050us Core i3 2367M 1.4GHz, 4GB, 500GB 11.6-inch 1366x768 incl external dvd-drive for 570-600 USD. Or more in those lines, it doesn't have to be netbooks or 1000 - 1200 dollar ultrabooks. Certainly worth it for the extra 90 bucks to get a dm1-4050us over a dm1z Brazos netbook. Sure might be $140 with the MIR, but still worth it over the Brazos. I take a hundred dollar over a Atom or Brazos laptop any day. Still cheap or small enough and enough power to contend with 13-15" cheap models too. When we are talking non-properly speced out Atom netbooks for 200-300 they only has 3-cell batteries and virtually no battery life and other drawbacks such as Windows 7 Starter, low amount of memory and low res display, no webcams, bluetooth and so on. Like no hardware accelerated video (and thus Flash player video) on Atom's GMA3150 without Broadcom accelerator card, and I'm not sure you can even get that anymore from HP or others. That's not a problem with the Brazos. But I would still go Intel over Brazos here, they are simply not very powerful and kinda the wrong niche when compared to cheaper Intel Sandybridge stuff. There's more choices any way which was my point.
    Reply
  • Penti - Friday, December 02, 2011 - link

    I wouldn't call a Llano which has worthless graphics in all fairness no faster then integrated HD 3000 Graphics a choice when it comes to gaming and I would even be critical and pushing it to call GT540M a choice for low-end gaming.

    That IPS displays don't end up in 11-16" laptops is basically because they aren't manufactured or are manufactured in low volume or are expensive, or power hungry. HP's dreamcolor 15" IPS display is still specced at 15 Watts. In tablets they usually use AFFS+ displays for outdoor viewability which you simply don't get with IPS displays in that way. Even though some Tablet PC's do use IPS displays in the 12-13" range. However does displays probably end up costing quiet a lot.

    For gaming I would probably say something like GTX550M or HD6750M is minimum. You can probably find some Llano with HD 6755G2/HD6750M for 500 refurbish and 700 ordinarily if you like budget. If you really like an AMD option. But again for 700 you have Intel options as well. 650-700 is probably where you find yourself under those 1000 dollar machines.
    Reply
  • seapeople - Saturday, December 03, 2011 - link

    Since the GT550m can play Starcraft 2 at 1080p in high just fine, I don't think the ~20% or so drop off to the GT540m disqualifies it for "low-end gaming". Reply
  • Penti - Saturday, December 03, 2011 - link

    You would need GT550M for 1366x768 gaming basically for other games, but of course Llano without discrete GPU is disqualified. You wouldn't even get SC2 on 1366x768 medium on that. You need a discrete graphics card if you like to play SC2 at reasonable level. GT540M is just pushing on the limit to be disqualified, which is why I didn't outright say it's useless. For example a game like Metro 2033 would be too heavy for GT540M at 1366x768 and does not meet the _minimum_ requirements of many games at all. Anandtech here concluded for that matter that GT555M is not or just barely enough to drive 1600x900 in Alienware M14x in most games. Reply
  • Roland00Address - Monday, December 05, 2011 - link

    For console ports Llano is fine for cheap laptops, since cheap laptops usually have 1366x768 resolution.

    PC focused games on the other hand is a different matter, high settings is another matter since what most people consider "medium settings" is what a xbox 360 is really running.
    Reply
  • Malih - Friday, December 02, 2011 - link

    tired of waiting for good ultrabooks with decent speed, good heat dissipation and good display,
    finally I put an end to all the wait and decided to get a MacBook Pro 13 (Late 2011),

    I'm using it (mostly) on Windows, as I bought the Windows version of my work/development tools, it would be too costly, highly inefficient to buy the mac version too.
    Reply
  • Vxheous - Friday, December 02, 2011 - link

    I bought a G74SX-xc1 for $1350 Cdn, which other than 8 GB of RAM instead of 12GB, or having an SSD, was comparable in spec to some of the pricier G74 models. the XC1 is probably your best bang for buck in the midrange Reply
  • frozentundra123456 - Friday, December 02, 2011 - link

    Great article.

    One note however. I went to the Sears site, and several reviewers stated that that particular laptop has a somewhat gimped GT 560 M with a slower memory bus. I think the same thing happened a while back at Best Buy. They had a really good price on an asus gaming laptop, but the video card had a slower memory bus than the normal cards.

    It wouldnt be a deal breaker for me, and that price is outstanding. But it is just something to be aware of regarding that notebook. Like I said, I would also be wary buying at Best Buy because they tend to do the same thing.
    Reply

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