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Last week we launched a new sort of buyer’s guide for AnandTech with our Best Budget Ultrabook recommendation. We’ll be fleshing out the “best XYZ” recommendations for other components and categories over the coming months, but for now my focus is on the notebook sector, and the plan is to have a new recommendation for laptops every Friday. Last week was a budget Ultrabook, and this week is the true budget category for all laptops. Let me know what you’d like me to cover next, keeping in mind that there are probably five or six categories of laptop that I’ll rotate through on a regular basis.

With that out of the way, let’s talk briefly about the budget laptop sector. Laptops comprise everything from Chromebooks to ultraportables/thin and lights, and on up to beefy gaming systems. You won’t find us recommending a Chromebook as a gaming laptop for what should be obvious reasons, but otherwise it’s basically wide open. For the budget category, I’m going to try to keep recommendations under $500, with some leeway to go as high as $600 if there’s a really special offering. That gives me plenty of choices, and while I’ll try to avoid short-term sales, it’s difficult to gauge availability if interest suddenly spikes thanks to an article. To that end (and thanks to reader feedback), while there will be a primary recommendation, I’m going to throw in a few alternatives as well—no more of that "one size fits all" funny stuff!

Haswell and Richland laptops are still hiding just over the horizon, but I’m pretty confident that at least for the next couple months we won’t see either new processor challenge the budget category we’re looking at today. Besides, Trinity and Ivy Bridge laptops are still able to handle just about anything you might want to run—for that matter, even Sandy Bridge and Llano can be sufficient. In short, I’m not too worried about performance compromises even when looking at sub-$500 laptops.

Where you will have to make some sacrifices are in areas like display quality (seriously: are there any budget laptops with good displays out there?), build quality, and perhaps battery life and features. Size is another area where you’ll likely end up with a ubiquitous 15.6” LCD, or alternatively an 11.6” or 10.1” netbook. After surveying the options—I focused mostly on Amazon.com, Newegg.com, and a few other major retailers—I ended up finding quite a few laptops that end up being similar in both features and performance, not to mention price. All things being equal, I’d rather have Ivy Bridge than Sandy Bridge, or Trinity than Llano. You can find the older parts for as little as $325-$375 in some cases, but the best option I can find right now comes from ASUS.

Best Budget Notebook: ASUS A55A, $430 (i3-3110M)

The A55A-AH31 is available in black, blue, red, pink, or white, all with the same core features and specs and mostly with the same price of $430—the pink model currently goes for $506 while the white offering costs $510. The specs are reasonable as well: Ivy Bridge Core i3-3110M (2.4GHz, no Turbo, HD 4000 iGPU), 4GB RAM, and a 750GB hard drive. You also get two USB 3.0 ports (one USB 2.0) and—wait for it!—a “glorious” 1366x768 display (like I said, you have to compromise somewhere). The laptop is also a bit chunky at 5.8 pounds, but battery life is at least okay at 4-5 hours of moderate use. However you slice it, I find $430 to be an excellent price for a good laptop, and you still get a reasonable keyboard layout and build quality.

Best Budget Gaming Notebook: Toshiba L850D, $500 (A10-4600M)

If you want something that can handle moderate gaming as well, you have two options: get an Intel system with a discrete GPU from NVIDIA, or buy something with an AMD Trinity APU. My alternate choice is going to take the Trinity route, and it looks like the best way to get Trinity A10 (because A8 and especially A6 tend to be too slow to really do gaming justice) is to go straight to either Toshiba or HP. Of the two, I’m going to give the edge to Toshiba, based on pricing.

Sadly, where Toshiba previously had the Satellite L840D, L850D, and L870D (14”, 15.6”, and 17.3”, respectively), it appears only the L850D remains available in AMD trim—the L840 and L870 are both Intel-only now. The good news is that where pricing on laptops equipped with the AMD A10-4600M tends to hover around $650 (which is frankly too much), Toshiba’s L850D starts at $400 with an A6-4400M and you can upgrade to the A10-4600M for $100. The base configuration ends up being an A10-4600M, 4GB DDR3-1600, 640GB 5400RPM HDD, 1366x768 LCD, and all the other typical accessories. Note that there’s currently a $150 instant rebate going on (and it’s frequently around), so at present the $500 offer lasts through April 8, 2013.

The HP offerings are virtually identical to Toshiba in features, but now you can choose between a 15.6” HP ENVY dv6z-7200 ($530 base price, $630 with A10-4600M) or a 17.3” HP Pavilion g7z-2200 ($480 base price, $580 with A10-4600M). Both of those upgraded prices push the limits of what I would consider “budget”, but they’re still reasonable alternatives if you want a laptop that can handle most games at moderate to high detail settings. The dv6z comes with a base configuration that’s slightly higher than the g7z, incidentally: 6GB RAM and a 640GB HDD compared to 4GB RAM and 500GB HDD. The LCDs are also obviously different, and HP even offers a 1080p upgrade on the dv6z, but at $150 it’s definitely not budget material; the 17.3” panel is 1600x900 while the stock 15.6” panel is the bog standard 1366x768. That said, the HD 7660G iGPU in the A10 APU is better suited to gaming at 768p than it is 900p.

There are a few likely reasons for the current pricing. One explanation is that people have been largely underwhelmed with Windows 8, so discounting the laptops can help move product. I’m not a huge fan of Windows 8, but I’ve found that installing Classic Shell or Start 8 is enough to fix 90% of my gripes (YMMV). Another likely factor is that the laptop OEMs are working hard to clear out existing inventory before the upgraded Haswell and Richland models arrive, and hopefully we’ll start to see Richland before the end of May (if not sooner).

Honorable Mention: Acer C7 Chromebook, $200 (Celeron 867)

There are other options of course, mostly with even older hardware, or slower and more specialized hardware. Acer’s latest C7 Chromebook has been selling really well, thanks largely to the $200 price tag. If you’re tied into the cloud rather than doing local storage, it can be a great alternative to more expensive laptops, plus you’re less likely to get distracted by games (given the rather poor performance and support for such). It’s definitely more compelling than an Atom-based netbook, and ChromeOS requires far less of the Celeron CPU than Windows 8.

Honorable Mention: Lenovo G570, $330 (i3-2370M)

Another really inexpensive laptop to consider is the Lenovo G570, currently selling for a mere $330 at OfficeMax. You get a Sandy Bridge i3-2370M CPU, 4GB RAM, 500GB HDD, and around 5 hours of battery life. Performance should still be reasonable compared to Ivy Bridge, though the HD 3000 graphics are a big step down from HD 4000 so even light gaming is almost too much to expect.

There are plenty of other laptops in the $300 range with AMD’s C-series and E-series APUs (not to mention the dog that is Intel Atom), but while battery life might be good, just about everything else is too slow for me to personally recommend such a laptop. Then again, people are okay with tablets that offer even less performance in many cases, so consider your own wants and shop accordingly. In the meantime, if you have a favorite budget laptop that you feel we’ve neglected, by all means let us know in the comments, and as noted in above, let me know what category of laptops you’d like me to analyze next Friday.

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  • Howard - Sunday, April 07, 2013 - link

    I have a feeling you are going to get trolled like crazy on the forums now. Reply
  • efeman - Friday, April 05, 2013 - link

    Anything in the 14" space? Maybe on the horizon? Reply
  • yyrkoon - Friday, April 05, 2013 - link

    Jarred, nice article. I always like seeing your laptop reviews, mainly because your views seem to mirror mine. Or mine mirror yours, but whatever.

    I would mention however, that often times if you're willing to wait, you can get $400 excellent deals on just about any bargain type laptop. Last year I picked up an A6 quad 3400 ( yeah yeah I know low clock speed ), with 1GB "dedicated" graphics. The graphics being dedicated in that its still the CPU graphics, but with a dedicated memory daughter card for it. Yeah, do not ask me lol, this is just what I've read when I researched it. Either way it plays games like GTA IV, and the latest XCOM just fine. XCOM it'll even play at the highest settings with little problems. At 1.4Ghz stock CPU speed however, it can choke on some CPU intensive games.

    In the end I have probably spent around $500 on it, since I've added more memory (8GB total ), then bought a DVD->HDD caddy, along with a 1TB drive . . . but I really can not complain. Also despite my disdain for Asus motherboard, this laptop is an Asus, and I am perfectly happy with it.

    Keep up the good work, and sometimes, I would like to see a comparison between Intel, and AMD on CPU graphics. Or maybe there is an article already ? Been busy lately.
    Reply
  • A Geologist - Friday, April 05, 2013 - link

    Thanks for the buyers guide, there aren't nearly enough decent guides for the mainstream and budget markets. I'd like to suggest a student laptop guide concentrating on small portable and cheap laptops that students would haul between lectures and practicals all day, every day if you're going to be making the buyers guide a regular feature. I'd also like to put in a recommendation for the ASUS Vivibooks in that category, they're built very solidly with half decent keyboards and they're compact enough to carry around all the time. They're not terribly powerful but mashing out an essay or going through web based lecture notes doesn't need much processing power. Reply
  • coolhardware - Friday, April 05, 2013 - link

    Nice list Jarred,
    This budget laptop list is particularly handy as one of the most popular question from friends/family is: 'what laptop should I get?' and the budget is generally $500 or less. So this list hits the nail right on the head. :-)

    Since Windows 8 is shipping on virtually all non-Apple, non-Chrome laptops today, may I suggest adding a 'Best Touchscreen Laptop' to the best-budget-laptops list?

    I know there are not many touch laptops available for less than $500 range, but one fine specimen is the ASUS 11.6" series of touch laptops (as usual ASUS has a variety of model numbers for mildly different specifications).

    Specifically, the X202E (available NewEgg, Amazon, etc. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009F1I1C4/?tag=kompariso... or the ASUS S200E (available at Staples) are the best deals IMHO. They can sometimes be had for as low as $399 and are generally right around $449*.

    More info on those laptops* including specs and pros/cons: http://goo.gl/oBdIj

    *I would NOT recommend the ASUS Q200E (BestBuy) which looks the same but has an older CPU (Sandy Bridge instead of Ivy Bridge) and correspondingly slower HD 3000 graphics.

    As time progresses I anticipate more entries into the budget touch laptop category but the ASUS is a nice starting point!

    Please keep up these 'best of' posts as they make it easy to stay abreast of good deals and they are a great starting point for recommending hardware to friends/family. :-)
    Reply
  • coolhardware - Friday, April 05, 2013 - link

    PS I know I suggested this laptop for the near-Ultrabook category in your inaugural piece last week, so I promise I will NOT nominate this laptop for any more categories. ;-) It is just hard not to recommend it because it is one of the most fun laptops I have had in a long time. It even works well with some of the 'Android on Windows 8 solutions' out there (like BlueStacks). Though it is a very trippy experience switching back and forth from Win8 to Android! Reply
  • Bob Todd - Saturday, April 06, 2013 - link

    It's an interesting laptop, and one I actually looked at to replace a little HP DM1Z I've had since release and it's utterly frustrating E350. Tangent on the Brazos chips for a moment, I know everyone who reviewed it basically said, "this is what atom should have been", but that's really only true on the GPU side with it's good decode engine, the CPU is still unbearably slow even for basic tasks.

    Now back to the VivoBooks. I just picked up something that was substantially worse in a few areas on paper, and way better in others. The last gen Lenovo x131e systems with Sandy Bridge ULV Celerons are available for ~$400. You give up the i3 and and HD4000, but the brutal throttling reported in the S200E notebookcheck review basically resulted in ULV Sandy Bridge Celeron performance anyway. The glossy screen on something that portable was a deal breaker for me, as was lack of gigabit Ethernet (Fast Ethernet needs to die already on anything over $200). With the x131e you get a matte screen, gigabit Ethernet, 2x USB 3 ports, a free slot for an mSATA SSD, a TPM module for Bitlocker WDE, Windows 7 Pro, a free slot for more RAM (4GB single DIMM included), and double the battery capacity with user changeable batteries as well. It isn't as slim, but for what I was after it made more sense.

    I really like the 11" form factor, especially when I need to do real work on planes, so I hope we keep getting more good options. I know I'll probably be replacing the x131e with some form of Haswell or Broadwell (or Richland or..?) convertible in a year or two, with a much better screen and double the cost, but for now I'm really happy with the Lenovo. For anyone in the market for an 11" without all of the ultrabook gotchas it's worth a look. Really it's pretty much exactly what I hoped the E350 equipped DM1Z would be. Small, long battery life, 'good enough' performance that's so cheap I can always have it in my bag and not worry if it gets destroyed.
    Reply
  • arnavvdesai - Friday, April 05, 2013 - link

    While I agree with you on Haswell not affecting low cost laptops much, I would like to ask are you guys expecting them to shake up battery life for Windows laptops when they launch. Reply
  • RojC - Friday, April 05, 2013 - link

    Out of curiosity are there any laptop manufacturers considering a pre-install of Stardocks Start8 or similar, even a trial version, on their Win 8 laptops? I know that would make a Win8 laptop, especially a lower end non-touchscreen unit, a heck of a lot more enticing than having to ditch 30 years of experience with looky-clicky Windowing systems to learn the typey-swipey actions that you need to be productive with Metro. Especially since lower end Windows laptops tend to have less precise touchpads which can make navigating around Metro and between Metro and the desktop a challenge for old-school desktop users ... the few of us still left ... Reply
  • jamyryals - Friday, April 05, 2013 - link

    If I'm not mistaken, Samsung has a Stardock like start menu replacement available for their Windows 8 laptops. Reply

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