Best Budget Laptops, April 2013by Jarred Walton on April 5, 2013 12:50 AM EST
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.