There are many different types of laptops right now. They run the gamut from low cost, low performance netbooks that typically deliver good to excellent battery life up through high-end desktop replacement systems that offer performance similar to what you would find in a high-end desktop from a year or two back. In between those two extremes exists a kaleidoscope of options that are roughly classified as "Entry" to "Midrange". This mobile buyers' guide will look at what we feel are the best options for each price range right now, and in many instances there will be several alternatives depending on what sort of laptop you're after.

Before we get to the actual price segments, we want to set the stage for what we're looking at in terms of features and performance. The days where brand made a huge difference in terms of performance and/or reliability are past; these days the vast majority of laptops work well (though that's not always the case, so use your favorite search engine to look for reviews). If you get the same components, then regardless of brand - Dell, Acer, HP, ASUS, etc. - you will get the same performance. There are always exceptions to the rule, so if you're really concerned about how a laptop feels and whether or not it's reliable, we recommend purchasing locally where you can try before you buy and return for an easy exchange if you encounter problems. Beyond performance and reliability, there are a few areas that can and do differ among manufacturers.

One that we have harped on for quite some time now is laptop display quality. The potential to use a high quality LCD on any given laptop has been around for several years now, but pricing considerations frequently result in the use of substandard panels - even on expensive laptops. Unfortunately, LCD quality is something that can be very difficult to ascertain without actually using a laptop, which means judging LCD contrast based on laptop specifications is all but impossible. It's not such a big problem that you can't comfortably use a laptop with a lower contrast LCD, but all other areas being equal we'd like to see better LCDs - and more matte LCDs, please! Right now, your best bet for finding a matte LCD is to get a "business laptop"; apparently, regular consumers don't care about such things but businesses do? Finally, if all this talk of LCD quality isn't bad enough, most laptops use LCDs sourced from several panel manufacturers, so there's no guarantee that all laptops with the same model will have the same LCD. That's why laptop LCD statistics are generally limited to size and resolution. Ugh.

Like LCD quality, build quality is difficult to determine without actually handling a laptop. You can look for reviews online, but even then you have to be careful - what qualifies as "high build quality" for one person may be flimsy and cheap to another. Again, buying locally can help, but you can't always find what you want at local retailers. We're going to walk the aisles of some of our local stores to see if we can spot any clearly standout LCDs among the crowd, and we'll keep an eye one build quality as well; we'd suggest you do the same if these areas are important to you. For the most part, we don't find build quality to be a huge issue, but keyboard layout and feel as well as the touchpad are also an area you'll want to test if you're shopping local.

Battery life is another potentially critical element of any laptop purchase. We have praised Apple for the stellar battery life that even their high-end MacBook Pro systems provide, but there's a "tax" you generally have to pay for a MacBook. Thankfully, we have started to see a bigger focus on battery life from other companies. True, this is often accomplished by using lower power CPUs, particularly the Intel CULV (Core 2 Ultra Low Voltage) processors, but regardless it is now possible to get a reasonable laptop that can last all day on a single charge.

The rest of the equation is pretty much a matter of looking at specs, pricing, and features. Do you want Blu-ray support? What size LCD/chassis do you prefer? How much do you want the laptop weigh? How fast do you want the CPU, GPU, etc. to be? Do you want an SSD or is a conventional hard drive sufficient? Obviously, pricing is going to determine how far you can go in any particular area, and it's possible to upgrade certain areas. Want a larger hard drive or an SSD? You can add that without much difficulty. You can also add RAM quite easily with the vast majority of laptops, though with even $550 laptops providing 4GB these days most people won't need to upgrade memory any time soon; on the other hand, the next jump up to 4GB SO-DIMMs tends to be prohibitively expensive.

Okay, the stage is set, so let's move to the first price bracket: sub-$400 options.

Sub-$400 Laptops


View All Comments

  • Hrel - Monday, December 7, 2009 - link

    I've said it before on here I'd be glad to buy the ASUS UL80Vt if it only had a screen with a resolution of at least 1600x900 (decent quality screen required. like 1000:1 contrast ratio) The Intel SU9600 CPU instead with the same percentage overclock and the Nvidia GT240 GPU. Finally I'd like that laptop to cost less than 1000 dollars and get at least 7 hours internet battery life. If removing the integrated GPU and having only the dedicated GPU is required to keep the price down I'd be totally fine with that.

    Or better yet, sell it with the integrated GPU, leave the slot and heatsink for the dedicated GPU and offer the dedicated GPU as an add on or after-market purchase on newegg.
  • geok1ng - Sunday, December 6, 2009 - link

    I really don't get the idea behind the suggestion of the ASUS UL80Vt on the sub $850 range, when you can get the Dell Studio 14z: you get a better CPU, a better IGP ( and having Nvidia 210M as add on VGA isn't really a great improvement over the 9400M G)and a better battery for the same price range.

    The problem is that outside Mac Books you simply dont get state of art notebook hardware: a C2D 45nm CPU, a 9400M G IGP and a small form factor. And a Non-TN LCDs is a dream.
  • LongTimePCUser - Monday, December 7, 2009 - link

    For many people the ul80vt is a much better solution than the Dell 14z.

    The Dell 14z has a 5 hour battery life. The ul80vt has a 12 hour battery life.

    The Dell 14z doesn't have a DVD player. The ul80vt has one.
  • JarredWalton - Sunday, December 6, 2009 - link

    G210M is roughly twice the performance of 9400M G, and where 9400M still has games where it struggles, G210M can run everything, albeit at low details in some instances (i.e. Crysis @ LQ 1366x768 and 42.05FPS -- compare to 14z with 25FPS for the same setting, with a CPU that's running 38% faster). If you can get both the benefits of G210M performance with better battery life than 9400M, isn't that desirable?

    As for non-TN panels, I believe you're mistaken. Everything out right now is TN on laptops. MacBooks used some IPS in the past, but that was several years ago. They have matte LCDs on the 15" and 17" MBP, but that's about it.
  • Paulman - Sunday, December 6, 2009 - link

    I was very surprised to see no mention of the AMD Athlon Neo based netbooks, such as the MSI Wind U210 or the HP dv2 series. My brother got an MSI Wind U210 with the Athlon Neo processor several months ago, and it ran Windows Vista on 1GB of RAM decently and I think the prices was just under $400 CDN online at Future Shop here in Canada. This was a 12.1" netbook (1366x768 with a bright LED backlight) at ~1.5 kg in weight with a 6-cell battery. I recently upgraded it to Windows 7 and it's running nicely.

    I quite like it, so I was disappointed to see that Athlon Neo-class products weren't even mentioned in this roundup.
  • JarredWalton - Sunday, December 6, 2009 - link

    My experience with Neo is limited, but battery life didn't appear to be in the same ballpark as Atom and CULV products. Neo is faster than Atom, but CULV is clearly faster (dual-core CULV at 1.2GHz easily beats single-core MV-40).

    I guess it depends on what you're after. The MSI Wind U210 should get 3-5 hours of battery life at 100 nits. The HP dv2 with 4-cell battery looks like you'll get about two hours of Internet surfing, or 3 hours with the 6-cell upgrade. So if you're after battery life, Neo isn't an answer to Atom or CULV. However....

    When Neo is paired with a decent GPU, you can get much better than Atom performance, but the price of the HP dv2 is too high (nearly as much as the ASUS UL80Vt and UL30Vt). The Wind U210 uses X1270 IGP, which is only slightly better than GMA 4500MHD in terms of performance. Still, the Wind U210 would be a better choice for Neo than the HP dv2... pairing a (relatively) low power CPU like Neo with a discrete GPU doesn't make much sense, unless you can turn the dGPU off and run on an IGP when you want (a la UL80Vt).
  • rwrentf - Friday, December 11, 2009 - link

    I posted a comment about the HP DM3 asking you how that would compare, and for some reason my comment is gone. The DM3 has a dual core neo (L335), 4GB ram, 7200 rpm hard drive and ATI HD3200 graphics. You say in your comment that the CULV is clearly faster, but I haven't seen any tests that back that up online. And Why would you compare the dual core CULV directly to a single core MV-40 when you can compare it to a dual core L335? Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, December 11, 2009 - link

    I'd expect a 1.3GHz CULV (i.e. Pentium SU4100) to be roughly on par with the performance of the L335 (1.6GHz), and I would expect the L335 to use more power (18W TDP, but in my experience AMD chips run much closer to TDP than Intel chips). However, HD 3200 is still 2~3 times faster than GMA 4500MHD (though still too slow for gaming IMO).

    I suppose the question is what sort of battery life you can get out of such a laptop compared to CULV options of a similar price. I found a comment from an HP representative (off Wal-mart) stating around 3 hours from the DM3, which is about half of what a typical $600 CULV will get, but elsewhere you see "up to 6 hours". If it can truly get 6 hours, it's definitely worth a look.

    Incidentally, if I were to go with a DM3, I'd grab the Turion X2 L625 -- better power characteristics than the Athlon X2 L335.
  • zefyr - Sunday, December 6, 2009 - link

    I commend you you on a thorough article. You've covered many of the laptops I've been looking at, and indeed have raised the same question "Any Good LCDs?" But, whats the answer? Especially if you plan on buying online. Can one find a high contrast LCD w good blacks like the Sony VAIO you mentioned and also get a gaming level NVIDIA GPU? Can it be done online w/o actually seeing it in person? I've almost bought both an ASUS g51vx and g71 for $800 or $900 respectively, until I realized the only thing they lack is a good LCD. Anyone, please post any suggestions. Reply
  • kawatwo - Sunday, December 6, 2009 - link

    I have the G71x from Best Buy and the viewing angle is not great but for just you sitting directly in front of the laptop it is not an issue. The bang for the buck is still amazing. Don't know how long it will take for someone to come out with a 280m for ~ 1500, maybe never. I'm happy with the 260m though. Reply

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