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


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  • JarredWalton - Monday, December 7, 2009 - link

    I've placed an order... I'll do a review if they work well. Reply
  • yacoub - Sunday, December 6, 2009 - link">

    I can't find the initial article anymore but this just came out a couple weeks ago.">

    HP had the most quality issues, Asus the least.
  • Blahman - Sunday, December 6, 2009 - link

    If you thought the UL80Vt was good, check out its newer slimmer brother: the UL30Vt. It shares all the same specs, but better build quality and all packed into a thinner, lighter chassis.

    It's available from Amazon for $800. The reviews so far are very positive.">
  • trickdaddy111m - Tuesday, December 8, 2009 - link

    The UL30Vt does look very nice, but it lacks discrete graphics and the Turbo function of the UL80Vt. So, "same specs" is not accurate. Reply
  • KikassAssassin - Wednesday, December 9, 2009 - link

    The UL30Vt has turbo and the discrete graphics. The specs are exactly the same as the UL80Vt except it has a 1" smaller screen, no optical drive, and a slightly smaller battery.

    You're probably looking at the UL30A.
  • KikassAssassin - Sunday, December 6, 2009 - link

    The UL30Vt looks like a really nice alternative if you want something lighter than the UL80Vt and you don't need an optical drive. Unfortunately, the UL30Vt on Amazon is the X1 model that only has a 4400 mAh battery, compared to the UL80Vt-A1's 5600 mAh battery, so it'll only have about 80% of the battery life. The battery life should still be excellent, just not quite as amazing as the UL80Vt's Reply
  • techwriters4breakfast - Sunday, December 6, 2009 - link

    atom 2

  • bsoft16384 - Sunday, December 6, 2009 - link

    I just want to give another shout out for the Acer 1410. This is an absolutely fantastic notebook for $400.

    I have the single-core version (Core 2 Solo SU3500, 1.4GHz, 3M cache) so it's somewhat faster on single-threaded code but slower on multi-threaded code than the Celeron SU2300 (1.2GHz, 1M cache). That said, I have no performance complaints about the laptop.

    GPU performance is, as you would expect, pretty bad. But it's still dramatically ahead of a GMA950-based netbook (around 5X by my estimations), which makes it fine for playing older titles like Warcraft III, CS 1.6, UT classic or 2004, Quake 3 / OpenArena, Half-Life.

    Even WoW runs "OK" on the Acer 1410, as long as you're willing to deal with ~20-30 FPS and a slideshow in Dalaran. But you *can* run it, and it's fine for doing dailies or checking the AH. I have my desktop if I want to play for real.

    The keyboard is excellent, except for the page up/down buttons (which are annoyingly above the arrow keys) and home/end (combined with page up / down). Other than those annoyances, the keyboard is full-sized and has the layout that you would expect.

    The screen is decently bright; contrast is "OK" but not great, and the viewing angle is lame (but so are most laptops). It's easily better than my ThinkPad T61.

    There are some surprises port-wise: the 1410 has HDMI (with 8-channel LPCM audio) and the audio-out port does SPDIF/TOSLINK (with a 3.5mm to TOSLINK adapter), neither of which are common on a $400 laptop.

    The WiFi is Intel 5100 802.11n, which is also nice. Ethernet is Atheros, audio is Realtek.

    As you would expect with an ULV notebook, the 1410 doesn't really ever get hot, even at 100% CPU / GPU. It's not particularly noisy either, unless you have a defective fan (as my first one from Amazon did).

    The 1410 takes forever to charge from empty (2.5 hours if off, 3-4 if on). That's because it uses the same 30W power supply as the Aspire One. On the other hand, the power adapter is very small and decently cheap, both of which are pluses.

    Battery life is 5-6 hours, depending on how hard you push the machine. At idle, at minimum brightness, Windows reports over 12 hours, but you can't achieve this in practice. With light web browsing and Flashblock, expect 6+ hours.

    The touchpad is Synaptics, and does multi-touch.

    This system is the smallest, lightest system that I would consider a 'notebook' rather than a 'netbook'. I considered the HP Mini 311, but it maxes out at 3GB and doesn't support x86-64 or virtualization, plus the Core 2 Solo beats the pants off of the Atom. NVIDIA ION isn't really a whole lot better than the GMA X4500MHD, because the Atom CPU prevents you from playing any modern games anyway and the GMA X4500 does fine for Windows Aero and HD video acceleration.

    Two years ago the Aspire 1410 would have cost $2000 and would be called an 'ultralight'. Today it's $400.
  • Keeir - Wednesday, December 9, 2009 - link

    Don't forget its slightly more expensive brother

    Timeline 1810T-8

    Core 2 Duo (SU7300), 4 Gigs of Ram, Bluetooth, Larger HD, same wieght and battery

    Picked mine up for <600 from Amazon (though I see they have ballons to close to 700)
  • notanakin - Monday, December 7, 2009 - link

    Unfortunately this guide came out just a few days too late, but fortunately I'd settled on the Acer 1410 (SU2300) and it's a nice little machine. Certainly fast enough for simple tasks and for my old eyes the screen size is better than the 10.1 inchers.

    Here's a very useful link to a table of laptops/CPUs/Screen size prepared for the recent PC Show in Singapore where I bought the laptop. Great for doing some quick comparisons.

    (Prices are in Singapore $ - about US$1=S$1.4, so the prices are a bit more expensive than in the USA, but they give some discounts off the published price and throw in stuff - I got an external DVD-writer plus a few smaller things with the Acer.)

    But how I HATE the glossy screen. Are they cheaper than matte screens or what? I'd gladly pay US$50 more for a matte screen.

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