Sub-$400 Laptops

At the bottom of the price spectrum we have laptops that cost under $400. The vast majority of these laptops are going to be netbooks, typically a laptop that's under 12" for the LCD. We're not particularly concerned with that classification, though. Laptop, netbook, or notebook: it doesn't really matter to us. What matters are the features you can get, so let's look at the $400 or less offerings.

Intel Atom Laptops

If you're buying a new laptop for under $400 - and especially if it's $300 or less - you're likely getting something with an Intel Atom processor. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but you should be fully aware of what you're getting. The fastest Atom laptop CPU, the N280, runs at 1.66GHz and offers about the same level of performance as a 1.2GHz Pentium M. Considering 1.2GHz Pentium M laptops were state-of-the-art about seven years ago, we're obviously not looking at lightning fast performance. The difference is that an Atom CPU consumes far less power than any Pentium M; in our testing, the "worst" Atom-based netbook still managed to provide over 5 hours of battery life in typical tasks (with a 6-cell battery), and over 3 hours even for demanding tasks like HD video playback. Netbooks like the ASUS 1005HA can last up to 10 hours on a single charge, making the promise of "all-day" computing a reality.

Netbook options these days typically range from 9.1" chassis designs up to 11.6", with a few 12.1" options. We tend to prefer the larger netbooks simply because they offer a higher resolution LCD. 9.1" and 10.1" LCDs are mostly of the 1024x600 ilk, which can be frustrating with some applications. A few manufacturers have offered 1366x768 LCDs in 10.1" netbooks, but those can be difficult to find. In contrast, all of the 11.6" laptops we've looked at run at 1366x768, which is a good balance of size and resolution, and the 12.1" designs usually have a 1280x800 display.

You will be hard-pressed to find a laptop with more than 2GB for under $400, and Atom-based netbooks typically support a maximum of 2GB RAM (via a single SO-DIMM slot). We recommend getting 2GB if at all possible from the start; with netbooks only supporting a single DIMM, if you upgrade later from 1GB to 2GB, you end up with an extra, "useless" SO-DIMM. A few netbooks include 1GB of RAM soldered onto the motherboard, in which case you can get up to 3GB, but with no 64-bit support there's not much incentive to move beyond 2GB right now.

What would we recommend out of the sub-$400 Atom laptops? One laptop we've tested extensively is the ASUS 1005HA, and it's the best of the Atom netbooks we've used. The overall design and features are pretty typical, but battery life was better than the competition and more importantly, the 1005HA LCD delivered a stellar contrast ratio above 1000:1. It makes a huge difference in the way movies and pictures look, and considering the 1005HA doesn't cost much more than competing options, it's an easy recommendation. There's even a matte LCD version of the 1005HA (the 1005HA-VU1X-WT or 1005HA-VU1X-BK), which is awesome to see (but the casing and bezel are still glossy). So glossy or matte: you get to decide. You can also choose between Windows XP and Win7 Starter, but we'd stick with XP or plan on getting 2GB RAM and running Win7 Home Premium - Starter is a bit too limited for our tastes. It's a shame we haven't been able to find any 10.1" 1366x768 LCDs that offer a similar contrast ratio, as that's the only item on our 1005HA wish list.

There's at least one competing alternative to Atom right now, the VIA Nano, but the only netbook with Nano is the Samsung NC20, which costs over $500. We'll pass on that; performance of Nano appears to be a bit better than Atom, but for the price there are many other options. Also worth noting is that even the smallest SSDs that are worth having cost over $100, so you won't find any good SSDs in this price range. We definitely wouldn't bother with upgrading an Atom laptop to an SSD either - if the increase in performance such an upgrade brings is important, we recommend starting with a CULV laptop instead. That brings us to the other $400 alternatives.

Index Other Sub-$400 Laptops


View All Comments

  • zicozz - Friday, December 11, 2009 - link

    I'm looking for a smaller laptop and I'm currently aiming at either the Asus UV30 or the Asus F83. Can't seem to find any reviews of the F83, but the UV30 seems to be the king in this hill in it's class. Reply
  • zicozz - Friday, December 11, 2009 - link

    Sorry UL30 not UV30 Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, December 11, 2009 - link

    The major difference between the UL80Vt and the UL30Vt is the screen size (13.3" for the UL30Vt) and the lack of an optical drive. It also weighs about 1 pound less. If you want something a bit smaller, go for it, but make sure you get the UL30Vt; there's an older UL30 that doesn't support Turbo33 and comes with a smaller battery I believe. Reply
  • jtsarnak - Tuesday, December 8, 2009 - link

    I cannot recommend any Sony laptops, even the SR mentioned in this article for its good screen. I am the owner of a Z series and this laptop would have been near perfect except for one problem that is plauging most of Sony's line: Battery Drain.

    See here:">

    And here:">

    These are just two examples, there are a ton of threads out there discussing the problem. Sony's line has the unfortunate "feature" of draining the battery while the laptop is completely shut down. I say "feature" because numerous consumer attempts to get Sony to rectify the issue have been met with a canned response that this is typical for their laptops.

    I have also emailed various websites and publications in an effort to get someone with a little more visibility and press to address the issue with Sony but to no avail. Sony continues to get good reviews on their machines but I'm doubting the reviewers ever bother to look for the drain during the review process.

    Maybe Anandtech will take up the call. Sony is delivering a defective product (a mobile device that loses battery when it is shut off is, imho, defective) and claiming it as a "feature". Anandtech did a great job getting to the bottom of the SSD debacle with the JMicron drives, perhaps they can help us Sony owners as well. In the meantime, avoid these laptops if you don't plan on having it forever plugged in when you're not using it.
  • aznchum - Tuesday, December 8, 2009 - link

    I'm an avid fan of IPS panels, and the only notebooks that I know carried them were the Flexview Panels on the IBM/Lenovo Thinkpads. If LCD quality is of a huge concern to you, you probably are better off picking up a Thinkpad x200 (non s) and retrofitting a BOE-Hydis HV121WX4-100 panel (12.1" 1280x800) in it. However, most of these panels floating around the market have a digitizer attached, since they're sourced from tablet PCs. So the mod is kind of a pain in the ass. I personally have modded a T60p with a QXGA screen and found it to be a relatively easy mod with the hardware maintenance manual. The 4:3 15" chassis of the T60/61 and R60/61 are probably the fastest notebooks you can buy that come with Flexview panels. If you're not snobby about LCDs, then go with the recommendations in this guide. Reply
  • CheesePoofs - Monday, December 7, 2009 - link

    Thanks for the article, I've been looking forward to something like this!

    The UL30VT seems pretty interesting to me - same specs as the UL80VT but smaller package making the low-res screen a bit more bearable (I hope).

    Also is there any word on when Arrandale laptops will come out? I've heard Jan 7th for Arrandale chips, but I have no sense of what the delay is between chip release and laptop availability.
  • btmedic04 - Monday, December 7, 2009 - link

    I recently purchased a Sony Vaio VPPCW17FX at Best Buy for $799 (before tax) and I am absolutely thrilled with it (especially since i was coming from an ancient HP ZV6000 series with a desktop Athlon 64 3200 that weighed 7 lbs and looks like hell. served its purpose though, but i sure was surprised to see it survive a deployment to Iraq lol)

    Specs are as follows:
    Intel Core2Duo T6600 2.2ghz 2MB L2 800mhz FSB
    4GB DDR3 1066 (for some reason at DDR3 800mhz with no option to set 1066 in bios >.< )
    500GB Hard Drive
    Nvidia G210M with 256mb GDDR3 ram
    Blue-Ray player
    14" Monitor @ 1366x768
    5.5 lbs
    Windows 7 Home Premium 64bit

    Not bad at all for the price I paid for it. It gets almost 3 hours of battery life with the Balance power plan in Windows 7. I also love the chic let style keyboard and theres no discernible flex in the chassis (as you can understand, im not about to try to fold my notebook in half long-ways LOL) It has 3 USB ports, a firewire 400 port, VGA port and HDMI. I havent tried any gaming on it yet, however I suspect with the lower resolution monitor, I should be able to play modern games with lower settings and older games with higher settings (much better than the integrated ATI Xpress 200m in my old laptop) I have hooked this laptop up to my 32" LCD TV and watched blue-ray movies at 720p with out any issues. Also, Sony released updated drivers for the G210M the day Nvidia did (I dont want to risk the nvidia release drivers as my friend totally destroyed all gaming capabilities on his laptop equiped with a Go7900GS. needless to say Toshiba sucks when it comes to driver updates) All in all, the VPCCW17FX is a great notebook at a great price
  • Roland00 - Monday, December 7, 2009 - link

    No intel Celeron t3000 dual core love?

    It is the same chip as the intel pentium dual core t4200 except it runs at 1.8 ghz instead of 2.0 ghz and intel speedstep has been disabled (thus it won't get good battery life). Yet I seen this chip routinely in the 320 to 450 price range for laptops and it should blow away the competition in that price range.">
  • JarredWalton - Monday, December 7, 2009 - link

    Is it really that much cheaper than the Pentium T4200/T4300 laptops? I see prices of $430 (Toshiba Satellite L455-S5980) to $500+ (Lenovo ThinkPad SL410/SL510), and that's not even with a well-equipped laptop (i.e. 2GB of RAM, 160GB HDD). The Lenovo G550 is 3GB, 250GB HDD, and T4300 for">$495 or so. It's obviously not a huge jump from 1.8GHz 1MB to 2.1GHz 1MB, but SpeeStep is a pretty big omission IMO. Reply
  • Roland00 - Monday, December 7, 2009 - link

    The pentium t4200/t4300 will be about 50 dollars more on average. For example without any sale go to the Toshiba website and you can get a T3000, 2gb memory, 160 gb hd and wifi n For $400, it costs 44 more for the pentium dual core.

    Now the whole point of the t3000 though is not to buy the laptop at the normal price, the same or similar laptop will go on sale. For example fry's has had a similar laptop to the toshiba but an msi 14 inch on sale a couple times for $319 (once) and $349 (twice). The msi also didn't use intel integrated graphics but instead the 8200m (half the speed of the ion but still 30 to 40% faster than the 4500m hd)

    $319 is only 20 dollars more than those mythical $299 acers/hps that walmart was selling that was using the amd single core at 1.6 ghz (tf-20)

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