How to Buy a Laptop on a Budget  

Posted by Laptop Tips

You don't have to break the bank to find your perfect portable PC.

Carla Thornton

Here's a question no one will ever ask you: Would you like a free laptop with that burger? Portable computers will never get so cheap they start coming with Happy Meals, but you might be surprised at just how inexpensive laptops are these days.

With many available for less than $1000, laptops are more attractive than ever for people who need to do computer work on the go, whether for work, school, or finishing The Great American Novel down at the coffee shop. But what can you get for your money when you don't have much to spend? These days less money buys more laptop than ever.

Will you regret low-balling an important investment like a laptop? The answer is probably not. Even the least-expensive portables have a lot to offer. Let's start at the bottom of the price scale and work our way up. (Note: PC prices change faster than the stock market, so prices noted in this story might be different by the time you check them out for yourself at the vendor's site.)

Attention, K-Mart Shoppers (Laptops for Less Than $1000)

If a good sale sets your pulse racing, we have a blue-light special for you. Today you can get a very good laptop for less than $1000.

In years past, if you wanted a bargain laptop, you had to sacrifice. Cheaper systems used to be feature-poor, and you were almost guaranteed to be stuck with a slow processor, minimal memory, a small hard drive, a read-only optical drive, and a weak battery. But these days, you typically get a reasonably quick CPU, a good amount of memory, a fair-size hard drive, a more-capable optical drive, and improved battery life. Right now, you can expect 256MB of RAM, a 30GB hard drive, and a combination DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive. The latest bargain notebooks come with fast mobile Athlon XP-M or Mobile Celeron processors that have improved number-crunching capabilities--and, of course, will handle word processing and Web surfing, and will play DVD movies with ease.

The typical sub-$1000 laptop weighs 6 or 7 pounds and has a touchpad window as a pointing device, a top-shelf lithium ion battery, and integrated Wi-Fi for going online without wires. The screen measures either 14.1 inches or 15 inches, plenty big enough for most tasks. It bundles the small business-oriented Windows XP Home Edition operating system and some office applications (typically Microsoft's Works package or Corel's WordPerfect suite). All in all, not a bad haul for the small amount of dough.

In late August, one of the least-expensive notebooks we found at the major manufacturers' Web sites was Dell's Inspiron 1000. Configured with a 2.2-GHz Mobile Celeron processor, a 14.1-inch screen and a CD-RW/DVD combination drive, we got a price of $819. Wi-Fi isn't integrated but is provided in the form of a PC Card that you insert in a slot on the side of the notebook.

The only serious compromise is the older-technology nickel metal hydride battery. NiMH batteries tend not to last as long on each charge as newer-technology lithium ion batteries, don't hold a charge as well in storage, and do need to be completely drained before recharging every so often to help maintain battery health. However, you can add a lithium ion battery for $99 more. If you're worried about battery life, look for a laptop with a modular bay that can swap in a supplemental battery.

Dell's Web site offers more information about the Inspiron 1000.

Hewlett-Packard offers a large selection of sub-$1000 laptops, including several with rare (for this price range) 15.4-inch wide-screen displays. The extra width can be useful for opening more windows at once or watching DVD movies. In late August, HP's Pavilion Zv5000t notebook, configured with Windows XP Home Edition, a 2.8-GHz Intel Celeron processor, a 15.4-inch WXGA display, 256MB of RAM, 60GB hard drive, DVD/CD-RW combo drive, integrated 802.11b/g wireless networking, and a lithium ion battery, cost $998. (A $50 mail-in rebate was also offered.)

For more information about the Pavilion Zv5000t, check out HP's Web site.

Laptops that cost $1000 or less are usually missing a few features. Here's what you may not find in your bargain notebook:

  • Top performance
  • Light weight (less than 6 pounds)
  • Big screens (15 inches or larger)
  • Sophisticated ports, such as ones for connecting the notebook to a TV
  • Media card slots for sharing data with your digital camera or PDA
  • High-end multimedia features, such as good audio and volume buttons
  • The Windows XP Professional operating system with its extra security features
  • Also, don't forget to leave at least $30 or so in your budget for a basic USB memory key for copying files. Few laptops under $1000--or at any price, for that matter--still come with that old storage standby, the built-in floppy drive.

    For more tips on buying a sub-$1000 laptop, check out "Notebooks Tempt as Prices Drop."

    Indulge Yourself (Laptops for $1000 to $1500)

    Go on. Splurge a little. If you have a little extra cash to spend on your laptop, up your budget to roughly $1000 to $1500. If your practical side can't appreciate the performance boost and extra storage you'll get, the gadget-oriented pleasure-seeking side of your brain will thank you.

    Compared with bargain-priced models, laptops in this price range typically come equipped with a faster processor, a higher-capacity hard drive (40GB or larger), and more RAM (typically 512MB, or twice what you'd usually find in a sub-$1000 laptop). Together these components can bump performance significantly.

    In general, battery life is better, too. For instance, the $1333 Gateway M405CS, number two on PC World's October Desktop Replacement chart, lasted 5.2 hours in our tests, two to three hours longer than most laptops in the sub-$1000 class.

    Wide screens measuring 15.4 inches and DVD burners for making really big backups or burning home movies are common features; the HP Pavilion Zd7000 has both. The Pavilion Zd7202us model, which includes Windows XP Home Edition, a 3-GHz Pentium 4 processor, a 17-inch WXGA+ high-definition wide-screen display, a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive, and integrated 802.11b/g wireless networking, costs $1550.

    HP's Web site offers more information about available configurations.

    You can also score a huge 17.1-inch screen with Gateway's M675CS desktop replacement notebook. It features a 2.8-GHz Pentium 4 processor, Windows XP Home Edition, 256MB of memory, and a CD-RW/DVD combo drive for $1500. It also includes more data ports, including FireWire for faster digital video downloads.

    Check out Gateway's Web site for more information.

    Lightweight laptops for travel start popping up in this category, including Fujitsu's 3.8-pound LifeBook S2000 series. A LifeBook S2020 notebook, configured with a mobile AMD Athlon XP-M 2100+ processor, Windows XP Home Edition, a 13.3-inch display, 30GB hard drive, and 256MB of memory, starts at $1199.

    For more information, visit Fujitsu's Web site.

    Spending $1000 to $1500 will get you a pretty well-equipped machine, but laptops in this price range still lack a few features. Here's what's usually missing:

  • Top performance
  • Large screen (over 15.4 inches)
  • Ultraportable weight (under 4 pounds)
  • Worth a Splurge (Portable PCs Between $1500 and $2000)

    Take a deep breath. If you're willing to peel a few more dollars off the roll, you can find a laptop with that feature you just have to have.

    What do you get for coughing up between $1500 and $2000? Performance characteristics don't change much from what you would find with models in the $1000 to $1500 category--probably because the price ranges feature the same class of processors and similar amounts of memory.

    What you will find is that laptops do get a lot lighter. For instance, IBM's ThinkPad X40, a PC World Best Buy, weighs only 2.8 pounds. A well-equipped X40 with an excellent keyboard, 512MB of RAM, and a 40GB hard drive costs a little over $1800. (Just in keep in mind that the screen measures 12.1 inches and the processor is a little slower than what is typically found on a full-size laptop.)

    Another ultraportable option is Sharp's Actius MM20, which weighs in at 2.6 pounds. The configuration tested by PC World, which includes a 1-GHz Transmeta Efficeon processor, a 10.4-inch screen, a 20GB hard drive, and a CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo drive, costs $1598. (The weight also increased to 4.3 pounds because of some of the added features.) For more information, see PC World's review.

    Ultraportables are great for traveling, but full-size laptops will feature the largest hard drives, up to 80GB--or even higher. You'll appreciate the extra storage if you work with databases, big spreadsheets, or need more space for that out-of-control digital photo collection you've been amassing.

    Acer's Aspire AS1712SMi notebook, for example, offers a 120GB hard drive. The configuration tested by PC World, which was priced at $1999, includes a 3-GHz desktop Pentium 4 processor, a 17-inch screen, and a DVD±RW drive. All of that functionality doesn't fit into a small package, however. This is definitely a desktop replacement model, as that configuration weighs in at a whopping 17.6 pounds.

    For a look at notebooks in all sizes, from very small to very large, check out PC World's Extreme Computing chart.

    Gadget nuts will likely find a laptop to suit their device desires in this price range. Toshiba's Satellite P25-S670 doubles as a portable TV, featuring Windows XP Media Center 2004 Edition, a 17-inch screen, a TV tuner, and software for downloading TV listings from the Internet. Configured with a 3.4-GHz Pentium 4 processor, 512MB of memory, 80GB hard drive, DVD Super-Multi drive, and integrated 802.11b/g wireless networking, the P25 costs $2699.

    Toshiba's Web site offers more information about available configurations.

    Not sure which laptop pointing device you like better? Another PC World Best Buy, IBM's all-purpose ThinkPad R51, comes equipped with both eraserhead and touchpad pointing devices.

    When configured with Windows XP Professional, a 15-inch display, a 1.6-GHz Pentium M 725 processor, 256MB of memory, 80GB hard drive, and a DVD-RW drive, the IBM ThinkPad R51 costs $1899.

    For a snazzier notebook, check out the Acer Ferrari. Priced at $1899, the configuration reviewed by PC World is slightly more affordable than the famous Italian cars. It features Ferrari's famous candy-apple red paint on its cases (and includes a matching red USB mouse). Under the hood, the review unit included a 1.87-GHz Mobile Athlon XP-M 2500+ processor, a four-in-one card reader, a fixed dual-format DVD burner, FireWire, and four USB 2.0 ports.

    For more information on available configurations, check out Acer's Web site.

    High Rollers ($2000 and Beyond)

    When you move past $2000, you're no longer a budget laptop shopper anymore, you're a high roller. This price range puts you within reach of notebooks that have cutting-edge features and more.

    Dell's Inspiron 9100, for example, sports the new DVI port for connecting an ultra-sharp digital LCD for presentations. The desktop replacement unit tested by PC World weighed in at a hefty 11.5 pounds, and featured a 3.2-GHz Pentium 4 processor, a 15.4-inch screen, 60GB hard drive, and a DVD+R/RW drive. This configuration was priced at $2330.

    Dell's Web site offers more information about the Inspiron 9100.

    Also in this price range, you'll find laptops capable of converting into Tablet PCs, which makes them useful for jotting down notes in your own handwriting. The Toshiba Portege M205-S810, which ranks second on PC World's October 2004 Top Ultraportables chart, features a 1.5-GHz Pentium M processor, a 12.1-inch screen, 60GB hard drive, and an external DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive. This configuration is priced at $2399.

    For more information, read PC World's review or check out Toshiba's Web site.

    For a look at additional specialized laptops, check out PC World's chart, Top Specialized Notebooks.

    But unless you're made of money (and we already know you're not), you don't need a laptop this expensive, especially if you can wait another couple of years. Eventually, every high-end laptop feature will drop in price right down into one of your budget ranges. Now that's a bargain.

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