Bigger and Faster but Still Inexpensive: Budget Laptops

Let’s just get this out of the way: budget laptops inherently come with some compromises. I love using laptops with good quality displays, but finding a good display in a budget laptop is practically impossible. Last time I saw a decent display in something that didn’t cost over $500 (outside of tablets and smartphones), it was the ASUS Eee PC 1001P, and unfortunately a good display on an Atom-based netbook means you’re still saddled with Atom netbook performance. Outside of that one example, we haven’t tested any budget laptops in the past three years where the display was significantly better than average. Playing modern games on a budget laptop is also a stretch; AMD’s Llano (A-series) APUs may be a step up from Intel’s integrated graphics, but they still struggle to run many games at native resolution and medium quality settings. We’ll look at a budget gaming laptop below (which will cost a bit more), but the quick summary is that you have to know what you’re getting and set expectations accordingly. So just what would we recommend for around $500-$600?

Recommended Budget Laptop

Amazing what you can get for half a grand: HP ProBook 4430s for $500

Finding sub-$500 laptops is relatively easy; finding something that doesn’t have a larger-than-necessary 15.6” chassis (and still with a 1366x768 resolution) is far more difficult. I’ve mentioned in the past that 14” laptops are my personal sweet spot for mobility without compromising on other areas, and finding HP’s ProBook for $500 was a pleasant surprise. The ProBook line isn’t quite at the level of HP’s EliteBook, but you get a full-blown Sandy Bridge Core i3-2310M processor, 4GB RAM, a 320GB hard drive, and an aluminum cover, which is more than I can say for most budget laptop. The display is also a matte finish, the keyboard is a decent chiclet-style offering with the added benefit of being spill resistant. In the past it has been very difficult to find recent Intel laptops for under $600 that didn’t severely trim features—e.g. Celeron or Pentium CPUs instead of Core i3/i5, smaller batteries, no USB 3.0, etc. Intel’s HD 3000 Graphics may limit your ability to play games, but outside of that use case they’re sufficient for regular SOHO/student use. You’ll still need to uninstall a lot of bloatware on the ProBook (par for the course these days), but once you’re done with that there’s very little left to complain about.

Budget “Gaming” Laptops

If you want to keep costs down but you still would like the ability to run some games, you’ll want a bit more than Intel’s HD 3000 Graphics. AMD’s A-series APUs are one route, but we’d suggest skipping the A4 models and shoot for an A6 or A8 if you’re after graphics performance. If you want an AMD A-series APU and like me you’d prefer a 14” chassis, pickings are very slim—the one laptop that meets those requirements at Newegg is the Toshiba L745D-S4230. It’s an updated take on the L645D we reviewed earlier this year, or a smaller version of the L775D we tested in August; unfortunately, at $600 it’s a tough sell considering the overall features and performance. As much as it pains me, we’ll have to bump up to 15.6” laptops to get something with gaming potential without spending $600 or more. The good news is that by moving to a 15.6” chassis, the price drops quite a bit.

AMD’s Llano does gaming for less: Toshiba L755D for $430

Yup, we’re back at Toshiba again. Toshiba is a good way to go if you’re looking for something with an AMD processor that won’t cost too much, and for just $430 you can pick up an A6-3400M APU with 4GB RAM and a 320GB hard drive. If those specs sound familiar, it’s because other than the APU/CPU that’s exactly what you can get in the HP ProBook listed above. You’re basically trading CPU performance for GPU performance and saving $70 in the process, although the 15.6” chassis isn’t nearly so enticing in my book.

If you want some other options, the 1.4GHz quad-core CPU falls behind Intel’s i3-2310M in areas where the GPU/IGP doesn’t come into play; for that matter, even Intel’s last-gen Arrandale i5-460M (as an example) surpasses the A6-3400M in CPU related benchmarks. Elsewhere, the HD 6520G (and even the A8 series HD 6620G) still comes in behind discrete GPUs like the GeForce GT 525M and Radeon HD 6630M. So if you’d like a laptop that can handle games better and provides better CPU performance, we’re back to Intel offerings.

Budget gaming with Intel and Optimus: ASUS A53SV for $620

Scouring the Internet, we came up with two contenders for the budget gaming throne: Acer’s Aspire AS5755G-6823 for $550 and the ASUS A53SV-NH51 for $620. Both feature Intel’s i5-2430M CPU and NVIDIA’s GeForce GT 540M GPU with Optimus Technology dynamically switching between the two. They also have other similarities like using a mediocre 1366x768 resolution with a 15.6” LCD. Ultimately, it comes down to price and features, and between the two we’re going to recommend the ASUS A53SV. The main reason is that we prefer the ASUS chiclet keyboard to Acer’s floating-island keys (Dustin would use stronger language), but you also get a larger HDD and more memory as a bonus. If you don’t mind the Acer keyboard, either laptop will suffice.

Going Cheap: Netbooks and Chromebooks Mainstream Laptops: Ultrabooks, Gaming Laptops, and Other Options
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  • JarredWalton - Saturday, December 3, 2011 - link

    Turn off AA, don't set things on "Very High/Ultra", and 1080p is very much playable on most titles with a Quadro 2000M. Yes, there will be games where you need to drop to Medium details, but without spending a lot more money I just don't think there's a laptop out there that will match display quality, build quality, and keyboard quality. If you're primarily interested in gaming, that's what the M17x, G53SX, and G74SX recommendations are for.
  • jalexoid - Friday, December 2, 2011 - link

    "battery life, build quality, an excellent display, and even the ability to play games"
    There is not better value for requested characteristics than W520. Period.
    MBP Might comes, but only at 17".

    I myself am on the notebook hunt. After 5.5 years with my trusty ThinkPad T42 the only two that can compare to my needs are ThinkPads T and W series and MacBook Pro series.

    The only thing I am waiting for is for Lenovo to update ThinkPad T4x0s or T5x0 with better GPU's.
  • dude1978 - Friday, December 2, 2011 - link

    I have a Dell e6400 with SSD and before that a Lenovo T61, would you think switching to an Asus Zenbook would disappoint as far build quality?
  • jmunjr - Friday, December 2, 2011 - link

    Why no mention of the X220? i3 thru i7 CPU options, a nice 12.5" IPS display available for a $50 premium, insanely good battery life with the 6 cell, even more insane with the 9 cell and nearly 24 hours of battery life with the battery slice. There were some minor issues early on that seem to have been remedied so no complaints there. A nicely configured i5, 4GB, 320GB setup can be had on one of their regular sales for well under $1000, often dipping below $800... Also while SSD options are there but a but pricey, adding your own SSD is doable though tricky.

    It isn't a gaming rig but it sure is the best ultra portable laptop on the market today. The screen alone is worth a look.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, December 2, 2011 - link

    Good call -- I added both the X120e and X220 as alternatives.
  • Braumin - Friday, December 2, 2011 - link

    Oh yeah one more thing about the X220 - you can get a larger battery (9 cell) PLUS you can get a battery slice that latches on under the laptop. That combination ups the battery life from ~10 hours with the standard battery to about ~20 hours. Not too shabby!
  • zsero - Friday, December 2, 2011 - link

    I really hope that after this article Lenovo will start giving you review samples, they are SO MUCH missing from Anandtech!

    X220, T420, T520 (also has the same 1080p screen as the W520!) and W520 really needs to be covered, as well as the Thinkpad Tablet. These are proper laptops with options like
    - mSATA SSD + 2 HDD
    - huge battery life
    - docking stations with the option for 4!!! external displays
    - industry's best keyboards

    Also, they have the most sophisticated cooling system on all notebooks. Other than the 16:9 ratio they are what a laptop should be. The only weekness is possibly the T420's display, but there are no good 14" panels around.
  • Braumin - Friday, December 2, 2011 - link

    I need to second this. My wife's aunt recently wanted a new laptop. I told her to get an X220. You just can not go wrong.

    12.5" IPS display, great keyboard, and you can get it with an Intel SSD for less than $1000.

    If I was buying a laptop, that one would be near the top of the list for sure. Just to get an IPS screen for only a $50 premium makes it a top contender.
  • dude1978 - Friday, December 2, 2011 - link

    Isn't the X220 about 1.34 inches thick? I'm torn between that and Asus UX21. portability is at a premium for me and I almost always use an external monitor, keyboard and mouse.
  • samsp99 - Saturday, December 3, 2011 - link

    I am on my 4th consecutive T-series thinkpad at work, and just recently bought my second T series for home. What the thinkpad line lacks in bling, it more than makes up for in construction quality and reliability. Most share the same power adapter which means I have a spare or two.

    While the lenovo site seems to be having perpetual sales, they also have an outlet (link at the bottom of their site) where they sell returned and refurbished machines at a nice discount. The inventory is constantly changing so its worth watching the site until you see the configuration you want.

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