Find ways to stay connected cheaply while traveling domestically and abroad.
Laptop Operating Systems
As detailed on the previous page, a good laptop computer starts with a dependable CPU, a decent amount of memory, and ample video processing power. Other laptop features to note are the hard drive and the optical drive.
Operating System.Almost all new budget laptops geared for home users come with Microsoft's Windows 7 Home Premium. (Apple MacBooks with the company's latest OS X Mountain Lion operating system start at about $1,000 -- well out of our price range.) Since its release, Windows 7 has proved popular with experts and users alike. It earns an "Outstanding" rating at CNET and praise in a PC World review. Users posting reviews on Newegg declare Windows 7 easy to use and less annoying than its predecessor, Windows Vista.
Microsoft is planning to roll out a new Windows 8 operating system in the next few months, but we expect many budget laptops to continue to come with Windows 7 for some time, until newer models with Windows 8 begin to take the place of older laptops.
Hard Drive.Hard drives are relatively inexpensive laptop features, so most manufacturers are willing to outfit their systems with pretty sizeable hard drives ranging from 320GB to 750GB. The HP ProBook 4440s occupies the low end with a 320GB hard drive. The Dell Inspiron 15R and 14z fall in the middle with 500GB hard drives. Both Toshiba models come with larger 640GB hard drives. The base model of the Lenovo IdeaPad Y480 has only a standard 500GB hard drive, although another widely available and similarly priced configuration steps up to 750GB.
Unless you have a huge library of videos, photos, and music that you want to store on your laptop, you can afford to go with a smaller hard drive. A 320GB drive has enough room to store simple programs and files as well as plenty of photos and songs. However, if you need a larger hard drive, it's easy to find on a budget.
Optical Drives.Nearly every new laptop includes a DVD-RW drive for playing DVD movies and burning data and video to DVD. Some low-cost laptops offer the option to upgrade to a Blu-ray player, but that add-on typically totals between $50 and $100. The Lenovo IdeaPad Y480 and Toshiba Satellite P755D-S5172 include a Blu-ray player from the get-go.
Ports/Connectivity.We can't imagine a cheap laptop being sold today without a built-in wireless card of some sort. Some manufacturers offer upgrades to name-brand wireless cards, but that's a laptop feature that thrifty shoppers can ignore.
Unlike a desktop PC with all its appendages -- monitor, keyboard, mouse -- a laptop is a self-contained unit for the most part. Still, there are plenty of devices you can hook up to a laptop's ports and connectors. Most budget models include two to four USB 2.0 ports, although USB 3.0 ports now appear on some budget systems. USB 3.0 ports transfer data several times faster than older USB 2.0 ports, so they are ideal for tasks such as backing up data to an external hard drive. The Toshiba Satellite P755D-S5172 has one USB 3.0 port and the HP ProBook 4440s, Dell Inspiron 14z, and Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M5 each have two. The Dell Inspiron 15R outdoes them all with four USB 3.0 ports. The Toshiba Satellite L755-S5166 uses only USB 2.0 technology.
Many cheap laptops, including the Toshiba Satellite L755-S5166 and the Dell Inspiron 15R, include built-in memory card readers -- a nice convenience for shutterbugs who want to view photos straight from a camera's SD card. If this laptop feature is important to you, look for a memory card reader that supports several types of cards. Most budget laptops, including all of our picks, now include HDMI ports for feeding high-definition video to a TV. The Dell laptops we picked also support Bluetooth 3.0.
Don't Bother Cheap Laptops
Toshiba Satellite P755D-S5172
This laptop comes with some fancy features but disappoints when it comes to essentials such as its processing power and battery life, especially given the relatively high price tag. Budget buyers might just as soon do without extras such as a Blu-ray drive and opt for a cheaper system that delivers better performance. Read more »
Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M5 Review
Toshiba Satellite P755D-S5172 Review
Dell Inspiron 14z Review
Toshiba Satellite L755-S5166 Review
Dell Inspiron 15R Review
HP ProBook 4440s Review
Toshiba Satellite L745-S4210
Dell Inspiron 14R
HP Pavilion g6-1a69
Dell Vostro V131
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