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Most users posting laptop reviews seem to have modest expectations. These systems aren't designed for high-end 3D graphics or fast-paced PC gaming, but they do excel at tasks such as web surfing, email, photo editing, and multimedia.
CPU.Nothing influences the performance of a cheap laptop computer more than the central processing unit, or CPU. Most laptops use some kind of Intel processor, although a few budget laptops, such as the Toshiba Satellite P755D-S5172 (starting at $580, Amazon), use AMD processors. The more powerful the CPU, the faster the laptop runs -- and, naturally, the more it tends to cost.
The base version of the Dell Inspiron 15R (starting at $550, Amazon) comes with a second-generation Intel Core i3 processor, but buyers can upgrade to a faster third-generation Intel Core i5-3210M for $50 more. An expert from Laptop Mag raves about the processing power of the model with the Core i5 CPU in a laptop review. The HP ProBook 4440s (starting at $480, Amazon), Toshiba Satellite L755-S5166 (starting at $500, Amazon), and Dell Inspiron 14z (starting at $480, Amazon) all use Intel Core i3 CPUs, although a laptop review from CNET knocks the Dell for being a bit slow compared with other Intel Core i3 laptops. You should be able to snag a version with a faster Core i5 processor and still come in under $600. The Dell Inspiron 15R and HP ProBook 4440s start out with Intel Core i3-2370M processors, a step up from the Intel Core i3-2350M CPUs on the Dell Inspiron 14z and Toshiba Satellite L755-S5166. The Toshiba Satellite P755D-S5172, the only laptop on our list that uses an AMD processor, simply isn't as fast as a typical Intel Core i3 laptop, according to laptop reviews from CNET and PC World. The most expensive laptops, including the Lenovo IdeaPad Y480 (starting at $820, Amazon), tend to have speedier Intel Core i7 CPUs.
Memory.The amount of memory (more specifically random access memory, or RAM) in a laptop can significantly influence how well it performs. Most budget laptops, including all those on our list, have at least 4GB of memory. The Dell Inspiron 15R and Toshiba Satellite P755D-S5172, as well as the brand-new Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M5 (starting at $650, Amazon), boast 6GB of RAM. More is definitely better, according to laptop reviews, in part because most budget laptops have an integrated video processor that "shares" memory with the rest of the system. Higher-end laptops and desktop PCs typically have video cards with their own memory built in, so they can process graphics separate from the rest of the system and deliver faster multimedia performance. The integrated video processors in low-cost laptops should be fine for most users so long as the laptop has at least 4GB of RAM to handle the extra demand.
Graphics/Multimedia.Today's integrated graphics processors are capable of handling tasks such as playing photo slide shows and DVD movies without any trouble. They do tend to struggle when running demanding video games, but they aren't optimized for gaming. In some cases, you can choose to upgrade to a dedicated video card with its own memory, but that option is likely to push a laptop out of the budget price range. It's more of a luxury than a necessity for frugal users.
Most of our picks include integrated graphics processors from Intel, but the Toshiba Satellite P755D-S5172 uses an AMD chipset. Graphics performance is one area where this laptop excels, according to a laptop review from PC World. The pricey Lenovo IdeaPad Y480 comes with a separate Nvidia GT640M-LE graphics card with 2GB of dedicated memory, and the video processing power earns plaudits in laptop reviews from CNET and Engadget.
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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