Welcome Holiday Shoppers! We Have a Laptop Special on Aisle Six!

I’ll be frank: I don’t like Black Friday or Cyber Monday. We’re all going to spend way more money than we probably should during the holiday season, and I don’t like to support the crowds and general craziness any more than I have to. So, now that the two biggest shopping days are behind us, we can settle in for more reasonable prices and recommendations. There will definitely be more sales, but what we’re going to look at are the products that we’d recommend even at the regular prices; if you can find these on sale, then by all means consider the recommendations even stronger.

Today’s buyer’s guide will focus on the mobile sector, but let’s not get carried away. Specifically, I’m going to be looking at netbooks, laptops, notebooks, ultrabooks, Chromebooks, etc. What I won’t be covering are other mobile devices like tablets, smartphones, and eReaders; I’ll save those for another guide by someone that knows those markets better than I do. So with that out of the way, let’s talk categories and specific recommendations.

As with our other guides, we like to stick with what we know where possible. That means we’re more likely to recommend something we’ve actually reviewed rather than a laptop we’ve only read about. However, there are products that we’ve had a chance to personally handle even if we can’t give a full review, so we’ll look at anything and everything related to laptops. We’ll break things up into a variety of categories, starting with netbooks and inexpensive ultraportables (i.e. anything less than 13.3” and under $600); we’ll also cover the emerging ultrabook market, but understandably even the cheapest ultrabooks tend to cost quite a bit more than the Atom and Brazos netbooks/ultraportables. Then we’ll start to break into broader categories focused on pricing, with budget, midrange, and high-end laptops and notebooks. We’ll discuss gaming potential, battery life, and other features that you’ll want to look for when shopping for a laptop.

Throughout the guide we’ll have specific recommendations, some alternative offerings, as well as general guidelines for what sort of components and features you should expect at various price points. One area that we tend to focus on far more than manufacturers is display quality; an otherwise good laptop with a mediocre display can feel like a letdown, and conversely an average laptop with a great display might be enough to garner our recommendation. Keyboard and build quality are two more elements that are important, though keyboard quality is often highly subjective. I know there are keyboards I’ve used and despised that others are fine typing on, so consider your own input in this area above what we might say. And with that out of the way, let’s start with the netbooks and other inexpensive offerings.

Going Cheap: Netbooks and Chromebooks
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  • JarredWalton - Friday, December 2, 2011 - link

    I never had a chance to see a 780DXR in person, so I just don't know what the overall experience is like. It appears decent if a little gaudy. Finding credible reviews is also a bit difficult -- I can't find any where they actually measure contrast ratio for example. Pricing is reasonable, though I'd rather get an SSD + HDD hybrid like the ASUS. That's pretty much it: if I haven't tested a laptop and haven't been able to at least see it in person (or find a review from a source that I'd trust), I'm hesitant to recommend it without caveats.
  • Penti - Friday, December 2, 2011 - link

    1600x900 14-inch is fine.

    Still displays like 15" DreamColor on HP use 15W. The technology doesn't scale yet. There are some 12.5" IPS options though. But they might not be the best option for WVA and outdoor readability. IPS is fine but they need to use 3-4W for it to just be a drop in replacement.
  • JarredWalton - Monday, December 5, 2011 - link

    I believe the problem with power on IPS has more to do with the backlighting than the IPS part of the equation. Otherwise, how would iPad and several other tablets manage with IPS? I know in the past RGB LED backlighting used a lot more power than standard WLED backlighting, and I'd assume the high gamut IPS displays in DreamColor are using something similar. Anyway, the fact that IPS can be done in a tablet without losing battery life compared to TN proves it's possible; now we just need a display panel manufacturer to put in the R&D efforts and a laptop manufacturer to use the result.
  • DanNeely - Friday, December 2, 2011 - link

    I've been looking for a succcessor to my EEE1005PR (10" 1366x768 + 11H battery) for a while, but with the premium netbooks having largely switched to 11.6/12" screens haven't been able to find any that isn't a major regression in at least one area.

    The slightly larger laptops all fall on the wrong side of the fits in my pocket threshold; and for wandering around a conference center not having to either hand carry or use a bag is worth the akward lump problems that come with something that only just fits.

    From the other direction, I loose the 1366x768 screen which is a major letdown 95% of the time (140DPI and 8 point font text in a browser don't mix well at arms length); and I've yet to see a 10" C50/60 with more than 6 hours of battery life. I had 6hrs with my 1st netbook and it just didn't cut it, I'd want 8 hours minimum; preferably 9 or 10 to give more margin once the battery starts getting old.

    The EEE-Pad transformer might fit the bill, but although ARMs gotten considerably faster I think it's CPU performance still falls short of the atom which I found barely fast enough to be tolerable and I'd be paying a very large price premium vs a netbook.
  • Sanz84 - Friday, December 2, 2011 - link

    Well my friend has an atom equipped laptop and in html5 performance is even behind my phone. I still think that for long battery life the way to go is an arm processor, at least for now.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, December 2, 2011 - link

    I'd suggest Brazos C-60 as a nice compromise. Better performance than Atom in both CPU and GPU departments; I'd expect its GPU to at least match most smartphone/tablet offerings.
  • DanNeely - Friday, December 2, 2011 - link

    If I could find one with a 10" screen and a suitably long lasting battery I would.

    The only one newegg carries with a 10" screen is the Acer Aspire One AO522-BZ465; I'd be OK with it's screen being 1280x720, but its battery is only rated for 6 hours which isn't long enough. Acer doesn't appear to offer this with a larger battery.

    Searching on google for "10" C60 netbook" only turns up the Toshiba NB550D-10T; which has a 9.5h battery but only a 1024x600 screen. More seriously, it doesn't appear to be available in the US.
  • Meaker10 - Friday, December 2, 2011 - link

    You recommended a gaming machine to get a quadro 2000M?

    GTX560M = 775/1550/625 192 shaders, 24 ROPs, 192bit GDDR5
    Quadro = 550/1100/900 192 shaders, 16 ROPs, 128bit DDR3

    I'd say a 192bit 555M with DDR3 could well do better.

    I'm sorry but for 1080p gaming 128bit DDR3 is a joke, you have cut the bandwidth by over half.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, December 2, 2011 - link

    It's not as fast as GTX 560M, certainly, but it's right in the mix with the GT 555M. The additional shaders relative to 555M help quite a bit, and memory bandwidth often isn't the limiting factor. Certainly more bandwidth would have been nice, and really I'd like the option to forego Quadro if you're primarily concerned with gaming and never do any professional OpenGL work, but that's sadly not an option on the W520.
  • Meaker10 - Friday, December 2, 2011 - link

    I'd agree with you at 768p or even 900p, but at 1080p you are going to have to seriously cull something to ease that memory bandwidth.

    You can see the difference between the 5570 and 6570, often at 1680x1050 you can get a 40% difference in performance, much more than the 20% increase in shader count can cover.

    That's with a slower chipset at a lower resolution.

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