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 - 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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