The Laptop: Cheaper but still a workhorse

Written by New York Times | Updated: Dec 23 2013, 07:41am hrs
When people think about mobile computing these days, chances are theyre thinking about smartphones and tablets. But the laptop computer has remained a workhorse, even if it is no longer consumers gadget du jour. The laptop has also become lighter, more flexible andbest of allless expensive.

Perhaps because of that competition from new devices, laptops are available in many styles and configurations for less than $400. Four or five years ago, the low-cost options were limited.

Be forewarned: Laptops

under $400 will not be the fastest speed demons with the most dazzling displays, but the choices are enough to meet a variety of needs. They include traditional-looking laptops that can convert to tablets, conventional laptops with a wide selection of features, and Googles cloud-reliant Chromebooks.

In this realm, however, the

basics of computer shopping still apply. Features to focus on include battery strength, storage space, screen size, screen resolution, expansion ports, wireless capabilities, warranties and weight. It is also important to make sure your performance expectations are met. The processors offered in this range can handle everyday computing tasks, though not at top speeds. And, yes, those technical specifications matter. Paying attention to the little details can help you tell a good deal from a bad one.

Conventional laptops

These are available in a variety of sizes and configurations. On the lower end of the price scale, from Toshiba, the Satellite C55-A5302, is $300 at some Best Buy stores. It comes with a 15.6-inch screen, 500-gigabyte hard drive, 6 gigabytes of memory, a DVD drive, three USB ports, an HDMI port and Microsofts Windows 8 OS.

A unit with a faster processor, the Dell Inspiron I15RV-3767BLK, is $360 at Micro Center. It has a 15.6-inch screen, 6 gigabytes of memory and an Intel Core i3 processor. A step up from the Pentium, the i3 has better performancethough still below others like the i5 or i7. The i3 is available in a number of other units with 15.6-inch screens, including the Toshiba Satellite C55-A5384, at Amazon for about $370 and the Hewlett-Packard 2000 2d62NR, at Micro Center for $330.

For a more compact unit, the Acer Aspire V5-131-2629 is about $360 at PC Connection. It has an 11.6-inch screen and comes with Windows 7, a Celeron dual-core processor, 500 GB hard drive, 4 GB of memory but no DVD drive, and it weighs 3.3 pounds.

Touch screens and convertibles

Touch has improved significantly in laptops, and several models in the sub-$400 range come with touch-screen displays.

From HP, the Pavilion Touchsmart 11-E010nr, with an 11.6-inch touch screen, is at Office Depot for $330. It comes with a 500 GB hard drive, 4 GB of memory and Windows 8. Instead of using the keyboard, you can tap and swipe the screen as you would a tablet. Windows 8 was developed to work seamlessly in this way. This unit has an AMD dual-core processor and weighs just over three pounds.

A touch-screen unit from Asus, the VivoBook X200CA-DB01T, has an 11.6-inch screen and is about $280 at Amazon. It comes with a 320 GB hard drive, 2 GB of memory and a Celeron dual-core processor, and it gets an estimated five hours on a fully charged battery. Dells Inspiron 11 3000 Series Touch, starting at $380 at Dell.com, also has an 11.6-inch screen, a Celeron dual-core processor and 2 GB of memory, though it comes with 500GB of storage and gets an estimated 8.3 hours on a full battery. And an Acer model with a 14-inch screen, the E1-470p-6659, has Windows 8, no DVD drive, an i3 processor and is $400 at Best Buy. Also in this price range are laptops called convertibles. With convertibles, the screen can fold back beneath the keyboard or in some

instances detach from the keyboard, so it can function as a tablet.

From Asus, the Transformer Book T100TA-B1-GR has a detachable 10.1-inch display that can work as a stand-alone tablet. It weighs 1.2 pounds and has Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi, a micro USB port, micro HDMI and a card reader.

Chromebooks

The Chromebook is another type of budget laptop, but with important differences. First, it comes with Googles Chrome OS rather than a conventional operating system like Windows or Apples Mac OS X. As a result, you are locked out of installing programmes that you may already own or wish to buy.

A unit from HP, the Pavilion Chromebook 14-q010nr, has a 14-inch screen, three USB ports and an HDMI port. Office Depot offers one for $300 with 2GB of memory, a Celeron dual-core processor and 16GB of storage.

Laptops in the sub-$400 range cant do what everyone wants a computer to do. But if your goal is to stay within a budget, you may find one that gets the job done.

Thomas J Fitzgerald