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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  • s44 - Friday, December 2, 2011 - link

  • banvetor - Friday, December 2, 2011 - link

    Hi Jarred,

    Thanks for the great guide, but I kept wondering if this plain price/category division is the best way to go...

    For instance, the only laptop that you mentioned that even fits my buying needs is the Asus Ultrabook, but I feel that there are other options in the market that were not addressed (HP's Envy, for instance).

    Maybe you could keep the price categorization (up to 400, up to 700, up to 1200, up to infinity?), but add a little more depth inside each category, specially perhaps on the 1200, where there are a lot of things to choose from... The sub-categories could be screen size based, or, even better, weight based...

    I, for instance, need something powerful yet as portable as possible. Currently I have a Dell Latitude E6400, which is very nice, but is starting to show its age. I've been looking for something else at the 14" category, but both the new Envy and the 14z let me down on the screen category... My E6400 has a very nice LED backlit 1440×900 screen, I cannot think about downgrading to a 1366 x 768 screen!
  • piroroadkill - Friday, December 2, 2011 - link

    Haha, I hear you on the screen thing. My laptop is a positively ancient Dell Latitude D800. But it has a 15.4" 1920x1200 screen.
    It might be old, but the battery life is great. I have a bay battery as well as the main battery. I also upgraded it to the fastest 2GHz Pentium M I could get, 2GB RAM, Windows 7 and threw in a 160GB HDD. I also upgraded the GPU to the Radeon 9600 Mobility Pro Turbo.

    Yes, all this stuff is old, we're talking 2005~ish I suppose. But I don't really game on it, and I can't imagine buying a piece of crap 1366x768 screen when I have this beautiful panel..
  • The0ne - Saturday, December 3, 2011 - link

    Yea, those days will not come again. I dislike having lower resolution in the same size screen. Heck even my Dell vostro 17" from 3 years ago is 1920x1200 and the screen was nice, for a TN panel.

    And while the M17xR3 is nice for a new laptop I will continue to hold on to my R2 simply because of the better screen and its size. If anything I can always upgrade the cpu and video card but I'm not of a modern gamer so I'm not worry.
  • cjarrett - Monday, December 5, 2011 - link

    Check out the Sony SA. Its got a great 1080 screen, and can play relatively recent games--though no Alienware.

    It's also really light. Its treated me well thus far.
  • rdamiani - Sunday, December 11, 2011 - link

    1080p screens are the problem, not the solution. A 1080p screen is essentially an ultra-wide SXGA screen - something that was new and hot in 1998. 12 years later I was hoping to see 200+ dpi displays, not the 100dpi that is so distressingly common.
  • dj christian - Wednesday, January 4, 2012 - link

    Where can i see dpi values on screens? And which ones are SXGA which ones are not?
  • Drewdog343 - Sunday, January 22, 2012 - link

  • piroroadkill - Friday, December 2, 2011 - link

    A 14" budget gaming Llano notebook.
    That sounds like a great idea.
    Some mythical specs, a 14.1" 1440x900 16:10 panel, A8-3530MX. Give me 6GB DDR3-1600 because Llano will be carving into system RAM, and give me a 7200 RPM 500GB HDD. Give me a spare mSATA slot inside, so later on I can buy a little SSD on a card and toss it in.

    Cheap the price down, and I'd buy it. A decent quality TN (hah, is that possible?) is acceptable of course, because it'll keep the thing in the right price range.
  • piroroadkill - Friday, December 2, 2011 - link

    An option to upgrade that to, say, 1680x1050 and IPS would also be welcome.
    Matte, all options, of course.

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