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The Best Budget Laptops in 2012 and Buy Laptop Ultimate Guide

Shopping for a laptop is no simple endeavor. There are tons of options out there to consider. You’ll have to decide whether you want a tiny ultra-portable PC that you can take everywhere or a heavy multi-media monster with a 17-inch screen and a Blu-ray drive. How much RAM? What speed processor? AMD or Intel? This guide will help you determine which laptop is right for your needs and budget.

Best budget laptops: Under $500

If you plan on primarily doing e-mail and office tasks and don’t expect to carry around your laptop very often, you should be able to find a machine that suits your needs in this price range: decent battery life, plenty of memory and processor power for all but the most demanding tasks and a hard drive large enough to hold all of your music and photos. Primarily what you sacrifice over the pricier models is style, weight and some advanced options like 3G cellular data.

Samsung NP305V5A-A06US ($499.99)

The 15.6-inch Samsung NP305V5A’s brushed-aluminum-texture finish and sharp styling make it stand out from the usual plasticky look of other budget models. Plus, it’s 1.6Ghz AMD A-Series Quad-Core A6 is by far the most powerful of our picks. Includes 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. Weighs 5.5 pounds. Price: $499.99.

Verdict: Best combination of style and power

HP Pavilion g4 ($499.99)

This attractive laptop sports a 14-inch display with a wide viewing angle, a comfortable keyboard and good audio. The HP Pavilion g4′s 1.65 GHz AMD Dual-Core E-450 processor is the least powerful of our choices, but the Pavilion g4 is also by far the lightest at 4.6 pounds—perfect for everyday computing and occasional travel. Includes 4 GB of RAM and a 500 GB hard drive. Price: $499.99.

Verdict: Gets the job done at home or on the road

Dell Inspiron 15 N5040 ($449.99)

The 15.6-inch Dell Inspiron 15 N5040 is in the middle of the pack in terms of processing power, with its 2.53GHz Intel Core i3 processor, and it’s also the heaviest at 6.02 pounds, but it’s a good choice for those that are looking to perform everyday computing tasks at home. And it’s $50 less than our other picks. Includes 3GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. Price: $449.99.

Verdict: Solid performance at a great price.

Best entry level latops: Under $700

Step up to faster processors and higher-grade materials.

Acer AS5755-6828 ($549.99)

This 15.6-inch machine packs a second generation 2.4GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 4 GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. Acer doesn’t provide an official battery life estimate, but we wouldn’t count on all day performance from this model. That being said, this 14-inch laptop is more powerful than a PC this cheap has any right to. Weighs 5.75 pounds. Price: $549.99

Verdict: Enough power for almost any task at a super price

 Dell Inspiron 14z ($619.99)

Housed in the same classy aluminum housing as the more expensive models, the Dell Inspiron 14z delivers high-performance style and a great 14-inch LED-back display. On the inside, you’ll find entry-level components, like a 2.2 GHz Intel Core i3-2330M processor, 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. Weighs 4.23 pounds. Price: $619.99

Verdict: The best looking model in this price range and relatively low weight for travel

Gateway ID47H07u ($649.99)

Gateway manages to pack a 14-inch display into an aluminum-alloy 13-inch body, which means an ultra-thin 0.2-inch bezel around the display. Plus you get Intel’s Wireless Display technology for watching your PC content on your TV. The notebook is powered by 2.4 GHz Intel Core i5 processor with 4GB of RAM and a 500 GB hard drive. Weighs 4.63 pounds. Price: $649.99

Verdict: The best combo of looks, performance and weight at this price

Best mid-range laptops: $700-$1,300

You’re getting plenty of power, even for video and gaming, bigger hard drives and solid state drive options.

Asus ZenBook UX31 ($1,149.99)

One of the first ultrabooks to hit the market, the 11.6-inch Asus ZenBook UX31 showcases all that makes this class of computer desirable: an ultrathin body measuring 0.67 inches at its thickest, a 2.42-pound carrying weight, a respectable 1.8-GHz Intel Core i7 processor, 4GB of RAM and a speedy 128GB solid state drive. It’s a must-have for anyone who wants portability, power and style. Price: $1,149.99

Verdict: The ultimate in portability and solid state performance

Sony VAIO F Series VPCF234FX/B ($1,218.98)

The Sony VAIO VPCF234FX/B is multimedia powerhouse, with its 2.20GHz Intel Core i7 processor, nVidia GE Force GT 540M discreet graphics card, 6GB of RAM and fast 640GB hard drive. Plus, the 16.4-inch LED-backlit LCD displays a Full HD 1080p image that is crisp and glare-free, thanks to its matte finish. Weighs 6.6 pounds. Price: $1,218.98

Verdict: Serious machine with enough juice for all but the most advanced gamers and video editors

HP Envy 14-2130NR ($949.99)

The Envy 14’s attractive exterior hides a powerful machine driven by a 2.4GHz Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM and a 1GB Radeon HD 6630 graphics card from AMD. It also has a bright 14.5-inch LED-backlit display and 750 GB hard drive. It’s a good buy for a mid-range laptop. Weighs 5.69 pounds. Price: $949.99

Verdict: Best combination of power and price for casual gamers and editing the family videos

Best high end laptops: $1,300 plus

The ultimate in performance and design – the laptops to fill your friends and co-workers with envy.

Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch ($1,709.94)

If you edit a lot of photos or movies, this is the laptop for you. The standard 4 GB of RAM and 500GB hard drive is more than enough for the casual media dabbler. And the 2.2GHz quad-core Core i7 and switchable AMD graphics should blaze through almost any task you throw at it. Turn off the discrete graphics card to get up to 7-hours of life from the non-replaceable battery. At 5.6 pounds the 15.4-inch MacBook Pro is surprisingly light for its size, especially when you consider that the body is made of solid aluminum and not plastic. Price: $1,709.94

Verdict: Simply the best multimedia performance at home or on the road

Asus G74SX-A2 ($1,959.53)

If you’re looking for a powerful gaming machine at a reasonable price, the Asus G74SX-A2 delivers. The 17.3-inch laptop is equipped with a 2.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, a 3GB Nvidia GTX 560M discrete graphics card, and a 980 GB hard drive—all of which will provide the performance needed for tomorrow’s games. Weighs 9.5 pounds. Price: $1,959.53

Verdict: Hands-down, the best gaming machine for the money.

Types of Laptops

Ultra-Portable: If you’re someone who always wants to have your main computer with you and you move around frequently, ultra-portable laptops are for you. They often command a premium over larger notebooks but they’re incredibly light (under four pounds) and usually get fantastic battery life. Ultra-portables pack 11 to 13-inch screens. Ultrabooks, a term trademarked by Intel, are part of this category. By definition, they measure less than 21mm thick, get five or more hours of battery life, use an Intel Core i3, i5 or i7 processor and wake almost instantly from a sleep state.

Thin and Light: Thin and lights make good choices for those who plan to carry their laptop around with them but don’t want to spend the extra cash on an ultra-portable. Most pack 13- or 14-inch screens and weigh under five pounds.

Mainstream: These are your workhorse machines that pack enough power for office software, HD video playback and Web browsing, but won’t break your wallet. They usually have 15- or 16-inch screens and weigh between five and six pounds. These are perfect machines for people who don’t want to spend a lot of money and don’t plan on carrying their laptop around very often.

Desktop Replacement: These are large laptops with high-end components and large HD  and even 3D screens. Some newer models come with 16-inch screens, but more common are 17 or 19 inches. These machines have discreet graphics processors, powerful main processors and often media components such as Blu-ray players and sub-woofers. These are great for those who want to watch HD movies, play demanding 3D games or do video editing, but don’t want to sacrifice the space needed for a desktop computer. Since desktop replacement systems weigh in well over six pounds (with some coming in at an ungainly nine pounds), you won’t be carrying these around very often, but they are mobile enough to move from room to room in a house. Don’t expect to leave these unplugged for too long; with all the power under the hood and the large screens, if you survive more than two hours away from an outlet, consider yourself lucky.

Important Features

Operating System (OS): The operating system is the friendly and pretty go-between that connects you to all the code and circuits that do the actual work. It controls your on-screen programs, handles tasks like creating and saving files and determines what programs you can run.

If you buy a Mac, it’ll come loaded with Apple’s OS X operating system. OS X has its perks—it tends to be faster than Windows and is much more secure. On the downside you can only get it on Macs, which tend to be more expensive than Windows-based PCs, and many popular applications (especially games) are not available for OS X, though that gap is closing.

If you buy a PC, you’ll be looking at Windows 7, the current standard bearer for Microsoft which gives OS X some serious competition in both the eye-candy and usability departments. It’s more than enough to make you forget the disaster that was Vista and includes a redesigned taskbar, which we’re totally enamored with.

You’ll also have to decide which version of Windows 7 is best for you—Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate. Home Premium is sufficient for most home use (e.g., playing videos, Web browsing, and using Microsoft Office). If you absolutely must use applications that don’t work with Windows 7 and use your PC for running a business out of your home, Professional is a worthwhile upgrade that brings XP Mode and enhanced networking and backup features to the table. Ultimate adds some cryptographic and language tools, but unless you’re the type who absolutely must have every feature (just to have them), you can probably skip it.

Whichever OS you choose to go with, just remember that programs that run on Macs generally won’t run on Windows, and vice-versa, at least not without a little bit of trickery. Macs come with a program called Bootcamp, which allows you to install Windows on your Mac (you still have to purchase and install Windows). However, you can’t run Windows applications directly from within OS X, you must reboot into Windows. If you need to switch back and forth frequently, there are other options for that, such as Parallels, which will let you run Windows programs from within OS X, but they also require you to purchase a copy of the Microsoft OS. Again, depending on where you fall on the nerd scale, we don’t recommend this route unless you’ve got some serious computing to do.

Processor: The central processing unit, or CPU, is the brains of the system. Intel is the biggest manufacturer of processors, and you’ll find their CPUs in most laptops. AMD is another (and often less-expensive) manufacturer.

Intel makes a dizzying array of laptop processors—Atom, Celeron, Pentium, and the Core series, which comes in i3, i5 and i7 flavors. Atom processors are made for netbooks, while Celerons and Pentiums are geared at bargain-basement machines intended for e-mail, Web browsing and light computing tasks. If given the choice, opt for a Pentium over a Celeron processor. Core processors are a must if you’re planning to run games, edit photos and video or use your PC as a media center.

Processor speed is measured in gigahertz (GHz), and higher is better. If you’re getting a Core, however, don’t sweat the gigahertz too much. Unless you’re a hardcore gamer or doing heavy video editing, any Core (be it i3 or i5) can handle your needs. For the most intensive computing tasks, the Core i7, generally found in gaming rigs and high-end desktop-replacement systems, is the way to go with its quad-core options and sizable cache.

Intel has made Core processor for two years now. So be sure to look for the numeric extension after the Core designation. If there’s a four digital number, it’s a 2011 second generation chip, which is what you should find in mainstream models. As you might expect, the second generation chips are faster and paired with better integrated graphics.

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AMD processors are often a better deal, when looking at budget and entry level models.

Graphics Card: You’ll only need to look for an upgraded graphics card if you plan on playing games or editing a lot of HD videos. Generally, cards from NVIDIA and AMD will indicate that the laptop has more powerful graphics capabilities. Look for cards with at least 1 GB of video RAM, preferably 2 GB or more if you will be playing cutting-edge games or doing your own video editing.

Memory (RAM): Random access memory (RAM) is where the operating system temporarily stores programs that are actively running and the files currently in use. So the more RAM your computer has, the more it can do at a time, and the faster it’ll run. The good news is that RAM is relatively inexpensive—and it’s the most cost-effective way of improving your PC’s performance.

When deciding how much RAM to get, you’ll want at least 4 GB if you plan on doing light gaming or photo and video editing. For super-intensive tasks (HD video editing, for example) 8 GB or more is best.

Hard drive: Your hard drive is where you’ll store all your documents, photos and programs. The size you need depends on what you’ll be using your laptop for. If you primarily work on documents and want to upload a few photos and such, 250 GB should be plenty—though, like RAM, more is almost always better. As a point of reference, a 120GB iPod can hold roughly 30,000 songs, 150 hours of video or 25,000 photos—but remember that your programs like Microsoft Office and your operating system will eat up a significant chunk of your hard-drive space. If you expect to carry around a lot of music and videos and you keep every photo you ever take, definitely opt for a larger drive. Between 500 and 750 GB should take care of all but the biggest digital pack rats.

Another thing to consider when looking for a hard drive is the speed at which the disc inside rotates. (The faster it spins, the faster you can access the data on it.) Most laptops still come with 5400RPM drives, but if you want top-notch performance out of your laptop, look for one with a 7200RPM hard drive. A faster drive will cost a small premium (say, $20 more), and it won’t make much of an impact on basic tasks like email and Web browsing—but for gaming, handling large files and video editing it can make a world of difference.

If you absolutely must stretch the battery life of your laptop and want the fastest hard-drive performance available—and don’t mind paying a substantial premium—consider going for a solid-state drive, or SSD. Unlike a regular hard disk, an SSD has no moving parts and uses flash memory (just like your USB thumb drive). Because of this, SSDs are less prone to failure than a standard hard drive, can open files and launch applications faster and give you slightly better battery life. The downside is that SSDs are significantly more expensive and can’t quite match the storage capacity of a traditional hard drive. Expect to pay anywhere from $200–$500 more for an upgrade to an SSD.

Laptop Battery: Battery capacity is often measured in cells, however a cell doesn’t deliver a set amount of power. In fact a 6-cell toshiba satellite pro a120 battery in one laptop may actually provide less run time than a four cell in another.

Also, laptops use varying amounts of power depending on processor speed and screen size, among other factors, so you’ll have to rely on the manufacturer for an estimate of battery life. A good rule of thumb is to expect about an hour less than the manufacturer claims. If the estimated battery life is three hours or less, it may be worth springing for an extended notebook battery.

Display: The size of the screen is also going to greatly affect its weight. If you plan on carrying your laptop everywhere, opt for a 11- to 13.3-inch screen and a resolution of at least 1200 x 800 pixels. For a larger 15- or 17- inch screen, you’ll want a higher resolution, preferably 1440 x 900 pixels or higher.

You’ll also want to keep an eye out for laptops with LCDs that have LED back-lighting. LED-backlit screens are brighter, while using less power than traditional LCDs. More and more laptops are coming with LED-backlit screens by default these days. But, if it’s not even an option, it may be worth skipping that model as it’s probably older and destined to be replaced soon.

Wireless Connectivity: Built-in mobile broadband (WWAN) cards use 3G or 4G cellular data networks to get you online even when a Wi-Fi connection is not available. You’ll have to pay for a monthly cellular data plan to use one. Each WWAN card is carrier-specific, so check whether AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile or Verizon has the best coverage in your area before springing for one. Keep in mind that many smartphones now have the ability to create Wi-Fi hotspots, eliminating the need for built-in connectivity.

Optical Drives (CD/DVD/Blu-ray): All but the smallest of laptops should have a built-in DVD drive that records. You’ll want it if you plan on installing software on discs, watch DVDs or burn movies for playback in DVD players.

Blu-ray players can handle all the same media as a DVD drive, plus Blu-ray is the standard for high-definition movies. You’ll need this if you plan to use Blu-ray movies from your home collection to watch on your laptop while traveling. As an added bonus, you’ll be able to hook your laptop up to an HDTV, if your laptop has an HDMI port (as many models do), to watch your Blu-ray discs.

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