Not too long ago, a budget laptop was, by default, a big, ugly plastic box. It may have gotten the job done in terms of school or office work, but it wasn't going to turn any heads at the coffee shop, or fit comfortably onto an airline tray (with the exception of too-small Netbooks, which had their own list of problems).
We'll look back on 2012 as the first year when budget laptops really got a fair shake, with many models looking and acting much more like their expensive cousins than ever before.
Even at the very low end of budget -- laptops that are $600 or under -- you can get a slick-looking, or a powerful .
Here are a handful of recent favorites, from 11-inch ultraportables to 17-inch desktop replacements, each of which costs about half as much as a 13-inch MacBook Air.
The Acer Aspire V5-171-6867 crams the horsepower of a full-fledged budget ultrabook into an 11-inch ultraportable, for several hundred dollars less than most equivalent products. There are drawbacks, of course. The keyboard feels cramped; the touch pad is small; and the larger 500GB hard drive isn't a fast solid-state drive (although, compared with the puny 64GB of space on the entry-level MacBook Air, you're getting a king's ransom of space).
Dell's Inspiron line is one of the few to offer a product for those seeking maximum screen for minimum investment. The Inspiron 17R starts at $599, although our specific review config costs $699. For that extra $100, you trade up from a second-gen Intel Core i3 CPU to a third-gen Core i5, plus get a larger hard drive. However, all these systems are built into a similar chassis as Dell's more expensive 17R SE (or Special Edition) model.
Sony Vaio E ($449)
With performance that's acceptable, but not exactly zippy, and a body that feels a bit plasticky and clacky, I'd be more comfortable with the 11-inch Sony Vaio E at $399, rather than $449. But for portable Web surfing and basic productivity, it does the job. And, thanks to AMD's insistence on including decent graphics hardware from the former ATI (now just AMD's GPU division), this system actually does a decent job of playing games. Read the full review.
Don't let the awkward name put you off. This is one of the best-looking midsize laptops I've ever seen for $599. If you're shopping for that Intel name brand, or high power for gaming (or a high-res screen), this isn't for you, but for mainstream appeal at a budget price, it's a top contender.
Lenovo ThinkPad X130e ($499)
The education-targeted Lenovo ThinkPad X130e is a mixed bag of an 11-inch laptop: not exactly inspiring or all that ergonomic, but built like a tank. At $549 for the AMD E-300 version, it's in the same ballpark as an iPad, and it's far more versatile for everyday use. Read the full review.
Compare these laptops head-to-head.