Which $1,000 laptop should I buy?

Cheap laptops are easier to find, but are they worth the money?

Five laptops that cost $1,000 or less.
How do the $1,000 laptops stack up?

I used to cringe when folks asked me to recommend a laptop that cost less than $1,000. Granted, there have been laptops at that price for a few years now, but they were generally chunky cases stocked with generations-old components and low-resolution screens--not exactly anything I'd feel good about recommending for use as a primary computer.

Imagine my surprise when computer manufacturers responded to my call for $1,000 laptops with some downright Crave-worthy systems. I expected to receive only 15.4-inch systems, because the larger case provides more room for engineers to work and keeps costs down; but I also found two 14.1-inch systems that didn't break our budget. I expected to receive cases stocked with previous-generation Pentium or Celeron CPUs; on the contrary, all but one of our review units included current-generation processors, graphics, and chipsets. I expected the cases to be leftovers from last year's crop of new laptops; instead, many in our roundup share the same case design as their more-expensive brethren.

One area where my expectations were met: performance. None of the laptops in this roundup sped through our performance benchmarks. But if I'm buying a $1,000 laptop, I'm not expecting to use it for gaming or video editing.

In the end, we were able to round up sub-$1,000 configurations from Fujitsu, Gateway, Lenovo, Sony, and Toshiba. Which ones did I like best? The answer is after the break.

One of the highest-scoring systems in this roundup, the $899 Gateway M-1618 was also my personal favorite. Its case--with a glossy, subtly patterned finish and brushed-metal accents--is the same as you'd find on the company's higher-end systems. Its display is simply beautiful, and the M-1618 is remarkably slim for a low-cost system. In fact, the slim form factor ultimately gave the Gateway an edge over the Sony VAIO CR120 (the other high-scoring system in this roundup). I simply loved having a broad, bright display and comfortable keyboard in such a compact case. The display could be a deal-breaker for some, however: its glossy coating is among the most reflective in this roundup. Also, the AMD Turion 64 X2 processor in the M-1618 posted some of the lowest performance scores in this roundup, though I found it adequate for Web surfing, word processing, and watching movies.

The $1,000 Sony VAIO CR120 was my other favorite. The 5.3-pound system with a 14.1-inch screen is certainly one of the most portable laptops in this roundup, and I'd venture to say it's the most expensive-looking. It has a shimmery indigo lid, silver interior, and chrome detailing, plus pulsating LED lights beneath the case (which can, of course, be turned off). Its flat-top keys required some getting used to, but typing was comfortable overall. Its glossy high-resolution display produces fewer reflections than the Gateway's, though it's still quite prone to glare. With a current-generation Core 2 Duo processor, the VAIO CR120 posted high performance scores, though it was slightly hobbled by its single gigabyte of RAM. It was also one of the most egregious offenders when it came to preinstalled crapware --which may be the reason its price is so low.

When I embarked on this roundup, I knew I had to include Lenovo. Though the Lenovo 3000 line is directed primarily at small businesses, it has long been one of the best deals going if you want to buy a laptop built on the latest Intel processors and platforms. We looked at the 14.1-inch version of the Lenovo 3000 N200 ($984) and were pleased, if not exactly blown away. It's a little chunkier than the VAIO CR120, and it lacks the media features found on the more entertainment-oriented systems in this roundup. But it was among one of the better performers and has a slew of features (fingerprint reader, Lenovo Care support utility, and so on) that will appeal to users who want a straightforward machine for the home office.

The Toshiba Satellite A215-S7437 has an awful lot in common with the Gateway M-1618: both laptops cost $899, both feature 15.4-inch displays, and both incorporate AMD Turion 64 X2 processors. However, the Toshiba is larger than the Gateway, and (worse) posted the shortest battery life of all five systems in this roundup. Its low price also seems to owe something to crapware . We will say, however, that we like the Satellite's display; Toshiba's glossy screen finish produces only slight reflections, effectively balancing the demands of image quality with the demands of onscreen reading. The speakers on the Satellite A215-S7437 are also the best laptop speakers we've heard in a long time.

Alas, someone has to come in last, and in this case it's the $999 Fujitsu LifeBook A6110. It's not that this 15.4-incher has so many flaws--though its battery life left much to desire--but that its chunky case and average performance were underwhelming, particularly relative to other systems in its price range. What the LifeBook A6110 offers above the competition are comfort, with its full-size keyboard and broad, beautiful 15.4-inch display, and flexibility, with room for lots of peripherals and multiple expansion-card choices.

If you've read this far, you're surely wondering about the elephant in the room--two elephants, in fact: HP and Dell. Unfortunately both tech giants were unable to send us review systems that cost less than $1,000 in time for our deadline. However, we did some shopping on their sites to get a sense of how they'd stack up. First, we configured an HP Pavilion dv6500t with identical components to the Fujitsu LifeBook A6110 (1.5GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5250 processor, 2GB of RAM, Intel X3100 graphics, 160GB hard drive, 802.11a/b/g Wi-Fi, Webcam, and DVD burner) for $829. Though we haven't run this system through our benchmark testing, we imagine its performance would be similar to the Fujitu's--and we like the HP's case design.

Things were rockier on the Dell side, where we found a $968 (after $200 instant savings) Inspiron 1520 that included a 1.5GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5250 processor, Nvidia 8400M GS graphics, a 250GB hard drive, 802.11g Wi-Fi, and a DVD burner--but we couldn't get more than 1GB or RAM, nor could we add a Webcam, without going over the $1,000 budget. The slightly smaller Inspiron 1420 includes nearly identical components and 2GB of RAM, but we had to sacrifice the DVD burner to keep the price at $999. Adding the DVD burner pops the price up closer to $1,100.

Overall, it would seem that the Holy Grail of laptop buying--a decent, attractively design laptop with a solid feature set for less than $1,000--is finally within reach. Even better, you can choose among several laptops that meet those criteria. Happy bargain hunting!

About the author

    Tech expert Michelle Thatcher grew up surrounded by gadgets and sustained by Tex-Mex cuisine. Life in two major cities--first Chicago, then San Francisco--broadened her culinary horizons beyond meat and cheese, and she's since enjoyed nearly a decade of wining, dining, and cooking up and down the California coast. Though her gadget lust remains, the practicalities of her small kitchen dictate that single-function geegaws never stay around for long.

     

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