Everex StepNote VA4101M
If a brand-new Windows Vista laptop is your target but funds are in short supply, you face limited options. A full retail copy of even the stripped-down version of Microsoft's new operating system, Windows Vista Home Basic, runs $199, to say nothing of the PC hardware to run it with. That's why a new system from Everex caught our eye. Despite underpowered specs--a Celeron M processor and only 512MB of RAM--the $498 Everex StepNote VA4101M (available at mainstream retailers such as Wal-Mart) makes for an acceptable second system for the most basic usage or a cheap system for kids. The next step up for Vista laptops right now is something akin to the Dell Inspiron E1505, which doubles the price to $999 for a base configuration that includes a dual-core CPU and Windows Vista Home Premium.
Clearly a budget notebook, the Everex StepNote VA4101M offers a no-frills black-and-silver color scheme. It measures 14 inches wide, 10.8 inches deep, and 1.4 inches thick. At 5.7 pounds--add the AC adapter and that increases to 6.3 pounds--it's a little too big for carrying around on a daily basis, and we're not sure it would stand up to the long-term rigors of the road, especially the lid, which flexes easily when touched.
The look is sparse, as one might expect from a $500 laptop. The keyboard tray serves up only a power button and a basic touch pad with two mouse buttons, leaving plenty of wrist-rest room. Connections and features include headphone and mic jacks, three USB 2.0 ports, Ethernet and modem jacks, and a VGA output. Wireless networking comes from a standard built-in 802.11a/b/g connection. We'd have liked to see a FireWire connection and a media card reader, but for the price, it's hard to knock these omissions.
The included 512MB of RAM is less than we'd recommend, even for running Vista Home Basic. Other specs include a 1.6GHz Intel Celeron M 410 CPU, a 60GB hard drive running at 5,400rpm, and a DVD burner. As a fixed-configuration system, these are the specs you're stuck with, so make sure they're enough for your needs. The DVD burner and 5,400rpm hard drive are nice touches, but we'd trade those for 1GB of RAM in an instant. The 15.4-inch wide-screen display, which features a 1,280x800 native resolution, is large for a budget laptop. It's fine for DVD movie-watching and Web surfing, although more expensive systems easily squeeze higher resolutions onto smaller screens.
The StepNote VA4101M keeps the price down by sticking with an older 1.6GHz Intel Celeron M 410 CPU. With the demands of the Windows Vista operating system, you would not want to go any lower than this budget Celeron chip. While the system serves up Web pages, plays media files, and creates office documents without a hitch, the overall response felt sluggish, especially when accessing features and options within the operating system, for instance, when changing display properties or adjusting power settings. CNET Labs' Multitasking test, which involves some intense video encoding, would not even run. Laptops with Celeron CPUs are rare these days, and compared with several recent systems with Intel's Core Solo processor, the StepNote VA4101M fell behind on our Photoshop CS2 and iTunes encoding tests.
On the other hand, compared to the last Everex laptop we looked at, the $500 Everex StepNote NC1500, which had an unusual (and unusually slow) 1.5GHz Via C7-M processor, the StepNote VA4101M felt positively speedy. For the same $500, moving from Via to Intel is a welcome upgrade.
Budget laptops generally use ATI or Intel integrated graphics chips, but the StepNote uses a Via Chrome9 chip (which shares 128MB of the main system memory). For basic media viewing, the difference is negligible, but gaming, except for the most basic casual games, is going to be difficult.
Battery life was, unfortunately, among the shortest we've ever seen. On our DVD battery drain test, we got only 59 minutes out of the included three-cell battery. Everex makes larger batteries for some of their laptop models, but they don't currently offer one that's compatible with the VA4101M. We expected better battery life, given the system's low-end components. To its credit, Everex says that you'll get between 90 and 120 minutes from the battery during normal use (which is less intensive than our DVD drain test).
Everex backs the StepNote VA410M with a standard one-year parts-and-labor warranty. A 24-hour toll-free tech support line is available, as well as e-mail support, FAQ pages, and a user forum. We also appreciated the sticker on the bottom of the system, which included the toll-free phone number and support Web site address. On the Everex Web site, we found a customized page for each model, with easy to access downloads for instruction manuals and drivers.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)