Laptops are gradually taking over from desktop PCs, even for use in the home, and with budget machines like the Evesham Quest A235 limbo dancing under the £500 barrier, it's not hard to see why.
To get the price down to just £499, Evesham has had to cut some corners. The most noticeable trade offs are the meagre 512MB helping of RAM and the fact it's loaded with Windows Vista Basic. Nevertheless, there's still enough on offer here to make it worth a look for those who are after a budget machine with a decent range of features.
Just as you wouldn't expect to shop for clothes at ASDA and come out with an Italian designer suit, you can't expect a PC costing half a grand to have killer looks. And while you don't need to manage your expectations to sub-zero levels with the A235, there's no doubt that its slightly plasticky grey-and-silver exterior is not going to get the blood racing.
But while the looks may be a tad dull, the build quality is top-drawer. This machine feels like it's built to last -- the case doesn't flex and creak when you lift it, unlike some other budget models we've seen, and at 2.6kg it's not too heavy to lug around in a backpack, either.
The keyboard also manages to avoid the spongy feel common to lots of budget machines, and as the keys are well spaced, your fingers never feel cramped when you're typing out longer emails or documents. There are also some handy quick buttons giving you one-touch access to applications like Internet Explorer and Windows Mail.
Evesham has loaded this laptop with Windows Vista Basic, which is the entry-level version of the operating system. This means you don't get to use the fancy Vista Aero interface and that Windows Media Center isn't available. If you're moving up from a Windows XP machine you probably won't miss the former, but it's a shame to have to forego Media Center -- it's a genuinely useful way to access music or view photos.
Nevertheless, some additional software is included, such as the Microsoft Works 8.5 bundle of office applications and Roxio's DVD Media Creator for burning discs using the multi-format DVD rewriter.
To drive these applications, the laptop relies on an AMD Mobile Sempron processor 3200+ and 512MB of memory, with a GeForce 6100 taking care of graphics duties. Naturally Wi-Fi is built-in and you get a decent range of ports. Alongside the three USB sockets, there's a mini FireWire port, VGA-out socket and even a handy multi-format memory card reader.
The sturdy build quality, spacious keyboard and bright 15.4-inch widescreen display makes this a laptop that's outwardly appealing, but how does it score in terms of performance?
Unfortunately, it puts in a pretty average showing. The Sempron processor has plenty of grunt for day-to-day tasks, but Evesham has hamstrung its performance by only providing the laptop with a mean 512MB helping of memory. Windows Vista is a good deal more memory hungry than XP and 512MB just doesn't seem to give it enough breathing space.
If you get a few applications up and running at the same time, the laptop can feel sluggish when switching between open windows. This was reflected in its lowly score of 1,687 in our PC Mark 05 test.
It's not really a machine for gaming, either. Unfortunately it refused to run our 3D Mark test, but the onboard GeForce 6100 struggled to achieve a decent frame rate in Far Cry.
Battery performance is distinctly average, too. In our test it managed to keep running for 1 hour and 20 minutes. That's not a terrible showing, but we've seen other machines with a similar specification in this price range manage to eek another 20 to 30 minutes out of their power packs.
On the plus side, the 15.4-inch widescreen display has a sharp resolution of 1,280x800 pixels and is bright and evenly lit, so it's as good for viewing Web pages as it is for watching movies. The built-in speakers, although not exactly neighbour-botherers, can pump out music at a decent volume and most people will find the 80GB hard drive spacious enough for storing a decent amount of photos, music, videos and documents.
Although not the hottest performer around, we wouldn't completely count out the Evesham Quest A235 -- it still has a number of plus points going for it. The screen is good, the keyboard and trackpad are comfortable to use and it feels like it's built to last. The real problem with it is that it just doesn't have enough memory to comfortably deal with the extra demands of Windows Vista.
Evesham gives buyers the option of upgrading to 1GB of memory for an additional £60, and we think in that configuration it would be a much more attractive purchase.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Kate Macefield