In light of the current deluge of netbooks, you'd be forgiven for thinking miniature laptops are the only option if you're on a tight budget. But, as long as portability isn't your main concern, you can pick up a decent 17-inch model for under £400, as the HP Compaq Presario CQ70-116 proves.
It's available from PC World now for around £370, with free shipping.
HP has opted for a minimalist approach with the CQ70-116. There are no flashy lights, no zany patterns and just a single shortcut button, which switches Wi-Fi on and off. What it lacks in bells and whistles, however, it more than makes up for in build quality -- the lid feels particularly sturdy and offers decent protection against the occasional bump.
With the 17-inch, widescreen, 1,440x900-pixel display requiring a suitably large chassis, there's also room for a full-sized keyboard. The slightly concave, textured keys feel good to type with and HP has even managed to squeeze in a numeric keypad, although, as a result, the arrow keys have been squashed, which hampers usability.
The trackpad is sunk into the smooth and somewhat slippery wrist rest, and, during testing, we found it to be slightly temperamental -- the cursor would occasionally leap across the screen at the lightest touch or not respond at all. A button just above the trackpad lets you turn it off, although it requires a ridiculously firm press.
Two USB ports are situated on the right-hand side, alongside a 56k modem and LightScribe-capable DVD writer. A further USB socket sits on the left-hand side and is joined by a 10/100Mbps LAN port, multi-format card reader, VGA out and, somewhat surprisingly given this laptop's low price, an HDMI port. Microphone and headphone sockets at the front complete the lineup.
Combine a large display with such a low price tag and something has to give. In the case of this laptop, the 'Pentium Dual-Core Inside' sticker gives the game away. Although the T3200 processor trots along quite happily at 2GHz, its front-side bus of 667MHz and 1MB L2 cache hold it back -- it's not the fastest CPU off the block. Two 1GB sticks of DDR2 667MHz RAM back the processor up.
Unsurprisingly, the graphics aren't up to much either. Although the Intel GMA 4500MHD integrated chip can stomach 1080p playback, it struggles with gaming. We managed to get the rather dated Call of Duty 2 up and running but, even at low resolutions, it struggled to get above 15 frames per second.
That said, high-definition video looks good on the bright, glossy, 17-inch display and viewing angles are reasonable, although you do need to be sat directly in front of the screen to get the best picture. The low price also means this laptop misses out on Draft N Wi-Fi -- you have to make do with 802.11b/g. Bluetooth is also omitted and there's no ExpressCard or PC Card slot, but the 160GB hard drive ensures there's a decent amount of disk space for your video library.
A PCMark05 score of 4,036 will set alarm bells ringing for some but, as long as you're not too demanding of the processor, this HP handles most applications well and Windows Vista Home Premium ran smoothly during testing.
Perhaps more of a worry is the 3DMark06 score of just 822. Make no mistake: this isn't a laptop for gamers.
Despite the large display, battery life is quite impressive. In Battery Eater's intensive Classic test, the battery lasted for 1 hour and 2 minutes but, if you're more conservative in your use, it's capable of going for much longer, as proved in the Battery Eater Reader's test, where it powered on for 5 minutes shy of 3 hours.
Although the HP Compaq Presario CQ70-116's 17-inch screen and full-sized keyboard puts it in the desktop-replacement category, the relatively slow processor and integrated graphics mean most people will still need a fully fledged desktop for gaming, video editing and the like. But, for browsing the Internet, word processing and watching video, the CQ70-116 certainly delivers the goods.
Above all, at around £370, it's outstanding value for money.
Edited by Charles Kloet