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The budget laptop dilemma: Go with a fixed config, or do it yourself?

Freedom versus cost: it's the hand-wringing decision of our modern age. Two laptops put us face-to-face with the ultimate consumer question.

The Gateway NV5807u: $599. Sarah Tew/CNET

This week's review of the Gateway NV5807u and an in-progress review of a higher-end configuration in the Dell Inspiron 15 line raised an interesting question: is it better to configure your laptop yourself online, or buy a premade, all-in-one, retail package?

With Netbook purchases, these decisions are rarely made. The internal specs of Windows XP-running Netbooks have already been locked at the same set for months, and consumer decisions instead run to considerations like design and screen/keyboard size.

With laptops, especially the midrange, it's a totally different story. Our review of the Gateway NV5807u is up, and the Dell Inspiron 1545 review is in progress. But both have similar specs and performance, with the exception of a better video card in the Dell. The Gateway NV5807u costs a mere $599. The Dell Inspiron 1545, as configured from Dell with 256MB ATI Mobility Radeon graphics, runs $794. Both are 15-inch laptops with T6400/T6500 Core 2 Duo processors.

The knee-jerk is to favor the Gateway. It is a great package for the price, and was pretty comfortable to use here at the office. On the other hand, there is no way to add or remove features as one desires. Dell's Inspiron 15 line allows nearly everything to be customized--Blu-ray drives, hard drive, battery size, processor, graphics, screen resolution, RAM, and Wi-Fi card, to name a few. The bit-by-bit purchase process, however, can be a steep and slippery slope from what was a $399 laptop to one that looms near $1,000.

Of course, we've also recently been reviewing a number of retail laptops for our Back-to-School Roundup, some of which have been excellent values. And, sometimes, finding a good laptop model in a retail setting can feel like looking for a needle in a swamp.

Do incremental add-ons appeal to you, or do you prefer discrete, prepackaged machines, like Gateway's NV5807u, where the fixed specs potentially lead to reduced production cost and consumer savings? Do you like the freedom of choice, or the savings of a fixed box?

In the meantime, read our review of the Gateway NV5807u.