Critics' Choice: Top 5 Budget Laptops

The critical consensus on the best budget laptops is that there isn't much consensus.

When comparing the ratings from multiple tech reviewers of laptops costing $800 or less, only one model earned high scores and/or an 'Editors' Choice' from multiple reviewers. That's the Asus UL30A, which earned Editors' Choice awards from three reviewers.

So what's up with that? Computer vendors offer a lot of models and variations for the budget market. This can confuse consumers, of course. But it also makes it difficult for specific models to earn top marks from several reviewers. And budget models tend to come with more compromises in power, portability, or other features than more expensive laptops. Those trade-offs are usually reflected in the reviewer's rating.

Even so, as I compared the reviews from various sites, one trend became immediately obvious. Budget laptops from Acer, Toshiba, and Asus tend to get the best reviews.

Separately, PC World recently released its reader survey on reliability and service. In the category of laptops, the vendors with the best reliability and service ratings were, in descending order: Apple, Toshiba, Acer, Gateway, Asus, Lenovo/IBM, Compaq, Sony, Dell and HP.

Consumer Reports, in its own recent reader survey, found that the most reliable laptop brands were (also in descending order) Toshiba, Sony, Compaq, Acer, Apple, HP, Gateway, Dell and Lenovo. (Viewing the Consumer Reports survey requires a subscription.)

And so, the evidence suggests that if you're in the market for a budget laptop, check out models from Asus, Toshiba and Acer. They often get the best reviews in this price category, and their reliability ranks above many of their competitors.

Bottom line: Aside from being wildly unscientific, this month's chart is based less on consensus (because there wasn't much) than the earlier Top 5 charts I did in December (top 5 netbooks) and January (top 5 smartphones). Instead, I graded more by name brand and product line, such as Toshiba Satellite. Then, I chose a model to represent each product line that had earned solid reviews and ratings from at least one reviewer. I also took into consideration PC World and Consumer Reports ratings for reliability.

For this month's chart, I compared reviews from (in alphabetical order) CNET, Computer Shopper, Consumer Reports, LAPTOP Magazine, PC Magazine and PC World. Also, I focused only on reviews that had appeared in the past six months.

1. Asus UL30A-A1

Typical price: $680 Amazon

Pros: "Marathon-level" battery life; decent performance at an excellent price; sophisticated design.

Cons: Touchpad is too close to the keyboard; no optical drive; tiny right-Shift key; screen a bit glossy; poor graphics performance.

Worth quoting: "Taking full advantage of its Intel Ultra-Low Voltage (ULV) processor, this 13.3-inch notebook combines a lightweight chassis with nearly 10 hours of battery life and solid productivity performance. You can get a faster dual-core notebook with a DVD drive for the same price, but if you want lots of endurance and a thin design, the UL30A is a winner." -- LAPTOP review (Editors' Choice; rating 4 out of 5 stars)

"The 13.3-inch LED screen is so thin it deserves a place in Runway Magazine. -- Computer Shopper laptop review (Editors' Choice; rating 8.7 out of 10 points)

"I've seen a bunch of CULV-based laptops already…But so far, the ASUS UL30A-A1 is my favorite. It's cheap, super-thin, and amassed over 10 hours of battery life. As a result, it receives our first Editors' Choice in the CULV category." -- PC Magazine laptop review (Editors' Choice; rating 4.5 out of 5 stars)

Worth noting: Ultraportables in general have often carried a heavy price tag by default, and the Asus UL series is bent on breaking that mold. As always, though, there are compromises with an ultraportable. As PC World put it in its laptop review: "You might find yourself asking if you want to get something that might not run as long, but have more muscle…or forgo a little bit of that power and save a few bucks with a plain ol' netbook."

Another well-reviewed Asus budget laptop is the Asus UL80Vt-A1, which received a 4.5 rating out of 5 stars and an Editors' Choice award from PC Magazine.

2. Toshiba Satellite T135-S1309

Typical price: $530 Best Buy

Pros: Affordable thin-and-light laptop with good battery life.

Cons: Lackluster speakers; no Bluetooth.

Worth quoting: "At this cost-to-performance ratio, we'd say this is the must-get configuration of the Toshiba Satellite T135…And the even better news is that the battery life is just as good as ever. It's still slower than higher-end thin-and-lights, but the T135-S1309 is a nice affordable balance that bargain-hunters should consider seeing in person." -- CNET laptop review (rating 3.5 out of 5 stars)

Worth noting: Along with the strong marks Toshiba has earned for reliability, the Satellite T135-S1309 earned a 'Best Buy' recommendation from Consumer Reports.

This Toshiba Satellite is a retail-only configuration, available from Best Buy stores and the retailer's Web site. A slightly different configuration, the Satellite T135-S1310, is listed as one of CNET's best budget laptops. It costs slightly more and is available from other retailers. But it also includes more memory and Bluetooth and is available in red.

Another Toshiba Satellite model worth considering is the P305D-S8900, which earned 4 out of 5 stars and an Editors' Choice award from LAPTOP.

3. Acer Aspire 5738PG Multi-Touch

Typical price: $718 TigerDirect.com

Pros: Affordably priced touchscreen laptop; excellent performance and speakers.

Cons: Battery life and gaming scores are so-so; screen latch can be tricky; on the high end of the budget price range.

Worth quoting: "The Acer Aspire 5738PG is one very appealing notebook. We're hard-pressed to identify a better mainstream-laptop value for the money. It's fast, it's rich in features, and it can serve as a multipurpose machine for any member of the family. The multitouch capability gives it an edge, but ultimately, we'd recommend this machine even without that." -- Computer Shopper laptop review (Editors' Choice; 8.9 out of 10)

Worth noting: Plenty of other budget Acer Aspire models earned good reviews. I chose this model because of its difference (the touchscreen) and its high score from Computer Shopper.

If a touchscreen doesn't interest you, consider the more conventional Acer Aspire AS1410, which costs about $450. This laptop "may well be the ultraportable that kills the netbook," said Computer Shopper, which gave it an Editors' Choice and an 8.8 rating.


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