"Dress for Less": Choosing the Best Budget Laptop

We are going to take a closer look at the budget notebook solutions available in the today’s market. We will look at the sub-$800 models from Acer, ASUS, Fujitsu, HP Compaq, LG, Samsung and Toshiba and try to find out what exactly the user can get for such an attractive price.

by Vasily Melnik
12/01/2005 | 03:03 PM

As we were preparing our review of sub-notebooks and were scanning price lists in an attempt to cover as many models as possible, we made note of the fact that today’s notebooks cover a very wide price range and the most affordable model could be bought for a mere $600. That was a curious fact indeed but we let it rest for a while to return to this topic later for a more detailed investigation.

 

And now, after we’ve delved deeper into the matter and fingered some of the models available, we can state that the $600 bar is not so very real. Yes, you can buy a new notebook for that money, but you will get either a VIA or a Transmeta processor, neither of which can be considered an appealing option at all. We have no doubt such notebooks will also find their user who is utterly limited in his/her IT budget, but it goes without saying that they are far inferior to systems on the Intel Celeron: notebooks based on VIA’s and Transmeta’s processors are three and two times slower, respectively, than those based on mobile Celerons. A Transmeta-based notebook would be about $100 cheaper than a Celeron-based one of the same configuration, but this cannot justify the difference in performance, of course.

Another serious problem with $600 notebooks is their generally low quality of manufacture – they are usually assembled by local integrators or obscure firms that don’t hesitate to use obsolete parts like CD-ROMs instead of DVD-burners or combo drives. So these are the reasons for our deciding not to include such notebooks into this review.

We eventually picked up a few brand-name notebooks which at least didn’t have any problems with the quality of manufacture and we discovered that the user could pay a mere $800 to get a new well-equipped notebook capable of doing almost any office work. As for multimedia applications, we’ll talk about them later, after we’ve performed our tests. There are not as many models included as in our review of sub-notebooks just because the low-end notebook class is only emerging. It was impossible even to think of buying an $800 notebook as recently as the last spring.

But this is just the beginning. If this market sector develops further, it will be much simpler for people who need an inexpensive home or office PC without any high performance in 3D, to buy a notebook rather than a desktop computer. So far, low-end notebooks do not threaten their desktop mates because $800 is still too high a price if compared with that of an average desktop system with a CRT monitor that costs something like $500-600 – you can’t get a new notebook for that money yet. But again, this is only the beginning, and we are going to give you a report of the current state of this new and growing market sector right now.

Testing Participants

Acer Aspire 3003NLC

This is the single brand model with a non-Intel processor we could find for this review. The Aspire 3003NLC is based around an AMD Mobile Sempron 3000+ with a frequency of 1.8GHz which seems to be a nice alternative to the Intel Celeron. In sheer performance, this CPU is definitely not a VIA or a Transmeta. The only thing that may disturb you is the employed chipset from SiS. This company’s produce cannot quite match Intel’s. Well, let’s not anticipate. We will talk about the performance of the notebook later on, while now let’s just have a look at it.

It looks cute on the whole, but one gets an impression that the manufacturer just has too much of plastic they don’t know what to do with:

The margin around the keyboard and the screen bezel are almost 2 centimeters wide, making the Aspire 3003NLC the widest model among the reviewed. Mingled with this is the negative impression from the quality of the case proper. The case just lacks robustness. If you take this notebook by a corner and lift it up, the case will sag quite frighteningly. The matrix is not protected well, either. There appear fancy patterns on the screen at a slight press on the back of the lid. I am afraid this notebook won’t live through any serious fall, even from a desk.

The Acer Aspire 3003NLC comes with Linux OS preinstalled. That’s why there is only one sticker left on the case:

The lack of Windows is an obvious drawback in my opinion: you will see models in this review that cost about the same money but come with the more traditional OS. Of course, saving on the OS is one of the simplest ways to make a notebook cheaper, but an average user will probably have to spend more for a copy of Windows in addition to the cost of the notebook itself, unless you are a Linux user, of course :). The system is not set up at all, so you can’t just power on and get to work with the Aspire 3003NLC.

The carcass for Acer’s entire 3000 series is in fact the same, be it a low-end device or a rather expensive notebook with a full-fledged Pentium M inside. And I can’t really find any serious faults with the ergonomics and the placement of the connectors, maybe except for the front panel:

It’s funny to see the buttons to turn on/off Bluetooth and Wi-Fi interfaces on a notebook that lacks such adapters.

The indicators of the notebook’s power source (battery or wall socket) on the left of the decorative buttons do work, while the IR port is sealed up. The separate line audio output is a plus, of course, but I don’t think that putting all the audio connectors on the front panel is a good solution from the point of view of ergonomics. The audio cables will get under your hands whether you put the notebook on a desk or on your laps. The USB port to the right of them is helpful when the notebook is on a desk, but it wouldn’t be convenient to hold the computer on your laps if, for example, a USB flash drive is plugged into this port.

Telling you the truth, there are not so many ports in this notebook:

All you can find on the right panel is a LAN and a modem connector, two USB ports, and a PCMCIA slot. There are gags in the S-Video output and the FireWire port – they have fallen victims of the notebook’s demotion into the low-end category.

The left panel is actually empty, save for the optical drive:

Besides the battery, the rear panel carries a video output for an external monitor and a power adapter connector.

Considering the full width of the notebook, the keyboard might have been wider:

Yet I have no big complaints about it. It is designed like a classic notebook’s keyboard. Everything’s in its right place, except the arrow keys. The arrows do double duty and adjust the brightness and contrast (and the user cannot adjust these parameters with one hand as the result), and there are also the Euro and Dollar symbols above the Arrow Right and Left keys which are going to be a big nuisance when you are typing text in blindly.

What deserves my praises is the additional block of keys to control a media player:

I like this innovation really. I am also glad to find some quick-launch buttons here:

But the application the “E” button is expected to evoke is not supplied with the notebook by default. The touchpad is good here:

With its large cute buttons and a 4-position scrolling joystick and a large cursor-controlling field it gets the highest mark from me without a doubt. The bottom of this notebook is quite a rough terrain:

And there is a defect here, typical of many notebooks: the vent openings are located in such a way that they get blocked by the user’s legs if the notebook is placed on the laps. And I should say this is far from a normal scenario for this particular model because low heat dissipation is not listed among the features of AMD’s Mobile Sempron processors.

Not well protected against damage, the screen itself is far from perfect, too. The maximum brightness is rather low; the viewing angles are narrow; the color reproduction is poor (the matrix is wrong about each reproduced color almost); and the matrix speed is mediocre. The highs I can spot are the good level of min brightness, uniform backlighting, and correct reproduction of the darkest and lightest colors. This display may do only for office applications and for the Internet, but it does not suit at all for viewing photographs, watching videos or playing games.

The notebook’s battery has a standard size:

But it is not so very standard when it comes to its capacity:

I say, it is kind of a fake battery. It looks like a normal battery, but its weight is that of a plastic copy. The manufacturer seems to have just thrown half the elements away to reduce the cost which is a very arguable solution. The notebook won’t last long on such an accumulator. It is more like an integrated UPS rather than a battery that would allow you to work autonomously. This whole series of notebooks from Acer uses the same power adapter:

And its parameters are typical enough:

Besides this power adapter, the accessories to the Aspire 3003NLC include only a couple of CDs with software.

The overall impression is negative, I should confess. The notebook doesn’t deserve your attention. Its case is flimsy, its battery has a reduced capacity, its screen is mediocre, and its size and weight are big – and there is nothing to compensate for all these deficiencies with. The performance tests (see at the end of the review) are going to be an opportunity for the Aspire 3003NLC to gain some points, yet I doubt it is worth your money even if its performance proves to be high. The manufacturer just overdid it with the cost-cutting in this particular case.

ASUS A3500L

I won’t dwell on this one for long as we have already reviewed it on our site in the article called ASUS A3500L Notebook: Stylish Doesn’t Mean Expensive. I’ll just give you some bare facts. The first fact is that the notebook has got cheaper and now costs about $800 instead of $1000. In the total of its characteristics and the configuration the ASUS A3500L is in fact one of the leaders of this review. The only thing I can complain about is that its USB ports are all rather inconveniently placed on the rear panel. The screen is not actually perfect, either. The maximum brightness is rather too low and the speed of the matrix might be higher and the colors might be more saturated. The rest of the display characteristics are good, however, and taken as a whole, it is not worse than the best LCD screens in this test session (I mean the Fujitsu Siemens Amilo Pro V2030 and the HP Compaq nx6110). For a mere $800, the user gets an excellent high-quality notebook, which besides the compact size (like that of a notebook with a 15” screen) features an advanced enough configuration. The selection of I/O connectors is fine, and there is even an SD/MMC/MS card reader built in. Moreover, this sample, unlike the sample we tested in our lab earlier, is shipped with a traditional bag ASUS includes with all its notebooks.

With its full-capacity battery, not-so-bad LCD display and preinstalled Windows XP Home Edition, the A3500L is one of the best buys in this class of devices. My subjective feelings from working with this notebook are very positive, while the objective performance numbers will be given to you at the end of the review. I think it is a very appealing option to buy an $800 notebook that looks more expensive than it really is and differs from the senior models in a slightly cut-down configuration only.

Fujitsu Siemens Amilo Pro V2030

Notebooks from Fujitsu Siemens are not so very numerous and widespread and it is also quite strange to see this brand in the low-end sector. Yet this notebook model exists, so let’s see what the engineers from Fujitsu Siemens had to cut down to meet the very appealing price of $735. It is all right with the exterior:

People who like the modern stern style should appreciate the original mix of black and white and the lack of excessive roundness of form in this design. The closed notebook looks nice as well:

I guess one of the important features of this design is that the notebook looks more expensive than it really is. This model will undoubtedly be welcome among corporate clients. It doesn’t offer you too many interfaces, but you can find everything in this computer you would have expected to find and even some more. There is nothing besides the lid latch on the front panel and it is good:

The battery, an output for an external monitor, a Kensington lock slot, and two USB ports are located at the rear panel:

The rest of the connectors are placed on the notebook’s sides. The left side carries a DVD/CD-RW drive, power adapter and modem connectors, two more USB ports, a headphones output and a microphone input:

The right panel has more free space left as it carries only a LAN connector, a PCMCIA slot and a FireWire port.

The configuration is quite advanced for the price asked and it’s all right from the ergonomics standpoint, too. The connectors are all where they should be. I guess the renowned brand just couldn’t have done it offhandedly, so even a low-end notebook from Fujitsu Siemens is a more than satisfactory product. Yet I want to express some criticism about the keyboard:

It’s unacceptable for a normal-sized notebook with a 15” matrix to have reduced-width keys on the right. The top row of keys should have also been made normal size, I think. The cursor-controlling keys are placed rather inconveniently: they are cramped in the bottom right corner and the size of the keys is unnatural.

The same goes for the right Shift, while the Enter key has the proper shape and size. The touchpad is designed in the classic way: a touch-sensitive field accompanied with two buttons.

I have no gripes about the touchpad; it is quite user-friendly. There are few additional buttons on the Amilo Pro V2030:

Fortunately, they are no “dead” buttons among them as on the Acer Aspire 3003NLC. The Wi-Fi On/Off button works and the appropriate adapter is present.

The display is good. The limited viewing angles, low matrix speed and insufficiently saturated colors are the only drawbacks. The rest of the parameters of this screen are satisfactory at the least. It’s nice to see such a good LCD screen in a low-end notebook – you can sometimes run into a much worse display in a much more expensive notebook.

The notebook comes without any OS preinstalled. Unlike Acer, Fujitsu Siemens plays fair. They leave you the choice of the operating system, and make it very clear that no OS is included.

You can find nothing very interesting on the bottom panel:

It’s just funny to see a blocked vent opening here:

The real vent opening is actually located in the center of the panel which is its proper place – it won’t get blocked by the user’s legs when the notebook is held on the laps. As for the sealed opening, it is intended for more advanced configurations that can be assembled in the same notebook carcass. For the given notebook model, however, the extra vent opening is just not necessary.

The battery is like Acer’s – normal size, but half the normal capacity:

The power adapter doesn’t differ much from Acer’s in size and parameters:

The Fujitsu Siemens Amilo Pro V2030 gives me an odd impression. Its only serious drawback is the half-capacity battery, yet it would have been hard to arrive at the price of $735 by simply including a half battery and not including an OS. The answer can be found in the specification: the notebook is based on VIA’s system logic, the VN800 chipset and the UniChrome Pro graphics processor. Frankly speaking, I didn’t feel any discomfort for that fact, while the FireWire and Wi-Fi interfaces make up for the half battery and the lack of the OS with interest, considering the notebook’s price. The Amilo Pro V2030 will suit perfectly to people who want a desktop office PC with normal functionality for a reasonable sum of money. The Acer Aspire 3003NLC is its only competitor among the reviewed notebooks when it comes to the technical parameters, yet the Aspire costs more and its workmanship is worse.

The Amilo Pro V2030 won’t suit you if the battery life is your priority – its reduced-capacity battery cannot ensure an acceptable time of autonomous operation.

HP Compaq nx6110

The nx6110 series includes many notebooks with varying configurations among which there is a low-end configuration as well. I want to make it clear from the start that the manufacturer didn’t save on the stuffing: this is one of the two notebooks in this review based on the newest mobile platform from Intel, Sonoma. It is even rather odd to see an i915GM chipset, a Wi-Fi adapter, a FireWire port, a full-capacity battery, and preinstalled Windows XP Home Edition in a low-end notebook. The price of $820 doesn’t seem high at all, especially as this is one of the smallest, neatest and best-equipped notebooks included into this review.

The appearance of this computer is very official:

Even when closed, the notebook seems to be nothing but a tool for a corporate employee.

As I worked with this machine, I often caught myself thinking that I had seen and touched all this before. When designing this series, HP obviously held products with the IBM logo as the example – there are too many parallels, from some design nuances to the shape of the keyboard and the touchpad. And just like IBM’s notebooks, the nx6110 doesn’t offer too many interface connectors to you. The front panel is empty altogether:

There is only a group of LED indicators on the left of it:

The battery and the power adapter connector are the only things located at the rear panel:

The I/O connectors are mostly gathered on the left panel:

These are two USB ports, a D-Sub output for an external monitor, modem and LAN connectors, a FireWire port, a PCMCIA slot. The PCMCIA seems to be of the rare “two-storied” variety called “Type 3”:

But it is in fact an ordinary PCMCIA Type 2 slot – the bottom “storey” alone is in use.

The DVD/CD-RW drive and the audio connectors were put on the right panel:

A nice little feature is that the interface connectors are all labeled on top, so you don’t have to look at the side panels to attach a peripheral.

The keyboard is not perfect, but much better than keyboards of many other notebooks included into this review.

What pleased me most was the properly designed block of cursor-controlling keys:

And this additional block of navigational keys:

The touchpad feels like IBM’s. It has the same positioning accuracy and a pair of superb, smooth buttons which are a real pleasure to touch.

Despite its plain appearance, it is the best touchpad in terms of ergonomics among the tested notebooks. The Power and Wi-Fi buttons are equipped with LED indicators:

The Power button is designed properly, too. It is rather large and you quickly find it at a first glance over the notebook.

The screen is much better than the one of the above-described Acer Aspire 3003NLC, the drawbacks being the not-very-high maximum brightness, small horizontal viewing angles, average speed, and not-very-saturated colors. The rest of the parameters like the uniformity of backlight, the reproduction of the skin color, etc., are quite satisfactory. In fact, the nx6110 features one of the best LCD screens among the reviewed notebooks (the screen of the Fujitsu Siemens Amilo Pro V2030 can only be compared with it), but dynamic games do not look very good on it. On the other hand, the notebook doesn’t have a discrete 3D graphics accelerator, so 3D gaming is not possible anyway. You shouldn’t also buy this notebook if you work in brightly lit rooms – this LCD matrix doesn’t look good under strong external lighting.

The bottom panel seems plain enough, carrying HP’s traditional informational stickers and having an improperly placed vent opening:

The only thing all models from the nx6110 series have in common is the connector for an additional battery:

So even users of low-end notebooks from HP can buy a second battery and make the computer work considerably longer autonomously. And unlike the manufacturers of the two above-described models, HP did not save on the default battery:

Its capacity matches its size, so you shouldn’t worry about the battery life of the nx6110. It should be quite normal for that class of devices.

The power adapter is standard, too:

In brief, the low-end nx6110 is just an ultra-lite version of the senior model of the series and, based on the new platform from Intel, offers good opportunities for further modernization. That said, this notebook is originally equipped so well that you may only want to add some more memory to it for comfortable work – the manufacturer has already taken care about the rest. The HP nx6110 notebook is one of the best products in its class. People who want a notebook, but can’t spend more than $800-850 for it, should certainly appreciate such features of the nx6110 as the Sonoma platform, good configuration and functionality, and the renowned brand.

LG LS50e

Just like the above-described notebook from HP, the LG LS50e is the result of making a more expensive model cheaper by cutting down all the “extras”, but LG took an older model as the basis and cut somewhat deeper. Having none of the HP nx6110’s office features, the appearance of the LS50e is strictly neutral:

This notebook will look in its place both at home and in office.

And like the HP, the LG LS50e has all of its connectors placed properly. The front panel, for example, carries nothing except for a couple of LED indicators of power:

The rear panel accommodates the battery and a power adapter connector next to which LAN and modem ports are located:

The S-Video output, available on the senior notebook models, is blocked here:

To the right of it is the hole of the Kensington lock.

The left panel offers you two USB ports, a headphones output and a microphone input:

Also on the left panel, under a flap panel, there are an LPT port and a D-Sub output:

The right panel carries one more USB port, a DVD/CD-RW drive, and a PCMCIA slot:

The holes for FireWire ports and a card-reader are blocked with plastic gags:

The keyboard – one of the few keyboards in this test session – can be described as a “correct” one:

The only things you might complain at are that the screen brightness cannot be adjusted with one hand and that the Delete and Insert keys are combined into one – traditionally for LG.

This very inconvenient combination is quite irritating when you’re working with text. The volume control and Power buttons are designed in LG’s traditional style.

The touchpad is plain, with two rather stiff buttons and a large touch-sensitive field.

The LCD screen of the LS50e is a typical office display. The range of brightness is wide, with good min and max points. There are no bright areas on a black background; the backlight is uniform on the entire screen; the “clipping” effect is not observed. On the downside, the matrix has small viewing angles, a poor color reproduction with low color saturation (the onscreen image looks rather faded), and a low response time. This screen is a normal choice for office applications, but you’d better find some other notebook to watch movies and view photographs.

The bottom panel is quite traditional:

There are no extra things here; the vent opening is again placed wrongly. You can see a funny list of screws here, necessary to assemble the notebook:

All notebooks from LG come with the same battery:

This makes purchasing an additional or new battery an easy matter – you don’t even have to name your model as they are all the same practically.

The power adapter is quite typical, too:

Despite the cute design and the smallest thickness among all the tested notebooks, I can’t call the LG the best buy. Its ergonomic properties and configuration are inferior to the HP nx6110, the price being the same. On the other hand, you should not dismiss this model altogether. The i855GME chipset is not downright obsolete yet, and the LS50e itself leaves a nice overall impression. It is a well-made pretty-looking model that is certainly going to find its user.

Samsung P28

Like some other manufacturers, Samsung didn’t invent anything new, but offered a “light” version of the P28 notebook in the low-end sector:

The model is rather old and was once positioned as an expensive office notebook. The distinguishing feature of this computer is its chipset which is made by ATI rather than by Intel, as usual.

Our modification comes with 512 megabytes of system memory by default, which is a nice thing, too. The exterior is demure enough, without any designer’s whims. The notebook seems just a little bit fat, maybe.

The front view makes that impression stronger:

The developers made a mess of putting the interface connectors around.

I can put up with having COM, LPT and D-Sub ports on the rear panel, but it is not a good solution to put three out of the notebook’s four USB ports there!

The right panel carries a DVD/CD-RW drive and a battery compartment:

The rest of the interface connectors are on the left panel:

Namely, modem and LAN connectors, a PCMCIA slot, a headphones output and a microphone input, a USB port, an S-Video output, and a 6-pin FireWire connector (which is a rare connector for a notebook).

The keyboard is of the classic design, without any reduced-size keys:

The separate block of navigational keys is a clever solution, I think.

But the block of the cursor-controlling keys is implemented inconveniently:

The developers must have decided to combine just everything in there, and even put a second Fn key and a Context Menu key nearby.

The touchpad matches the overall “rounded” design of the computer:

It is rather small, but works well. The LED indicators of the notebook’s status are all gathered a little above the keyboard in a single group:

The only really stylish design element is the Power button:

The Samsung P28’s is not the best LCD screen possible. Yes, its brightness adjustment range is wide and it does display the entire range of colors from the darkest to the lightest, but the rest of its characteristics are far below the norm – response time, color reproduction, viewing angles, backlight uniformity. This screen may suffice for an office computer that is not meant for work with images, but there are notebooks with much better LCD matrixes in this review that cost about the same money as the P28.

The bottom panel is ordinary:

You can see the cover of the memory compartment. The vent opening is placed wrongly here, just like it is on many other notebooks.

The cover over the battery compartment is fixed with a small latch:

When you unlock it and remove the cover, you can extract the battery by its cloth tail:

The size of the battery is ordinary:

The manufacturer doesn’t declare its capacity, mentioning the voltage only:

Unlike the battery, the power adapter doesn’t conceal its characteristics:

The most interesting thing about the Samsung P28 is the ATI chipset and the Mobility Radeon 9000 graphics controller which should work much faster than Intel’s integrated graphics core. And we can really see the difference in tests, both real-life and synthetic ones. For example, this notebook allows you to play Unreal Tournament 2004 in 1024x768x32bit video mode at modest graphics quality settings – the frame rate is about 25-30fps in average and never sinks below 20fps. I don’t say this is a marvel, but the competitors can’t do even that. The nx6110 with the Intel GMA900 graphics core would often be as slow as 9-10fps under the same conditions which is of course below playable level. The rather slow matrix doesn’t allow me to recommend the Samsung P28 as a gaming computer, but if you do need some more speed in 3D applications, you may want to take a look at this one (by the way, if you don’t like its appearance, try to find the black version which looks much better).

The P28 is an average product. With its price and configuration, it is an offer that’s worth considering, but there are better models in this review, especially with better LCD matrixes.

Toshiba Satellite M35X-S111

In configuration and design, this is one of the most interesting notebooks in this review. It seems to aspire to be a small version of a desktop replacement notebook.

The design has a lot of small details typical of Toshiba’s notebooks, so you should guess the manufacturer at a glance. Unlike the Samsung P28, the Satellite M35X-S111 only wins from having a curvy outline:

But the placement of the connectors is as wrong as on the Samsung P28.

It’s all right to have an output for an external monitor, an S-Video output and LAN and modem connectors on the rear panel, but why put two out of the notebook’s three USB ports there? The front panel only carries the LED indicators of the notebook’s status:

The DVD/CD-RW drive is on the left panel:

FireWire and USB ports, a PCMCIA slot, headphones and microphone connectors are on the notebook’s right panel.

An analog volume control is a traditional feature of Toshiba’s products:

And it is convenient, for example, for the InstantOn system that allows listening to Audio CDs without booting the OS up.

We’ve got a standard keyboard here:

It bears a few distinguishing Toshiba traits like the Windows and Context Menu keys being at the top:

The block of arrow keys is implemented correctly:

A block of playback controls for the InstantOn mode are located in the left part of the keyboard:

Above the controls are a Power-On button and two LED indicators (of HDD activity and InstantOn mode).

The computer is equipped with a classic touchpad:

Its small size is its only drawback – the buttons and the touch-sensitive area are smaller than usual, but don’t make it altogether unhandy. You just have to get used to it.

The only thing I didn’t like in this notebook was its screen. Its maximum brightness is still rather low, its viewing angles are narrow, its colors are dull, and its speed is low. This is quite a long list of drawbacks, don’t you think? As for the good points, the “clipping” effect is not observed, t skin color is represented naturally, the minimum brightness is really low, the black color is really black, and the backlighting is uniform.

The Satellite M35X-S11 is equipped with the best audio subsystem of all the notebooks tested in this review. It even has a surround sound mode.

Of course, the 3D sound mode didn’t impress me at all, but the quality of the sound was really good for such small speakers.

The notebook comes with a Wi-Fi adapter as the sticker informs you:

Another sticker suggests that you buy an external USB device to enhance the notebook’s multimedia functionality:

I wonder if this thing is necessary at all for a low-end notebook. Could this gadget have been developed exclusively for the M35X-S111?

There’s a battery and a memory compartment on the notebook’s bottom:

It is easy to take the battery out:

And its parameters are quite good:

The power adapter doesn’t differ from any other power adapter of that class:

 

If it were not for the poor quality of the LCD screen, the Satellite M35X-S11 might be one of the best products in this test session as its all other parameters are quite satisfactory. Anyway, you may want to consider this model, if you are shopping for a home notebook and are not going to watch dynamic movies on it.

Testbed and Methods

The tests were performed in a freshly installed Windows XP Professional SP2 operating system set up for the maximum performance and with a minimum of installed programs necessary for normal operation of the computer. We disabled the wireless and selected the “portable/laptop” power management scheme in which we prohibited to turn off hard drives and the monitor and to enable the screensaver and the standby mode.

The screen brightness was set at 120-130 candelas per sq. m for the battery life tests by means of an industrial luxmeter. This allows for better comparison than if we tested at the maximum screen brightness alone (the battery life measurements at the max and min brightness of the screen are also listed in the tables below).

Our selection of tests is quite traditional. To check out the performance of the notebooks in office and multimedia applications we ran Business Winstone 2004 and Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004. We also launched PCMark to measure the overall performance of the notebook as well as that of each of its main subsystems. 3DMark 01SE was run to evaluate the performance of the integrated graphics subsystem of the notebooks.

The last test is Battery Eater Pro 2.50 that measures the time of autonomous work in two modes (Reader’s and Classic), the difference between them showing the efficiency of the power management system setup of each notebook.

The only performance benchmark we performed when the notebooks were working on their batteries was PCMark whose results are listed in the summary table because they do not differ from the results which the notebooks have when connected to a wall socket. We already wrote in our earlier reviews that when the portable/laptop power management scheme is selected, the notebook automatically yields its full processing power when necessary and the results of the tests do not depend on the power source. Roughly speaking, the system settings in the Classic mode correspond to the settings of the Always On scheme, and in the Reader’s mode to the Max Battery scheme. That’s why there is not need to test each of these modes separately (we made sure of that again by checking the ASUS, Toshiba and HP notebooks on their batteries in Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004).

Performance Analysis

If you want all the results right now, and for easy comparison of the tested notebook models, here is a summary table where the maximums in each of the tests are marked in red.

To make a correct comparison, you may also want to take a look at the table of technical characteristics of the notebooks.

I say the overall picture is funny enough. If we put aside the battery life tests, two notebooks have won the most subtests and they are Acer Aspire 3003NLC and Samsung P28! The former wins the CPU and memory tests and is the fastest at executing the scripts of multimedia applications in Multimedia Content Creation Winstone. The latter is superior in the tests of the graphics and disk subsystems as well as in the scripts from Business Winstone 2004 (for which the hard drive performance is very important). But let’s discuss the things in some order, one test after another.

PCMark04

These diagrams have one thing in common. As you can see, the leader is the same in each of them and it is Acer Aspire 3003NLC. The other notebooks are so close to each other that we can regard them all as having roughly the same performance. It’s only on the diagram of the memory subsystem test that the numbers differ a lot – we’ve got roughly three groups of notebooks there. The first group is comprised of the Acer Aspire 3003NLC alone; the second consists of all the notebooks on the Intel chipset; the two “alternatives” on the VIA and ATI chipsets make up the third group. It seems that manufacturers other than Intel just can’t develop a chipset for Intel’s processors capable to match Intel’s own chipsets. Well, I don’t think this is news to anyone, so let’s get back to the notebooks.

Nothing very surprising here – the Mobility Radeon 9000 graphics controller in the Samsung P28 is beyond competition in 3D applications as far as the term “3D graphics” can be applied to this category of notebooks. The Samsung is followed by the two models with Intel’s latest graphics core GMA900. Among the rest of the notebooks you may want to note (out of pure theoretical interest) the results of the Fujitsu Siemens Amilo Pro V2030 with the UniChrome Pro graphics core and of the Acer Aspire 3003NLC with the SiS M760GX. The former was a good match to Intel Extreme Graphics 2, but the latter failed completely and disappointed me a lot – such a powerful computer calls for something better than such a weak graphics controller. The failure of the ASUS A3500L was somewhat surprising, too. It’s not typical of products from that brand to take the last place in a test, and the ASUS did somewhat better in 3DMark 2001SE (see below).

We’ve got curious numbers in this test – the last four models don’t seem to differ in anything, save for the name. As for the others, it’s more or less understandable. Samsung doesn’t hesitate to install new hard disk drives with a spindle rotation speed of 5400rpm even into low-end notebooks. The other leaders must be following the same policy, with variations due to the performance of the disk controller.

Winstone

There is nothing to comment much upon. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to say anything save that “this notebook is faster than that one” because the benchmark doesn’t give you a detailed picture of the performance of the notebook and does not say which weight each of the performed scripts has in the final score. We can only see that the Acer Aspire 3003NLC is faster at running the scripts from Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004 whereas the Samsung P28 and the LG LS50e are better in Business Winstone 2004. I guess the Acer wins Multimedia Content Creation because of its powerful CPU, but this is only a guess – until such complex benchmarks give you some more information than just a dry “total score”, they only answer what notebook is faster but not why it is faster. So, we can compare the notebooks in this test and that’s all.

3DMark 2001SE

That’s a predictable outcome: the Mobility Radeon 9000 is in the lead, followed by the notebooks with Intel’s GMA900 which are in their turn followed by the devices with Intel’s Extreme Graphics 2, and then the SiS M760GX and the UniChrome Pro bring up the rear. The only aberration is the ASUS A3500L which performs abnormally slow for a laptop with an IEG 2 core. It is not the slowest now, but the fact is strange anyway.

Battery Eater 2

The devices fall into three groups which are clearly outlined in both diagrams. The first group includes the ASUS A3500L and the Toshiba Satellite M35X-S111 which perform quite impressively for this class of notebooks. The explanation is simple – an Intel platform plus a normal battery plus a not-very-high maximum brightness of the screen. Summing up both diagrams, we have one leader, which is the Satellite M35X-S111. So if long battery life is your priority, you don’t actually have much choice here.

The second group consists of the LG LS50e and the HP Compaq nx6110 – their have similar results, normal for notebooks of such configuration. The third group embraces all the CPU/chipset alternatives, among which the Samsung P28 alone could yield more or less satisfactory results. The Acer Aspire 3003NLC and the Fujitsu Siemens Amilo Pro 2030 with their low-capacity batteries cannot be recommended at all to people who need to work on the run. I would even regard these two notebooks as having an integrated UPS rather than an accumulator battery.

Conclusion

I’m going to make this conclusion as simple as it can possibly be: you choose what suits yourself! Unfortunately, I cannot recommend any of the presented notebooks as the best one just because all devices in this low-end class are a compromise between price and everything else. What troubles me most is the low quality of the screens. This is probably the biggest assembly of cheapest LCD matrixes I have ever seen gathered together. Any desktop LCD monitor is going to be a revelation after these notebooks, so they are in fact limited to office applications and – as far as listening to music – to multimedia programs. There’s no talking about serious image-processing on such screens, and even watching movies ceases to be any fun at all.

So I think we’ve given you enough information, and now it’s up to you to decide what exactly you would agree to put up with in a low-end notebook. My personal favorites are ASUS A3500L and HP Compaq nx6110 and I advise you to consider these two models even if you have taken note of something else. They seem to leave the most favorable impression of all the models presented during this review.