Going Cheap: Netbooks and Chromebooks

Sometimes all you want is a really inexpensive laptop that you can carry with you all day, without worrying about finding somewhere to plug in. For this market, there are really two hardware platforms to look at: Intel’s Atom and AMD’s Brazos. In terms of size, “netbook” means different things to different people, but we’ll confine the discussion to 10.1”, 11.6”, and 12.1” offerings—the latter being important for getting the faster dual-core Brazos (AMD E-series) processors. Let’s start with the AMD recommendation first.

Recommended Netbook

Somewhat surprisingly, even a year after the Brazos launch, laptops with the C-series processors remain rather sparse. A quick look at Newegg for instance shows only a few C-series laptops, most of them from Acer; the two laptops that aren’t from Acer come from ASUS, and let’s just be clear: we’re not interested in a 15.6” laptop with a C-50 or C-60 processor—or even the higher clocked E-350 and E-450 offerings. If you’re going to use a Brazos APU, we don’t see any need for a larger size chassis. Once we whittle down the list to 12” or smaller, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that we end up back at our Editors’ Choice HP dm1 yet again.

Everything you need in a netbook: HP dm1 for $480 ($50 mail-in rebate available)

The price is a bit lower than the last time we mentioned it, and there are a few minor upgrades. $480 (with a $50 rebate) will get you 4GB RAM, a 320GB 7200RPM hard drive, and the 1.65GHz E-450 processor. The overall build quality is still one of the better Brazos offerings, and while the display is only average quality, that’s hard to avoid in the sub-$500 laptop market. Battery life is quoted at up to 9.5 hours, which is close enough to what we measured that we’ll go with it.


ThinkPad quality for the same price: Lenovo X120e for $435

As an alternative—and in many ways, it's actually better than the HP dm1—consider the Lenovo ThinkPad X120e. Normally it's priced over $500, but Lenovo has some great sales going on most of their product line right now. You can currently get the X120e with 4GB RAM, E-350 APU, and a matte display for under $500 direct from Lenovo, or if you don't want to custom configure your system you can get the same thing for $435 shipped. HP has the edge (by a very slim margin) with an E-450 over the E-350, but for most users it won't matter.

What if you’re willing to give up some performance and/or features to get the price even lower? You’ll have to give up on the E-350/450 in that case and opt for the AMD C-50/60 in its place. The results is still more flexible than Atom (particularly in multimedia workloads), and you can get the price under $300 with the current sales. As noted, only Acer and ASUS appear to be shipping small netbook-class systems with C-series APUs, and between the Acer and ASUS offerings our pick would be the 12.1” ASUS Eee PC 1215B, currently going for a clearance price of $260 (but with only 1GB RAM).

Acer’s alternatives still have their undesirable floating island keyboard, but they compensate with other features. The Acer AO522 gives you a 10.1” C-50 netbook with 1GB RAM for $290, while the Acer AO722 bumps up to an 11.6” chassis and stuffs in 4GB RAM, a 500GB 5400RPM HDD, and a C-60 APU for $350. The C-60 is more desirable than the C-50, thanks to Turbo Core on both the CPU and GPU, but is it worth a lesser quality keyboard and an increase in price of $70? Probably not.

Atom Netbook Recommendation

While we’d say Brazos is pretty much universally faster than Atom, it’s not necessarily cheaper and thus there’s still a potential market for Atom-based netbooks. You can get great battery life and a small form factor, with performance that’s still “fast enough” for basic office/email/internet use. What we wouldn’t recommend for Atom netbooks is using them for multimedia content (HD videos especially), practically any form of gaming, or even use with Flash applications/games. If you’re okay with that stipulation, then Atom netbooks can be a handy secondary/tertiary device. Atom is also the platform of choice for Google’s Chromebook initiative, which we’ll cover below.

Go cheap or go home: Acer Aspire One D257 for $230

If you’re in the market for an Atom netbook, price has to be the overriding consideration—see above for the $260 Brazos C-50. While there are many Atom netbooks out there, few of them are available for less than the low water mark that Brazos sets. We’re not handing out awards for build quality or features, but when it comes to lowest price possible it’s hardly a surprise to see an Acer netbook hit the mark. Short of any major sales, it looks like the Acer Aspire One D257 is the cheapest Atom N570 netbook around right now, going for $230 online, although it does skimp on the battery capacity to get there. If you want an Atom processor with a decent battery, you’re back into the $270+ range, at which point we just don’t feel Atom makes sense.

What about Atom Chromebooks?

So we’re pretty bearish on the current Atom netbooks, but there’s another mobile contender in town, and so far it’s Atom-only hardware: the Chromebook. Right now there are only two Chromebook manufacturers shipping hardware, Acer and Samsung. We’ve covered their announcements, but more importantly we now have review samples from both companies in hand. So, which is the better Chromebook, and what do we think of Chrome OS in general now that it’s matured since our original look?

Chomebook, because you dislike Windows: Samsung Series 5 WiFi for $350

Not surprisingly, the choice between the two models largely comes down to price vs. quality. I only received the two Chromebooks this week, so I haven’t had a lot of time to use them, but while the keyboard layouts are identical the keyboards are not. Acer goes for their “floating island” keys and Samsung uses chiclet keys; of the two options I definitely prefer the Samsung keys. Samsung also has a nicer looking build, and a better display in some respects—maximum brightness is slightly higher and it has a matte finish rather than going glossy. While neither display is high contrast, the Samsung fares better outdoors thanks to its non-reflective nature. Take all of those elements together and which Chromebook comes out on top? The Samsung Series 5. However, the $50 savings of the Acer still makes it viable.

Outside of the actual hardware, Chromebooks are interesting for the change to a largely cloud-oriented computing experience. While there is some support for local storage, doing things like accessing files stored on other networked PCs isn’t something you can do. You store your documents in the cloud and everything else comes via the Chrome browser, so unless you have a home web server where you store your files, a Chromebook is for media consumption and cloud/Internet work. I’m sure others will take to the switch much more readily, but for someone entrenched in my usage patterns of Word, Excel, Thunderbird, and Photoshop as my primary applications (outside of the web browser), it can be a bit too much.

Where the Chomebooks do impress is in their ability to use relatively slow hardware (e.g. Atom CPUs with 1GB RAM) to deliver a decent web experience. Sure, a fast laptop or desktop PC will still load pages quicker than a Chromebook, and certain content (e.g. HD YouTube videos) proves too much for the platform (at least until the next CPU/GPU update). But if you’re interested in some comparative performance results, SunSpider 0.9.1 checks in at 1346ms, which is still 25% faster than the fastest tablet we’ve tested to date in that particular benchmark (ASUS’ Eee Prime Transformer). For general web surfing, Chromebooks feel quite a bit better than regular Windows netbooks, though there are still areas where they fall short (Flash games, HD videos, and other similar content is too much for the Atom N570 + GMA 3150).

If tablet hardware is fast enough for most Internet related tasks, Atom Chromebooks are right in the mix (minus the sluggish GMA 3150 graphics—I do feel like Chromebooks can still benefit from a faster GPU, particularly for multimedia consumption; it would be very interesting to see a Chromebook based on AMD’s C-60). For some, that’s good enough and the price, size, and battery life are right. There’s also the novelty factor—using a Chromebook very much changes the way you do things, which some enthusiasts might enjoy. For most others, however, a “normal” laptop is still the way to go—particularly when we consider that you can get Windows netbooks with reasonable hardware for around the same price as the least expensive Chromebook.

Welcome Holiday Shoppers! We Have a Laptop Special on Aisle Six! Bigger and Faster but Still Inexpensive: Budget Laptops
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  • Toughbook - Wednesday, December 7, 2011 - link

    This was a very informative article for keeping us up to date on what's out there now. Lord, we all know how fast they change these days. I strongly agree with your business suggestions. My son's Lenovo T410 is holding up pretty well considering a 14 year old hammers on it every day. My Panasonic Toughbook's CF-31 and CF-53 are still as solid as a brick. As you stated, if you change every 2 years go for whatever you like. If you hold onto one and pay dearly for the added quality and features then stick with business or rugged types!
  • rdamiani - Thursday, December 8, 2011 - link

    I can't get excited about any of the current notebooks at any price point because of the craptastic 16:9 displays they all have. All a 1080p display means is a downgrade from the 16:10 1920x1200 display in my current notebook. Until that changes, I won't upgrade until my M4400 is dead.
  • melblanc - Monday, December 12, 2011 - link

    In the low end category I would assume also the Samsung 305U 11.6inch laptop with E350 (E450 in some markets). Just got it for my motherinlaw and it won for me personally over the HP DM1. Also it has matte display and 1.3mpix camera.

    Battery life might be concern there as it gets just 4cell battery, but then the weight of 1.2kg is great there. I would recommend it. Got it for 399EUR with E350/4GB 1333 RAM / 500 GB HD config. Here it gets just in black, but some markets also more fancy colors are available.

    - decent build
    - matte display
    - price
    - good camera

    - not all configurations available in all markets, E450 is available in some EU contries only, language specific characters an issue there
    - battery standard 4 cell, 6 cell available as extra
    - availability
  • ReverendDC - Monday, December 12, 2011 - link


    I love your articles and almost all of the material on your site. For the most part, AnandTech is the most even-handed of the sites.

    However, I think you missed the mark on this one in the "inexpensive" category. I have a 17.3" HP, 4 GB RAM, 500 GB (5400 RPM...yuck) HD, 1600x900 res system that I got for $379.99 at Best Buy (of all places!). It runs the "not suggested" A4, and absolutely kicks it for general computing and mild gaming. Unless you want to run the newest games, this is more than enough for the general population, and it is extremely speedy. The keyboard is sufficient, and the system doesn't have too much play (the top behind the screen is hollow, so it pushes down quite a bit....). It boots in about 20-30 seconds from a cold start, and all functions of Win7 are peppy, with all Aero effects in gear. Even with a (really crappy) 47 wHr battery, I get 5-6 hours out of a charge.

    Your "low cost" solution is about $120 more than this system (one with an i3 is also available at $420 HP G7 Pavilion series, mine is G7-1237DX), and your netbook solution is $80 more. For the majority of readers that are looking for GP and light/mild gaming, this would be great, but things like this aren't mentioned.

    Of course, it isn't as great as some of the systems located above, but that $100 is a huge difference in many budgets these days...

    As for the A4, what it lacks in CPU power it more than makes up for in GPU power. The HD2000/3000 solutions aren't even close. In fact, your own Llano review notes that most of the benchmarks that are being run do not even run with Intel's current HD IGP solution. Again, pricing is way lower as well.

    I'm not saying one is better than the other, but the A4 matches well with an i3, especially considering the AMD discount.

    Of course, not everyone likes the added real estate of 17.3" over even 15.6", and I can see a major preference for 14" here, but I happen to like the larger screens. Wouldn't mind a 1920x1080 option at this price on a 17.3", nor a 1600x900 option for 15.6" systems, but you get what you can nowadays!
  • tential - Saturday, December 31, 2011 - link

    I'm just extremely disappointed when this review came to high end gaming. You recommended the Alienware M17x. Seriously? You would insult our intelligent to say that we can't do a simple check to compare Asus and Alienware and see which gives better performance? I tried to price an alienware and it gave me 8 GB ram, 2.2 quadcore, 500 GB HD, GTX 560 with 1.5 GB DDR5 Ram and 1080p screen for 2000 dollars. You had the nerve to say a 900p screen. WTF is a 900p screen? Is that something I'm supposed to WANT to purchase?

    A quick newegg search for Asus turned up a 12 GB ram, 2.2 quadcore, 1.5 TB HD, GTX 560 with 3 GB DDR5 Ram and 1080p screen for 1650 dollars. A TON more for a lot less. When I read the article I actually believed you at first. But knowing that this website has gotten more and more popular I decided to actually look, just to be safe. I bought my current gateway gaming laptop under a holiday roundup and it was hands down the best according to you guys. You were right. Price to performance nothing beat it. It's a joke for you to recommend the Aliewanre and I seriously doubt your integrity on this website now. I hope you have a legitimate reason why you would recommend me to pay more, for a LOT less.
  • raki - Sunday, January 8, 2012 - link

    I'm not sure if there's some reason this company wasn't looked at, but they advertise that you can request certain parts for your laptop, even if they don't carry them. Maybe they could do a 1920x1200 IPS display, if it's really important to you.

    The laptops can get pretty over the top.
  • abhicherath - Saturday, January 28, 2012 - link

    i know i'm kinda late here.But just as a head's up.I am pretty sure that Nvidia's GTX 560M and above cards use standard MXM slots.So they SHOULD be upgradeable.So you could slot in a 580M into the G74SX, would be way better than that tacky-ass alienware anyway.
  • Daniel Anthony - Friday, November 27, 2020 - link

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