Welcome Holiday Shoppers! We Have a Laptop Special on Aisle Six!

I’ll be frank: I don’t like Black Friday or Cyber Monday. We’re all going to spend way more money than we probably should during the holiday season, and I don’t like to support the crowds and general craziness any more than I have to. So, now that the two biggest shopping days are behind us, we can settle in for more reasonable prices and recommendations. There will definitely be more sales, but what we’re going to look at are the products that we’d recommend even at the regular prices; if you can find these on sale, then by all means consider the recommendations even stronger.

Today’s buyer’s guide will focus on the mobile sector, but let’s not get carried away. Specifically, I’m going to be looking at netbooks, laptops, notebooks, ultrabooks, Chromebooks, etc. What I won’t be covering are other mobile devices like tablets, smartphones, and eReaders; I’ll save those for another guide by someone that knows those markets better than I do. So with that out of the way, let’s talk categories and specific recommendations.

As with our other guides, we like to stick with what we know where possible. That means we’re more likely to recommend something we’ve actually reviewed rather than a laptop we’ve only read about. However, there are products that we’ve had a chance to personally handle even if we can’t give a full review, so we’ll look at anything and everything related to laptops. We’ll break things up into a variety of categories, starting with netbooks and inexpensive ultraportables (i.e. anything less than 13.3” and under $600); we’ll also cover the emerging ultrabook market, but understandably even the cheapest ultrabooks tend to cost quite a bit more than the Atom and Brazos netbooks/ultraportables. Then we’ll start to break into broader categories focused on pricing, with budget, midrange, and high-end laptops and notebooks. We’ll discuss gaming potential, battery life, and other features that you’ll want to look for when shopping for a laptop.

Throughout the guide we’ll have specific recommendations, some alternative offerings, as well as general guidelines for what sort of components and features you should expect at various price points. One area that we tend to focus on far more than manufacturers is display quality; an otherwise good laptop with a mediocre display can feel like a letdown, and conversely an average laptop with a great display might be enough to garner our recommendation. Keyboard and build quality are two more elements that are important, though keyboard quality is often highly subjective. I know there are keyboards I’ve used and despised that others are fine typing on, so consider your own input in this area above what we might say. And with that out of the way, let’s start with the netbooks and other inexpensive offerings.

Going Cheap: Netbooks and Chromebooks
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  • stancilmor - Sunday, December 4, 2011 - link

    Nice review, are there any laptops with an IPS display and a consumer grade discrete graphics card? The Dell & HP mobile workstations are just too expensive. I can't really play the Frames Per Second games, but I do like the graphics turned way up...works out great for the slower response IPS displays, because I don't play FPS...makes me sea sick
  • Penti - Sunday, December 4, 2011 - link

    Forget about IPS and notebooks basically, even HP workstations is useless with IPS panels. The DreamColor 15-inch panel is still a 15W panel. You might find tablet PCs or tablet PC sized machines with IPS or AFFS panels but that's pretty much it. Which of course means no discrete graphics or like a quadro card. FPS games is btw First-Person Shooter :)

    External display might still be a good option in addition to a TN panel built in. You will just have to sit pretty much straight in front of the notebook screen. Viewing angles on TN-panels vary widely though.
  • Iketh - Sunday, December 4, 2011 - link

    FPS games are "first-person shooter" games. That's where you point and shoot your weapon through the eyes of the character you're controlling.

    The other FPS is "frames per second", which is used to gauge the speed of graphics cards by indicating how many frames it can render and send to a display each second.
  • Iketh - Sunday, December 4, 2011 - link

    You're arguments to favor 14" over 15.6" should contain an element from the other side instead of being so biased. The biggest plus with going to 15.6" chassis is a number pad and should be mentioned also.
  • DanNeely - Monday, December 5, 2011 - link

    Meh. If I could get a 15.6" laptop with the arrow keys and Insert-PageDown block laid out properly I'd be somewhat interested; as it is the only justification I see for the bigger size is 1080p at a slightly less brutal DPI, or more volume for the battery and cooling hardware for a higher end mobile GPU.
  • rdamiani - Sunday, December 11, 2011 - link

    After all these years of of using notebooks with the keyboard centered on the screen, a number pad is a minus, not a plus.
  • Mr Bill - Sunday, December 4, 2011 - link

    In the $600 category (on sale), I picked up an HP DV6-6140US. A8-3500M Llano quadcore, USB3, 15.6" LED backlit screen and somewhat less important but nice is bluetooth support and blu-ray disk.
    Its not a bad little unit. Would have been nice if the keys were backlit. I hate the 1366 x 768 TN screen, its too narrow and the color rendering is highly directional. Battery life is good, Started playing WOW and its smooth.
  • aguilpa1 - Monday, December 5, 2011 - link

    I agree with Jared, mine is still doing very well as far as performance goes, I can even fire up Skyrim set to high @ 1680x1050 during my lunch break with my ancient 9800MGT and drivers stuck at 180.3 laptop. I imagine if new drivers were available I might even be able to push it all the way up to 1920x1200 full screen at Med-Hi settings.
  • mikedice - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

  • Tamale - Wednesday, December 7, 2011 - link

    I just got a brand new Dell Precision M6600 for what must've been the deal of the century - Mobility FirePro M8900 (Radeon M6970 equivalent) version for $1,300. I was able to outfit it with a mini-SATA 128gb SSD, 40gb Intel SSD, and 8gb of extra DDR3 memory (for a total of 12gb of ram) all for ~$1,500., and now it's quite literally the best mobile workstation I could hope for. I run ubuntu at work, but it even gets decent battery life in windows - around 5 hours of light work.

    It's not small or light, but the 17" 1080p matte finish screen is amazing and the keyboard is top-notch, so I'm definitely a happy camper.

    What Jarred is saying about business laptops is SOOOOO true. You simply can't think of them as being in the same league as consumer laptops AT ALL.

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