Plunging prices mean consumers can now find great quality for less. We pick the best deals
Laptops are amazing value – you can get a decent machine for £350. This is less than the cost of many smartphones and tablets, and it’s probably less than you spend overall on coffee or other small treats. Over three years, it comes out at 32p per day. Going for a slower £300 system will cost you more in wasted time than the 5p-a-day saving.
Prices are only this low for mainstream, general-purpose laptops, where high-volume sales and cut-throat competition drive down prices. These machines are fine for email and web browsing, playing DVDs, editing photos, running applications such as Microsoft Office, and playing basic games. They are less suitable for heavyweight tasks such as editing high definition videos, and they are not suitable for running state-of-the-art games at high frame rates.
There are dozens of models in the £300-£500 price range, and thousands of minor variations: different processors, memory sizes, hard drives, and so on. However, most of the differences are cosmetic. As long as you get the basic specification right you can decide for yourself whether you like the keyboard and screen, and whether it feels reasonably well made. (Manufacturers offer better-looking, better-made laptops at higher prices.)
Almost all these laptops have 15.6in screens showing 1366 x 768 pixels, 4GB of memory, built-in Wi-Fi, a webcam (usually 0.3MP, sometimes 1.3MP), DVD and 320GB hard drives, USB 2.0 ports, and SD memory card slots. They should all be running 64-bit Windows Home Premium. Not all have built-in Bluetooth or USB 3.0 ports, so check if you need these.
Some have more memory (6GB or 8GB), but 4GB is enough. Some have larger hard drives (500GB or 750GB) that can store more data such as movies and photos.
The most critical choice is the processor, which is the engine that makes it run. It also has the biggest influence on the price. Intel uses a BMW-style naming system which has the Core i7 at the top, then goes down through the Core i5 and Core i3 to Pentium and Celeron chips. These are not really old Pentiums and Celerons, it’s just a naming convention to signify that these processors are cheaper and less powerful.
In the £300–£350 range the best you generally get is a Core i3-2330M or 2350M, where the bigger number signifies a faster chip. (The M stands for mobile. Laptop processors use less power and run slower than desktop versions, to reduce heat and give better battery life.)
In my view you should not settle for anything less than a Pentium B940, B950 or preferably a B960 processor. I think laptops with Celeron chips are too slow. Cheap AMD chips, such as the C-50, E-240 Fusion and E2-1800 Brazos are even slower than Celerons.
If you see a mainstream laptop that looks like a bargain it’s probably running one of these, and isn’t. If in doubt, look up Notebook Check’s table, Comparison of Mobile Processors. The Core i3-2330M is in 86th place while the E-450 is 377th and the E-240 is 516th. Some Intel Atom netbook chips come higher than that.
One catch is that Intel brings out new chips every year, and newer is better. Today’s Core i3 may be faster than last year’s Core i5 or a Core i7 from 2010. However, last year’s Core chips, codenamed “Sandy Bridge”, are still worth buying.
When it comes to brands South Korea’s Samsung and China’s Lenovo are competing hardest for this market, and both are growing rapidly. Samsung is also the world’s biggest mobile phone company, sells Android tablets, and makes chips, screens and other components for Apple. Lenovo took over IBM‘s PC division in 2005. It also sells the upmarket IdeaPad and prestigious ThinkPad ranges for those willing to flash a bit more cash.
The American giants, HP and Dell, are seeing PC volumes decline as they aim to sell more upmarket, and more profitable, lines. The main Japanese competitors, Sony and Toshiba, both do high-end laptops better than low-end ones, though Fujitsu has some good cheap laptops if you can find them. Taiwanese giants, Asus and Acer, are still strong in netbooks but trying to innovate their way out of the bargain basement, with mixed results. Either way, all these brands are worth your consideration.
Bearing all that in mind, here are my top three £350 laptop picks:
This is a well-established model with a good isolated keyboard (the keys are spaced apart) and a decent screen. It’s also not bad looking, by the standards of its class. For £349.99 (Amazon’s price, reduced from £449.99), you get a 2.20GHz Intel Core i3-2330M with 4GB of memory and a 500GB hard drive. For alternative sources of supply and prices, search for NP-RV520-A07UK. All round, the RV520 is great value and a pretty safe bet. Samsung also offers a somewhat nicer Series 3 laptop (NP300E5A-A01DX) with a Core i3-2350 for a bit more cash: £411.42.
The black and businesslike G570 and G580 models are mainstream notebooks to the max. They are available with an unusually wide range of processors and drives at prices from less than £300 to more than £500. The keyboard is above average for the class, with dished keys, perhaps benefiting from IBM’s decades of expertise. Saveonlaptops sells a G570 with a Core i3-2350M (slightly nippier than the 2330M) and a 500GB hard drive for £349.99, or search for M51BHUK. The site also offers the same machine with 8GB of memory for £20 more (M51DQUK), or with the processor downgraded to a Pentium B950 for £30 less (M58FJUK).
Typically, the company promotes this laptop’s innovative motherboard technology and advanced cooling system, which the average buyer with £350 doesn’t care about. The X54C does perform well, and it has a fast USB 3.0 port, but it’s not particularly good looking, and I think both the RV520 and G570 have better keyboards. Asus gets the X54C into the sub-£350 market by using slower, cheaper processors, such as the Pentium B960 (£310.95 at Amazon, reduced from £349.99) and Celeron B815 (avoid). However, you can get the X54C-SX078V with a 2.3GHz Core i3-2350 processor, 6GB of memory and a 320GB hard drive for £349.99 from Dabs.com. Asus says it is about to launch a stylish new X501A version that answers these questions, with an Intel Core i3 and no DVD drive for £349. It says stock arrived last week and “will appear online any day now” and at PC World and Currys.
This isn’t an exclusive list and you might do a bit better by shopping around. You could certainly do a lot worse.
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