3 Notebooks For Under $1,000

What kind of notebook can you get for under a grand? Anything from a compact road warrior to a full-fledged desktop replacement.

June 12, 2007

12 Min Read
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With $1,000 in your pocket and a notebook on your mind, you might think your options are pretty limited. Think again: You can buy a mighty capable portable for under a grand, one that's suitable for the office, the road, or both.

3 Low-Cost Notebooks

•  Acer Aspire 9300•  Gateway NX570X

•  HP Compaq 6515b

I went shopping for models priced at $1,000 or less and wound up with three: the Acer Aspire 9300-5005, Gateway NX570X, and HP Compaq 6515b. They're all solidly built, well-rounded notebooks, with impressive specs given their wallet-friendly price tags. So what's the catch? In a word: Vista. The resource-hungry OS gets stuck in the mud with anything less than 1GB of RAM, and while all three machines come with that much, all have to lend a portion to their graphics subsystems. Translation: They all feel slow. If you're concerned about performance, plan on upgrading to 2GB (which is easier on some systems than others).

Except for their price tags and memory shortcomings, the three models have little in common. The Acer Aspire is a desktop replacement, plain and simple, with a huge screen, big hard drive, and webcam. The Compaq 6515b is for corporate road-warriors who prize security and connectivity, while the Gateway NX570X caters to buyers who like to customize everything. There's not a bad system in the lot; all you have to do is choose the style that suits you best.

Acer Aspire 9300-5005
A lap? Maybe. A backpack? Probably not. A coach-seat tray table? Fuhgeddaboudit. Acer's mammoth Aspire 9300-5005 was born and bred for desk duty, not travel. The machine measures 15.7 x 11.6 x 1.7 inches and weighs 8.1 pounds, not including its 1.3-pound AC adapter. So don't plan on taking it anywhere unless you've been working out -- and have a really big carrying case.

As a desktop replacement, however, the Aspire's generous proportions work to its advantage. The system stocks a 17-inch widescreen LCD (1440 x 900) that's glorious to behold and a full-size keyboard, complete with numeric keypad. The latter is slightly less glorious, however, as there's no space separating it from the rest of the keyboard. In fact, all the keys feel a bit cramped; I found it difficult to transition from my regular keyboard because my fingers kept landing on "misplaced" keys. Still, number crunchers are sure to appreciate the keypad, a feature not found on the other, smaller notebooks in the group.

Acer serves up a few other interesting features as well. The big kahuna is the OrbiCam, a built-in webcam that can face you or rotate 180 degrees to face away from the notebook -- ideal for broadcasting live events via Ustream.tv or a similar service. The camera offers 1.3-megapixel resolution for razor-sharp images; in my tests, video came through with silky-smooth clarity.

Product Info

Acer Aspire 9300-5005

Acer Inc.www.acer.comPrice: $899Summary: With its dazzling 17-inch screen and full-size keyboard, the Aspire is a good bargain for a desktop replacement, though it lacks the RAM to live up to its performance potential.

I was less impressed with the Aspire's four-way scroll rocker, which resides between the two mouse buttons below the extra-roomy touchpad. Although it affords both vertical and sideways scrolling, it lacks the fingertip precision of traditional touchpad scroll-strips. If I'm going to have to push a button every time I want to scroll, I might as well just use the mouse button. Even so, the sideways scrolling is nice for navigating large spreadsheets.

The rest of the Aspire's specs could best be described as mixed. The AMD Turion 64 X2 1.6GHz processor offers dual-core goodness, but it's the slowest member of the Turion 64 X2 family. Plus, with only 1GB of RAM, the Aspire easily gets bogged down by Vista Home Premium's resource-intensive nature. I found the system sluggish overall, and surprisingly slow to boot.

Further complicating the RAM deficit is the GeForce Go 7300 graphics processor, which, while sufficiently muscular for everyday graphics and even casual gaming, appropriates 128MB of system memory. That leaves Vista with less than 1GB -- and you with an explanation for why the Aspire feels pokey.Needless to say, a RAM upgrade is definitely in order, but the Aspire hamstrings your options. Acer supplies a pair of 512MB modules, leaving no room for more. To upgrade to 2GB or 4GB (the Aspire's max), you'll have to replace the existing modules.

The Aspire does include a relatively spacious hard drive (120GB), along with a Super-Multi double-layer DVD burner and 5-in-1 memory card reader (Compact Flash being the odd format out, alas).

For a notebook with such a big, beautiful screen, the Aspire comes up a bit short in the multimedia department. It lacks dedicated playback controls for music and movies; instead, play, pause, skip and other controls are doubled up on keypad keys and require you to hold down the Fn key. Even worse, the Aspire's speakers are woefully underpowered; even at maximum volume, I could barely hear my DVDs.

You could compensate for the weak audio by plugging in external speakers, except that the headphone/speaker jack resides along the front edge -- not the best spot for a plug and wire to be poking out.

The Acer Aspire 9300-5005 proves beyond a doubt that you can buy a capable desktop-replacement notebook for under $1,000. (Make that under $900.) However, be prepared to live with mediocre performance and an underwhelming multimedia experience.

Gateway NX570X
Business folks want style; accounting departments want savings. Gateway's NX570X should satisfy both groups with its flashy-but-functional design and budget-friendly price ($858.99 as configured). It's a solid road warrior, perhaps a bit on the heavy side but nicely equipped and snazzier than the average budget notebook.

The NX570X is the middle child in this roundup: larger than HP's Compaq 6515b but smaller than the Aspire 9300. It weighs in at 6.25 pounds (7 pounds if you include the AC adapter) and measures 14.1 x 10.5 x 1.5 inches -- not exactly compact, but certainly portable enough to ride shotgun in a carry-on bag.

Over time, most notebooks get scratched up from slipping in and out of such bags, but the NX570X promises to stay pristine. That's because of the scratch-resistant coating on its outer lid. It's a minor amenity, but all the more surprising to find in a budget notebook. Same goes for the brushed-aluminum palm rest. Looking at this notebook, the word "cheap" never comes to mind; substitute "classy."

Of course, it is cheap, a least from a price perspective, and there are clues to be found in the NX570X's configuration. The 1.73GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5300 processor offers sufficient horsepower for everyday computing tasks, though venturing into video editing and other high-end apps probably isn't wise. For starters, the integrated Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950 graphics processor lacks the chops for serious pixel-pushing. What's more, the NX570X has just 1GB of RAM, barely enough to run Windows Vista Home Premium at a decent clip. You can upgrade to 2GB at the time of purchase (one of countless configuration options) for $150, which pushes the price just a few dollars over our $1,000 limit.

Product Info

Gateway NX570XGateway, Inc.www.gateway.com

Price: $859Summary: Not too big and not too small, the NX570X feels just right for anyone seeking a highly customizable notebook that's equally at home on a desk and the road.

Speaking of upgrades, consider spending an extra $50 to swap the smallish 80GB hard drive for a 120GB model -- definitely a worthwhile investment for anyone with a large media collection. I'm not sure if there's any advantage to spending $25 on Gateway's Ultrabright screen upgrade, which is described as offering "sharp, bright colors on a reflective display." To me the 15.4-inch, 1280x800-pixel LCD looked plenty sharp and bright already.

The rest of the NX570X's feature set is pretty much beyond reproach, including a double-layer, multi-format DVD burner, a 6-in-1 memory card reader (though Compact Flash support is missing), and a Wi-Fi antenna that supports the Big Three 802.11 protocols: a, b, and g. (Draft-N Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are both available as options; each one will set you back $50.)

I liked the notebook's spacious, comfy keyboard and ample touchpad, which includes a handy pressure-sensitive scroll strip. However, the mouse buttons, which are raised and curved like speed bumps, are an acquired taste: Once you train your fingers not to aim for a flat surface, the buttons are actually much easier to hit by touch. But they drove me nuts in the beginning, as my thumbs instinctively reached "below" the bump (where there's nothing to press).

Virtually all the notebook's expansion ports (including four USB and one mini-FireWire) reside along the right side, with icon labels along the top edge so you can identify them without craning your head around to the side. That's nice, but I'd prefer at least a couple USB ports at the rear, as you don't always want cords poking out from the side (especially if you're using a mouse).

The NX570X ships with a 6-cell battery, which should give you 4-5 hours of computing time. Gateway will swap in an 8-cell battery for an extra $39, something to consider if you travel for long stretches at a time.Of course, the notebook also makes for a solid desktop if you don't travel much at all. Its big screen and roomy keyboard deliver comfortable computing, and its low price delivers comfortable budgeting. You even get Works 8.5 as part of the deal. The NX570X has its share of flaws, but overall it's a solid, stylish system.

HP Compaq 6515b

As the smallest notebook in the group (though by no means small compared to some others out in the market), HP's Compaq 6515b offers the greatest portability. It's also the most business-savvy notebook in the group, with numerous wireless options, a large assortment of security and IT tools, and even Windows Vista Business. However, this all-work-no-play approach carries over into the 6515b's design, which is staid and uninspiring. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but the system looks undeniably dull next to the comparatively snazzy Acer Aspire and Gateway NX570X.

The 6515b weighs 5.5 pounds -- 6.6 if you factor in the AC adapter. That's only a few ounces lighter than the NX570X, but the Compaq's definitely more compact at 13 x 9.4 x 1.5 inches. The trade-off for its travel-friendly dimensions is a slightly smaller screen: 14.1 inches, with a maximum resolution of 1,280 x 800. That may feel a bit cramped to anyone accustomed to a 17- or 19-inch desktop LCD, and the widescreen nature of the screen only exacerbates that feeling. Such is the price of portability.

Like the Aspire, the 6515b comes equipped with a 1.6GHz AMD Turion 64 X2 processor, 1GB of RAM, and 120GB hard drive. And like the Aspire, the weak link in that chain is the RAM, a chunk of which gets shared with the ATI Radeon Xpress 1270 graphics subsystem. Although that's a much more powerful solution than the NX570X's wimpy, integrated Intel chip, its memory theft hobbles the rest of the system. The 6515b is slow to boot, even slower to shut down, and a bit laggy overall. Thankfully, there's an open memory slot in the machine's underbelly, so it's a simple matter to bump the RAM to 2GB if you want to upgrade later. (HP does offer the 6515b in a 2GB configuration, but you can't customize the system like you can Gateway's NX570X.)

Product Info

HP Compaq 6515bHewlett-Packard Development Company, L.P.www.hp.comPrice: $929Summary: Though its performance is hampered by limited RAM, the Compaq 6515b excels in the all-important areas of security, connectivity, and portability. But you may have to pay extra to get the connectivity options you want.

Speaking of configurations, the $929 version of the 6515b (which I reviewed) includes 802.11 a/b/g Wi-Fi. By stepping up to the $1,199 model, you gain both Draft-N Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. HP is also soon to offer integrated EV-DO and HSDPA broadband wireless modules, with service from Verizon and Cingular, respectively. Obviously those options will push you past the $1,000 mark as well, but it's definitely something to consider if you want nationwide wireless connectivity.

As for this model, its perks include HP's coveted LightScribe drive, which lets you burn labels directly onto compatible CD and DVD media; a fingerprint scanner for corporate-level security; and a QuickLook button, which pops up an Outlook calendar, contact, e-mail, and task summary while the notebook is off or in standby/hibernation mode. (Because Outlook isn't included, however, I wasn't able to see QuickLook in action.) I was particularly impressed by the Presentation button, which automatically optimizes the notebook's display and power settings for use with a projector. These buttons, along with ones that control wireless settings and volume, are the 6515b's sole design aesthetic: They're completely touch-sensitive and flush with the case, looking more like LEDs than buttons. Nice.

The 6515b's keys seem a hair shallow, but they offer perfect response and quiet operation. I was less enthused by the small, mushy touchpad buttons, which don't click when you press them.

Like the NX570X, the 6515b comes with a 6-cell battery that should be good for 4-5 hours of operation. To ease the 6515b's adoption in corporate environments, HP supplies various security tools (including Credentials Manager, which tracks and protects passwords) and IT-minded utilities (such as HP Backup and Recover Manager). To help protect your data, HP 3D DriveGuard temporarily parks the hard drive when it senses sudden movement (like falling off a desk).

Needless to say, this is the notebook to pick if you're looking for a business machine. With its security-savvy accoutrements, generous wireless-connectivity options, and compact, travel-friendly design, the HP Compaq 6515b should please most business users.0

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