In the past few weeks a new market has emerged for ultra-cheap laptops priced under US$300 that boast some of the features found in more expensive, mainstream laptops.
Laptop prices don't generally dip that low, but some sub-$300 laptops from Wal-Mart and Best Buy this week have included large screens, reasonable graphics and DVD drives. Considering the price the laptops are a step up from low-cost netbooks, which have smaller screens and often cramped keyboards.
But how much performance do these cheap laptops provide, and what do you get for your money? I've been trying out a $298 Compaq Presario CQ60-419WM from Wal-Mart to find some answers. The laptop, made by Hewlett-Packard, has a strong suite of features including a 15.6-inch screen, 3GB of RAM, a 160GB hard drive, a DVD-RW drive and robust Nvidia GeForce 8200M integrated graphics.
The less desirable features include a Sempron SI-42 processor from Advanced Micro Devices running at 2.1GHz. It's one of AMD's lowest-end chips and more comparable to a netbook processor than a mainstream laptop chip. Another drawback for me was the pre-loaded Windows Vista Home OS, which can't be upgraded to Windows 7 for free. But for $298 I couldn't ask for a world of top-notch features.
I bought the laptop mainly as a substitute for netbooks, whose cramped keyboards, small screens and poor graphics engines have left me wanting more. The relatively powerful Nvidia chip prompted me to buy the Wal-Mart laptop over Best Buy's $299 Toshiba Satellite L305-S5955, which is still available on the retailer's Web site.
To my surprise, the laptop performed well past my expectations. The machine booted the Vista Home Basic OS (and all the bloatware that comes with it) in around 30 seconds, and the Nvidia graphics engine was able to handle YouTube video and casual gaming effectively. Video did not jerk or stall when playing "Wallace & Gromit's Grand Adventures" game, which includes heavy animated graphics.
Images appear bright and vibrant on the 1366-by-768 pixel screen, which is slightly wider than other laptops with 15.6-inch screens. It played a standard DVD smoothly. Playback of high-definition video was very jerky, however, so for HD video and intensive gaming you'll want to shell out for a mid- to high-end laptop with a faster processor and better graphics.
The laptop has some drawbacks. At around 6.5 pounds it is not designed for mobility. It also lacks desirable features like a webcam and fast wireless networking based on the latest 802.11n protocol. The laptop ran for around two-and-a-half hours on a six-cell battery, which could be a concern for some users.
My biggest concern was around the performance of the Sempron SI-42 processor that sits at the heart of the laptop. Chip enthusiasts have given mixed reviews to the Sempron, which sits on the lowest rung of AMD's processor family ladder. Faster processors -- like AMD's Athlon and Turion, or Intel's Core chips -- perform faster but are more expensive.
However, the Sempron SI-42 was good enough for day-to-day activities like word processing, casual gaming and online video, assisted by the generous 3GB of memory.
In the end it comes down to balancing the features you need with price. If you expect screaming performance from a laptop under $300 you'll be disappointed. But for its rock-bottom price, the HP laptop is an acceptable desktop replacement that can perform basic tasks while providing a reasonable gaming experience. Acquiring this laptop filled a need to replace the fleet of aging PCs that litter my home.
But it's clearly not meant for everyone. Netbooks or ultrathin laptops may be a better choice for those who want good mobility. For intense gaming or HD video, buy a more expensive laptop with a more powerful processor and graphics engine.