Best budget laptop for Christmas 2012

toshibafront

We were asked for our opinion on what would be a good budget laptop for watching movies, email and general web browsing (i.e. no gaming) that can be purchased today for Christmas. Therefore, we went through the current available laptops at Canada Computers, Newegg Canada, Walmart, Staples, The Source, NCIX, Tigerdirect, Best Buy and Futureshop and came up with the following short list of candidates. The following laptops all costs less than $400, all have 15.6″ displays (the sweet spot in terms of pricing), an Intel Pentium B960 or the Intel Core i3-2350M CPU, each weigh about 5 lbs, have an HDMI output, at least 500GB of hard drive space, at least 4GB of RAM and they all come with Windows 7 or Windows 8.

NamePriceCPUHard DriveRAMOSWeightAvailability
ASUS X53E-RS32$349.99Intel Core i3-2350M750GB6GBWin 72.59 kgx
Lenovo B570$349.99Intel Core i3-2350M500GB4GBWin 72.34 kgx
Toshiba C850-05G$369.99Intel Pentium B960640GB4GBWin 8  2.3 kgin stock
Lenovo Ideapad N580$379.99Intel Pentium B960500GB4GBWin 82.59 kgin stock
Acer NX.M12AA.016$379.91Intel Pentium B960500GB4GBWin 82.59 kgin stock

Which processor?

These laptops are very similar in most respects. The primary difference between them is that some have an Intel Core i3-2350M processor, while others have an Intel Pentium B960. The i3-2350M is slightly faster than the B960, but all of the i3 laptops are currently out of stock (online and in-store). The B960 is just an i3 without hyperthreading. Hyperthreading creates virtual cores–it’s really not important to understand. If the i3 laptops come back in stock, we suggest that you get those instead (if they’re below $400). We generally don’t recommend any processor slower than an B960 (such as the Intel Atom, AMD E-300, AMD E-450, any intel Celeron). The only real alternative to the B960 or i3-2350M are the more expensive Intel i5 or the AMD A6-3400M (but we would bust through our $400 budget). If you’re reading this article and you don’t know very much about computer processors, trust us when we say that you want an Intel B960 or Intel i3 processor or better. We suggest that users avoid netbooks like the plague.

Since the 2 laptops with i3 processors are sold out, we’re left with 3 remaining contenders to consider. These 3 finalists all have 1 year warranties and they are all brand new (not refurbished). Between the Lenovo, the Toshiba and the Acer, we tend to lean towards the Toshiba because we find it more esthetically pleasing, it’s a little bit lighter and it has a slightly larger hard drive (pictured above). However, the Lenovo claims up to 5 hours of battery life while the Toshiba only claims 4 hours of battery life. You should be warned that laptop battery life claims by manufacturers are often optimistic.  We tend to avoid Acer products as their reputation as far as build quality and reliablity is not stellar.

Which laptop brand is the most reliable?

A report published in February 2012 found that Lenovo was the most reliable laptop manufacturer, Toshiba came in 2nd and Acer came in last unfortunately. Surprisingly, Lenovo and Toshiba were deemed even more reliable than Apple laptops. Therefore, if reliability is the most important criteria for you, get the Lenovo. If you prefer the look of the Toshiba, get the Toshiba.

What about pricing?

If you need to buy a laptop for Christmas, $370 or $380 for a brand new B960 15.6″ laptop is pretty good value for money. However, to put it into perspective, we’ve seen B960 laptops on sale go for as little as $288, refurbished i3-2350M on sale for $299 and refurbished B950′s (a bit older than the B960) on sale for an incredible $259.99. Those sales all took place earlier in the year and they’re long gone now, but we thought that we would mention it for “context”.

I would like to spend more than $400 on a laptop, what do you think?

If you’re not a gamer then we wouldn’t really recommend it–assuming you care about value per dollar. If you don’t care about bang for the buck, we’d suggest a Macbook air or a Macbook Pro *wink*. Therefore, unless you have special requirements, such as you need a long lasting battery, a light and thin laptop, more CPU power, a dedicated graphics card, a larger/smaller display, you would be much better off getting the Toshiba and the Lenovo and buying a Solid State Drive separately. By far, the greatest bottleneck in a modern desktop or laptop is the hard drive. Regular hard drives spin at 7200 rpm, laptop hard drives spin at 5400 rpm and enterprise hard drives can spin at 10,000 rpm or 15,000 rpm. Even enterprise class hard drives are very slow compared to a budget or value based solid state drive. We don’t want to get into merits of SSD’s too much as that deserves its own article (which we plan on writing), but suffice to say that you will notice the difference between a standard hard drive and a SSD much more than between a Core i3 and a Core i7. There are many SSD’s out there, but not all SSD’s are made equal. It is often recognized that the most reliable SSD’s are made by Samsung, Crucial and Intel. We recommend the Crucial 128GB M4 for $103 since the Samsung 830 is unfortunately no longer available for sale (it’s very reliable though) as it has been replaced by the new Samsung 840 (however, since it is new, it is untested and uses TLC Toggle NAND–therefore, its lifespan is suspect). The Samsung 840 Pro is a bit expensive (should be reliable as it is the true successor to the 830, but almost twice the price). The Intel 320 is too expensive (and brand new so untested). The Intel 330 uses a Sandforce controller (which scares us, but it’s supposed to be good SSD despite of this) and the Intel 520′s performance is so close to the Intel 330, that you might as well buy the Intel 330 for less money. In short, buy the 128GB Samsung 830 if you can find it online. Otherwise, get the 128GB Crucial M4 and your budget laptop will be very snappy and responsive. Once you go SSD, you don’t go back.

Furthermore, instead of buying a +$1,000 laptop today. You can buy a new $400 laptop every year or two years. Technology advances so quickly that it may not be worth the premium for +$1,000 laptops–well, unless you need it for a specific purpose. In other words, there is a big premium on buying premium laptops and the performance advantages are arguably not worth it.

Conclusion

If you’re looking for a budget laptop for Christmas for your parents, grandparents, for school, for a non-gamer, we suggest the Toshiba or Lenovo. It’s really up to your personal preference. We suggest that you play with both of them at Futureshop and decide which one you like more. Make sure to try typing something on the keyboard as they keyboards will undoubtedly feel different. Please also make sure to fully test out the touchpad, some touchpads are notoriously bad. If your budget allows for it, consider buying a solid state drive separately. You will have to re-install windows on the SSD though. That may be a roadblock for some users. If you’re not in a hurry, we suggest that you wait for the refurbished B960′s and Core i3′s to go back on sale. It’ll probably happen  in January or February 2013 once the Christmas craze dies down.

  • Delchev2012

    Good article…very helpful information.,…perhaps at some point you could provide your thoughts on the best budget ultrabook?

    • Hippowise

      To get a good deal on an ultrabook, you would really have to watch for sales carefully. They tend to sell very quickly though. I remember seeing a Lenovo IdeaPad U410 i5-3210M Ultrabook for $450. That was a great deal.