Falling into your lap: up to speed little operators.
Britain is a nation of laptop lovers. After years of jostling for supremacy with full-sized computers, laptops (also known as notebooks) have taken the upper hand. Today they account for 70% of all computers bought by consumers, and the average price paid is £570.
So what do you get for your money? A surprising amount. For starters, most come with the new Windows Vista operating system preinstalled. Given that Vista costs around £200 on its own, or a bit less if upgrading from Windows XP, this seriously sweetens the deal. Vista is more user-friendly than XP, offers enhanced security, and includes fancy Media Center features – or at least the Home Premium Edition does, and this is the version supplied with all of the models under review, apart from the PC Nextday.
Upgrading an operating system by yourself is a faff, so if you’re toying with the idea of a new laptop, getting Vista bundled is a sound incentive, although some experts urge caution until the inevitable new-software gremlins are ironed out.
There are, of course, caveats. Vista is a power-hungry beast and although it will run on most recent computers it is far more sprightly on a PC with at least 1GB of Ram, which all of the laptops under review have. A still better option is to upgrade to 2GB at the point of purchase, for around £100.
Despite varying prices, these machines have more similarities than differences. Each model features a DVD burner and, with the exception of the large-screened Hi-Grade, weighs around 2.8kg: not ultra-light, but eminently portable.
The size of the screen governs how a laptop is used. Smaller screens are fine for short spells but could leave you squinting if you watch a full movie. The Hi-Grade aside, all the models here have either a 14in or 15in screen. Laptops tinier than that look appealing and have their merits, but are usually pricier and suffer from fiddly keyboards and poorer performance.
All of the machines reviewed have built-in Wi-Fi and a slot for adding, say, a 3G data card – handy for e-mails or web browsing if away from your normal internet connection.
Apart from the cheap-as-chips Advent, each features a dual-core processor, the single biggest computing advance in years. Even if your needs are limited, a dual-core laptop is better equipped to run background chores – such as a virus scan or ripping a CD to MP3 – without slowing the machine down. These delays are frustrating if you’re editing an urgent document. In fact, three of these laptops – the HP, Sony and PC Nextday – include the latest Intel Core 2 Duo processor, albeit a modest version. Given their reasonable price tags, none offers blazing-fast 3-D gaming. However, the Evesham and the PC Nextday make a fist of playing fairly recent games.
The real differences relate to the size of the hard drive – where your documents, music and photos are stored – and overall build quality. Even the two cheapest machines boast an 80GB drive, which is enough to hoard a trove of digital goodies, though more is better, and most models here offer at least 100GB. Only home-movie buffs or those with a massive music library will fill the HP’s capacious 160GB.
Another key factor is battery life. The figures cited are with light use and in real-world conditions could halve. That said, you can dramatically enhance your battery by tweaking the power settings within Windows – a trick well worth trying.
The single biggest casualty of economy is how a laptop is put together, and crucially that includes the keyboard. We place great emphasis on how well-sized and spaced the keys are, and whether they are suited for proper typing.
Only the two pricier models,- from HP and Sony – have their own custom-designed chassis and screens. All the other companies buy generic components to reduce costs. There is nothing wrong with this, but it’s no coincidence that the Sony and HP performed best in PC Pro’s reliability survey, proving that you get what you pay for.
Lastly, consider the warranty. Evesham offers three years while Sony gives just one, although bigger companies are more likely to get you back up and running if your machine dies while you are in Rio on business. It’s worth extending this cover when you buy if it’s not too pricey, as fixing a laptop that’s not under warranty is painful, both in cost and aggravation.
Clock speed The operating speed of a processor in gigahertz (GHz). Rarely a reliable gauge of performance
Dual-core Latest generation of processors; far better for multitasking or handling routine background jobs
Hard drive/hard disk Where software and data are stored. Capacity measured in gigabytes (GB)
Graphics card Drives the display; vital for 3-D gaming
Processor PC’s “brain”, responsible for all calculations
Ram Live memory. Vista needs 1GB but 2GB is better
Vista Latest variant of Windows that replaces XP
HP Pavilion dv2278ea – typically £910, or £850 from www.rankhour.com
Stylish yet solid, with generous battery life
From the striking glossy finish to the rattle-free keyboard, this is a class act. The 14.1in widescreen display is smallish, but this helps trim weight to an acceptable 2.4kg, and the screen is of sufficiently high resolution to be able to display a document while video-conferencing on the built-in webcam. A generous 160GB hard drive is big enough to store a good music library and the speakers sound full bodied. Okay, the processor is no better than those of the other models reviewed, the 3-D graphics are modest, and a one-year warranty is just plain tight, but it’s solid, reliable and the battery lasted a full three hours. If gaming isn’t your thing, this HP is a smart move.
Hi-Grade Ultinote A9900-2050 – £821 from tinyurl.com/34m2pc
Big-screen entertainer beset by sluggish performance
Not all notebooks are meant to be mobile, and the Ultinote is one such – it is a “desktop replacement”, designed to be moved only from room to room. It weighs 3.6kg and features a big 17in screen, which proved ideal for watching Ugly Betty using the built-in digital TV tuner, or for simultaneously working on two documents open side-by-side. The keyboard is large, well laid out and provides good wrist support, and the two-year warranty usefully includes accidental damage cover. As an all-round entertainer the Hi-Grade Ultinote is impressive, although it is held back by a slightly ageing processor and pedestrian graphics that will prove a deterrent to power players.
Sony Vaio VGN-FE41E – typically £800, or £764 from www.microwarehouse.co.uk
A joy to own despite the skimpy warranty
This isn’t the best looking Vaio that Sony has made, but it still easily outclasses all but the HP for aesthetic allure. The keyboard had exactly the right amount of travel (a common flaw with laptops) and the large touchpad proved responsive. The bright 15.4in screen was vivid, and a built-in webcam proved ideal for video chats. Despite a fiddly lid clasp and spongy hinges, this is a solidly built machine with a decent 120GB hard drive. The 2hr 45min of battery life will please commuters, even if the weight of 2.8kg is a tad porky for a Vaio. A one-year warranty is miserly at this price, but Sony provides proven reliability and a generous software package. A fine choice overall.
Advent 7113 – typically £450, or £404 from www.dixons.co.uk
Outstanding value for the undemanding owner
A Vista laptop for £400 is a rarity, but Advent – PC World and Dixons’ own brand – has squeezed in a bucketful of gadgetry plus the Home Premium version of Windows Vista. Cheap laptops are often flimsy, but this 2.8kg Advent is solid, with a rigid case and sound protection for the good 15.4in screen. A rattly keyboard with some strangely positioned keys lets the side down and the 1hr 53min battery life will frustrate mobile professionals. The Intel Celeron M processor is ancient but okay for browsing, word processing or playing DVDs. However, attempting several tasks at once floored it, and the 80GB hard drive is modest. A bargain, but not for gamers or movie makers.
Evesham Quest A425 – £821 from tinyurl.com/2unn8e
Tiptop security and warranty, but modest battery
A solid choice for professionals on a budget, this is the only model here with a fingerprint reader, enabling you to assign all your passwords to one swipe of a finger so that no secrets are lost if your laptop is left in a taxi. Businessmen, however, won’t like the 1hr 30min battery life or the poor viewing angles that hamper presentations on the otherwise swish screen. At least there’s a webcam for video conferences, a responsive keyboard, and an excellent optional three-year warranty. This Evesham is the only machine on test with an AMD processor, and performance isn’t too far off the pace. It’s also, unexpectedly, the most credible gaming beast in this herd, and at 2.9kg not too heavy.
PC Nextday Zoostorm 52-4601 – £550 from tinyurl.com/2pgar8
Big-budget performance on a shoestring, albeit flawed
You expect compromises at this price, but this PC Nextday is better than you’d think. It managed some 3-D games, while the Intel dual-core processor meant less thumb-twiddling when multitasking. In fact in terms of performance it went toe to toe with the best machines here. The trade-off, though, was a shortish two-hour battery life and the amount of heat produced; asbestos trousers may be required, which is a worry given the skimpy one-year warranty. It includes only a cut-down version of Vista, has a mere 80GB of hard-drive capacity, and screen quality is only so-so. But if you’re after the maximum bang-per-buck in a laptop, you’ll struggle to find better value.