$500 Notebook Computer – What Do You Get?

By Ralph Phillips, Computer & Information Systems

I had the opportunity to go to Costco and BestBuy with a friend to help her shop for a new notebook (laptop) computer. She was looking to spend about $500 with a max of $600. Although she ended up going for a Toshiba for $479, there were several options at that price. When you’re shopping for a notebook computers, there are some things you’ve got to consider.

Will you be using it mostly for…

  • Internet – Web browsing, E-mail, watching streaming videos off of YouTube, etc.
  • Productivity – Word, Excel, PowerPoint, E-mail, etc.
  • Movies – watching DVD movies
  • Media production – creating graphics in Photoshop/Illustrator, animations in Flash, etc.
  • Gaming – playing any of the modern high-quality computer games

The list above is in the order of computing/processing/graphics power you’ll need. Internet and productivity users can often get buy with a budget notebook with on-board graphics processing and minimal RAM and hard drive space. Users with movies and media in mind will need to have more RAM, hard drive storage, and more powerful graphics processing. If your needs are in the latter three groups, finding a sub-$700 notebook is not easy. You’ve got to pay to play.

Below is a typical computer ad with some key items described:

Acer Aspire Notebook advertised at TigerDirect.com in February 2010

Some computer ads put a lot of stuff in the description and use a lot of jargon to make their computer sound more impressive than the ones sitting next to them. The list below are things you WANT to know about the computer and can be used to make real comparisons between different models. Don’t get bogged down in features you don’t need.

Display
This screen is wide-screen HD; 15.6″ diagonal, 1366×768 resolution. If you’re doing basic Internet and productivity, resolution and HD are not critical. But if you’re working with media, you’ll want big numbers in all three sub-categories. Note: big screens mean more weight and ease of portability diminishes.
Memory or RAM
This computer has 4 gigabytes of memory which is really nice and surprisingly common for computers in this price range. Gamers and media-types will want more memory or at least the ability to easily upgrade.
Hard drive
Media folks will want bigger numbers here, but if you’re doing Web work and word processing, 160 gigabytes goes a long way. If you don’t have thousands of music files or large graphics files, don’t be wooed by more expensive computers with 250GB+. Hard drives for notebooks spin at about 5,400 RPMs. If you’re doing high-end stuff with your notebook, look for a disk that spins at 7,200 RPMs or more.
Processor
The computer will come with an Intel processor or an AMD processor. Both companies are good and there isn’t much difference in computers sold at the same price range. The faster the processor the better though–look for more gigahertz if you’re a high-end user.
Graphics
Integrated graphics are fine for Web and productivity work. If you’re watching DVD movies more than a couple times per month or doing other media work, you’ll want a separate graphics processor. This is tough to find on sub-$700 computers. If you’re hunting for more graphics capabilities, look for graphics processors made by ATI or NVIDIA.

All of the other things in the computer ad are filler and really shouldn’t be primary reasons to buy or not buy. Having a built-in SD card reader is nice if you work with SD cards on your digital camera a lot. Having a built-in web cam is nice if you use that kind of thing. However, those options are easily added to computers if/when needed.

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