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Cheap business laptops: Three for under US$850

With businesses facing tightening IT budgets, we put three bargain notebooks through their paces

The stock market’s a mess, your company’s balance sheet looks like a sea of red ink and your budget for outfitting 50 employees with new notebooks has been slashed to the bone. What’s a poor buyer to do?

You could try those new under-US$400 ultrasmall notebooks, but that’s not really the answer. In most cases, bargain-basement notebooks are meant to be adjuncts to another computer and don’t offer enough speed, storage or substance to make it in the rough-and-tumble world of business.

The simple truth of the matter is that the notebooks that businesspeople carry with them need to be a cut above the rest. They need to be comfortable enough to use in a variety of places, have the power to churn through corporate databases, be effective Web surfboards and — above all else — be reliable and ready for work every day.

But while you may not be able to find a full-power notebook for US$400, you can get a solid working system at a relatively low price. To test this idea, I put together a group of three business notebooks that cost US$850 or less.

The systems were the US$782 Dell Vostro 1510, the US$800 Toshiba Satellite Pro L300D EZ-1003X and the US$829 HP Compaq 6735b. All had 15.4-in. screens, midrange Intel or AMD processors and wireless networking capability. They all weighed between 5 lbs. and 6 lbs. and offered a reasonable amount of memory and hard drive space.

What was left out? Some cut corners on graphics, and some weren’t yet up to the latest 802.11n standard in Wi-Fi networking. None had Bluetooth, and only the Compaq 6735b came with a fingerprint scanner, which some businesses prefer as security tools. Each came with a one-year warranty — with these lower-cost notebooks, the gold-standard three-year warranty is not standard.

To separate the wheat from the chaff, I next did what millions of employees do every day. With notebook in hand, I downloaded e-mail, did research on the Web and wrote and ran the numbers with spreadsheets. I even watched a few YouTube videos and listened to some Internet radio.

In this time of tight cash, one of these contenders could be your next, best business notebook. Let the battle begin, and may the best notebook win.

Vostro 1510

The Vostro line from Dell is aimed at small businesses, but it’s just as appropriate for bigger companies with mobile workers because the systems are well designed and offer more for less. A case in point is the Vostro 1510, which is surprisingly powerful, long lasting and thin for this class of systems. At US$782, it’s a steal that should make its competitors jealous.

With a footprint of 14.0 x 10.1 in., the Vostro 1510 is roughly the same size as the other business systems, but it’s just 1.1-in. thick. At 5.7 lbs., it tied with the Satellite Pro L300D as the lightest of the four, but the Vostro 1510’s AC adapter is significantly lighter, making for a svelte 6.6-lb. travel weight, the lightest of the bunch.

The jet-black angular case may not appeal to everyone, but the lid’s sparkle finish and its latch-less lid design are refreshing touches that are lacking in the other plain-Jane notebooks.

Built around Intel’s 2-GHz Core 2 Duo processor and a 160GB hard drive, the system is unique among the four systems reviewed in that it has a slot-loading DVD +-RW drive, a component that’s usually reserved for much more expensive notebooks. Like the others, the Vostro 1510 has a 15.4-in. display, and it uses an Intel graphics accelerator that can use up to 358MB of the system’s 2GB of RAM.

Above the display is a 1.3-megapixel webcam that can show five times more detail than the Satellite Pro 300D’s camera. Below is a keyboard with 18.9mm keys that have a generous 2.2mm of travel for relaxed typing. I particularly liked the nice set of controls for music and movies that includes buttons for adjusting the volume and muting the sound.

Other than its lack of Bluetooth and a fingerprint scanner, the Vostro 1510 is surprisingly well equipped, with four USB ports and connections for headphones, a microphone, an external monitor and FireWire; add to that an Express card slot and the ability to read SD and Memory Stick flash cards.

The Vostro is a worthy online machine as well. It may not have the modem that the Compaq 6735b and Satellite Pro L300D provide for online emergencies, but there’s a Gigabit Ethernet plug and a Dell 802.11b/g Wi-Fi card.

Performance is where the Vostro 1510 sets itself apart from the crowd. It scored a 520.8 on the Passmark Performance test — 50% better than the HP Compaq 6735b, and it ran on its battery for 3 hours and 10 minutes — 50 minutes longer than the Satellite Pro 300D. Its ability to move 15.9Mbit/sec over its Wi-Fi link was middle-of-the-pack, but it stayed connected 120 feet from the router, the farthest in this group of business notebooks.

The system comes with Microsoft’s Vista Business Basic, Works Plus and McAfee’s Total Security application with a 15-month subscription. Dell backs the system with a one-year warranty; extending that to three years of coverage costs just $80, half the price of some of the others.

Overall, the Vostro 1510 has it all: an enviable profile, light weight, top performance and long battery life, all for US$782, the lowest price of the group. It’s not perfect, however, because of the absence of Bluetooth and a fingerprint scanner; but add those, and the system sells for $827, still a bargain price. It’s as close to a perfect companion for mobile workers on a tight budget as I’ve seen.

HP Compaq 6735b

HP’s Compaq 6735b is a hard notebook to pigeonhole. While it doesn’t deliver peak performance, battery life or Bluetooth, it can connect to the latest Wi-Fi networks, has a modem and an old-school serial port as well as the best graphics in the bunch.

Neither the heaviest nor the lightest, the Compaq 6735b is right in the middle of this group of business systems at 6 lbs. — that rises to 7 lbs. with an AC adapter. The silver-and-black case measures 1.3 x 13.9 x 10.3 in., thicker than the Dell Vostro 1510 but much thinner than the Toshiba Satellite Pro 300D.

Like the Satellite Pro L300D, it’s powered by an AMD Turion X2 processor, but the Compaq 6735b makes do with a slower 2-GHz unit — and that shows in its performance potential.

The system is backed up with 2GB of system memory and a 120GB hard drive, 40GB less space for data than either the Dell Vostro 1510 or the Satellite Pro 300D. The drive is protected by HP’s 3D DriveGuard technology, which firmly mounts the drive to the system’s frame and has an accelerometer that senses if the system has been dropped to protect the fragile discs inside. There’s also a DVD burner that can use HP’s LightScribe technology to etch labels onto discs.

Graphics is where the Compaq 6735b sets the pace. Its ATI Radeon HD3200 accelerator has 320MB of dedicated video memory for high-end graphics, like CAD drawings or video editing on the go. Plus, it can boost that to nearly a gigabyte by borrowing system memory. The screen matches the others at 15.4 in. and 1280 x 800 resolution, but the unit is the only one of the four to lack a webcam; if you want one, it’s a US$25 option.

I really liked the slide volume control and mute button. The system has best keyboard of the bunch with 19mm keys that have 3mm of depth. It’s also spill-resistant and the raised touchpad switches are finger-friendly. Security-conscious buyers will be attracted to the fingerprint scanner.

The available ports offer an odd mix of old and new. The system has four USB ports as well as headphone, microphone, external monitor, FireWire and S-Video Out. There’s also an antiquated RS232 serial port for those with legacy serial hardware, like bar-code readers. The flash card reader on the right supports SD, Memory Stick and the petite xD cards, while on the left there’s an Express card slot.

It’s easy to stay online with Gigabit Ethernet and a Broadcom Wi-Fi card that handles 802.11 a/b/g/n networks. There’s also a modem for when broadband abandons you on the road. Like the others, no Bluetooth.

The Compaq 6735b lagged behind the pack on performance, although it should be just fine for most mobile tasks. Its 347.8 on the Passmark Performance test put it in the cellar, and its battery life of 2 hours 35 minutes was middle-of-the-pack. It shone on Wi-Fi data transfers with a throughput of 24.5Mbit/sec., but its range was limited to 100 feet.

Even at US$829, the Compaq 6735b is a lot of notebook for the money. It comes with a one-year warranty; upping that to three years of coverage costs $169. The machine comes with Vista Business as well as McAfee’s optimistic-sounding Total Protection suite and HP utilities that encrypt a hard drive’s data and wipe it clean when it’s time to dispose of the notebook.

Overall, it’s a competent machine that is built around an odd mix of hardware.

Satellite Pro L300D EZ-1003X

It may not be the least expensive or the most powerful, but Toshiba’s Satellite Pro L300D is good for road warriors who like to travel light but stay within a budget. The price that you pay for this ease of travel is a small hard drive and lack of support for 802.11n wireless networks.

Housed in a nondescript gray-and-black case, the Satellite Pro L300D weighs in at 5.7 lbs., equal to the Vostro 1510. With its AC adapter, the system has a reasonable travel weight of 6.8 lbs. Its 14.3 x 10.5-in. footprint roughly matches the other three notebooks in this group, but the Satellite Pro L300D is 1.5-in. thick, quite a bit thicker than the Vostro 1510.

The Satellite Pro L300D uses AMD’s 2.1-GHz Turion X2 processor with 2GB of system memory and a 160GB hard drive. The system’s ATI Radeon X1250 graphics can use up to 700MB of the unit’s complement of RAM; the 15.4-in. display has a maximum resolution of 1280 x 800. The system is rounded out with a DVD Super Multi optical drive that works with just about every disc short of a Blu-ray movie.

The competent keyboard has 18.9mm keys with 2mm of depth, but it flexes too much under intense work. Above is a webcam that has a resolution of 310,000 pixels, well short of the 1.3 megapixel resolution that some of the others can handle. On the other hand, the Satellite Pro L300D has some nice hardware details, such as a mechanical volume thumbwheel and a Wi-Fi on/off switch (making it easy to save battery life by quickly switching off Wi-Fi).

The system’s array of ports is a bit skimpy. The Satellite Pro L300D has three USB ports and connections for an external monitor, a microphone and headphones. There is an Express Card slot and a flash card reader that works with SD and Memory Stick modules.

On top of an Ethernet port, the system offers Atheros Wi-Fi 802.11b/g. Like the others, the Satellite Pro L300D lacks Bluetooth connectivity and does without a fingerprint scanner.

It all comes together in a system that was reliable over a month of use, but one that didn’t impress on performance. The Satellite Pro scored a 412.4 on Passmark’s Performance 6.1 test but lagged on the network performance tests. Its Wi-Fi card had a 100-foot range and was able to move 17.7Mbit/sec. of data. These metrics are all roughly 10% to 20% lower than the best of these notebooks. Its battery life of 2 hours 20 minutes was solidly middle-of-the-pack for these business notebooks.

Along with Windows XP Pro, the system comes with the expected array of software, like Norton 360 (with a 60-day subscription), and a two-month trial version of Microsoft Office. The notebook’s Wi-Fi utility is among the best on the market. Rather than simply listing the nearest routers as most do, the program shows them graphically on a display that looks like a radar screen, and it lists the system’s IP address among other details.

Toshiba provides a one-year warranty for the Satellite Pro L300D; a three-year warranty costs a reasonable US$149. Light and reasonably thin, the Satellite Pro L300D sells for US$800, leaving US$50 left over to buy a few accessories such as Bluetooth.

(Note: Since I took at look at the system, Toshiba has replaced the model I reviewed — the L300D EZ-1003X — with a new variation — the L300D EZ-1003V — that sells for US$799 but offers a larger 160GB hard drive and Windows Vista Business.)

How we tested

Business notebooks don’t have to be high-performance sprinters — rather, they need to have the soul of a long-distance runner who never falters and is always there at the finish line. I measured, weighed and examined each notebook, then pushed each to the limit to gauge its performance potential.

I tested for the following:

Overall Performance: The Passmark Performance Test 6.1 , which exercises every major component and provides a single score that summarizes its ability to do a variety of work.

Battery life: While running an Internet radio station via Wi-Fi with the audio set to three quarters of full volume, I used Passmark’s Battery Monitor software to chart the battery’s capacity as each system was run down and to save the time at which it shut down.

Wi-Fi: Using a Linksys WRT54GS router and the Passmark Advanced Networking Test, I measured each notebook’s wireless throughput with a Dell server via a Wi-Fi wireless link at 15 feet. The test ran for one minute, and the average data movement was recorded.

Next, I started up an Internet radio station and walked away from the Wi-Fi router with the notebook in hand. I measured the spot farthest from the router where it remained connected.

Corporate Work: Using a wireless link, I played an online PowerPoint presentation with video and opened a complicated 2.5MB Acrobat file. Finally, I collected and sent e-mail using Gmail and either Outlook or Windows Mail, depending on what came with the system.


Although the three notebooks offered different levels of performance, battery life, features and reliability, they all proved ready for the road. The Dell Vostro 1510 led in performance and battery life, and the Compaq 6735b had a fingerprint scanner as well as a modem. The Satellite Pro L300D tied with the Dell as the lightest system of the bunch and was otherwise a good middle-of-the-road system.

One of these notebooks stood out, however. The Dell Vostro 1510 provided what a traveling businessperson needs in a package that’s smaller and lighter than the rest, yet it outperformed the pack on basic tasks and had excellent Wi-Fi range and battery life. I love a bargain, and the notebook’s US$782 allows a lot of room for adding Bluetooth, a fingerprint scanner and even a bag. To my way of thinking, the Vostro 1510 wins in the rough-and-tumble world of mobile business by offering a lot for a little.

Brian Nadel is a freelance writer based near New York and is the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.