HP Pavilion G4

Netbook, schmetbook. If you were thinking of going undersize just because netbooks are cheap, take a look at the HP Pavilion G4 (model 1215dx) instead. At $379 (as of November 7, 2011), this Best Buy-only, all-purpose laptop with a 14-inch, 1366-by-768-resolution display offers much better all-around performance than a typical netbook in a far more usable size. It even supports games adequately at low resolution.

A major factor contributing to the G4’s low price is its use of AMD’s affordable new 1.9GHz A4-3300M processor. You also get 4GB of DDR3 memory, 512MB of which goes to the integrated Radeon HD 6480G graphics; a 5400-rpm, 320GB Hitachi hard drive; and a DVD burner. The unit weighs 4.5 pounds, meaning that it’s easy enough to carry though perhaps not truly svelte. Battery life is an acceptable 4 hours, 13 minutes at the laptop’s default power settings.

Related story: How to choose between a tablet and a netbook

The G4 earned a score of only 77 on PCWorld’s WorldBench 6 test suite, but subjectively the unit feels quite sprightly. If you don’t mind reducing your display to a resolution of 800 by 600 pixels, the system can deliver playable gaming frame rates in the low 30s. Video–even high-bit-rate 1080p–played smoothly, and sound came through the speakers loud and clear. The audio lacked bass of course, but only laptops equipped with integrated subwoofers can deliver that. The display is bright and clear, but the viewing angle is only moderately wide.

For the money, you might expect to encounter compromised input ergonomics, but I found that the Chiclet-style keyboard felt quite crisp, despite being short-stroke. Though the keys are not sculpted, small braille-like ticks on the F and J keys help you properly place your hands while keeping your eyes trained on the screen.

The touchpad is integrated into the keyboard deck and is delineated visually only by its textured surface. But just as the keys offer tactile clues, a small dimple in the upper left-hand corner helps you locate the device by feel alone.

At this price, not surprisingly, you don’t get high-speed peripherals: The G4 lacks USB 3.0 or eSATA ports to speed backup chores. You do get three USB 2.0 ports, VGA and HDMI video outputs, however, as well as an SD/MMC card reader. Connectivity options include 802.11b/g/n wireless and 10/100 ethernet. The webcam resolution is limited to 640 by 480.

As often happens with budget laptops, the G4 comes well-stocked with we-paid-to-be-here apps that vendors use to defray costs–a link to eBay, Wild Tangent Games disguised as HP Games, Zya Music, and Microsoft Office 2010 Starter, to mention a few. Happily, it’s not hard to weed them out. On the practical side, HP provides playback and burning apps for the DVD drive, as well as a Webcam utility.

Despite its low WorldBench 6 score, the Pavilion G4 performs adequately in almost every regard, even besting a number of more-expensive all-purpose laptops in gaming. If you can live without the high-speed peripheral ports, it’s a great deal. Other G-series models have larger screens but carry similarly impressive bargain prices in their respective categories.

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