Ask Techland: Good Laptop for $400 or Less?

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The Question:

I literally only do two things on a computer: use Microsoft Word and surf the web. I don’t watch movies/videos, play games, listen to music, etc. I don’t want a netbook and I’d like to pay less than $400. It also seems like an Intel processor is important.

Two computers have caught my eye: an HP Pavilion for $349 and a Samsung for $299.

Is one better? Is neither very good? I would greatly appreciate any and all advice/feedback.

The Answer:

This is a good question. Know why? Because you’re probably like 95% of other computer users. I worked at Best Buy selling computers back in the mid-’90s and specs used to be much more important than they are today. The short answer is that for word processing and web surfing, there aren’t a whole lot of computers that wouldn’t work for you—and the fact that you’re willing to spend $400 actually leaves you with plenty of options.

As far as the two computers you listed above, here are the main differences: The Samsung has a bigger screen, weighs more, has a slightly faster processor, and has a smaller hard drive.

The hard drive size isn’t important here since you’re just dealing with word processing and web surfing, and if you’re not going to be moving the computer around a lot—if it’ll be your main computer sitting on a desk all day, for instance—then save yourself $50 and go with the Samsung. If you’re going to be traveling a fair amount, the HP’s smaller footprint and the fact that it weighs almost a pound less than the Samsung could make it worth the extra cash. The difference in processor speed between the two is negligible.

I personally prefer 14-inch laptops over 15.6-inch laptops since I move them from room to room and take them with me when I travel, but the extra screen size you get with the 15.6-inch versions is nice. Note that the screen resolutions are the same, though, and a smaller screen with the same resolution as a larger screen will generally look a little sharper. Also, 15.6-inch laptops generally feature a numeric keypad to the right of the main keyboard; 14-inchers don’t.

Most of the computers in the $300 to $400 range are going to have similar specs: 14- or 15.6-inch screens with 1366×768 resolutions, around five hours of promised battery life (actual usage will probably be around three hours), and four gigabytes of RAM. The more RAM, the better, as it’ll keep Windows humming along and allow you to have multiple programs running at once.

Aside from the two machines you picked out, this $380 Lenovo is pretty well-reviewed. The extra money gets you a fingerprint reader, a nimbler Intel Core i3 processor, and a decent size and weight of 1.3 inches and 5.2 pounds, respectively.

As with any computer purchase, it’s not a bad idea to swing by the store and try them out yourself. Test the keyboards since you’ll be doing a lot of typing, make sure you like the trackpads (including the buttons) and see which screens look best to you. Those three things can never be adequately conveyed online, yet they’re three of the things you’ll use most often.

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