Top five portable notebooks and netbooks under $1000

Say good-bye to costly computers. These five netbooks and laptops are quick, easy, and available on the cheap.

HP Mini 1000 Netbook

The HP Mini 1000 is HP’s second-generation foray into the netbook arena. This model has a couple of advantages over its predecessor, the HP 2133, which we reviewed back in early April.

Gone is the Via C-7M processor; gone, too, is the pipe dream that any current netbook could handle Windows Vista. The Mini 1000 that we received for testing runs Windows XP, and packs Intel’s 1.6-GHz Atom processor, 1GB of RAM, and a 4200-rpm, 60GB PATA hard drive. With that configuration, it falls in with the rest of the current mini-notebook pack.

If anyone were to ask me what changes I’d want to make to the company’s first netbook, the aforementioned HP 2133, I’d come up with a pretty cut-and-dried checklist: Add a more capable CPU, amp up the RAM, use XP instead of Vista (one version of the 2133 used Vista Business Edition, no less), change the touchpad’s design (I grew to hate the mouse buttons that flanked the pad), and (if possible) drop the price a little. But I’d insist that they not mess with the keyboard, the speakers, or the sweet metallic shell.

This model incorporates many of those suggestions, but in spite of its Atom processor, the Mini 1000 slips toward the back of the pack performance-wise. Of course, I’ve learned to keep lower expectations for netbooks–the average WorldBench 6 score for the category hovers around 35.

The Mini 1000 eked out a 30. While it isn’t nearly as speedy as Lenovo’s IdeaPad S10 (which earned a mark of 41), the Mini 1000 is notably faster than the Dell Inspiron Mini 9 (which crawled across the finish line with a score of 25) and the HP 2133, which posted a poky 23.

With the Mini 1000, HP does a good job keeping most of the things that worked on the 2133, while upping the performance and managing to cut prices in the process (well, not counting the fashionista-oriented model). Is a Mini 1000 right for you? If you limit your outdoor use (the glare can be a pain), this is a good choice, but it isn’t the swiftest netbook on the block.

Asus N10Jc Netbook

At first glance the Asus N10Jc seems like a do-over of Asus’s Eee 1000H 80G XP, albeit with some superior components and design. In fact, it strays very close to ultraportable laptop territory, despite bearing a price ($650) that’s inexpensive for an ultraportable but steep for a netbook.

One thing that differentiates this model from rank-and-file netbooks is its inclusion of a discrete graphics processing unit, nVidia’s GeForce 9300M GS. Though that GPU isn’t the fastest graphics option around, the N10Jc is the first netbook I’ve tried that lets you toggle between a discrete GPU and the integrated graphics on the motherboard.

The new Apple MacBook Pro and a handful of other full-price laptops have similar features, but no competitor in the N10Jc’s class does. This setup isn’t the same as the hybrid graphics arrangement that nVidia has been advancing (two GPUs working together in Hybrid SLI for improved performance), but being able to choose between high-performance and battery-saving GPUs is still nice.

Though the unit we received came with a six-cell battery, it weighed only 3.5 pounds (the tiny power brick adds another 0.2 pound). Since the N10Jc offers two battery-use modes–a high-performance mode and a power-saving mode–our lab needed to run battery-life tests in each.

At the high-performance setting, the N10Jc held out for 3 hours, 40 minutes. In its power-saving mode, the N10Jc stayed true to its word, as the Asus netbook chugged along for a whopping 5 hours, 3 minutes–the best result in its class. Its running time was about 30 minutes longer than that of the nearest competitor, Asus’s own Eee 1000H 80G XP.

The N10Jc succeeds in many ways, but its price should prompt you to consider whether you’d be better off avoiding the netbook class altogether in favor of a heavier, all-purpose laptop such the full-featured (as in “with an optical drive”) Sony VGN-NR485 for about $150 more.

Gateway MC7803u Laptop

Spending $1000 won’t net you the fastest machine on the block, but the Gateway MC7803u does all right for itself. It runs on an Intel 2-GHz Core 2 Duo T5800 CPU, 4GB of RAM, and a 512MB AMD Radeon HD 3650 GPU.

All of those components make sense if you’re Gateway, looking to come in on budget. In reality, however, you end up creating a machine that barely ekes out a score of 78 in PC World’s WorldBench 6 testing suite.

Gateway wins back a couple points in battery life, as in PC World Test Center benchmarks the MC7803u managed to survive 3 hours, 48 minutes on a charge of the included battery. This system may not last as long as Lenovo’s ThinkPad SL400 (which chugged along for 5 hours, 8 minutes with its massive nine-cell battery), but it hovers right in the range of what we expect of all-purpose laptops.

Just remember that, while the Gateway MC7803u looks good on the surface, it makes some compromises that prevent it from properly delivering some of the entertainment you might have in mind (such as games).

If you’re willing to spend a little extra to get a whole lot more oomph, check out HP’s HDX16 entertainment laptop if you’re inclined to splurge. Otherwise, Lenovo’s IdeaPad Y510 is a little on the older–and less powerful–side, but still manages to bring some basic all-purpose entertainment to the party while costing under a grand.

Lenovo IdeaPad Y510 Laptop

Lenovo piled lots of extras into its $900 IdeaPad Y510 laptop: A capable Webcam sits atop the display and works well with the included facial-recognition software. The Dolby speakers deliver good high and midrange tones, and an integrated subwoofer blows strong bass from below the unit.

The IdeaPad Y510’s 1.66-GHz Core 2 Duo T5450 Intel CPU delivered only middling performance, earning a score of 70 on WorldBench 6. The Y510 will handle basic computing tasks, but it’s no speed demon.

The Y510 also posted an average mark for battery life, surviving for 3 hours, 42 minutes on a single charge. Interestingly, this Lenovo matches the Acer Aspire 5920-6954 almost step for step, despite costing about $100 less.

This model represents a solid effort by Lenovo to court a consumer audience. The Y510 delivers a nice array of multimedia features for a good price.

Sony VGN-NR485 Laptop

The Sony VGN-NR485 laptop has few flaws. It performs well, looks handsome, and comes fairly loaded for a laptop that you can snag for well under $1000.

A Windows Vista Home Premium laptop powered by a 2-GHz Core 2 Duo T5750 and 2GB of RAM, the Sony VGN-NR485 bagged a respectable WorldBench 6 score of 75. That’s pretty solid performance for such an inexpensive portable. It sells for about $200 more than Toshiba’s bargain-basement Satellite Pro L300D-EZ1001V, which the Sony bested by roughly 20 points in our WorldBench 6 tests. It has the speed to handle almost any kind of application.

The only performance problem we encountered was in our 3D gaming tests, which the VGN-NR485 couldn’t run because of its lousy integrated Intel graphics chip.

If keeping to a budget is your top concern, these are small concessions to make. A solid performer with all the most important connections, loads of storage, and an eye-catching dark-blue finish, the Sony VGN-NR485 is a sweet little deal for the under-$1000 crowd.

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