In our previous article we reviewed four of the most loaded laptops around the $500 tag. We have lowered it further to $400 to see what the market segmentation is like at that price point. The point of high end laptops was to provide performance and we cared little about weight and battery life. Surely, at this budget if we are not asking for gaming, we can get good laptops for lightweight productivity and casual use. Can’t We?
Well the market is segmented differently from the perspective of a few manufacturers. Somehow, they want to convince consumers that at $400 they can provide everything just as well as those high end products. As a result, we end up with products that aren’t good for power users or the casual ones. These are the products which you would want to avoid. Also considering your personal needs is important while deciding what you might prefer. For example, if you are a blogger who likes to travel to different places and write about them then reliable battery performance is going to matter more than CPU performance or the RAM size. Similarly, a corporate executive can appreciate a faster SSD which would make boot time extremely small and programs like Microsoft Office would load quickly.
Notice that we are considering products that can be regarded as laptops and are not convertible tablets or Chromebooks. The main reason for doing this is not so much the form factor but the CPU inside it. Anything with an Intel Core M from any generation is something we are intentionally avoiding just to stick to laptop department alone. There is an entire range of Macbooks and Microsoft Surface Pro and Surface Book, but those things cost north of a $1000 price tag. Something a budget conscious person would avoid.
Yet there is some hope, with the right balance between low powered CPU, a snappy little SSD and decent peripheral connectivity laptops at this price point may just be worth it. Also they tend to have a better battery life what with the lack of power hungry processor and GPU. These will be the deciding parameters in our evaluation.
Let’s dive in and look at 4 of the most popular devices on Amazon.
HP 15.6” Touchscreen powered by i5 7200U
This is the perfect example showcasing the compromises and benefits of budget laptop. The chief selling point of this laptop is its CPU which gives decent single core performance. It is a 2 cores/4 threads processor that is clocked at 2.5GHz and it can turbo up to 3.1GHz and it has a 3MB of L3 cache. Interestingly, its PassMark, in single core performance, is little higher than even i5 6300HQ (at the time of this writing) which is one of the favourite CPUs for middle end gaming laptops. Thus, the CPU has sufficient power for office and multimedia purposes as well as more demanding applications and multitasking.
Intel’s latest Kaby Lake processor is the most likely reason to get this laptop. However, it does have a meagre 4GB of RAM, and a sluggish 500 GB mechanical hard drive, both of which can easily be upgraded. Even more so than the RAM, the lack of an SSD is its biggest demerit. Swapping the HDD with an SSD would cost you an extra $50 to $100 on top of its initial $430 price tag. Also the RAM would demand an upgrade furthering the cost to nearly $500.
Coming to the display, we have a disappointing 1366 by 768 resolution. This resolution in 2017, spread over a 15.6” screen, is a hard pill to swallow but at $400, corners are often cut in the ugliest ways. There is no dedicated video card in this device, just an Integrated HD 620 graphics which can do 1080p playback no problem and it can handle the low resolution display no problem.
The gimmicks that are added by HP such as touchscreen and, for some reason, an optical disk drive are simply to distract people. The reason why touchscreen is more of an issue than a feature is because this is not a convertible laptop, with a tablet like ease of access to the screen. Your keyboard will always come in your way, so the touch interface will be clumsy to use and it will end up covering your display with fingerprints without any additional ergonomic advantage. If only they would have improved the screen resolution instead of adding in the touch interface, it would have dominated the market.
For connectivity, we have a USB 2.0 and a USB 3.0 port, Ethernet LAN, HDMI and the usual SD card reader. For wireless, we see 802.11 bgn and Bluetooth 4.0. Battery life is pretty good thanks to the power efficient processor, and can last up to 7 hours for casual workloads like browsing and multimedia.
Weighing 4.6 lbs (2.1kg), this is not the lightest device out there, but surprisingly, it is the lightest device on our list. This is yet another reason why Optical disk drives should be abandoned as they contribute to the weight without much else to offer.
Acer Aspire E5 15.6” Laptop
The Aspire E5, although not faster that the HP device we just reviewed, is much more comfortably priced at $350 for a 1TB HDD and $381 for a 1TB HDD and a 128GB SSD variant. This is very fortunate as it manages to stay below the $400 price point leaving a little room for RAM or storage upgrade. Keep in mind, this also has an M.2 slot in it. So if you want to see how big of a difference faster storage alone can offer, without an insane i7 processor, you may want to experiment with this laptop. Trust us, you will not regret the upgrade at all.
The CPU inside is a 2-cores/4-threads i3-7100U, which is power efficient at the expense of being slower at 2.4GHz without any turbo boost available. This is not at all meant for gaming or heavy workloads but will give you good battery life. We all know at this point, that the actual bottleneck is in the HDD and getting an SSD with the 7100U is much better than getting an HDD with 7200U.
For memory we have 4GB of DDR4 SDRAM, which will get congested soon enough making multitasking a real nightmare. This is why we recommended a RAM upgrade in the beginning. Also worth mentioning is the fact that this has an Intel HD 620 as an integrated graphics solution and no dedicated GPU, obviously. However, the display is a respectable 1920 by 1080 TN panel display with an antiglare coating. Audio solution is sufficiently loud but the sound does get broken and unclear at higher frequencies. Needless to say, viewing angles are bad as compared to the IPS panels but for a laptop of this size you’d almost always be staring at it directly.
In terms of build quality, it has a decent brushed metallic finish around the keyboard and an obsidian black lid, giving it a premium look and feel. The keyboard is backlit and the touchpad is just good enough to get the job done. In terms of connectivity, we have 802.11 ac, Bluetooth 4.1 an HDMI connection, 2 USB 3.0 ports, 1 USB 3.1 (Type C) and a USB 2.0. Again, it is good to see Kaby Lake’s high speed peripheral connectivity being used, even on budget laptops.
The laptop itself is quite hefty at around 5.23lbs (2.4kg), it does have that vestigial optical drive to add to its weight. The battery life is around 5 to 6 hours of casual use which is something quite useful if you travel a lot and want to be productive in your hours of commute.
Up until now we have only seen Intel’s 7th gen processors in our list. This device makes an exception by using a generation older i3-6100U which is only marginally slower than its newer counterpart. That said, it doesn’t bode well for Asus F5 as the 7100U was already a weak performer in the first place. The CPU is a 2-cores/4-threads part clocked at 2.3GHz with 3MB of L3 cache no turbo boost available.
Slower processor is something you will easily forgive when you pick it up for the first time. It has that premium Zenbook-ish look to it, and the hard plastic body with metallic finish looks absolutely stunning, especially when the backlight is turned on for the black keyboard. The display panel has a 1920 by 1080 resolution and is surrounded by a black bezel. Equally stunning is the deep blue spun metal finish on the lid. Asus has really stepped up in terms of aesthetics which makes this laptop look much more expensive than its actual $360 price tag.
However, corners are cut by using only 4GB of DDR4DL RAM and a 1TB mechanical hard drive. Upgrading to an SSD alone can cost you at least $40 more and is absolutely recommended. For connectivity we have 1 USB 3.0, 1 USB 3.1 Type C (gen 1) another USB 2.0 and Wireless 802.11 ac along with Bluetooth 4.1. Also included is a VGA port, an HDMI out, and of course an RJ45 for Ethernet connectivity.
The device weighs around 5.1lbs (2.3kg) because even a brand like Asus, which is constantly on the lookout for cutting edge technology, just can’t let go of that optical disk drive. The battery life is however quite small. Anywhere from 3 to 5 hours of moderate usage is enough to drain it completely which makes the device not so portable. However, if you are wishing to upgrade the RAM and SSD this is a good bang for your buck (yes, even after including the cost of upgrade).
HP “High Performance” Business Laptop with AMD A10 9660P APU
HP makes a second entry in our list but this time with an AMD A10 APU, which is clocked at 2.3GHz and can turn up to 3.2GHz when need arises. This processor has 4 physical cores running 4 threads, with only 2M of cache. Despite all the cores, its performance is lower than the lowest end i3-6100U from Intel that is on our list. This is priced at $390, leaving almost no room for getting upgrades under a $400 budget.
For memory, we have 8GB of DDR3 RAM which is greater than any other laptop on the list. This laptop also has AMD Radeon R5 (Bristol Ridge) graphics with up to 4335MB of total graphics memory. Again, manufactures have forsaken solid state storage for 1TB of typical 5400RPM HDD which will further bottleneck the overall performance of the system which already has an unimpressive processor in the first place. There are, however, some surprising use cases for this laptop which we will discuss shortly.
For connectivity we have 1 USB 3.0, 2 USB 2.0, 1 SD card reader an HDMI and a VGA port. This is where you’d miss Intel the most, lack USB 3.1 and USB Type C is not something you’d want in this day and age. For wireless connectivity we have 802.11 ac and Bluetooth 4.0.
With slower CPU and older chipset there is really no argument for recommending it to your average consumer. However, if you are a developer or a computer science major, this is an interesting device to fiddle around with. With a bare minimum GPU, good multicore performance and low price, this can be used for software development and testing purposes. The AMD platform has a better support for Linux drivers and has been tested more thoroughly than the newer Intel Chipsets.
The final verdict
All things considered, Acer Aspire E5 turns out to be not only the best overall performer (with an SSD), but also the best bang for your buck. With reasonably powerful CPU and decent peripheral connectivity this does exactly what a $400 laptop should be able to do: Provide a smooth and responsive computing experience for light workloads with longer battery life.
For travelling bloggers, people who work with Microsoft Office a lot, or just want to binge-watch an entire season in a night, getting a 1TB slow HDD is not something we’d recommend. Adding a faster SSD and installing your operating system on it is the first thing you should do after getting any of the laptop. Also it is recommended that the applications you use the most like Microsoft Office or Visual Studio should be installed on the SSD which would significantly reduce the load time.