Best cheap laptop under £399: 10 to choose from
16th Feb 2014 | 10:00
There are plenty of great budget laptops to pick up
Laptops under £399 tend to have a specialisation. Essentially, this is because it's very difficult to appeal to everyone at such low cost.
Some are feather-light ultraportables, others compromise slimness for a higher spec and solid build quality, while others are aimed squarely at the business market and excel at office productivity apps and storage.
You will, therefore, need to ask yourself what you want from your budget laptop more than anything else. Do you really want to play games? Do you need it for the daily commute, and if so is it light enough?
Can you live with 720p playback or do you demand Full HD video? Do you need to edit lots of photos? Or just surf the net a bit?
Once you've figured out the tasks that are important to you, then you'll be able to scour the specs to see if a budget laptop can deliver them. Some things, like hardcore 3D gaming, will just be out of reach at this price.
This last year the world of sub-£399 laptops has also seen a significant influx of portable devices focused on the needs of the casual user, spurred on by the growth and popularity of tablets.
While even 'conventional' laptops are acknowledging this transition with touchscreen features, it's the number of Chromebooks (and a few Windows RT-based portables), which reflect the change most clearly with their 'cut-down' operating system and apps.
Chromebooks come pre-installed with Chrome OS, a highly optimised browser-based OS built from Google Chrome. This combines cloud services for storage and browser-based apps, and the key function of a Chromebook is to get you connected to the web as fast as possible. There is, however, one big caveat - If an app or service doesn't run inside the Chrome browser then you can't run it. This restricts you to any services associated with your Google account and apps available in the Chrome Store.
The Chromebook concept definitely isn't for everyone, then. But they are the kind of light, fast-booting portable devices that are idea for chucking in a backpack for a journey, flicking on to answer emails or for quickly looking something up on the web.
As much as Google wants to promote Chromebooks for general use, more processor-intensive activities, such as photo and video editing, aren't really that easy on this format and you'll also probably want to install extra software. You may also not wish to be confined to using Google services and browser products.
Printing is also a problem. Since Chromebooks are meant to lead a Wi-Fi-only existence, you'll need to check whether your printer supports the Google Cloud Print protocol, which less recent printers don't. If you desperately need to print out, you probably need to sacrifice one USB port to an Ethernet adaptor.
As you'll note from the budget portables that have done well in the last six months, the 'traditional' laptop hasn't entirely disappeared from this price range, which is why out of the 10 best budget laptops, five are laptops that have powerful processors, large amounts of storage and run Windows 8.
Acer C720 Chromebook - £199.99
The Acer C720 is a classic example of the crop of Chromebooks hitting the under-£399 laptop market. The C720's main draw is it's low price for quick and easy access to the internet using a keyboard instead of a touchscreen.
Taking the usual caveats of a Chromebook's intentional limitations into consideration, the 1.40GHz Celeron and Intel HD Graphics are more than adequate for the laptop's duties as a fast-booting computer sidekick. Even the 16GB SSD is acceptable for offline work, if you consider that it's meant to be used with cloud services and comes bundled with 100GB of free Google Drive space for two years.
At this price you have to expect some compromises, though, and the most obvious is the washed out 11.6-inch TFT screen, which has a limited viewing angle.
Acer has also chosen to compromise on the keyboard. It's a cheap chiclet design that lacks solid feedback and has a touchpad without discrete right and left-click buttons.
Considering the price and recognising what it's designed to do, we see the Acer C720 Chromebook as a handy laptop for reading, browsing, shopping and searching on your sofa.
HP Chromebook 11 - £229
Well made, affordable and powerful - If Google wanted a poster child for the Chromebook concept then the HP Chromebook 11 would be grinning away at the photoshoot.
This laptop comes with all the limitations you'd expect from a Chromebook design: it's Wi-Fi only, has only 16GB of SSD internal storage, 2GB of RAM and is powered by an ARM processor. It also has the printing complications we've already mentioned.
On the flipside, it's surprisingly well built for the price with a solid keyboard and, even more surprisingly, it sports a rich and bright IPS 11-inch screen with an unremarkable but decent 1,366 x 768 resolution. The HP Chromebook 11's smooth exterior is also equally matched by a smooth Chrome OS experience with all the apps you'd expect to find available.
The only real gripe we had with the HP Chromebook 11 was its short battery life. Under heavy load it only achieved three hours of use, which doesn't make a lot of sense when you consider it's using a Samsung Exynos 5250 ARM processor.
On occasion, the touchpad also had the tracking jitters, but overall the HP Chromebook 11 is a steal, assuming, of course, that you can find any in stock.
Acer Aspire V5 - £229.97
Time to leave browser operating systems behind for a moment to eye up the Acer Aspire V5. This has Windows 8 pre-installed and the option to swipe lazily at the 11.6-inch TFT touchscreen to navigate.
The Acer Aspire V5 also avoids offering a sub-par keyboard - this one is solid and easy for typing. The touchpad, however, was generally unresponsive.
The hardware specs aren't dazzling on the most part. The AMD A6-1460 processor, which has an integrated Radeon HD 8250 GPU, will offer adequate power for office productivity and video playback. Any creative HD video editing and anything other than a casual gaming itch will have to be satisfied with another purchase.
Storage is adequate though, if slow, using a 500GB hard drive instead of an SSD, and connectivity is standard fare aside from its lack of an Ethernet port.
With such a light and portable design you'd also expect a reasonable battery life, but the Acer Aspire V5 faltered at around two and half hours. In fact, if it weren't for the less than sparkling specs being disguised inside a brushed-metal chassis, a Chromebook might just do the same job as this 'full-fat' Windows 8 laptop.
HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook - £249
While the Chromebook store-it-all-in-the-cloud philosophy has shrunk the HP Pavilion 14's storage down to the usual 16GB SSD, it hasn't followed the formula with its screen. Anyone familiar with the design of the HP Pavilion Sleekbook will recognise the chassis, which has a generous 14-inch panel, albeit with a washed out 1,366 x 786 screen and limited viewing angles.
Inside the shell the Chromebook design takes hold again. It's powered by a fast and responsive Intel Celeron 847 1.1GHz processor and 4GB of RAM, which devours the tasks the HP Pavilion 14 is designed do, such as web browsing and word processing, which makes its hardware selection sensible.
Not all the design decisions are as sensible, though. A Chromebook's big selling point is a good day's worth of battery life, but the HP Pavilion 14 fizzles out in under four hours. HP has also skimped on the speakers, but that's an expected casualty at this price. What's more disappointing is the keyboard, which has keys that are mostly unresponsive.
Overall, the HP Pavilion 14 Chromebook presents the Chrome OS's maintenance-free and responsive experience adequately, but a better battery life would have gained it more admirers.
Dell XPS 10 - £257.53
The Dell XPS 10 is a 10.1-inch tablet hybrid that slots smartly into a keyboard dock. It's also one of very few Windows RT portables being made by anyone other than Microsoft (or Nokia), and is likely to be one of the last since the RT moniker is being dropped.
The resulting product is a mixed bag. It shines bright in some key areas, such as battery life where it achieves 18.5 hours (while attached to the keyboard), but its pros are overshadowed by some darker design moments. For instance, its black plastic exterior is needlessly heavy at 1.3kg and, when plugged into the dock, the keyboard is uncomfortably cramped with small keys.
Our overall feeling about the Dell XPS 10 is that it's hobbled by Windows RT itself. But not because we view the cut-down apps in the Windows Store differently than in those offered on Chromebooks. This limitation would be forgivable, especially as the Dell comes with a full copy of Microsoft Office 2013, if we hadn't experienced such slow loading times for apps. This could be down to the unremarkable Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 1.5GHz processor and not the OS, but it just doesn't compare favourably to the swift experience on most Chromebooks.
Samsung Series 3 Chromebook - £275
Depending on where you buy the Samsung Series 3 Chromebook, it can be as cheap as £229.99. That cheapness, unfortunately, comes through in some of its build material. Silver plastic, for instance, isn't a great sign of quality.
The Series 3 Chromebook is light though, at 1.1kg, and the battery lasts over six hours, which is an adequate but not an outstanding result.
The 11.6-inch TFT screen at 1,366 x 768 pixels is also adequate. It's washed out and has a limited viewing angle, but then that can be said of almost all Chromebooks.
What can't be said of all Chromebooks is that their keyboards are good. The isolation keyboard supplied here isn't superb, but it's spacious and comfortable enough for long use, which is the key thing.
And like most Chromebooks, you shouldn't expect too much from the ARM processor (1.7GHz Samsung Exynos 5 Dual), but even so we were surprised to see it struggle with HTML 5 games. We also experienced the odd crash, but that may be down to specific issues with plugging in external monitors.
Overall, the Samsung Series 3 Chromebook is a light, affordable portable you can stick in your bag for writing docs offline or for whenever Wi-Fi comes your way.
Lenovo G505 - £329.99
As the price begins to creep upwards, traditional budget laptops like this Lenovo G505 make an appearance.
We're not just consuming any more - this about work. This is where we expect to be able to edit photos and video footage, write large documents, create complicated spreadsheets, write code and even try our hand at some reasonably current games.
Unfortunately, that's not entirely the case with the Lenovo G505. Lenovo has opted for the A4-5000, an AMD APU which is focused on power efficiency rather than raw processing power.
Graphics is covered by an integrated Radeon HD 8330, which will limit you to more casual gaming. The 15.6-inch TFT 1,366 x 768 pixel screen is also the bare minimum we'd expect and about as much as the integrated graphics can handle.
However, the battery life, in workhorse laptop terms, is solid at four hours of video playback.
Additionally, you'll have a 1TB hard drive to store all your huge files when you've finished bashing out your project docs on the comfortable and attentive keys of the Lenovo G505's great keyboard.
Essentially, this the kind of budget laptop that gets a report card that reads 'shows promise' and simply doesn't reflect what your 'traditional' budget laptop can really do.
Lenovo G500s - £329.99
Can't quite find the Lenovo that you want? Well, you can sometimes wait a bit and another slightly improved model pops up. Enter the Lenovo G500s.
The main difference between this and the G505 is that it has an Intel Pentium 2020M running at 2.4GHz and comes with 8GB of memory; twice the RAM of the G505. This lifts the Lenovo G500s above its sibling and makes Windows 8 just a little faster in general use.
Again, the integrated Intel HD graphics aren't going to make it a gaming machine, but it can handle HD playback smoothly. It's not the most portable of laptops, though, at 2.5kg and it's 15.6-inch TFT display is good, but not vibrant - much like the G505, in fact.
In terms of connectivity, it hits all the requirements with two USB 3.0 ports, built-in 802.11n Wi-Fi and a DVD writer and, of course, it has that capacious 1TB hard drive, like its brother.
The Lenovo G500s is mostly a good performer for general business duties and with that large hard drive, decent allocation of RAM and steady Pentium processor it's also good value.
HP Pavilion 15 - £369.99
Straightforward is good, we don't always need, or expect, a budget laptop to be the hippest one in the coffeehouse but we do need to be reliable. However, the metallic red finish of the HP Pavilion 15 is a nice touch in a sea of metallic silver.
HP has opted for the same AMD APU as the Lenovo G505, the A4-500, which isn't as exciting as Intel's Haswell processors, but will do the job. Even with the same 4GB of RAM as the G505, the HP has actually managed to make the whole system swifter and more responsive than the Lenovo. Although, the same responsiveness was lacking from the HP's keyboard, which was disappointing as it offers a full-size layout.
But where the HP Pavilion 15 leaves other similarly specced laptops standing is in its battery life. We saw a startling 10 hours or more of power, while continuous use cuts it down to a very respectable five and half hours.
Add to this achievement a decent 750GB hard drive, a bright 15.6-inch TN panel but slightly washed out screen at 1,366 x 768 pixels, and the HP Pavilion 15 is what we'd generally jot down as a tidy little budget machine.
Lenovo IdeaPad S405 - £399
Right at the top of our price range sits the Lenovo IdeaPad S405. Kit's a lightweight budget laptop that's dressed in ultraportable garb, but without the official Intel stamp in spec terms.
It could do with the greater performance of an Intel processor too, like the Core i3, but Lenovo has used an AMD A8-4555M processor paired with 4GB of RAM, which ensures a stable Windows 8.
The AMD trade off does supply better integrated graphics via the Radeon HD 7460G. This will easily handle casual games, but not more taxing titles - it couldn't smoothly handle Bioshock Infinite even on the low settings, for instance.
The 14-inch TFT screen 1,366 x 768 pixels is also as good as we expect for the price.
Connectivity is decently catered for with three USB ports (one USB 3.0 and two USB 2.0) and ports for HDMI, headphones and an SD card slot. But because of the S405's thin and lightweight design it's too slim to have an optical drive.
Testing the battery life reveals that the S405's ultraportable looks are somewhat of a tease - in continuous use it lasted two hours.
It's a shame the IDeaPad S405's battery life isn't better as this is a lightweight, stylish laptop you'll want to carry with you everywhere. It is a good budget portable though, with an exterior most comparably priced alternatives can't match.