2009 Netbook and Notebook Buyer's Guide

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Midrange Notebooks

You know those "Bell curves" your math professor taught you about in undergrad? Here's the height of the notebook buying curve. These so-called midrange notebooks are by far the most popular and most widely available. These are the ones that folks settle on when they're just tired of looking, and while we fully believe they're right for a large sect of people, they definitely aren't for everyone.

Toshiba Satellite - your basic, back-to-school, no frills midrange notebook

By and large, midrange notebooks are 14" to 16" in size, measuring in around 1" to 1.5" thick, and they ship with an optical drive, ExpressCard / PCMCIA slot and three to four USB 2.0 ports. They're also the ones you see plastered everywhere in advertisements. Think Dell's Inspiron 15, any 15" Gateway, and MSI's CR400 and you've got the general idea. Basically, these midrange notebooks are relatively low-end ~15" machines that provide plenty of I/O, a full-size keyboard, a sizable trackpad, loads of screen real estate, an optical drive and...well...not much else. Performance-wise, they are usually lacking in some ways . In fact, many netbooks can keep up with low-end midrange notebooks, but what the netbook can't match is the spacious keyboard, extra I/O, and expansive display.

Lenovo's G530 - a $500 machine that handles the basics; click image for review

In short, a midrange notebook is only okay to consider when you genuinely don't care about portability, need only a basic machine for handling Office and Web-related tasks (i.e. not 720p multimedia playback) and have a tight budget. Lenovo's G530, which we reviewed earlier this year, is a perfect example of a midrange notebook. It wasn't light, the battery life wasn't excellent and it wasn't all that pretty. But it definitely got basic tasks done on the cheap (under $500), and it was certainly a joy to type on--something that can't be said for any netbook keyboard, anywhere. One thing to watch out for, however, is screen resolution. It's not unusual to find a 15" midrange notebook with a resolution that's just marginally better than a 10" netbook, or even less than some 11.6" netbooks. Screen size doesn't always mean more pixels, and you'll usually find yourself paying significantly more for a 15" machine with a 720p+ display.

Here are a few specific things we'd look for on a midrange notebook:
  • Intel Core 2 Duo, minimum (anything slower is apt to frustrate when multitasking, and if you're dealing with the large chassis, it might as well be snappy)
  • At least three USB 2.0 ports (these days, there's no excuse for a midrange machine to have fewer)
  • At least 2.5-3 hours of "real-world" battery life (unless you honestly plan on keeping it tethered to an AC outlet, you'll want a decent battery when you compute on-the-go)
  • An optical drive, Blu-ray if you own those movies (if you're looking for a machine sans an optical drive, select a cheaper netbook)
  • Multi-touch trackpad (a good productivity booster)
  • GPU capable of high-def video playback (select integrated GPUs can handle 720p, but you're better off with a discrete GPU when buying a machine this large)
  • Price tag of $700 or less, sans extra options (as Lenovo has shown with the $500 G530, there are options out there that perform well for less than $700)
  • WXGA or greater display (if you're lugging around the weight, you might as well get a display with more pixels than your average thin-and-light/netbook)
  • Sales (they happen often on these high volume machines--it's a buyer's market)
Here are a few specific things we'd prefer to avoid on a midrange notebook:
  • An Intel Celeron CPU (unless you don't multitask, we'd avoid this historically slower processor)
  • No multi-card reader (most midrange machines have one, so you might as well select one that does)
  • Price tag of over $1500 (if you pay over $1500 for a midrange machine, it should have a cutting-edge CPU [Core 2 Duo or greater], lots of RAM [3GB+], a discrete GPU, a high-res display and a relatively lightweight/stylish chassis)
  • Sub-14" display (unless you get a steal, you should probably look for a 15"+ display in this segment; otherwise, check out one of the prior segments which usually have smaller panels)
  • Over 1.5" thick (only gaming notebooks can justify a 1.5"+ thickness these days)
  • Less than 2GB of RAM (particularly with resource-intensive Vista at the helm, you'll want 2GB+ in order to run applications more smoothly)
  • Brands you've never heard of (those are most prevalent in this segment, so watch out for low quality machines from lesser known ODMs)

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