We've spent the last eight weeks testing and reviewing almost two dozen retail fixed-configuration laptops. Those are the specific models you'll find listed in Sunday newspaper sales circulars and boxed up and ready to go at big brick-and-mortar outlets.
In the entry level category, which refers to laptops under $599, you're going to find systems that are functional, but not particularly exciting. Faster dual-core processors and bigger screens are the main reasons to trade up from a similarly priced Netbook. As long as you keep your expectations modest, an entry level laptop can be good for either cash-strapped students or those with modest computing needs.
The majority have AMD processors, but we found two with Intel Core Duo CPUs (the cheaper cousin of Intel's mainstream Core 2 Duo). Those two Intel laptops were faster than the competition, and of the pair, we preferred the HP G60-235DX for its 16:9 wide-screen display, separate number pad, and better-than-expected battery life.
Stepping up to the budget category, which includes laptops from $600 to $899, we found a wider range of features, screen sizes, and components. The majority of the systems in this category had Intel Core 2 Duo CPUs (the 2.0GHz T6400, to be exact), though there were a pair of AMD-powered laptops that lagged behind in our benchmark tests.
The Gateway MD7818u was our overall favorite in the category, thanks to its large 500GB hard drive, 16:9 wide-screen display, and generally upscale look and feel. Also notable was the Toshiba Satellite A305-S6916, which costs a little more and loses a bit of hard drive space, but adds a 512MB ATI Mobility Radeon HD 3650 graphics card, which is about as good as you're going to do for graphics in this price range.
Finally, we looked at a handful of mainstream laptops, running from $900-$1,200. Our overall favorite is the latest version of Gateway's FX-series 17-inch, the Gateway P-7805u FX. Gamers on a budget will love the 1GB Nvidia GeForce 9800 GPU, but the 17-inch display deserves a higher screen resolution (which the previous model had). A rare entry in the 15-inch gaming laptop category, we also liked the Asus G50VT, which packed in a 512MB version of the GeForce 9800.
While ordering a laptop direct from a PC maker such as Dell or HP gives one an opportunity to custom-build a machine from scratch, there's clearly a big demand out there for boxed-up, ready to go systems. If you're looking for that kind of instant-gratification retail therapy, there are some good deals out there--just make sure to check the component list carefully, making sure you're getting what you need, and are not paying for too many features you don't want.
Editor's Note: Yes, we love MacBooks just as much as you do (check out our review of the current 13-inch model here), but the retail versions are exactly the same as you'd get online, so we've saved some space for laptops that don't normally get any attention.