Just the other day here at the CNET N.Y. offices, a co-worker IMed me with a question from his uncle, who was shopping for an affordable laptop for his niece. Should he consider buying a laptop he saw on sale recently, which had a large screen and a DVD burner, for only $350?
I had a feeling the laptop in question was similar to the Toshiba L455-S5975, and it turns out I was basically right. For ultracheap laptop bargains, there are two ways to go: buy a small, cheap Netbook, or go with a full-size low-end laptop sporting a processor such as an Intel Celeron 900.
Toshiba Satellite L455-S5975
Either way, you're not getting a lot of processing power. To get something more significant, you need to climb up to around $500 and go with either a dual-core thin-and-light or a cheap Core 2 Duo or equivalent laptop, such as the Toshiba Satellite T135-S1309 (we reviewed the similarly configured but more expensive T135-S1310 here).
For around $300, though, 10-inch Netbooks like the Dell Mini 10v provide nice portability and design, but lack an optical disc drive or a full-size keyboard/screen, and tend to have less RAM and smaller hard drives.
The Toshiba Satellite L455-S5975, which we reviewed as part of our holiday retail laptop roundup, falls in the other camp. It has a bright, large 15.6-inch screen, a full-size tapered keyboard, and a DVD-burning drive. It also has a decent amount of hard drive space at 250GB.
But that's where the advantages end. With an underpowered single-horsepower Celeron, it can't achieve most of what you'd like a big-screen laptop to do in the first place, such as play back high-quality full-screen streaming video. It also lacks a Webcam, something many Netbooks have, which is nice for students who use webchat or Skype (although a USB plug-in can also do the trick). Most importantly, however, its battery life ran at under two hours, which is worse than any Netbook.
For portability and battery life, a Netbook is still the better choice. But if you really need that optical drive and feel like you can't live without a really large screen (in other words, you're looking to plant this on your desk and not travel much), something like the L455-S5975 might be a decent second computer for a household looking to save a little cash. But if it were us, we'd save a couple hundred more and go with something that doesn't look like it escaped from the year 2000. At least you can rest easy that everything comes with Windows 7 now, Netbooks included.