Summary: Does it make sense to buy a low-end laptop for about $400 or should you look for a more advanced and more expensive system? Find out what you can expect if you get a cheap Celeron-based laptop and run Vista on it.
About two months ago I replaced two family laptops with the cheapest systems I found at the time: a $380 Compaq Presario (model C563NR with Celeron M 520, 512 MB RAM, 80 GB hard drive, CD-RW/DVD-RW with dual layer support, 15.4" screen)
and a $350 Toshiba Satellite (model A135-S4656 with essentially the same parameters).
The major differences between the two systems (other than the price) include the screens (the Compaq is glossy, the Toshiba is matte), the Compaq's LightScribe support, and the Toshiba's built-in memory card readers. Because both laptops came with Windows Vista (the Home Basic edition), I knew that the supplied 512 MB of RAM would not be enough. I was also a bit worried about Celeron's ability to handle Vista, so I considered wiping it out and installing XP, but after upgrading RAM to 1.5 GB (I bought a couple of 1 GB modules for around $25 per each after rebates), I decided to give Vista a try. This is what I can say about these two systems after using them for a few weeks.
First of all, I have to mention that I'm not a primary user of these systems -- my wife and daughter are -- but I spent enough time with them to form an opinion. Second, we do not use these laptops for computer gaming, video editing, 3D modeling, and other types of resource-intensive applications, but for the most typical tasks -- web browsing (Firefox with a bunch of add-ins, IE with some extensions), photo editing (Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0, Microsoft Digital Image Suite), instant messaging (ICQ, Skype), document editing (Microsoft Office 2007), listening music and watching videos (Windows Media Player) -- they work quite well.
I did not expect these cheap Celeron-powered laptops to be particularly fast, but it seems to me that for the types of applications we use them, they run on par with my brand new Core 2 Duo-based work desktop with 3 GB of RAM, which by the way is still running XP. [I think that my work PC underperforms because of all of the IT-installed crap; it is just a theory, though.] And despite my worst fears, Vista did not cause any major headaches. I downloaded Vista-supported drivers for all of my gadgets (printer, camera, routers, modems, etc), except for an older Logitech QuickCam Zoom webcam. For some reason, Logitech refused to support this webcam on Vista, but fortunately, I found a workaround. I have not used my Canon Pixma MP450 scanner, yet, so I can't say whether it works on Vista. [UPDATE: The scanner works fine.] And the software that accompanies Longman Dictionary of American English seems to have issues with video and audio, but I'm not sure if they are related to Vista or QuickTime (I've received a few suggestions from the vendor, but they did not help; not a big deal, though). Other than that, Vista works fine. I even started to like it.
I know, these days it is not cool to say anything good about Vista, but I really think it's not that bad. Notice that I use the Home Basic edition, so I do not see the fancy Aero interface (I would not dare to run Aero on a low-end laptop), but even without it, it seems slicker than XP. Of course, it's not perfect, certain things could've been done better, but it's not as bad, or problematic, as I expected it to be. So, I'm sticking with Vista for now. By the way, my wife and daughter did not seem too excited about using Vista, but when I recently asked them if they would like to switch back to XP, they both said no.
Getting back to laptops, I'm happy to say that they exceeded my modest expectations. Keep in mind that I increased memory by 1 GB and removed most of the pre-installed bloatware, including Norton anti-virus suite, which I replaced with Avast! (I'm a huge fan of the lesser known anti-virus products). I like the Compaq's glossy screen, but the Toshiba's overall design is more visually pleasing. I also like the Toshiba's built-in memory card readers, although I'm disappointed with the absence of a Compact Flash reader. The keyboard layout on the Compaq seems more logical and the Compaq's LightScribe support is a nice bonus (although I'm too cheap to buy LightScribe media).
Because the Toshiba was about $30 (or 8 percent) cheaper than the Compaq, it gave me the best bang for the buck, but I have no problem recommending either of these two models or their successors, although I would also recommend upgrading RAM to at least 1.5 GB if you're planning to use Vista (memory upgrade is a trivial operation, which does not require any technical skills). If you are not sure if a Celeron-based system will be sufficient for your needs, it probably will (people who know that they need a stronger processor can normally explain why). If you're still hesitating, do your research, but don't listen to those who just say that Celerons suck; the first generation of Celerons may have sucked a bit, but the latest models work just fine for an average user. Of course, you can add $100-$200 more and get a Pentium or Core-based system, but if you use this laptop for anything other than the most demanding tasks (such as games, 3D/video editing, etc), you will probably not notice the difference.
Tech Review: Intel® Celeron® M processor 520