Friday, January 15, 2016

Top 10 Value Laptops 2016

Top 10 Value Laptops 2016

This year, I'll be rating my recommended computers on a 1-10 scale on the following criteria:

-Everyday Performance 
This refers to real-life issues like how long it takes to start, or to open a program, not how it performs on a benchmark. For this, solid-state drives are more useful than overpowered processors or gobs of RAM.

Since you're always going to experience the computer through its screen, you'll want a good one! For most purposes, IPS displays are preferable to TN displays. As for resolution, Full HD appears to be the sweet spot between clarity, power usage, and price. 

-Battery Life
The longer you can use your laptop without being plugged into the wall, the better!

-Build Quality (frame, screen, keyboard, etc)
Nobody wants a poorly built computer! If the keys fall off after 3 months, or the screen starts peeling off the frame after a year, then it probably wasn't worth buying...even if it seemed like a good deal at the time!

Even more important, you want a computer that you can count on to work properly, day in and day out! 

I consider this the least important factor, but it's a nice bonus: if you have a speedy, reliable, quality device, then there's definitely nothing wrong with it being good-looking as well! 

With this in mind, here are my favorite affordable laptops:

ASUS X555DA; $420 (with 1 TB HDD) or $450 (with faster 256 GB SSD) (with HDD) (with SSD) [recommended--get this one!]

ASUS has a history of providing value and quality, and not cutting corners. Here, they hit another home run in terms of value!

This is probably the most powerful machine you'll find for the price (around $400 with the slower mechanical hard drive, and sub-$500 with the much faster solid-state drive). That said, the processor uses a lot of juice, which will compromise battery life. So this is good for a desktop replacement, but a poor option for those who need long battery life.

Is the SSD worth the extra $30? I'd say yes, considering that $70 will get you a 240 GB SSD like this PNY CS1311 [which I use myself] or this SanDisk SSD Plus If you buy the lower-priced version, you could install an SSD yourself, and keep the 1 TB hard drive to use as removable storage! But not everyone is comfortable taking a new laptop apart to install an SSD, which makes ASUS' decision to offer both configurations a wise move.

In any case, this computer represents one of the best values on the market, especially when equipped with an SSD! But it's best for those who seek performance rather than long battery life.

Everyday Performance: 9
Screen: 7 (the resolution is nothing special, but kudos for using a matte, rather than glossy, screen)
Battery Life: 4
Build Quality: 8
Reliability: 8
Pizzazz: 6

Specs: AMD A10-8700P, 8 GB RAM, 1 TB 5400 rpm hard drive OR 256 GB SSD, optical drive, 15.6" standard HD screen (matte)

Toshiba Satellite Fusion 15 L55W-C5257; $580

Don't want to wait for your computer to do what you tell it to do? Then get one with a solid-state drive (SSD)! All SSDs are much faster than their mechanical counterparts, they use less power (enabling better battery life), and they're less likely to fail if you drop them! So why don't all laptops have them? The only disadvantage of SSDs: they cost more than mechanical drives.

That said, this is among the lowest prices I've seen for a reasonably-specced new laptop with SSD! (The ASUS Zenbook UX305 pictured at the top of the page costs slightly more, but comes with twice the storage capacity).

This laptop hits all the right notes in my book, with a Full HD (1080p) display, solid battery life, and good overall performance. An excellent value, despite the relatively high price compared to the others on this list!

Everyday Performance: 9
Screen: 9
Battery Life: 7
Build Quality: 8
Reliability: 7
Pizzazz: 7

Specs: Broadwell i3-5015U, 6 GB RAM, 128 GB SSD, 360-degree hinge, 15.6" Full HD touchscreen, ~6 hour battery life.

Dell Inspiron i3158-3275SLV; $600

This used to be the lowest-priced SSD-equipped new laptop I've seen, but the price has gone in the wrong direction! It has a convertible form factor and an i3 processor. The primary advantages of the computers listed above are that they have a larger, higher-resolution screen and extra RAM. The Dell is geared toward on-the-go users, however, as it is much smaller and lighter.

Dell claims an overly optimistic 11 hours of battery life for this computer, though Amazon user reviews cite a more believable 6 hours. Tweaking the settings and using maximum power-saving settings may extend this figure to 7 or even 8 hours, but don't be surprised if you find that the battery life doesn't even begin to approach the manufacturer's claim!

Several users also reported that they had to update drivers via Dell's website before using this computer. So, bear in mind that this device may take some work to get up-to-date before you can use it. If you're not willing to undertake such a procedure on a brand-new laptop, then steer clear of this machine.

But if you're looking for portability and possibly longer battery life, this Dell Inspiron is a good bet.

Everyday Performance: 9
Screen: 7
Battery Life: 6* (*this would have been a 7, but I'm docking a point for Dell's overzealous claim)
Build Quality: 8
Reliability: 8* (*after updating drivers manually)
Pizzazz: 7

Specs: i3-6100U, 4 GB of RAM, 128 GB SSD, 11.6" standard HD touchscreen.

Bonus: ASUS F556UA-AS54; $550
[cross-listed with my Top Premium Laptops]

A bargain at only $550! The fast, 6th-generation i5 processor, 8 GB RAM, and speedy SSD combine to make this a great choice for the money!

It also comes equipped with a Full HD 15.6" matte screen--the matte finish will make the screen easy to read in direct light. It has full connectivity, with a USB 3.0 port, a USB 2.0 port, a USB-C port, an SD card slot, an optical drive for CDs/DVDs, an HDMI port, and even a VGA port (which will be quite handy if you ever have to hook it up to one of those older, chunky projectors)!

As far as the looks go, many people seem to like the subtle gold color. Personally, I prefer darker colors, but light colors tend to be less susceptible to showing fingerprint smudges or other visual imperfections. And, for the price, the design makes this machine look more expensive than it is--just be aware that the computer is actually composed of hard plastic, not aluminum.

-Everyday Performance: 9
-Screen: 9
-Battery Life: 8
-Build Quality (frame, screen, keyboard, etc): 6
-Reliability: 8
-Pizzazz: 7

Specs: Intel i5-6200U, 8 GB RAM, 256 GB solid-state drive, 15.6" Full HD (1920 x 1080) matte TN display, optical [CD/DVD] drive, 5.1 pounds, 1 USB 3.0 and 1 USB 2.0 and 1 USB-Type C, battery life of 6-8 hours

ASUS X550ZA; $560
also check

An all-around solid computer, well-built, with a nice design and lots of storage space. Not the fastest, and the 4-hour battery life is a little disappointing. But for the majority of people, this will do just fine (and it's generally highly recommended by Amazon users!). This is even a reasonable option for gamers on a strict budget, as evidenced by those Amazon reviews. A very good deal on a good computer!

Everyday Performance: 7
Screen: 7 (again, kudos for the matte screen)
Battery Life: 5
Build Quality: 8
Reliability: 8
Pizzazz: 6

Specs: A10-7400P, 8 GB RAM, 1 TB 5400 rpm hard drive, optical drive, 15.6" standard HD screen (matte)

Psst...wanna improve the speed AND the battery life? You'll have to remove the bottom cover and take the keyboard off, which would void the warranty on a new unit. But if you're willing to do it, try the SanDisk SSD Plus (240 GB), PNY  CS1311 (240 GB), or Silicon Power S60 (240 GB). I own and use the PNY; it is every bit as reliable and speedy as I hoped it would be!

ASUS F555LA-AB31; $370

This laptop represents a very good value at $370! It's an Amazon bestseller [as of January 2016] for a reason!

Don't expect top-notch materials (it's all plastic, as you'd expect for a $370 machine), but it's solidly built and pretty quick. My dad bought a version of this computer, and I helped him set it I can testify from personal experience that this is a good machine! With a Full HD screen, surprisingly quick hard drive, and smart power management, this is a good option for all but the most demanding users!

Everyday Performance: 7
Screen: 8
Battery Life: 6 (from my hands-on experience, I can tell you that the 4-hour estimate is conservative. I saw more like 5 and a half hours)
Build Quality: 7
Reliability: 8
Pizzazz: 6

Specs: i3-5010U, 4 GB RAM, 500 GB 5400 rpm hard drive, 15.6" Full HD screen, optical drive, 4-hour battery life (actually better than 4 hours under light use)

Again, I'll repeat my recommendation of the SanDisk SSD Plus (240 GB) or the PNY  CS1311 (240 GB)--it will turn a good cheap computer into a real burner, while also improving durability and slightly extending the battery life!

ASUS X540LA; $305

If you're looking for a bargain-basement laptop, this is a good pick. It's generally well-reviewed, with good specs for an entry-level computer. Its silver chassis also looks nice, for what that's worth.

Everyday Performance: 6
Screen: 6
Battery Life: 5
Build Quality: 6
Reliability: 8
Pizzazz: 6

Specs: Intel i3-5020U, 4 GB RAM, 1 TB 5400 rpm hard drive, optical drive, 15.6" standard HD screen, 3 USB ports (1 USB 3.0; 2 USB 2.0), 3-4 hour battery life

Toshiba Satellite C55-C5241; $500

$500 is a good price for a computer with an i5! The 8 GB of RAM is pretty impressive as well for a computer at this price! The 1 TB of storage space is good for this price range as well. However, the screen is pretty ordinary, as is the battery life. I think this is another example of a solid all-around computer. Though it lacks flash (for what it's worth, I think the design is handsome and understated), this laptop provides good value for the consumer.

Everyday Performance: 8
Screen: 6
Battery Life: 6
Build Quality: 6
Reliability: 7
Pizzazz: 5

Specs: i5-5200U, 8 GB RAM, 1 TB 5400 rpm hard drive, 15.6" standard HD screen, 5 hour battery life

Along similar lines:
ASUS F554LA; $400 
Specs: i5-5200U, 4 GB RAM, 500 GB 5400 rpm hard drive, 15.6" standard HD screen, optical drive, 5-hour battery life
ASUS TransformerBook Flip TP200SA; $330

Need a low-cost second computer and/or Linux machine? You could do worse than this Flip. The 64 GB SSD provides quick response, though the very underpowered processor is a misstep. For a Windows computer, I would add the $40, even from my tight grad student budget, to get the F555LA above. But if I wanted a portable, lightweight travel computer with long battery life, this would be my choice!

Everyday Performance: 6
Screen: 7
Battery Life: 9
Build Quality: 7
Reliability: 8
Pizzazz: 7

Specs: Celeron N3050, small 64 GB SSD, 11.6" IPS touchscreen, 4 GB of RAM, 8-hour battery life, flips

Toshiba Satellite C55D-B5310; $300

I've recommended this before, due mostly to its low price. This is a budget computer, and as it ages, it's going up against some pretty good competition, like what's been listed above. Many people report issues with the computer inexplicably dropping the wi-fi signal--this will apparently be fixed by uninstalling Toshiba's software and/or installing Windows 10 and updating all the drivers. Keep your expectations in check before buying this.

Everyday Performance: 6
Screen: 6
Battery Life: unknown
Build Quality: 6
Reliability: 8
Pizzazz: 5

Specs: AMD A8-6410, 4 GB RAM, 500 GB 5400 rpm hard drive, optical drive, 15.6" standard HD screen, Windows 8.1, battery life unknown

Lenovo G50; $350

I've also recommended this before, also due to its low price. But the ASUS F555LA listed above is better in pretty much every way...and for the same price! I'd recommend that one instead.

Buyer beware:
Lenovo G50; $500

This one has good specs, but bad reviews. Caveat emptor.

Haswell i5, 6 GB RAM, 1 TB hard drive, 15.6" 1366 x 768 screen, 5-hour battery life, *bad reviews*

Nothing here meet your needs? Perhaps you'll have better luck with my list of premium laptops!

You can find more of my recent recommendations here.

Happy saving!

*All pictures from Amazon product page, unless noted otherwise

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