No Oxymoron: Attractive Bargain Notebook Computers

Budget ready or not, we are now moving into the countdown for Christmas, and it is time to start looking at some of the more interesting products you probably won’t see at your local Best Buy.

For an awfully long time, the affordable notebook products have been, well, butt ugly. You might have bought one anyway, but it was really hard to get past the feeling that you were buying junk. And cheap was relative, because some of this stuff once cost over $2,000.

Now I see no reason whatsoever to pay more than $2,000 for a notebook computer. The expected life cycle of a notebook is two to three years, and I just can’t justify paying more than two grand for something that lasts only that long. All but one product I’ll be talking about is under $1,500, and one of my favorite products is actually close to $1,000.

The $1,900 Ferrari

OK, I admit it, I’m not the most modest guy on the planet. The car I drive is bright copper, after all, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that a notebook co-branded by Ferrari would be an attraction to me. This is the second one of these I’ve had. The first — the 3000 model — looked great but didn’t have performance in line with the name. The latest, the Ferrari 3200, has an Athlon 64 processor, and it is the only notebook other than an Apple that uses a slot-load DVD-Super Drive. It has gigabit Ethernet, 802.11g, and Bluetooth for connectivity.

It has a four-in-one card reader, both 1394 and USB 2.0 for media. And it has a very strong 15-inch SXGA screen connected to an ATI Radeon 9700 Graphics Subsystem for graphics. It has performance in line with the brand, and I’m a big fan of promises kept.

While I’d prefer a faster drive and a 15.4-inch-wide screen display, this thing represents one of the best values in the segment. Where else can you get Ferrari exclusivity at this price?

Best Ultralight

I’m one of the folks who really like the IBM X Series laptops, but it just doesn’t have enough power for me on a daily basis. What I really needed was a laptop that worked well with my desktop computer, so I could have the best of both worlds. Here the Sharp MM20 stands out.

This Sharp is nearly as small as the beautiful Sony x505 that my wife carries, but at under $1,500 it costs less than half as much. With the extended battery it gets about 4 hours of battery life thanks to its Transmeta Efficeon processor, and it has a stunning 10.4-inch XGA display. (Sharp is known for their excellent displays.)

But what makes it really stand out is that it has a docking cradle that allows it to appear as a hard drive to your desktop computer, so you can easily copy files between the two systems. It does come with Sync software as well, and this is where it could use some improvement. Even so, this comes closest to my ideal, allowing me to have the performance I need at the desktop and the portability I want on the road.

Getting Over Sony/Apple Envy

Sharp also just came out with another laptop, also under $1,500, that looks like what would happen if a Sony laptop and an Apple laptop had a wild night that resulted in a couple of good-looking kids. The Sharp Actius AL27 combines design elements that look clearly Sony in terms of shape and clearly Apple in terms of color. It has a double-bright 15-inch screen that should work well for outdoor viewing. It also uses the AMD Athlon 64 processor for performance and has a rewritable DVD drive.

Even the paint is cutting edge. With an Apple-like look it has a great deal of depth, and it has a special UV coating so it won’t break down in the sun or stain like some other products I could, but won’t, mention. Sharp has a good reputation for quality, and this product has a potential for being rather exclusive. This thing looks expensive and folks don’t have to know that you paid as little as you did, do they?

A Laptop for Movie Watchers

I got hooked on this notebook some time ago. It is from Averatec, a company new to the U.S. market. This is the Averatec 6200, and it has a beautiful 15.4-inch WXGA wide-screen display, AMD XP-M Processor, DVD-RW drive, an 80 GB drive and a sub-$1,250 price point. It is kind of plain-looking, but it hides a unique secrete identity. By pushing a button on the front it becomes a DVD-MP3 player with 5-plus hours of battery life.

This is like buying a huge portable DVD player and getting a decent laptop for free. I’ve been using it to watch movies while my wife watches Oprah. When I take it on trips, I have plenty of time left to boot Windows and do email even after watching a movie.

And it even has a micro-remote control that sits in the PCMCIA slot so you always have it with you. Speakers, while not exactly home theater quality, are way better than any of my other portable DVD players, and the movies look wonderful on that big screen. I’ve been working with this machine for over a month now, and I have more fun with it than with any other laptop I’ve used of late.

The $1,000 PC

The best bargain out there may be the HP dv1000 . A good-looking $1,000 PC used to be an oxymoron, but not anymore. The entry configuration isn’t bad. I’d option it up with a better battery, more memory, and a larger hard drive, taking it to $1,250, and it’s still one of the lowest-cost laptops we’ve talked about here. It carries a major brand, and while the price is after-rebate, the rebate is only $50. Given that most of us don’t ever actually mail in the paper work, that’s a good thing.

This machine has a sharp design and runs a strong Intel Centrino bundle. I have a hard time trying to figure out why I’d need anything more. It will even– like the Averatec above — do a fast boot into an embedded Linux partition to play DVDs, and you can option it with a $250 docking solution that will turn it into a MP3/DVD player with its own screen for your home stereo.

It looks cool, demonstrates a number of cutting-edge technologies (I am in love with the 14-inch screens because you can use them in coach) and is very reasonably priced. What makes this exclusive is that it is one of the first 14-inch wide products, and you can order this only from HP direct until late October.

There are a number of new laptops coming out in October, so we may revisit this topic in a few weeks. But it’s already clear that this is a year when cool doesn’t have to be expensive and you can get the laptop of your dreams and not have to mortgage the farm. You can be stylish and save money, and that’s the kind of innovation I’m sure we all can use.

Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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