Budget-friendly Laptops for Back to School Consumers

Looking for a new laptop as back-to-school season begins? ABC News has the scoop on four budget-friendly options to help consumers as they scour the market for the right choice.

In an interview Monday on ABC NewsNow's "Ahead of the Curve," Mark Spoonauer, Laptop Magazine's editor-in-chief, talked about a handful of laptops that are making the grade this fall.

Starting at the lower end of the budget spectrum, the Toshiba Satellite L355 is a 17-inch notebook that sells for $348, the latest example of Wal-Mart moving into the laptop market. But for such a low price, there are some trade-offs, Spoonauer said.

"You don't get a memory card slot, you don't get HDMI for output to a high-definition monitor," he said. "But when you think about everything that's built in, it's actually quite good for the price. You get a 2 GHz Celeron processor — not a dual-core but still plenty fast for what students need. You get 3 gigs of ram and a 250 GB hard drive. When you add all of that up, we took a look at what the competition offers in the 17-inch space and this is $250 better than the competition."

"To us it's almost like a Black Friday special," he added. "People should think about getting this system. It's really worth the investment, I think, for people who want a bigger screen."

Consumers can't afford to take their time if they're interested in purchasing one, he added, because the Wal-Mart special is only available as long as supplies last.

"You are getting a lot for your money," he noted, "so I don't expect it to last very long."

Another option from Toshiba is the company's entry into the netbook line, albeit a year later than most competitors. But the Toshiba mini NB205 – at a price of $399 – is worth the wait, Spoonauer said.

"They took a look at the market, they saw what they needed to do, and I think they really hit a home run in terms of design," he observed. "It's really important for something under three pounds, you're going to take it with you everywhere. If you take a look at the touchpad and the touchpad buttons, they're the largest in its class. It seems like a small thing, but it's really important for the netbook category. And the other thing we really love about this system was the endurance. You're going to get over nine hours of battery life that we saw in our test and that was with continuous wi-fi Web surfing."

Along with the great battery life, the PC boasts hard drive protection and the ability to charge a phone and other gadgets even when it is turned off.

"It's not the most powerful system," Spoonauer stated, "but it's portable and it's really easy to use."

All the advantages ultimately earned the PC an Editor's Choice award from Laptop Magazine, high praise with all the competition in that market.

Another computer earning high praise from the magazine was the Gateway NV, which had the best performance of five systems under the $600 ceiling.

For a price of $599, Spoonauer said, "You're getting the specs that you need for the long haul, regardless of what you're into. You're going to get that dual-core processor [that] is really good for multitasking, 4 gigs of ram — which is plenty not only for Vista today but Windows 7 tomorrow — and you get a 320 GB hard drive, so very [well-equipped] for the price and we love the design and the ergonomics of it as well."

Finally, for consumers with a bigger budget, the Dell Studio 14z sells for $749, part of Best Buy's Next Class line that comes with included virus protection and Microsoft Office Home and Student.

The PC is very thin, in part because it does not have a built-in DVD drive. However, Spoonauer said students might not miss that feature.

"They don't necessarily need a DVD drive for installing software or watching movies," he said. "They're getting a lot of that online, so you save weight and this particular system actually lasts a long time on a charge. We're talking about over five hours with is pretty good for something with a 14-inch display."

Plus, he pointed out, an optional Nvidia GeForce 9400M card can enable students to perform tasks like editing video.

The pros earned the laptop the tag of "Editor's Choice" from the magazine, but it is not without its cons. The magazine cited "mushy" touchpad buttons and the need for an adapter to use memory cards as two of the laptop's disadvantages.