Cheap laptops usually force some major compromises, but not the Dell Inspiron 17 (Est. $450 and up) . "If you're looking for a big screen with a small price, look no further," says Laptop Magazine. "Great budget computing," says PCMag.com. Both award it their Editors' Choice prize.
You'll first notice the huge screen -- a 17.3-inch, 1,600-by-900 pixel beauty that seems completely unexpected in a cheap laptop. It's not full HD, but critics say that the display is bright, vivid and sharper than a lot of pricier laptops. Underneath, there's a real full-size keyboard and roomy multi-touch trackpad that testers love to use. You get all of the traditional ports, too, plus a DVD burner. Everything's wrapped in nice-looking textured plastic, and reviews say the whole package feels more expensive than it is.
Performance doesn't disappoint. The very cheapest configuration of this Dell laptop brings a Pentium processor, but a modest $50 upgrade delivers a Core i3 processor that sails through everyday tasks in tests (just about anything except heavy gaming). Laptop Magazine finally gets the Inspiron 17 to bog down -- by streaming video, running a full system scan and opening six tabs in Internet Explorer, Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox. For even more oomph, you can upgrade to Core i5 (Est. $650) and still stay in cheap laptop territory. Battery life is decent for a 17-inch laptop, too; expect just under four hours of movie watching or web surfing.
Only one thing is missing: a touch screen. You can get one on the Lenovo IdeaPad Z400 Touch (Est. $600 and up) , but it'll cost you -- and not just in dollars. The Lenovo laptop's smaller, lower-res 14-inch screen looks duller and dimmer in tests, and the IdeaPad Z400 Touch feels sluggish at startup and when performing some tasks. It does pack a full array of ports and drives (including a hefty 1 TB hard drive), though, so this Lenovo laptop does earn a few nods from reviewers as a full-featured but cheap touch-screen laptop.
The smaller size is a plus if you are looking for a laptop for on the road instead of one for on the desk. Though PCMag.com notes that the Inspiron 17 is "certainly lighter than the 7-pound behemoths we used to see in the desktop replacement category," lugging around a large, 5.8-pound laptop isn't something most road warriors are likely to be that keen on.
If you are not in a hurry to make the jump to Windows 8, the Inspiron 17 is also offered with Windows 7 Home Premium. If you opt for that version, the lack of a touch screen becomes a non-issue.