Cheap laptops usually force some major compromises, but not the 14-inch Lenovo IdeaPad U430 Touch (Est. $680) . "With very few compromises and all-day battery life, the Lenovo IdeaPad U430 Touch is the entry-level ultrabook to get," says PCMag.com, which gives it an Editors' Choice award. "For $699, we've come to expect plastic components, bottom-shelf hardware, or clunky ergonomics," says David Eitelbach at ComputerShopper.com. Instead, this laptop delivers an excellent high-resolution display, a great keyboard, plenty of power for everyday computing and terrific battery life, "all wrapped up in a beautiful aluminum chassis," he says. It's no surprise, then, that ComputerShopper.com also awards the Lenovo IdeaPad U430 Touch an Editors' Choice designation.
The U430's component lineup is impressive for this price category. It includes a latest-generation Haswell 1.6 GHz Intel Core i5-4200U processor, 4 GB of RAM, a 10-plus-point touch screen and a 500 GB hybrid drive with a 16 GB solid-state cache. Performance is excellent, beating category averages and trouncing machines with older technology in benchmark testing. Real-world performance keeps pace: "With more than 15 tabs open in Google Chrome along with five other apps running, streaming an episode of 'Arrested Development' on Netflix produced no visible stuttering," Laptop Magazine reports.
Design and ergonomics are largely excellent, as well. PCMag.com notes that the backlit keyboard is comfortable to use and free of any flex. However, some do complain that the touchpad doesn't have the greatest feel. Battery life will last up to an entire day, one of the biggest advantages of Haswell technology for laptop users. Since the Lenovo IdeaPad U430 Touch qualifies as an Ultrabook, it goes without saying that it's thin and light.
Hitting this price point with such a machine does require a few cut corners, but none are a deal-breaker, PCWorld says. No discrete graphics is one shortfall, so gamers will obviously want to look elsewhere. The display also draws some mixed reactions. Most have only minor quibbles, such as resolution that's only 1,600 by 900, although that's still better than what's seen on many competing laptops, PCWorld notes. However, Engadget.com complains that the screen has low contrast that "saps media content of life." For now, at least, the Lenovo IdeaPad U430 Touch is available primarily through BestBuy.com and its stores, where users give it plenty of feedback and lots of overall approval: 92 percent of reviewers say they would recommend it to a friend.
Not every well-rated cheap laptop is thin and light. "Just because you've got the latest parts doesn't mean you have to embrace the latest trends…right?" asks Steve Schardein at NotebookCheck.net. As he says, the 17.3-inch Toshiba Satellite P75-A7200 (Est. $800) "laughs in the face of 13-inch Ultrabooks and 10-inch tablets." It's a desktop replacement in the truest sense, with terrific performance and the ability to accept some upgrades if your needs grow -- something few ultraportables or other mobile devices can manage. There's an open drive bay for adding a second hard drive or a solid-state drive (SSD), and open slots for adding more memory. Everything is easy to access thanks to a removable bottom panel.
The P75-A7200 is powered by a fourth-generation Intel Core i7-4700MQ processor with Haswell technology. NotebookCheck.net benchmarks the laptop against 19 other laptops with the same processor and says performance falls right in line, and sometimes rises to near the top. The rest of the component lineup includes 8 GB of RAM and a 750 GB hard drive. The latter is not particularly fast, PCWorld notes, but stick an SSD into the open second bay and this laptop will "scream."
A couple of cut corners keep the Toshiba Satellite just short of greatness, however. The display, while gorgeous and large, is not touch-enabled. That's not a great fit for Windows 8 or 8.1, but PCWorld says touch hasn't been the hit that Microsoft hoped for: "Grab a nice Start Menu replacement and pretend you're using Windows 7, then switch at your leisure to the modern UI for a few of the cooler apps," says Jon L. Jacobi. He is also disappointed that a DVD burner, not a Blu-ray drive, is included in this cheap laptop.
The integrated Intel graphics -- sorry, no upgrade is available for that -- is not the preferred choice for gaming, but Haswell technology delivers graphics performance that's more than good enough for media enjoyment. That's one area in which this laptop excels, thanks to a high-quality 1,080p display. Battery life is also not terrific at less than four hours in testing. That won't get you through a cross-country flight, but then again, this big laptop (10.7 by 6.6 inches, but less than 7 pounds with adapter) probably won't fit on too many airline tray tables.