Buying a laptop for under £350 is tricky. There's always a lurking suspicion in the back of your mind, no matter how many times you pore over the spec sheet, that a machine this cheap won't do all the things you want it to.
Perhaps it'll take days to open your web browser, or suffer poor frame rates running even Free Hearts? There's no need to worry. It's actually a pretty good time for mobile devices, because everybody seems so hell-bent on running around with every possible form of technology strapped to themselves at all times.
Who are manufacturers to argue? We've seen some encouraging advances in integrated graphics over the last 12 months, which means laptops don't need a discrete card to deliver smooth video playback. Solid state drives have driven down the price of traditional hard disk storage, too, which means budget laptops are generally very capacious compared to their ancestors from a few years ago.
So if you're not asking a lot from a laptop, you'll find machines capable of web browsing, video playback and running office apps very comfortably for under £350. We've gone and bundled together a smörgåsbord of likely candidates for your delectation, deliberation and entertainment, each one priced under that bargainous £350 mark.
At this price point, a laptop's not going to do everything; it's about specialisation. Some are feather-light ultraportables, others compromise slimness for a higher spec and solid build quality, others still are primarily aimed at the business market and excel at running office apps and storing data. Not that you need to be a road warrior with a bad back and a tendency to drop things to enjoy these features.
Hardcore gaming's off the menu as far as this bunch is concerned, but despite specialisation in certain areas each of these laptops is great for everyday use. The budget market's strong; a lot stronger than it was even five years ago, and now's a good time to take advantage of these great budget laptops.
Acer Aspire 5742-384G32MNK- £349
This Acer has a couple of killer aces up its sleeve, despite the low price tag. It's a shining example of a budget laptop done well. At this price range, most laptops use basic or older processors to cut costs.
However, the Acer and Asus in this group are powered by Intel Core i3 processors, which provide excellent performance for the price. This laptop blew away the competition in our tests, thanks also in part to having 4GB of memory - more than any other laptop here. All of our software loaded quickly and ran with little slowdown, and we could copy files, browse the web and listen to music all at once.
Although the Aspire is less graphically able than some of the other machines here, we still streamed high-definition (HD) films with no stuttering or other issues. We watched almost three hours of HD video on the move before the battery died - the best result in this group.
Read the full Acer Aspire 5742Z review
Asus X52F-EX894V - £350
The Asus is powered by an Intel Core i3 processor, which provides strong performance for those on a tight budget. Despite using the same processor range as the Acer, it has only half the available memory, with 2GB installed instead of 4GB.
However, you still get incredible performance given the price. You can edit your photos, but you won't be able to play the latest games. Film fans will be pleased, though, as you can watch DVDs via the built-in drive or stream your favourite movies or TV shows over the internet.
This is also a great way to enjoy your media, thanks to the excellent screen. The 15.6-inch display isn't as sharp as the compact screens of the HP and MSI, but but it's bright and vibrant.
Read the full Asus X52F-EX894V review
MSI U270 - £344
The MSI looks and feels like a netbook, but its sharp screen and graphically capable processor push it more into the realm of an ultraportable laptop.
An AMD processor runs the show - the same model as found in the HP. First impressions were bad as it scored a similarly low score in our benchmarking tests. While you can comfortably browse the web and run basic office apps, it does drag when you try to do things in parallel.
We were pleasantly surprised when we ran the graphical tests. The U270 scored the best in the group, narrowly edging out the HP, and we found that photo editing software ran acceptably. However, some of our HD films stuttered badly during play. Also bear in mind that, like the HP, there's no built-in DVD drive.
The 11.6-inch screen may be small, but it's a well-designed panel. The lack of a glossy Super-TFT finish means you can see perfectly outside, with no reflections to hamper your view.
Read the full MSI U270 review
Samsung RV510-A08UK - £299
The Samsung isn't the most exciting laptop in this test, and its performance is limited compared to some of the others, but this is a solid and reasonably portable machine that will suit users with basic needs.
At 2.4kg, it's just about portable enough to suit regular travellers, despite the rather thick frame. You'll need to take the charger with you, though, as the battery died after just over two hours of video playback.
An Intel Pentium processor provides the power. Combined with 3GB of memory, you get good enough performance to run all your office applications, enjoy your photos and movies and browse the web.
Where this laptop falls down is its graphical ability. Basic integrated graphics provide one of the worst performances in the group, with HD video stuttering far too often and movie-editing software proving unusable.
Toshiba Satellite C660-15Z - £300
Toshiba's Satellite C660-15Z is for those with simple needs. Performance relies on a single-core Intel Celeron processor, backed up by just 2GB of memory and unfortunately, scored well behind most of the other laptops, and can only handle basic tasks, such as word processing and web browsing.
The basic integrated graphics can also cope with only the simple media tasks, such as watching DVDs or editing photos. Games are limited to the most simple online titles, such as Bejewelled.
There are more portable laptops in this group, the C660 is still relatively light and the full-sized keyboard is comfortable and solidly mounted on the chassis.
Read the full Toshiba Satellite C660-15Z review
Battery Eater is a handy benchmark for finding out a laptop's battery life under extreme stress - it's the equivalent of leaving your car all your lights on and the radio playing at max volume all night.
Acer's Aspire dealt best with this brutal depletion of energy, making it the most enticing option for long train journeys or particularly long stints in Starbucks.
None of the laptops we tested were designed with gaming in mind, but the ones equipped with current gen Intel i3 CPUs and AMD's nifty new Llano chip didn't do too badly considering. Our favourite Acer lappy was pipped by the Llano-equipped MSI, but its all-round performance won us over.
First published in PC Format Issue 259
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