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Tested: Best laptops of 2014 for under £650

We test and rate the latest laptops from Dell, Acer, Asus, Toshiba and more

The tech world might be cooing over Ultrabooks, but there’s no need to pay big money if you want a high-quality laptop – as this test demonstrates.

The six machines we’ve rounded up for this test cover a broad swathe of the laptop market, from lighter portable machines with 14in screens to larger 17in notebooks with dedicated graphics processors – ideal for gaming. The price range is wide, too, with notebooks on offer from £330 right up to the £600 limit. See all laptop reviews.

We’ve got machines here that are suited to work, play and watching films, then, but many of the attributes that make up a good laptop don’t change, no matter what type of machine you’re buying. See also: Group test: what's the best laptop?

One of the biggest shifts in Windows laptop design over the past eighteen months has been the advent of touchscreens, and two machines in this budget group test now include finger-friendly panels. The touchscreens on offer in notebooks from Asus and Acer work well with Windows 8 although it’s worth considering if you really do need touch technology.

After all, big-screen laptops – such as the Toshiba Satellite and Asus X75VC – are large enough that touch functionality will simply mean the user stretching their arms to reach the corners, and machines like Dell’s Latitude 3440 are designed for work, where touch control is largely wasted. Also check whether a potential new portable has a glossy or matt screen: while the former might look more impressive, the latter will be easier to use.

There’s another type of component that’s making its way into low-end laptops – Haswell processors. Examples from Intel’s newest processor range is included in two of the six machines here, and its talents lie in several key areas. The difference it makes to battery life is dramatic, and it’s no surprise that one Haswell-equipped machine is the longest-lasting on test. This change alone is enough to make us recommend Haswell-based laptops over those that use older Ivy Bridge silicon, even if there’s no dramatic leap forward in application performance.

Haswell also has better graphics capability, and our tests illustrate that these cores aren’t far behind modest discrete GPUs. In short, laptops with Haswell inside are quite capable of running modern games. If you want to play games but aren’t concerned with a more expensive machine with discrete hardware, it’s worth looking out for Haswell.

And, while Haswell does improve battery life, it’s also worth considering your personal power needs. Many laptops these days, especially Ultrabooks, come with batteries that can’t be accessed or changed – a nightmare if the powerpack breaks, or if you work in the field and need to carry replacements. While more expensive laptops may have all-day battery life – at least 8 hours real use – these midrange models cut corners here but you should expect at least 5 or 6 hours.

A host of smaller factors are also worth considering. Laptops with more than one USB 3.0 port will be more versatile, and systems where interior access is available will mean that memory, hard disks and wireless cards can potentially be replaced or upgraded.

The laptops in this test aren’t as flashy as Ultrabooks, but there’s plenty to like about them in their own right: some are slim and light, others are and more powerful with large screens, and there are touchscreens, discrete graphics cards and Blu-ray drives on offer – and they’re all less than £600, too.

The latest laptops under £650

Acer Aspire V5 reviewAcer Aspire V5 Touch

  • Reviewed on: 27 November 13
  • RRP: £600 inc VAT
  • RatingScore - 6 out of 10

The Acer Aspire V5 is a sturdy and smart-looking laptop, but its out-dated Ivy Bridge processor lets it down a little in terms of application performance, games ability and battery life.


Asus V550CAsus V550C

  • Reviewed on: 28 November 13
  • RRP: £600 inc. VAT
  • RatingScore - 7 out of 10

The Asus impressed with its smart, svelte design and its good keyboard and trackpad, but its Ivy Bridge processor is a bit of a let down.


Asus X75VCAsus X75VC review

  • Reviewed on: 28 November 13
  • RRP: £599 inc VAT
  • RatingScore - 7 out of 10

The Asus X75VC has excellent gaming results and it's also got good application performance, decent build quality and a reasonable keyboard.


Dell Latitude 3440Dell Lattitude 3440

  • Reviewed on: 28 November 13
  • RRP: £550 inc VAT
  • Rating: Rated 8 out of 10

The Latitude 3440 is designed for work rather than play, and that means its talents lie in certain keys areas: the Haswell processor delivers reasonable application and games performance and excellent battery life, and the keyboard and touchpad are excellent. It’s one of the slimmest and lightest machines in this group, too, but it’s also got the best build quality. The middling screen and speakers count against the Dell, but it excels in more key areas than any other machine here – and that makes it a worthy all-round winner.


Packard Bell EasyNote TE11HCPackard Bell EasyNote TE11HC

  • Reviewed on: 04 December 13
  • RRP: £400 inc VAT
  • RatingScore - 5 out of 10

You wouldn't necessarily know that this is such a cut-price portable based on its build quality, but take a look at its specs and performance and you soon realise why it has the price tag it does.


Toshiba Satellite C75 Toshiba Satellite C75-A-13P

  • Reviewed on: 04 December 13
  • RRP: £699 inc VAT
  • RatingScore - 7 out of 10

The Satellite C75 is a desktop replacement machine and Toshiba has made sure that this system stands out when compared to its bland-looking rivals.Highlights include a Haswell processor and decent battery life.


Conclusion

The laptops in this test run from portable 14in models to bulky 17in desktop replacements, but our testing revealed a clutch of notebooks that stood out from the crowd.

Top of the heap is the Dell Latitude 3440, which was hauled above its rivals in part thanks to the inclusion of a Haswell processor. The low-power chip has enough power for general computing and productivity software, and its Haswell silicon means that it has a more powerful graphics core than previous Intel-based laptops – and so gaming is possible, too. There’s the crucial issue of battery life, too: the Latitude lasted for much longer than any other machine here, although it was still short of 6 hours, let alone 8 or more.

The Latitude 3440 didn’t just impress from under its bonnet. It’s one of the best-looking systems here and, at 2kg, it’s the lightest. Despite that it’s got decent build quality throughout, and its keyboard is excellent – we were up to speed in no time.

The rest of the group traded blows, with nothing able to mount a serious challenge to the Dell, but second prize goes to the Toshiba Satellite C75. It’s a desktop replacement with a large 17.3in screen, and it’s the only other system here with a Haswell processor: that means the best PCMark 7 result of any laptop here, and better battery life than the other desktop replacement-class Asus X75VC. And, while the Asus was a little faster in gaming thanks to its discrete GPU, the Toshiba laptop wasn’t far behind thanks to its Haswell integrated graphics.

The Toshiba doesn’t have the best build quality or keyboard, but it packs plenty of power and good battery life inside a chassis that’s more portable than its big rival – and that earns it a Recommended award.

Elsewhere, Packard Bell’s system proved to be the cheapest by a long way. But its weak specification and battery life mean it’s only suitable for those on the tightest of budgets. Two systems arrived with touchscreens – the Acer Aspire V5 and Asus V550C – but these spec-ticking features were joined by poor performance, short battery life and mediocre build quality.

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