You're not going to get a full-on gaming rig for under £500, but the X552CL budget laptop from Asus is a good attempt to provide respectable graphics performance at a competitive price. See also: Group test: what's the best budget laptop?
Promoted rather tactlessly as a 'notebook for the masses', the 15.6-inch One way Asus X552CL keeps the price down is by using older Ivy Bridge processors from 2012 rather than the latest 2013 Haswell chips. See also: Best laptop of 2014.
Prices start at around £450 for a model with an Intel Core i3 processor, but our review unit typically costs £500, and runs with a 1.8 GHz Core i5, 6 GB of memory and 750 GB hard drive. And alongside the integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000, the X552CL also includes a discrete nVidia GeForce GT 710M to provide a 3D graphics boost.
That's a respectable core specification for a laptop in this price range, and the main real weakness here is the use of an ageing hard drive. This is definitely a little sluggish at times, particularly when first starting up.
A cold boot of the X552CL took a full 35 seconds before arriving at the tiled Windows 8 Start screen, followed by a further 15 seconds of cursor-spinning before the laptop was ready to start launching applications and start work. The Windows 8 fast-start option, which restores from a hibernated state, shaves about 15 seconds off that time. The X552CL wakes from sleep in just a couple of seconds so getting started isn't too frustrating.
A score of 2700 points when running the general-purpose PCMark 7 benchmarks is also quite respectable for a laptop with a hard disk and the X552CL will be able to handle basic tasks such as web browsing and running Microsoft Office. The healthy 6 GB of memory will also help if you need to do the occasional spot of photo- or video-editing.
And, of course, the X552CL earns bonus points for including a dedicated graphics card. The nVidia GT 710M is only an entry-level GPU, but it allowed the X552CL to hit 50 fps when running our Stalker: Call of Pripyat gaming test at 1280 x 720-pixel resolution. And if you don't mind turning off the DirectX 11 effects and anti-aliasing it can also manage a playable 32 fps when running the more demanding Batman: Arkham City at that resolution.
That's good performance for such a low-cost laptop, but there are other aspects of the X552CL that show a few signs of cost-cutting. The 1366 x 768-pixel resolution is a typical compromise at this price, and we don't particularly care about the lack of touch-screen controls.
Unfortunately, the screen's viewing angles are also fairly limited – around 90-degrees both horizontally and vertically. It's fine for use on your own, but friends sitting beside you may not get a very good view when you're trying to show off your holiday snaps.
The laptop is solidly built, and the keyboard and trackpad are both spacious and comfortable to use. And, perhaps thanks to a worryingly large air vent on the left-hand edge, the X552CL stayed cool and quiet even when we were running gaming tests with the nVidia graphics. It's well connected too, with gigabit ethernet, HDMI and VGA video interfaces, and a pair of USB 3.0 ports.
It's relatively heavy, though, and the 15-inch screen and built-in DVD drive help bring the X522C's weight up to 2.4kg. Not much of that mass comes from the small 37 Wh battery though.
Even when switching to the integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 we were only able to get 3 hours and 20 minutes of streaming video through the BBC iPlayer. That's one a quarter of the battery life of the best Haswell laptops.