These days it's relatively easy to find a low-power laptop that's small and light, but what about when you need something with a little more juice that won't weigh you down nor drain your bank account? That's the dilemma reader Kanti finds herself in:
Usually for traveling writers we'd suggest a netbook as they offer performance good enough for running a word processing program, surfing the web, and chatting with friends on Skype. But it sounds like you're in the market for something with more robust performance, so we suggest an ultraportable. This kind of notebook ranges in size from 11.6 to 13-inches and, depending on the type of processor inside, can come in at under $500. However, most cost around $600. If you're willing to stretch your budget a bit or wait for a deal, you should be happy with something in this class. But there's at least one notebook that will suit your needs that does cost less than $500.
The $499 ASUS Eee PC 1215N is technically a netbook, but it's powerful enough that it could be classed as an ultraportable. This 12-inch system only weighs 3.4 pounds and is fairly slim, so it won't take up a lot of room in your backpack or add too much weight. It runs on a 1.8-GHz dual-core Intel Atom D525 and an Nvidia Ion 2 GPU plus integrated Intel GMA 3150 graphics. This, coupled with Nvidia's Optimus technology, allows the 1215N to switch between discrete and integrated graphics depending on what the computer is doing. Watching HD video? The Eee PC will use the Ion 2 chip. Just writing in Word or listening to music? It switches to the low-power integrated chip. The 0.3MP webcam isn't the best out there, but it captures decent images and video, which should be fine for Skype chats.
Stepping up in price, the 11.6-inch Acer Aspire Timeline 1810T (available for $599) scored better on tests that measure overall performance but its graphics aren't as powerful as the Eee PC 1215N. It's also slightly slimmer and lighter and has a better quality webcam. It runs on a 1.3-GHz Intel Pentium SU7300 CPU and comes with 4GB of RAM, but the integrated Intel GMA 4500MHD GPU isn't the best for intensive graphics tasks.
If you need a bigger screen, then the 13.3-inch Toshiba Satellite T235 or T235D ($549 - $629) may be for you. The difference between the two models is the processor/graphics card combo. The T235 runs on a 1.2-GHz Intel Pentium U5400 with integrated Intel HD Graphics; the T235D runs on a 1.5-GHz AMD Turion II Neo K625 CPU and ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4225 graphics. Both of these will give you plenty of power and performance, though the T235D costs less yet doesn't last as long on a charge. Unfortunately, neither of these systems has a great webcam.
You mentioned that you also do image editing in Photoshop in addition to writing and surfing the web. If you have Photoshop CS3 or an older version, you won't get the benefit of hardware acceleration. That means the strength of the graphics card isn't very important, since the software doesn't have the ability to access it. Photoshop CS4 or CS5 do have hardware acceleration, so if you're running either of those versions you want something with strong graphics so the program will run faster.
Here's a quick comparison of specs, price, and performance benchmarks:
|Notebook||ASUS Eee PC 1215N||Acer Aspire Timeline 1810T||Toshiba Satellite T235||Toshiba Satellite T235D|
|Size / Weight||11.6 x 8 x 0.9 to 1.4 inches; 3.4 pounds||11.2 x 8.0 x 1.2 inches; 3.2 pounds||12.7 x 8.8 x 1.0 inches; 3.8 pounds||12.7 x 8.8 x 1.0 inches; 3.8 pounds|
|CPU||1.8-GHz Intel Atom D525||1.3-GHz Intel Pentium SU7300||1.2-GHz Intel Pentium U5400||1.5-GHz AMD Turion II Neo K625|
|RAM||2GB (max 4GB)||4GB (max)||4GB (max 8GB)||4GB (max 8GB)|
|Graphics||Nvidia Ion 2, Intel GMA 3150||Intel GMA 4500||Intel HD Graphics||ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4225|
|PC Mark Vantage (Overall Performance)||1,921||2,938||3,158||3,198|
|3DMark06 (Graphics performance)||2,692||594||1,262||1,484|
|Wireless Strength (15 / 50 feet)||39.4 / 23.7 Mbps||19.3 / 17.9 Mbps||42.8 / 27.4 Mbps||35.7 / 16.1 Mbps|
|Battery Life (h:mm)||5:40||4:15||6:11||5:20|
It looks like the notebook that fits your needs best is the ASUS Eee PC 1215N, but read the full reviews of all four systems to see our in-depth thoughts on every aspect, including keyboards, touchpads, multimedia experience, and more.