Under $500: Gateway NV55C35u
Let's be realistic: you're not going to find a truly fancy, powerful or super-portable laptop for under $500. (If you're seriously concerned about portability, might we suggest a netbook instead?) The Gateway NV is a legit computer with real notebook power. Inside, you'll find a dual core Pentium chip clocked at a reasonable (but hardly blazing) 2 Ghz, alongside 4 GB of RAM -- enough for most computing tasks. It handles HD video playback and Web browsing with aplomb. Casual Flash games shouldn't pose any problem either, but don't expect to do any serious video editing or gaming on a $449 bargain laptop.
The case is entirely plastic, although the top lid is textured with a faux wood-grain that lends the NV series a little more personality than your average, sub-$500 portable. You'll also find a trendy chiclet keyboard, a trackpad that supports multitouch gestures and a full numeric keypad -- something rarely found even on 15-inch laptops. Above the glossy widescreen, you'll find an HD webcam, and, if the 15.6-inches of screen are too constricting for you, there's an HDMI port on the side for plugging into a TV or monitor. Of course, that large screen comes with bulk. With the standard six-cell battery, the NV55C35u weighs in at a chunky 5.72 pounds. (However, you should get almost four hours of life out of that battery.) The 250 GB hard drive is standard, and sufficient, for this price range.
Of course, you will have to fight your way through plenty of software trials and Gateway-branded utilities of questionable usefulness, but at least Gateway has seen fit to go with the 64-bit version of Windows 7. (That version should be standard, but we've seen plenty of budget laptops saddled with the 32-bit version of Windows.)
As a basic no-nonsense machine for checking e-mail, browsing the Web and getting in all the social networking you can handle, this bargain Gateway is more than adequate. It's a perfect laptop for a high schooler just looking to write a few papers and watch some YouTube clips, or a mom trying to keep in touch via e-mail and Facebook.
Under $800: HP Pavilion dm4t series
HP might be stretching the definition of "ultra-portable" with the dm4t. At 4.5 pounds, this 14-inch laptop certainly isn't a hefty machine, but neither is it a suitable replacement for the slim MacBook Air or ThinkPad X201. Still, the portability is surprising at this price, considering the stylish looks and powerful insides. This Pavilion has also inherited the large matte trackpad, chiclet keyboard and brushed metal shell of HP's more expensive Envy line of laptops.
The $729.99 "quick ship" model features a 2.4 Ghz Core i5 processor, 4 GB of RAM, an integrated Intel graphics chip, a 500 GB hard drive, all of the wireless radios you could ever want, a DVD burner and a pair of Dolby-certified speakers from Altec Lansing that should provide much better audio than you're used to getting from a portable computer. The standard six-cell battery can theoretically power the dm4t for up to 6.5 hours, while HP claims 10.5 hours of life on the optional nine-cell extended battery.
Of course, you can skip the quick-ship model, and customize the dm4t to your liking. The $649.99 base still comes with a 2.26Ghz Core i5 and sacrifices the wireless radios, but leaves you with $150 to upgrade the graphics card or RAM.
The only complaint that most seem to have about the dm4t is that, like many mainstream PCs, it's loaded with tons of software trials and HP-branded junkware. But you can always uninstall the offending software, or skip the whole thing and just boot to HP's QuickWeb interface, which lets you get online without waiting for Windows.
The dm4t is perfect a college student or someone who needs a decent amount of computing power in a portable package for a very reasonable price. The Core i5 and 4 GB of RAM are more than enough for some photo editing and light video editing, and the integrated Intel graphics can pump out 1080p video with relative ease. You won't be able to play the latest in 3-D games, but it's more than just a glorified e-mail machine.