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Inexpensive Back-to-School Laptops and Desktops from AMD

AMD had a press event earlier this week in San Francisco, where it showed off its new consumer laptop and desktop PCs from vendors like HP, Dell, Acer and Sony. Traditionally, at an AMD event, you see a bunch of inexpensive desktop computers, maybe one nice Acer Ferrari laptop, and a bunch of relatively ugly products. This clearly wasn’t a traditional event. Acer showed off three desktop computers, two all-in-ones, and around 14 laptops, none of which were dogs, with prices ranging from $350 for a higher-performance, netbook-sized laptop, to a $1,299 gaming notebook. Interestingly enough, both were from Acer.

Given that it’s getting closer to back-to-school time, I figured you might want to check them out. Let’s take a closer look at some of the best AMD-powered products I saw at the event.

AMD’s Levels of Performance

I’m convinced that the PC OEMs either don’t realize they sell their products to real people, or just like to use lots of letters and numbers, because compared to Apple, their product names are insanely complicated. Fortunately, AMD has simplified its approach to naming and has four levels I can actually remember now.

Basic is for folks who like to consume, but not necessarily create, media. It is great for the Web, creating documents, and managing photos and videos, but not for editing them. It may be challenged with HD video (though I haven’t seen a problem).

Premium provides more performance for watching videos and doing other stuff at the same time. It’s better for HD, better for transcoding (moving videos from one format to another), and better for photo editing.

Ultimate has the headroom for 3D, most games, lots of multi-tasking, video editing, and advanced photo editing.

Black is for people that want to approach outrageous levels of performance, up to four cores in a notebook, and just like a lot of performance headroom.

I’ll now move to what looked to be some of the best products, based on a very short time playing with them in each category.

Acer Aspire One A0721-3574 – Basic (Super Netbook)

It is kind of amazing what you can get for $429 (currently on Amazon). This is a relatively high-performance netbook-sized laptop computer. It costs less than a basic iPad, yet it has a full load out of features. These include a 1.7 GHz AMD Athlon II Neo processor, ATI 4225 graphics, 540 GB hard drive, webcam, multi-card reader, an estimated 5.5 hours of battery life, and Windows 7 Home Premium. It weighs in at about three pounds. This is kind of like Macbook Air level of performance and weight, for around a third of the price.

Sony VAIO VPCEF22FX – Basic

This laptop, and I use the word loosely, has a massive 17.3-inch screen, very nice lines, both a multi-core processor and ATI graphics, and a price of $718 at Walmart. It’s not powerful enough for high-end gaming, but it’s fine for Warcraft. If you wanted a box that could sit on your desk most of the time and that you could still easily take home, that has a large enough screen to do some decent work, and was stunning for videos and great for Internet TV, this would be the box. The only thing that appears “basic” is the price, and while it doesn’t have as much performance as others, it likely has more than most folks actually need, and it’s impressive to look at. You get 4GB of DDR3 RAM, a 500GB hard drive, a super multi DVD drive (no Blu-Ray), a 2.1 GHz dual-core Athlon processor, ATI 4250 graphics, and a 6.7-pound carry weight. It also has Windows 7 Home Premium, a built-in webcam, and about every memory card slot you can think of.

HP dv5-2035dx – Premium

If you want something you might actually be able to use on a plane that has lines that remind me of the new, fourth-generation iPhone, this HP steps up in performance from the Sony, but is more portable, and at $599 to $629 at Best Buy, is actually less expensive. HP has done a nice job of designing this product while still keeping it aggressively priced. The company appears to have more products using AMD and ATI hardware than any of the other vendors this round, and if you want a slightly bigger 15.6-inch screen and don’t mind paying an extra $100 for it, the very similar dv6-3025dx is a good alternative. The 2035dx has 4GB DDR3, Lightscribe DVD (no Blu-Ray, but it will print on the discs), 320GB hard drive, 2.3 GHz Turion II processor, ATI 4250 graphics, and a 5.2 pound carry weight. It also comes with Windows 7 premium, and an estimated 5-hour battery life.

Toshiba Satellite A665D-S6051 – Ultimate

Moving up in both cores (this one packs four) and price, and into the ultimate category is this wonderful Toshiba Satellite, which hit a chord with me. At 16 inches diagonally, it has a slightly smaller screen than the Sony, but more cores than the HP, and at $799 at Staples it isn’t that much more expensive than either. It think it’s one of the best showcases of how much Toshiba improved this cycle. You won’t open this in coach, and don’t expect the longest battery life (big screens and powerful processors are hardly frugal) but this is a lot of product for just under $800. It’s more for watching media than editing it in this configuration, but it still makes a nice box for the money. This gets a quad-core 1.6 GHz AMD Phenom II processor, Harman Kardon sound (which you can use with your MP3 player with the laptop off), ATI 4225 graphics, about three hours of battery life, and a built-in HD webcam.

This may be one of the places where AMD’s simplified taxonomy breaks down, because the reviews on this laptop place it closer to the Sony than the Acer that follows. You get more cores, but they run much slower, so you won’t really get “ultimate” performance. The HP above is likely faster for most things. But, for movies and TV, this screen is stunning.

Acer Aspire 7552 G-6851 – Black

There was really only one black-level, high-performance, AMD-based notebook that stood out, and it was this hot Acer. Typically, when you are talking about gaming notebooks you start at $2,000 and move north. That has changed a lot of the last four years, and now you can get a lot of power for just under $1,300. This one costs $1,299 at Futureshop. It sports clean lines and more of a stealth performance design, not to mention a surprisingly large amount of performance for what is a very reasonable price. This one has a 17.3-inch display like the Sony, a 2GHz quad-core AMD Phenom II processor, ATI 5650 graphics, 500GB hard drive, Blu-Ray Drive, 4GB DDR3, and likely under three hours of battery life. As with the others it has Windows 7 Home Premium, a built-in webcam, and weighs in at 7.3 pounds.

Dell Studio XPS 7100 – Black (desktop)

This desktop product stood out because it’s both an XPS, and supports three monitors using AMD’s Eyefinity technology, for $699 from Dell.com. I remember when XPS-branded products started at $2,500, and that gaming desktops prices would cause parents to have premature heart attacks. Granted, you’ll still have to buy the monitors, but just under $700 for a high-performance desktop machine is not a bad deal. Dell is a configure-to-order company, and a similar product (without the Eyefinity) starts under $499 with a quad core processor and lighter graphics. This one has a six-core AMD Phenom II processor, ATI 5670 graphics, 16X DVD-RW drive, 1TB hard drive, 4GB DDR3 1333MHz RAM, and Windows 7 Home Premium. Not a bad deal for the money.

Wrapping Up

If I were buying, I’d be likely get the little Acer for me (I’m into light at the moment) and the Sony for my wife (who loves Sony, and could use a bigger screen). I still like to build my own desktops, but if I didn’t, the Dell would be on my list. You can get a lot of product for not a lot of money this year, and if you are in the market, you will likely be pleasantly surprised. If Nvidia or Intel has similar showcases I’ll write them up later on. This is why I love this time of year: lots of toy shows.