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5 budget laptops for college students: We name the best

Michael Brown | Aug. 20, 2013
Being a cash-strapped student requires making a few hardware compromises, but a nice notebook is still within reach.

The Z400 is an attractive PC, with charcoal-colored soft-touch paint on the outside and a pretty carbon-fiber look on the inside. Lenovo's computer feels as rugged as Acer's feels fragile. Though the display exhibits a little flex, the lower chassis is as rigid as some all-metal bodies I've tried to bend. The downside to the solid construction is weight gain: Despite its smaller display, the Z400 outweighs the Acer by 0.7 pound. Still, it comes by most of that weight honestly. Lenovo provides 6GB of memory (as against Acer's 4GB); packs a 1TB, 7200-rpm hard drive (versus the Aspire's 500GB drive); and includes a DVD burner (Acer provides no optical drive at all).

The IdeaPad Z400 comes with the type of top-notch keyboard that Lenovo is famous for building. The island-style keyboard is fully backlit and feels great under the fingers. It lacks a dedicated numeric keypad, and there's no provision for temporarily assigning letter keys on the right side an alternative function to serve as one, but I was happy to see the full-size arrow keys in the familiar inverted-T formation at the far edge.

Augmenting the touchscreen is a responsive trackpad that supports most Windows 8 gestures, including two-finger scrolling, swipe, zoom, and rotate. The trackpad doesn't have distinct right and left mouse buttons, but clicking in the lower right and left areas of the pad perform the same function. Unlike Lenovo's higher-end notebooks, the Z400 does not embed a trackpoint in its keyboard; however, I found that the trackpad and the touchscreen were all I really needed.

Benchmark performance

The IdeaPad Z400 took a solid second place in our Notebook WorldBench 8.1 benchmark competition (behind the Acer Aspire E1-572-6870), with a score of 132, marking it as 1.3 times faster than our reference Asus VivoBook S550CA, which comes outfitted with a 24GB SSD cache for its hard drive.

The Lenovo placed third in the PCMark 7 Productivity, despite having a 7200-rpm hard drive (both the Acer Aspire E1-572-6870 and the Toshiba Satellite L55Dt-A5253 were much faster). But the IdeaPad captured first place on our media editing and encoding tests. It finished in the middle of the pack on our gaming tests, delivering a leisurely frame rate on BioShock Infinite of 18.4 frames per second, even with resolution set to just 1024 by 768 and visual quality set to Low.

Connectivity and conclusion

The IdeaPad Z400's networking capabilities are a bit disappointing. Though Lenovo selected a high-quality Wi-Fi adapter--Intel's Centrino Wireless-N 2230--it's a single-band adapter that doesn't give you any choice but to connect to crowded 2.4GHz Wi-Fi networks. On the bright side, it's a 2x2 adapter, meaning that it supports a maximum physical link rate of 300 mbps. It also provides Bluetooth 4.0 support, and is compatible with Intel's WiDi video-streaming technology. The wired ethernet adapter, meanwhile, is limited to 100 mbps--I thought those adapters had gone the way of the PS/2 port.


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