Even if you've only £300 to spend on a laptop, you can still pick up something that's suitable for basic office tasks and the odd bit of Web surfing.
The Acer Aspire 3694WLMi fits the bill for such a purpose and is available for a mere £300 from LaptopsDirect.co.uk.
The 3694 is certainly cheap, but it still manages to hold its own in the performance stakes. While it's not going to worry machines with Core 2 Duo processors, its 1.86GHz Intel Celeron M 440 chip is still reasonably perky when coupled with 512MB of RAM. It managed to pull in a PCMark05 score of 1,333, which is satisfactory if your computing requirements are basic.
Unlike many budget models, the 3694 features a 15.4-inch 1,280x800 glossy display, which offers better colour reproduction than normal screens, although at the expense of increased reflectivity.
You get a generous four USB ports which are sensibly split between the left hand edge and rear of the machine, offering flexibility when it comes to hooking up peripherals. There's also a card reader tucked into the side that can turn its hand to both SD and Memory Stick media, so getting camera snaps onto it is a doddle.
While it's capable of holding its own when it comes to application performance, just the thought of 3D gaming is enough to make it run away screaming. It failed to even run the 3DMark06 benchmark, so you can safely assume that gaming on this laptop is going to be far from immersive.
It's also pretty poor on the battery life front, only managing to sneak over the hour by a minute running the Battery Eater intensive test. Turning to the lighter reader test only eeked out a further 14 minutes, managing to last one hour 15 minutes before the battery was depleted.
It comes loaded with the cheapest version of Vista, which is acceptable at this price level, but you can't help but get the feeling that Acer has stripped down a more equipped model to cram the 3694 into this price category.
For example, there's a switch on the front to activate Bluetooth or 3G, however pressing it just results in an onscreen message telling you no hardware was found. It's fine not to include certain features, but the 3694 rubs your nose in it. There's also a blanked off audio connector on the front, presumably where an S/PDIF port would be on a more expensive model, which just looks shoddy.
It also contributes to Acer's apparent challenge to produce some of the ugliest laptops the world has ever seen. Its curves make it look fat and podgy, rather than sleek and sexy and the silver metallic effect coating looks cheap and dated -- especially when set against the basic black plastic that the rest of the case is constructed from.
If you've only got a small budget to spend on a laptop, the 3694 is a capable little machine for basic office work. It can't stretch to 3D gaming and its battery life is atrocious, but it has a nice display. However, it looks like its price tag of £300 from LaptopsDirect.co.uk: cheap.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Jon Squire