- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 11, 2010

NEW YORK (AP) - Looking at getting a new PC for the fall semester? Here’s a jolt of cheer in these uncertain times: PCs are not only cheaper than ever, there’s real innovation going on, yielding interesting new choices.

This is a rundown of options in a couple of price categories.

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$300 to $500

There used to be three main choices in this price range: netbooks, which are small laptops; heavy, frumpy laptops; and no-frills desktop computers.

To that we can now add laptops that are slightly bigger than netbooks, yet still light, and have enough processor power to play movies off YouTube and Hulu without stuttering, something netbooks can’t do. The cheapest of these “thin-and-light” laptops use AMD’s Neo chips. They’re considerably more powerful than the Intel Atom chips that are used in most netbooks, but also drain batteries faster.

I tried the $450 Neo-powered Gateway LT32, which has a screen that is 11.6 inches diagonally. I found the LT32 a good choice for someone who needs a computer to carry outside the home but doesn’t need all-day battery life or an optical drive.

Not much is new on the netbook front this year, except that most of them now come with Windows 7. That’s a big improvement over Windows XP, but their Atom processors are still quite limiting and have seen only minor speed improvements over the last two years. Late this year we should see dual-core Atoms in netbooks, which should kick things up a notch.

From the conventional netbook camp, I tried the Toshiba NB255, which has a 10-inch screen. It’s available for $300, and it’s well built.

For a variation on the standard netbook formula, try the Samsung NB30. It’s “ruggedized” to survive drops, so it’s supposed to have a better chance of surviving the lifestyle of a teenager, or a klutz of any age. Available for about $340.

In desktops, a few systems with Intel and AMD quad-core processors are now available for less than $500 and will give plenty of power for video editing or gaming. The latest Core i3, i5 and i7 processors haven’t trickled down to this price level yet.

In full-size laptops, be aware that the cheapest versions usually lack built-in webcams. However, accessory webcams are cheap and easy to install.

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$500 to $800

Windows laptops at this price level can be sleek, attractive and fast. If your priority is light weight and long battery life, the conventional wisdom is to go for a model with Intel’s CULV (for Consumer Ultra-Low Voltage) processor and without a DVD drive. Acer’s Timeline series is a good example.

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