Cheap, lightweight laptops have quietly gotten better over the past year. This end of the home-use market is no longer owned by heavy, hot...

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Cheap, lightweight laptops have quietly gotten better over the past year.

This end of the home-use market is no longer owned by heavy, hot, battery-draining machines running on desktop processors that barely keep up with current software.

Not that there isn’t a market for such things, but “desktop replacement” laptops poorly serve college students and others who regularly take a computer away from a desk.

Much credit for this improvement goes to a new crop of efficient, compact processors that put out less heat and don’t need to be cooled by an array of noisy fans. They’ve given far more options to budget-minded shoppers who want less than 5 pounds of laptop hanging off their shoulders.

But here’s a downside to this new wealth of portable-PC choices: Almost any new model will do.

Buy one with a laptop-optimized processor (Intel’s Core 2 Duo has been running away with the light-laptop market) and enough memory (at least a gigabyte on a Mac, 2 GB on a Windows Vista PC), and you can’t go wrong.

That was one conclusion from a test drive of four new laptops: Apple’s MacBook, Dell’s Inspiron 1318, HP’s Pavilion tx2500z and Toshiba’s Satellite U405-S2854.

All featured 12- or 13-inch widescreen LCD screens, weighed just under 5 pounds, provided more hard-drive space than desktops did a few years ago and threw in such luxury items as high-speed Wi-Fi, Bluetooth wireless (except on the Dell) and built-in webcams. They’d all suffice for everyday home computing.

But plenty of other things still set them apart.

Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first: Mac or PC.

Apple’s Mac OS X Leopard makes Windows Vista look clumsy, unmanageable and obsolete. Vista’s not nearly as bad as many people regard it, but Microsoft’s year-and-a-half-old operating system can’t match OS X’s simplicity and relative security.

Apple also provides superior music, photo and video programs with its iLife suite; simple and automatic backup tools; and the Boot Camp software that lets you install Windows alongside OS X. Note that of the four tested laptops, only the $1,099 MacBook shipped without any third-party “trialware.”

This MacBook ran longer than the other three laptops on one charge while playing a DVD. It lasted three hours and 17 minutes, compared with 2:15 for the Dell (a “preproduction” unit lacking the usual stickers), 2:03 for the Toshiba and 2:00 for the HP.

Buyers who live near an Apple Store can also get free in-person tech support — something other vendors don’t offer.

That said, Apple has put itself at a temporary disadvantage in the cheap-laptop market. The MacBook’s basic design has gone two years without major upgrades; it seems obvious that Apple will redo it soon.

In the meantime, many cheaper Windows laptops now match the MacBook’s features and add more memory and storage options, such as extra USB ports and memory-card slots.

Dell’s Inspiron 1318, for example, sells for $698 at Wal-Mart’s site; look for it on Dell’s site later this month. It includes some of Apple’s stylish refinements, such as a slot-loading disc drive. But this bargain-bin model’s drive burns DVDs as well as CDs, and the 1318 includes a slot for SD cards and memory sticks, too. (Less desirable: the glossy, glare-prone screen.)

Dell also seems to have learned from its past errors with bundled software: The 1318 was the cleanest machine I’ve ever seen Dell ship, with only a trial copy of Symantec’s Norton Internet Security.

HP’s Pavilion tx2500z, at $900 and up, offers a feature absent from any Apple machines and most under-$1,000 Windows laptops — it’s a tablet PC, with a screen that swivels to invite touch-screen control and text entry with an included stylus. This model, too, can burn DVDs and CDs; if you buy special LightScribe discs, it can write labels on them, too. You can even eject the drive to cut weight.

The tested model, however, came with only a 12.1-inch screen, as glare-friendly as the Dell’s, instead of the 13.3-inch displays of the other three. Such ill-chosen upgrades as the Ultimate Edition of Windows Vista bloated its price to $1,539.

The tx2500z’s software bundle was about as cluttered as older HP models’ — though still worlds better than the junk accumulated on Toshiba’s drive.

Toshiba’s $950 Satellite U405 combined capable, if sometimes odd, hardware (USB ports that can recharge your gadgets while the laptop sleeps and the old-fashioned ingredient of an FM radio) with a laughably bad software bundle.

Much of it — the desktop clogged with irrelevant shortcuts, the preinstalled software for little-used music and video stores, the online help centered on a lengthy PDF file — betrayed a lack of consideration for what a customer would actually need.