The Gateway NV5214u is a budget all purpose laptop, and proud of it. For the sticker price of around £350, it offers the standard drill: lackluster speakers, little in the way of bundled software, and a rather hefty footprint. But it's quite a capable machine, providing a respectable bang to buck ratio and looking pretty good in the process.

For its plastic casing, the NV5214u took a few design pointers from its bigger siblings. A glossy finish, smooth curves, and a row of slick touch sensitive keys give it an air of class. It's also fairly large, measuring 14.6 by 1.5 by 9.8 inches, and weighing 6.8 pounds.

So the system is a little on the hefty side, but it's what's on the inside that counts, right? Microsoft's Windows Vista Home Premium resides on the 320GB hard drive. Powering the NV5214u is the dual core 2.1GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 QL-64, plus 4GB of RAM. The DirectX 10-capable ATI Radeon HD 3200 graphics processor drives the display, but don't expect miracles: Though a title for older, refined tastes like Doom 3 will chug along at 30 frames per second on the higher settings, newer games like Crysis will balk. The ensemble scored a 64 in the WorldBench 6 test suite, which puts the NV5214u behind marginally more expensive competitors.

Vehemently opposed to Vista? A flyer packed with the machine casually reminds users to pick up their free copy of Windows 7 Home Premium, which should improve things, particularly the battery life, which currently clocks in at a less than spectacular 2.5 hours.

The 15.6-inch, backlit LED screen is comfortably bright in the typical office or in a fluorescent-lit dwelling, but the visibility suffers once you venture outside. The 1366 by 768 resolution is just right for 720p video, with a 16:9 aspect ratio that will please movie buffs and bored college students alike. Color reproduction is nice, and the display is evenly lit.

Gateway makes ample use of the machine's footprint, offering a spacious keyboard with a full number pad. While the individual keys are wide enough, they're also flat, and arranged uniformly, which can be disconcerting for touch typists. In low-light conditions, you may find your wayward fingers becoming misaligned with the keys; and with nothing to differentiate the keys, you might make the occasional typo.

Nestled between the screen and the keyboard are seven touch sensitive buttons for controlling the volume, toggling the trackpad and Wi-Fi, and triggering the MyBackup software (more on that in a bit). The machine also has a programmable button that can launch any application, file, or web page you command it to. As far as touch sensitive buttons go, they're fairly attractive, lending the NV5214u some of the style consciousness of more expensive machines. Unfortunately they're also nigh invisible in low-light conditions, which can result in some haphazard screen finagling should you want to turn the volume down while watching a movie.

The trackpad is fine: It has a nice, smooth texture that makes for comfortable pointing. But the trackpad button can be a bit annoying. It's a single, reflective bar. Tap the left side to click, tap the right side to right-click. The centre, however, is unclickable. This is nitpick territory, but if you're accustomed to pressing both the left and right buttons for a middle click, or even the single bar on most older MacBooks, prepare for a bit of a learning curve. Stretching your fingers to tap the opposite ends of the seesaw-like bar is awkward enough to draw negative attention to an otherwise attractive fixture.

All of the standard laptop amenities make an appearance in the NV5214u: Four USB ports, a webcam, a multiformat card reader, a DVD burner, and ethernet, modem, mic, and headphone jacks are all arranged neatly along the sides of the machine. Users looking for a bit more screen real estate will appreciate the included VGA and HDMI ports. Though the GPU might not be able to handle much gaming, the system ran effortlessly when multitasking on the 1900-by-1200 resolution, 24-inch display.

The NV5214u's speakers fit the budget machine mold, too. Crank the volume up, and they'll fill a room with sound, the bland, tinny kind of sound. If you'd like to have any semblance of bass, you'll need to invest in a proper set of speakers, or more likely, a decent pair of headphones.

The package doesn't give you much in the way of bundled software. The MyBackup program is exactly what its name suggests. You press the touch sensitive hotkey to fire up Gateway's simple backup scheduling utility. Just choose which folders to sync, and then pick a destination and a timetable, and the application takes care of the rest. The tool isn't robust, but casual users will appreciate the one button access to a modicum of data loss prevention, which is a step in the right direction.

You'll also find the standard 60-day Microsoft Office trial, ad-supported Microsoft Works, and a handful of casual games and demos in the Gateway Games console, a digital storefront.

OUR VERDICT

The Gateway NV5214u has quirks, a brief battery life, and a groan inducing 7-pound weight that might ward off some shoppers. But at the price, it's a stylish bargain, and anyone (particularly a student) who needs a decent, cheap machine and who doesn't mind the lack of bundled extras and frills would do well to look it over.