many big names CAN be good...
Dell for example started good, then stumbled a bit, and I think they are back on the ball.
Tohsiba seems to be always good.
Give Gateway a look, because they are trying to make a comeback, their prices seem to be very competitive.
You can look to buy laptops that are straight $600-700...or ones that rebate you down to that price. If you can put up with it and the slight possibility of not getting that rebate
. Try to not get a celeron, do try for the basic core solo. I think you and your mom could find some for that price range. Of course, if your mom will only be doing email...a celeron would be ok