Finding an ultra-cheap laptop that isn’t ultra-crap is almost impossible these days — we’re talking less than $300 — but it’s definitely possible if you know what you need from it and what you’re willing to sacrifice to get the price that low.
When buying a budget laptop, the first concern should be the operating system. (Windows 8.1 and 10 require better hardware than Chromebooks and Android devices, all else being equal.) After that, you need to look at the processor, followed by the storage technology, then the display.
Here are two good examples of crappy laptops selling for budget prices (from my favorite brick-and-mortar, Fry’s Electronics):
Both laptops come in at less than $300 with Intel processors — but the specific model numbers are suspiciously omitted. Also, only the storage capacity is listed, not the storage technology. And there’s no mention of the display resolution. Why is that? The information available is vague and only serves to confuse consumers.
Windows, Android, or ChromeOS?
Before going further, keep in mind that the operating system remains the most important laptop specification. There’s a good reason why: Android and ChromeOS (i.e. Chromebooks) don’t do much aside from basic productivity, media streaming, and Internet-surfing. Windows does everything.
The former systems have their advantages though: Android is resistant to malware unless you’re sideloading apps from suspect sources, and ChromeOS is completely immune. On top of that, both operating systems offer long battery lives and snappy performance because of reduced OS overhead.
For example, the ASUS Chromebook C201 offers 13 hours of uptime on a tiny battery. It uses an ARM processor, which is what you find on smartphones and tablets. It’s not powerful, but Chromebooks don’t need powerful hardware to get good performance, and that makes them ideal for those in the budget market.
Meanwhile, the Lenovo 100S Chromebook offers 8 hours of uptime. It also includes a slightly older processor, codenamed Bay Trail.
But Chromebooks and Android suffer from two big tradeoffs: First, Windows software doesn’t run on Android or ChromeOS. While it’s easy switching from Windows to ChromeOS, sometimes an incompatible program can prevent migration. If an equivalent app doesn’t exist, Windows may be your only choice.
Second, SquareTrade’s 2009 study on laptop reliability found a relationship between reliability and price. When looking at the first year of ownership, netbooks had the highest rate of failure at 5.8%, followed by entry-level laptops at 4.7%, while premium laptops had the lowest rate of failure at 4.2%.
However, Chromebooks didn’t exist back then, so that correlation may or may not hold true for them. In fact, reports on Chromebooks often show amazing reliability, as reported by the Wheaton Academy.
What to Look for in a Processor
The processor provides performance. As such, the faster the processor, the faster the computer operates, and that means it’s the most important hardware aspect of a budget laptop. But how do you know what’s worth buying? Let’s go back to our two examples in the advertisement above.
Going by the ad, the Lenovo uses an Intel Pentium while the Vulcan uses an unbranded Intel quad-core processor. Here’s the catch: Fry’s only lists the brand of processor (Pentium) for the Lenovo, which is almost completely meaningless. And the mystery brand powering the Vulcan isn’t documented on Fry’s website.
After locating the laptop model numbers on the Internet, here’s what I found:
- Vulcan Venture II VNB11602IE: Intel Atom Z3735F
- Lenovo IdeaPad 100: Intel Pentium N3540
But what does that mean?
Understanding Intel Processors
As of 2016, Intel manufactures three different kinds of mobile budget processors:
- Atom processors for tablets.
- Low-power processors, similar to their Atom line.
- Reduced-performance versions of mainstream processors.
The brands Pentium and Celeron do not distinguish between low-power and mainstream architectures. The Atom branding always means a low-power tablet system-on-a-chip (SoC), so the best way to tell them apart is by the positioning of the letter in the model name.
As a rule of thumb, here’s how you determine the architecture and year for Atom and Low-Power processors:
- If the processor has a Z in front of its model number, it’s an Atom architecture and designed for tablets, which means these are slower than laptop processors. (Example: Intel Atom Z3735F)
- If it has an x5 or x7 at the beginning of its model number, it’s a 2015 version of the Atom processor and low-power. (Example: Intel Atom x7-Z8700)
- If the processor has an N in front of its model name, it’s a low-power processor. (Example: Intel Pentium N3540)
- If it’s a Pentium and starts with N35, it’s an older low-power architecture from 2014. (Example: Intel Pentium N3540)
- If it’s a Pentium and starts with N37, it’s a newer low-power architecture from 2015. (Example: Intel Pentium N3700)
- If it’s a quad core, it’s also low-power.
The naming convention is so important because it can distinguish between the newer processors made in 2015 and those made prior to 2015.
Also, know that processors made in 2015 use a more sophisticated process node technology, while low-power and Atom processors made before the second half of 2013 are fairly terrible.
As a rule of thumb, here’s how you determine the architecture and year for Intel Budget Mainstream processors:
- Intel’s mainstream Core architecture processors are identified by a U or a Y at the end of their model names.
- If it’s a Celeron and the model number is 32**U, it’s a Broadwell (2015, 5th generation) processor. (Example: Intel Celeron 3215U)
- If it’s a Celeron and the model number is 38**U, it’s a Skylake (2015, 6th generation) processor. (Example: Intel Celeron 3855U)
- If it’s a Pentium and begins with a 37 or 38 and ends with a U or Y, it’s a Broadwell (5th generation) processor. (Example: Intel Pentium 3825U)
- But if the model number includes a 37**U, it can be either a Broadwell or Skylake mainstream processor. The only way to tell them apart is by performing an Internet search on the exact processor model number.
So why should you avoid buying low-power processors? First, low-power processors provide worse performance than budget mainstream processors. Second, even though low-power processors consume less energy, laptop manufacturers often decrease the battery size to compensate for the increased efficiency. Third, Intel charges manufacturers about the same amount of money for Celeron-N and Celeron-U processors.
That last point sounds counterproductive, but Intel has its reasons. We’ll explore them next, but if you don’t care to know about Intel’s production process, feel free to skip ahead.
Intel’s Chip Production
Intel mass-produces their fastest mobile dual-core CPUs and then uses firmware (or sometimes lasers) to choke off the processor’s performance — a method known as chip harvesting. The slower processors get made into Celerons and Pentiums.
This means that Intel’s lowest performing chips based on their current mainstream Core architecture are physically identical to their fastest chips. But because they charge manufacturers less for their Celeron and Pentium lines of processor, it means lower profit margins.
And that’s where the Intel Atom and low-power processors come into play. We don’t have absolute confirmation that the Atom is cheaper, but because Intel has been relatively silent regarding the Atom architecture’s complexity and cost, we can only assume it’s less expensive than Intel’s budget mainstream processors.
For these reasons, I do not recommend buying their Celeron-N series for Windows computers unless the price is extremely appealing. If none of this makes any sense, you might be better off with an alternative chip manufacturer altogether, and there are two alternatives to turn to.
Understanding AMD Processors
AMD only offers alternatives to Intel chips for budget Windows systems. AMD chose not to produce hardware for Chromebooks, and its tablet hardware (A10 Micro series) doesn’t appear in any devices that I could find. So if you want Windows as your OS, there are a handful of solid AMD budget processors.
AMD’s naming convention for budget processors is simple and consists of two parts. For example, the A8-7410 consists of two parts:
- The A# refers to the processors position within AMD’s performance hierarchy, which ranges from A4 to A8.
- The first number following the dash represents the generation of the architecture: 6 means Beema (2014) and 7 means Carrizo-L (2015). There’s no big difference in performance between the two.
AMD processors that offer particularly good value in the $300 price range include the A6-7310 and the A8-7410. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find either processor in anything other than refurbished models.
Understanding ARM Processors
ARM processors (better known as system-on-a-chip, or SoC) show up in all kinds of laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Some common brands include Samsung’s Exynos, Rockchip, NVIDIA, and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon. They show up in Android devices and Chromebooks, but not in newer Windows devices.
Unfortunately, laptop manufacturers do not advertise whether or not their devices include an ARM processor. On a Chromebook, you should prefer a Celeron-U processor. However, ARM processors provide better app compatibility on Android devices and are almost always preferable over Intel for tablets.
Recommended Processors Per OS
For Windows devices:
- Any Core i3-5*** or Core i3-6*** is a great deal in the $300 range for computing. Mainstream Intel Core processors offer speed and power, and Intel’s integrated graphics processors are among the best out there for their 6th generation processors (Skylake).
- Any AMD A10 series processor is also a great integrated graphics processor. It can even offer semi-decent gaming capabilities.
- AMD A6 and AMD A8 lines — either 6000 or 7000 series — offer good enough performance in the $300 range.
- The most suitable processor in the $300 range is either a Celeron or Pentium based on Intel’s mainstream Broadwell or Skylake architectures. In general, Pentium-series processors are slightly faster than Celerons, but you are more likely to find Celeron-U processors in the sub-$300 range.
- The most suitable processor in the $200 range is probably the Intel Atom x7-Z8700, which is found in the Microsoft Surface 3. It’s fast for a tablet processor and offers some of the best per-watt performance around.
For ChromeOS devices, most any processor will work fine in a Chromebook. However, a rule of thumb is that you get better value out of mainstream Intel processors.
For Android devices, stay away from Atom-branded products because of limited app compatibility.
Bad Processors to Avoid!
There are far too many bad processors out there to name. However, there are a few rules of thumb that you can use to make sure you don’t get swindled:
- MediaTek ARM processors are often seen in extremely low-budget convertible Android tablets. While MediaTek has come a long way in improving their processors, their older models aren’t really competitive in terms of performance. If you’re paying over $200, stay away from MediaTek MT8100 and MT8300 series processors.
- Intel’s Atom processors manufactured between 2012-2013 are known as Clovertrail and Clovertrail+. Both offer poor app compatibility, poor performance, and above average heat production. You can identify Clovertrail chips by the Z at the beginning of their model name followed by a 2. (Example: Intel Atom Z2580)
- On Android devices, you might want to avoid Intel products because of limited app compatibility.
- Stay away from older Intel Celeron and Pentium processors made before 2013 unless the price is ridiculously low. These processors offer terrible performance.
What to Look for in Data Storage
Most ultra-cheap laptops these days use a different kind of storage device than laptops of old. Modern devices use a solid state drive known as an eMMC module, which shouldn’t be confused with SATA or M.2 solid state drives.
eMMC modules, though they consume very little power, offer tiny amounts of storage and their performance can feel sluggish at times. While normal SSDs absolutely tower over regular hard drives in performance, eMMC modules aren’t entirely better. And they’re not upgradeable, being soldered directly onto the motherboard.
Because Windows 10 takes up around 10 to 20 GB of space, a 32 GB eMMC drive will have less than 12 to 22 GB of remaining space. If you plan on storing media files on your laptop, this is entirely inadequate.
Here’s how to distinguish between most (but not all) eMMC, SATA SSDs, and SATA hard drives:
- If the storage capacity is 32 GB, it’s an eMMC storage drive.
- If the storage capacity is 128 GB, it’s a SATA SSD.
- If the storage capacity is 500 GB or greater, it’s a SATA HDD.
- Tablets ONLY offer eMMC storage.
Upgrading Budget Laptops
$200 laptops — such as the HP Stream, most Chromebooks, and Dell Inspiron 3000 series — do not allow users to upgrade any components. This reduces the device’s long-term reliability and prevents repair by the user.
At CES 2016, Dell claimed it would release an upgradeable version of its Inspiron 3000, but as of February 2016, this hasn’t happened. Upgradeable laptops allow users to throw solid state drives into their laptops, which offer a tremendous speed increase. Or they can add an additional stick of RAM.
Also, when the battery gives out, upgradeable laptops allow users to swap that battery out. Not having these options increases the long-term cost of the laptop, making a $200 laptop considerably more expensive than face value.
What to Look for in a Display
When buying an ultra-cheap laptop, two other components stand out: the size of the screen and the panel technology.
The size of the display determines the portability of the laptop. We measure laptop screen sizes by the diagonal distance across the screen, from corner-to-corner. The larger the screen, the less portable the laptop. Judging from the size of the display, there are three categories of laptop:
- Netbook: A netbook normally comes with a keyboard and touchpad and a form-factor smaller than 12 inches.
- Tablet Computer: A tablet computer contains a sensor package, a touchscreen, and sometimes a detachable keyboard.
- Full-Sized Laptop: A full-sized laptop contains a keyboard and touchpad, along with a screen size ranging between 13.3 inches and 17.3 inches (although smaller screen sizes exist as well).
If you’re paying less than $300 for a laptop, you’ll mostly find smaller models between the size of a netbook and a 13.3-inch laptop. On rare occasion, you might find a 15.4-inch or 17.3-inch model for that price, but don’t expect to.
As for pixel resolutions, there are four basic form factors:
- 17.3-inch displays with a native resolution of 1600 x 900.
- 15.4-inch displays with a native resolution of 1366 x 768.
- 13.3-inch displays with a native resolution of 1366 x 768.
- 9-inch or 10-inch displays with a native resolution around 1024 x 768.
As for panel technologies, there are only two types to consider in budget-land: In-Plane Switching (IPS) and Twisted Nematic (TN), and there are a lot of differences between IPS and TN.
Of the two, TN screens cost less but offer inferior viewing angles and color accuracy. Unless you’re looking at a TN screen straight on and dead center, the whites will change color. An IPS screen looks good from most angles and offers superior color accuracy relative to TN, but they refresh at a lower speed and drain about 10% more energy.
But don’t expect to find IPS screens for $300 unless you’re looking for a Chromebook. Some Chromebooks in the $300 range have 1080p IPS screens, but they aren’t standard.
A great example is the Toshiba Chromebook 2. The 2015 version of the Toshiba Chromebook 2 includes a modern Broadwell-based processor, in addition to a 1080p 13.3-inch screen. Overall, its retail price places it among the best devices I’ve seen in today’s market.
The original Toshiba Chromebook is no slouch either. It includes a slower, low-power processor along with the same 1080p 13.3-inch screen for less money.
Recommended Laptops Under $300
Ultra-cheap laptops come with sacrifices. A TN screen might give a manufacturer enough leeway to throw in a better processor, or vice-versa. Keep in mind that once you go under $150, you’re in “disposable laptop” territory where the specifications don’t really matter anymore.
My baseline for comparison is the Toshiba Chromebook 2 (model number CB35), which offers extremely good specifications for just above $300. Of particular importance are the 1080p IPS screen and the Broadwell (5th generation) Celeron processor, which make it among the best-equipped laptops in its price range.
Best $200 Chromebook
If you want a Chromebook for around $200, you might want to check out the Samsung Chromebook 3. While its 2 GB of RAM and 16 GB eMMC storage drive aren’t impressive, it does manage to squeeze in an Intel Braswell (2015) low-power processor and wireless-AC WiFi into a 11.6-inch chassis.
Best $100 Android Convertible Tablet
Simply put, a $100 Android tablet capable of functioning as a laptop is going to suck. It will never receive a firmware update — which means you might be exposed to malware — and its build quality won’t impress anyone. That said, RCA offers an acceptable Android tablet with a removable keyboard.
Best $300 Windows Laptop
One of the best budget laptops I’ve seen is the ASUS X555LA. Its stand-out features include a Broadwell (5th generation Intel) processor, upgradeable RAM, and a 1 TB upgradeable hard drive for just over $300. It also includes a DVD drive and a partial metal body.
In the $250 range, there’s a really well-priced Lenovo model (but remember the malware on Lenovo laptops) with an AMD A6-6310 processor. You might want to remove the bloatware on this particular model after upgrading to Windows 10.
Final Note on Keyboards & Touchpads
Before buying an ultra-cheap laptop, visit your local brick-and-mortar electronics retailer. A lot of budget machines skimp on more than just processors — they sometimes throw in completely useless touchpads or horrible keyboards. These can’t be tested until you’ve gone hands-on with the laptop.
Got any other questions? Ask below and we’ll try to help. Have you ever bought a laptop for less than $300? Were you happy with it? If not, why not? Share with us in the comments!
Image Credit: Motherboard Background via Morguefile.com