Everyone wants to get more for less. This is true when it comes to saving money on groceries, gaming on the cheap, and certainly when buying a new computer. Computers can be extremely expensive. Which is why they’re one of the biggest areas where people strive to save money.
You might be tempted to buy a cheap laptop hoping to save some money up front, but the lack of quality could cause problems in the future. Let’s look at the situations in which cheap laptops shine, and where they fall flat. In the end, you’ll be able to decide if you should shell out the extra cash for a higher-end machine.
What Are You Buying the Laptop For?
This probably won’t surprise you, but people buy laptops for a variety of reasons. Some people buy Macs no matter the cost because they value the Apple experience. Others might just need to access email on the go. Still others buy a machine with a touch screen so they can mock up drawings quickly.
Many people who spend the least money possible on a laptop do so because they either don’t have the money for something more expensive or because they don’t see a more expensive model as worth the cost.
i need a new laptop before I return to school, this Toshiba from 2010 isn't gonna cut it.
— jolly jason! (@damnitmol) December 15, 2016
Thus, we need to ask what you need out of your machine first. If you just need basic internet access for email and news, a cheap Chromebook will get you by just fine. Conversely, if your profession requires editing HD video every day, a Chromebook won’t do for you at all. Keep that in mind while you’re shopping for a new laptop.
Areas That Often Suffer in Cheap Machines
Chances are, your needs probably fall somewhere between the above extremes. You don’t need the most powerful machine ever, but you need something beyond the basics. Let’s talk about the computer aspects that commonly take a hit when you buy a cheap laptop so you understand what you’re paying for.
A screen’s resolution dictates how many pixels it can show at once, and thus how clear the picture is. For reference, 1080p is 1920 x 1080 while 4K is 4096 × 2160. A lot of cheap computers display in something like 1366 x 768, which isn’t great. Everything you do on your PC, from editing spreadsheets to watching videos, looks worse on a cheap screen.
Another way that the screen suffers is overall size. If you don’t hook your laptop up to an external monitor and the screen is only 11 inches, you won’t have much room to work with.
Your computer’s hard drive is where all of your data is saved, and in cheap machines, you can run into two problems.
The first is low disk space. Average laptops now ship with a 500 GB hard drive. While this sounds like a lot, you won’t actually get the full 500 GB for yourself. If you plan on keeping lots of games, videos, and programs on your system, you could run out of space fast. You can always purchase an external hard drive to get more space, but that’s an additional cost.
Second, the traditional hard disk drives in cheap machines are much slower than newer solid-state drives. While SSDs are more expensive and don’t offer the huge capacities of HDDs, they offer incredible performance. With a cheaper laptop, you won’t get the faster boot times, app launching, and file transfer speed that come with an SSD.
Random access memory, or RAM, temporarily holds open programs on your computer. We’ve explained everything about how RAM works if you’re interested. Suffice it to say here that with a lack of RAM, you’re going to notice a huge decrease in performance.
The first result on Amazon for “laptop” has 4 GB of RAM, which is decent but not enough for running lots of programs in tandem. If you have ten programs running in the background while you have twelve Chrome tabs open and are streaming from Spotify while working in Adobe Premiere, 4 GB of RAM isn’t going to cut it.
You can only use so much RAM, but having 8 or 12 GB will give you a lot more breathing room than a basic 4 GB machine. Memory cleaners like CleanMem are snake oil, so don’t expect to use one to compensate for lack of RAM.
Touchpad, Keyboard, and More
The three above components are the biggest hangups on cheap laptops, but there are several more items to watch out for. On a low-quality machine, you might find a touchpad that’s too small, or difficult to click. The keyboard might have an awkward layout or sticky buttons, and the built-in speakers probably aren’t great.
This laptop has the loudest, clickiest and worst touchpad of all time. It reverberates around the living room… *TAP CLICK TAP*
— Owen Wrangle (@owrangle) June 5, 2016
Batteries are another common component often sacrificed to cut costs. A budget laptop isn’t going to feature an all-day battery, so you may have to perform some shenanigans to squeeze more battery life out of a charge.
How Do You Decide?
We’ve discussed the needs of different folks, and the aspects of cheap machines that can cause problems. The best way to decide for yourself if you should buy a cheap machine or shell out an extra few hundred dollars is to consider how much time you spend on your computer.
If you only hop on your laptop for twenty minutes a day to check email and browse social media, you don’t need much more than the bare minimum. You’ll have to deal with slow boot times and a lackluster display, but since you won’t use it much, it’s not worth $300 more to avoid these nuisances.
However, if you spend hours every day on your computer, it’s a different story. When you use your PC for an entertainment hub, developing your hobby, or working, a slow machine can drastically worsen your experience. Squinting over a tiny screen while you wait for your computer to unfreeze is simply miserable.
We’re all about getting the most for your money, but this doesn’t always mean refusing to spend. Rather, it’s worth spending a little more money on the items you’re going to use all the time. An extra $20 for a more comfortable pair of shoes that you wear every day, or paying extra for a great pillow so you sleep better, pays for itself. The same is true of your laptop.
Future-proofing a PC you don’t use is a waste, but suffering from slow performance on a machine you use every day wastes time and will stress you out. Compare spending $400 on a computer that you scrap after a year because it’s so slow (and have to buy another one for $400) to buying one for $700 that lasts for three years.
Do You Use a Cheap Machine?
It’s wise to think ahead when it comes to buying a new PC. It might sting to pay more money now than you were expecting, but a one-time cost for something you use every day for three years is a worthwhile investment.
If your current computer is still hanging on, check out our tips for speeding up an older machine (and tools to help) so you can continue saving for a new one. Should you decide you don’t need anything fancy, a Chromebook is a dead-simple machine for getting online. And don’t forget to consider the possibility that you might not even need a laptop anymore.
Once you’ve weighed your options, check out our top five cheap laptops that are still high-quality.
How long have you had your current laptop, and what did you end up paying for it? Let us know if you’ve had good luck with cheaper laptops or if you’ve shelled out for something top-notch!