Most consumers today view laptops as a tool; it needs to do a job and do it at a fair price. Manufactures know this, so there are many systems available for around $500 or less. But how do you choose the right laptop, and what can you expect from its performance?
Bang for your buck
Restricting your budget also restricts your choice of hardware. There are certain things you simply won’t be able to obtain. A discrete GPU is out of the question, and you’ll struggle to get more than four gigabytes of RAM or a solid state drive with a capacity beyond 32GB.
Within these limits, though, you have a few choices to make. One is the decision to go with an AMD processor or one from Intel. AMD processors usually have slower per-core performance which means they feel more sluggish, but you may be able to grab an AMD with four cores. This could be preferable if you run software that utilizes many cores, such as video or photo editing tools.
AMD also tends to offer superior graphics performance at a given price, but Intel is better for battery life, particularly if you grab a “low voltage” chip designated by the U or Y suffix.
One option I suggest that you avoid is Intel’s Atom processor. Atom was recently re-designed, making it more powerful and adding quad-core models, but it’s still not quick. You can grab an Intel Core-powered laptop for a few hundred bucks, anyway, so there’s not much reason to resort to Atom.
Most budget notebooks will ship with four gigabytes of RAM. Some come with six gigabytes, but whether it does or doesn’t is almost irrelevant; you’re not going to see a benefit from the extra two gigabytes unless you plan on running a specific app that hogs memory. Avoid systems with only two gigabytes of RAM unless they run Chrome OS or Linux.
Most budget notebooks will ship with four gigabytes of RAM. Some come with six gigabytes… you’re not going to see a benefit from the extra two gigabytes…
Connectivity is also worth consideration. USB 3.0 is ideal, as is 802.11ac WiFi and DisplayPort video output (as this supports 2560×1440 resolution, and beyond, for external monitors). You’re unlikely to find all of these things on a budget system in the near future, but they should influence your decision when picking between notebooks.
Consider Chrome OS
Google’s Chromebooks have consistently claimed top slots in Amazon’s best-selling laptop list over the last year, despite the fact that only a handful of Chromebooks are available to consumers. Why? Because they’re inexpensive. The 11-inch Acer C720 Chromebook is only $199, while Toshiba’s 13-inch alternative is $280.
Chromebooks run Google Chrome OS, a stripped-down operating system that handles most everything through the Chrome web browser. Instead of Microsoft Office, you use Google Documents. Instead of a photo editing application you use an online service like Pic Monkey. Even games are played online, though some can save content to the local disk for quicker load times.
Ditching Windows is not an easy decision. You won’t be able to run any of your old Windows apps, and it’s generally not possible to install Windows on a Chromebook as an alternative operating system due to hardware (and hard drive space) restrictions. While not useless offline, you’ll have to be connected to the Internet to perform most tasks.
In compensation for these sacrifices, you receive solid hardware. Despite their price, most Chromebooks have an Intel processor based on a recent architecture, a small solid state drive and a decent display. You’ll end up spending around $100 to $200 less than you would on a comparable Windows 8.1 notebook.
Check out our guide to ditching Windows for Chrome OS before you buy, as it will help you better understand the pros and cons of Google’s alternative.
Don’t Plan On Customizing
Customization is often an option even with budget systems, but you’re better off choosing a factory system configuration. These mass-produced products are less expensive then customized alternatives, and you’re not missing out on much by choosing one. Most major upgrades are outside your price range, after all.
For example, you could buy an HP Pavilion 15t from the manufacturer and customize it your liking. This would set you back $529. Office Depot, however, offers a very similar system for $449. You may not be able to add more RAM or change the processor, but you undoubtedly receive more for your money.
Choosing upgrades from the manufacturer is usually a rip-off, anyway, as you’ll often end up paying as much for the pre-installed upgrade as you would have if you’d installed it yourself – but, because it was pre-installed, you don’t get to choose the brand of component.
Get Ready To Snipe Deals
Picking a reasonable system that fits your need is of course important, but it’s only part of a battle. Finding the right deal is crucial too. Most affordable notebooks have very similar hardware, so the price is ultimately what separates the best from the rest.
There are several tactics you can employ to find the best deals. One is to price track notebooks you like on Amazon using one of several free websites that offer this service. Read our Amazon bargain hunting guide to learn more.
Another choice is to pick up your local newspaper and view local electronic ads, or view those same ads online (when available). In the United States, for instance, you’ll want to pay attention to ads from Best Buy, Office Depot, Staples, Wal-Mart and other major retailers in your area. Limited-time deals from a specific store often provide the best value. In addition, some retailers (Best Buy in particular) offer “exclusive” laptops with hardware that’s not available anywhere else.
Also take a look at Fat Wallet, the coupon and deals website, to scope out any current online deals that might attract your attention. Fat Wallet does a nice job of rounding up the best offers and includes some more obscure retailers like B&H Photo and even K-Mart.
Be patient if you have the luxury of time. Retailers across the globe offer new deals every week, so there’s no need to settle for what’s on sale this week if none of it strikes your fancy. It’s also a good idea to comparison shop any “deal” to see if it’s actually a bargain. Amazon price trackers are, once again, very helpful.
Consider Used Or Refurbished Hardware
Purchasing a used notebook can be a great way to save money. You won’t receive a warranty or the latest hardware, but you may receive features that you otherwise could not afford.
On eBay, for example, you can find a variety of systems that are several years old and sell for $200 to $500. Some of them have a 1080p display, a quad-core Intel processor or discrete graphics, and in rare cases, all three. You simply can’t obtain the same hardware from a new system without blowing the lid off your budget.
Be sure to read our guide to buying used electronics before purchasing any pre-loved laptop. You can’t entirely eliminate risk, but you can greatly reduce your chance of getting screwed if you know what to look for.
Budget laptops are never perfect machines. You’re going to have to make a sacrifice somewhere. Still, it is possible to buy a competent system that can serve you for years. Let us know how your hunt goes in the comments below.