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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.

hppavilion1

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.

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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 Should You Buy A Wireless 802.11ac Router? Should You Buy A Wireless 802.11ac Router? 802.11ac promises blistering speeds, but many consumers are just now getting around to upgrading to 802.11n, leaving many to wonder if the new version is worthwhile. Read More 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 PicMonkey: The Spiritual Successor To Picnik PicMonkey: The Spiritual Successor To Picnik As you probably already know, Picnik’s days are numbered. The popular photo editing website, which was purchased by Google, is going under on April 19th, 2012. Some of the features found in Picnik have made... Read More . Even games are played online, though some can save content to the local disk for quicker load times.

chromebook

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 Everything You Need To Know About Switching To A Chromebook Everything You Need To Know About Switching To A Chromebook Chromebooks run a slimmed-down operating system optimized for getting on the web with just the Chrome browser and Chrome apps. Can you switch to a Chromebook? Read More , 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.

customizelaptop

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 3 Best Amazon Price Watch Trackers For The Bargain Hunter 3 Best Amazon Price Watch Trackers For The Bargain Hunter Read More to learn more.

barginlaptop

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 5 Insider Secrets Of Buying Used Electronics 5 Insider Secrets Of Buying Used Electronics Used electronics can be an amazing deal. You can also end up screwed, though, which is why it's important to know what to look for when buying used electronics. Read More 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.

Conclusion

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.

Image Credit: Intel Free Press Via Flickr, Wikimedia/Kof3

  1. drouche
    August 25, 2014 at 12:25 pm

    I can't afford a computer, so I am looking for a used one if anyone has one to donate, and I need a laptop, If anyone can help please let me know.
    Thanks .

  2. Del
    July 1, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    Hi Just wanna to ask what the model of the HP laptop on the 2nd picture on this article?

  3. willer
    July 1, 2014 at 1:35 am

    199 for a browser like OS... why not get android tablet?

  4. Adam
    July 1, 2014 at 1:06 am

    It's worth noting that it's pretty easy to install Linux on a Chromebook, which solves many some compatibility issues and broadens the scope of the machine. I picked up an HP Chromebook 14 (Intel 2995u, 4gb, 32gb SSD, 4G radio) as a refurb on Woot. An hour after getting it, I was running HL2 and Minecraft in Linux. I love the Chromebook side, it works very well, and stacking that with (an admittedly low-spec) Linux laptop... For $200? I could not be happier with my purchase.

  5. Adrian
    June 30, 2014 at 9:44 pm

    I got a brand new Dell for $179.99 during the Black Friday sale last year. Sure it's a Celeron 1017u CPU, but I'll tell you what: It's more than capable for surfing the web and watching videos.

    It also has Bluetooth, an SD Card slot, a DVD drive and Windows 8.

    Deals are out there. It just depends on whether or not you're willing to look and similarly willing to wait for the deals.

  6. Ed
    June 30, 2014 at 8:29 pm

    No one has pointed out the obvious about chromebooks, if you are not connected a lot of the time they are not for you.

    • Oron J
      July 2, 2014 at 8:46 am

      That's no longer as true as it once was. Many popular ChromeOS apps will now work in offline mode. Ypou would still need to connect from time to time, to sync. Files etc, but you don't need Ro be connected all the time.

  7. Gee Deezy
    June 30, 2014 at 6:57 pm

    Two words: Manufacturer Refurbished! I have bought many MR laptops from both Apple and HP. Both were like factory-new, warranty was great. Price differential was significant, especially with the Apple products.

    I would be careful with "refurbs" or "used" systems that have not been refurbished by the manufacturer - you just better have a lot of faith in the seller before buying.

  8. michael
    June 30, 2014 at 4:52 pm

    For reliability, ex-corporate thinkpads, 3-5 years old are still pretty fast and good value, If its for basic browsing/office/youtube/email/netflix then Chromebooks like the Acer 720 are amazing value, For myself I have gone even further, Bought a used previous generation Samsung intel Chromebook for £60/$100 that is almost as fast as the Acer 720 and has double the ram

  9. Robert B
    June 30, 2014 at 4:42 pm

    One thing most never think of is to purchase a used/refurbished laptop via eBay or similar place. I purchased a Dell m6300 laptop on eBay that though listed as used was a new never used laptop. The Dell Precision laptops are their higher end professional level desktop replacement laptops for professional digital content creators. Most are probably leased by big companies who always buy spares in case something happens to the ones that are issued to employees. This is what I wound up getting, it was listed as a not ready to use laptop, it never had a hard drive installed, and did not have a wi fi card or Bluetooth module installed. The particular laptop I bought had an Intel Core 2 Duo x7900 2.8 gz processor, 4GB ram, and a Nvidia Quadro m3600 gpu with 512 mb of memory and this laptop did not have a mark on it. I installed a 1TB hd that I bought from Newegg.com for $80 and installed Windows 7 Ultimate 64 (all the Vista drivers on the Dell website install on Window 7 without problems) Though it is a 2007/2008 vintage laptop it is a very powerful system and I only paid 200 dollars for it on eBay because most thought there had to be something wrong with the laptop. The seller had pictures posted of several shots of the bios screen so I knew that it would work. If I had ordered this laptop from Dell when it was new it would have cost around $5000. I am an avid gamer with over 200 games on Steam and I can play 95% of them on this laptop, I also work with Photoshop and some video apps and this laptop has no issues running them. The only drawback to any desktop replacement laptop is they have limited battery life due to the powerful processors and GPU's installed. The other thing that is great about this laptop is it is designed to be worked on by the end user and there is a complete guide with color pictures in the Dell PDF manual on how to change/upgrade every part on the laptop with detailed step by step instructions on what you need to do to say remove the processor. There are lots of parts available as well as complete laptops available. I bought the Bluetooth module for $5.00 and an Intel N WiFi module for $12, I even found the high dollar Dell docking station for this laptop that when sold by Dell cost $400 and I bought a new one still sealed in the original Dell box for $25. If you have need of a powerful laptop but cannot afford around $1000 or more for one you might want to consider doing what I did, all told after buying the parts needed and a legal version of Windows 7 I only had $325 invested and it still is working great after almost 2 years of daily use. Oh on a side note this laptop if it has I think a 2.4GZ processor or faster is powerful enough to play high definition video, I have an external Blueray usb writer and I play movies all the time, I also purchased a DVI/HDMI cable and use it as a home theater PC.

  10. Jack
    June 30, 2014 at 4:28 pm

    Just bought a Samsung core i7 1080p display and all the bells and whistles $479.00 swapped out the hard drive for a 128GB solid state. So for $550.00 I've got a great laptop. TigerDirect is my goto source but you have to go to their stores to get the really great deals.

  11. John W
    June 30, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    Right now is an ideal time to buy a laptop. Windows are pushing touchscreens for Win 8.1.
    I've seen (and bought one) hundreds of perfectly powerful new and used Win 7 machines going cheap.#
    Ex corpoarte laptops might be ugly and boring - definately not "ultrabooks" that's for sure, but they do work hard for a long time. You can also do odd things with them like pull out the optical drive and add an extra battery - try that with an Win 8 Acer from Walmart!

  12. Caroline W
    June 30, 2014 at 1:20 am

    I bought an Acer C720 Chromebook recently just as an extra 'gadget' and I have to say, it's really good.... The speed compared to my budget Windows laptop is incredible; so I wouldn't knock it too quickly.

    My low cost laptop on the other hand is on its 4th hard drive failure which means that I can request a new laptop. Having read the tips in this article has been a huge help, so when it does totally die on me, I know what to look out for and avoid.

    I still love Windows and all the software you can get, but my little Chromebook makes certain tasks much easier due to its speed. Hopefully my next Windows laptop will not have any manufacturing faults like the one I have now - thank hell I bought cover for it :-)

  13. Zhong J
    June 29, 2014 at 2:48 pm

    Did any of your staff wrote an article on how to build your own PC? I know if you're just a casual user, buying one from a retail store is cheaper but for gaming, you must build your own unless forking over one grand doesn't bother you at all.

    • Matt S
      June 29, 2014 at 4:31 pm

      We do have a guide for building your own PC: http://www.makeuseof.com/pages/the-guide-build-your-own-pc

    • Kelsey T
      June 29, 2014 at 9:03 pm

      I spent a grand on a homebuilt two years ago last February...and it's STILL blisteringly fast on new games and VERY relevant. I like future-proofing heh heh.
      I didn't plan to spend that much. Wanted to stay around $700. But things, uh, just kept changing :D

  14. Dalsan M
    June 29, 2014 at 5:08 am

    For used and refurbished laptops, desktops, tablets, and more (for the U.S.), I'd check out Cowboom as their prices are quite low, especially if you can find a good laptop during their "laptop deal of the day". I didn't get a laptop (yet), but got an HP desktop with AMD A8-5500 processor, 6GB RAM, 1TB hard drive, built-in wireless "n", USB 3 connection, and DVD/RW drive for $239 + $5 shipping.

    I've seen Intel Core i3 laptops for around $200 or less and AMD A8 laptops for around $250 or less, but you have to catch the deals at the right time. If you feel lucky, you can try out their auctions, where I've seen decent systems going for less than $100.

    Otherwise, check out Slickdeals.net for the latest deals, though with as many users there are now, deals run out quicker than ever.

  15. bardwso
    June 29, 2014 at 2:17 am

    Am a fan of Costco for laptops especially if you do your homework ahead of time and find what you can or cannot live without.

    2 year warranty for the paranoid, square trade warranty for the extension or the clumsy.

    Also take care of it well and you have a chance to resell / trade in and pay it into the next purchase.

  16. Dave Frandin
    June 29, 2014 at 12:19 am

    I suggest to friends that they buy factory-recertifed off-lease laptops, specifically Dell Latitude or Precision laptops. These are 3-year old corporate laptops, that have been returned to Dell after completion of the lease. Dell remanufactures them and sells them for excellent prices.. My current personal laptop I bought last February is a Dell Precision M4400, and came with a Core2Quad processor, 2GB of ram, with a max capacity of 8GB, a 250GB SATA drive, and Win7 Professional. This system sold 3 years ago new for around $1800.. I bought it off the Dell financial services offlease sales website for $200... I'm a retired computer tech who supported Dell systems for the last 10 years..

  17. Howard B
    June 28, 2014 at 11:47 pm

    "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…"

    Nice way to contradict yourself here. If going from 4GB to 6GB doesn't give any benefit, then how does going from 2GB to 4GB benefit you?

    Grab the 6GB if you think you need it...or even 8GB, since 6GB isn't likely to support Dual Channel. It's your budget, spend it where you think you'll get the best benefit.

    • kekes
      June 29, 2014 at 2:00 am

      My Laptop is using right now 2GB with some programs opened, i have 4GB 50% free. If i had 2Gb would be 0% free, thats why, normal usage needs 2GB.

    • Dalsan M
      June 29, 2014 at 5:13 am

      I agree, a Windows system, Vista or higher, does not run very well with only 2GB RAM, but most users would not notice much difference in performance between 4GB and anything higher. There is a fairly big difference in performance between 2GB and 4GB or more of RAM. There isn't any contradiction, just misunderstanding.

    • Matt S
      June 29, 2014 at 7:37 am

      Sorry Howard, you're barking up the wrong tree here.

      All you really need with RAM is something more than the bare minimum. If you're out of RAM, you're in trouble, because you're hitting the hard disk a lot more often (which is slow). But if you're not out, you're golden.

      And it generally isn't important how not out you are. Now, Windows can make use of extra RAM to an extent by caching frequently accessed data, but even that has its limits.

      There are situations where having more than 4GB on a laptop is good, but those situations are generally out of the league of a budget laptop.

  18. myers
    June 28, 2014 at 7:09 pm

    Chrome OS is biggest gimmick. Just get something with Windows on it.

    • Alex D
      June 28, 2014 at 9:16 pm

      I'd argue it's the step in the Netbook evolution. Sure it may not be compatible with everything Windows, but Window's isn't the best product either. For the price you definitely get a great deal.

    • Howard B
      June 28, 2014 at 11:49 pm

      I'd agree, since you can run so much more software on Windows than on the Web: Windows has the largest amount of quality software (although there are lots of open-source programs, like Gimp, that get the job done on Windows *or* Linux).
      To contradict Alex D, "Window's" (sic) *is* the best option, both for business and for gaming.

    • likefunbutnot
      June 28, 2014 at 11:53 pm

      ChromeOS with the addition of Android applications is a very different story from ChromeOS as it is now. ChromeOS + Android is something I might actually USE.

    • likefunbutnot
      June 29, 2014 at 12:01 am

      The single biggest component to shop for right now is a screen with a decent resolution. If you're getting a dual core CPU and 4GB RAM, the next step in the process of budget product elimination is to make sure you're getting at least 800 vertical pixels on your screen. Why? Because there's no fix for not having pixels. A slow laptop can always be improved by the addition of an SSD or a pared-down operating system, but you're stuck with the display the laptop uses forever.

      Personally, I'd recommend a lease returned Thinkpad, Latitude or Elitebook with a Core i CPU over brand new budget models from the usual retail cheapie suspects like Acer for much the same reason that I'd rather have a 3 year old Honda than a brand new Kia.

    • Kelsey T
      June 29, 2014 at 9:00 pm

      Spoken like someone who's never used a Chromebook for any appreciable length of time. So narrow-minded.
      As someone who's owned an Acer C710 since last September, alongside an Acer Aspire Win 7 laptop and an Intel Core i5 8Gb desktop I built myself, I'll just tell you that you're missing out if you don't give a Chromebook a fair try.
      Last night I started up both my CB and my Win 7 Acer, logged into the CB, paid three bills, shut 'er down, and then waited while the Win 7 slug (which, remember, powered on at the same time the CB did) continued clacking away as it prepared for me to do all of the updates that I never have to do on my Chromebook.
      Including the antivirus which I don't need on my Chromebook.
      The Win 7 laptop has twice the RAM and twice the CPU that the CB does, and I keep it as garbage-free and optimized as a Windows machine can be, so it should at least keep up with the Chromebook. Uh-uh. The Windows bloat kills it.
      Actually, the only reason I still keep the thing is because it has a 17" display, but I could simply plug my CB into my big screen tv...it projects at full HD.
      The Chromebook has been so fantastic that I just gave my wife one to upgrade her from a tablet. I bought it refurbed straight from Acer for $140. Less than I spent on the 7" tablet it replaced. She freakin' loves it!
      Newegg recently had the same refurb for $120 + a $20 coupon discount for $100. How could someone not at least TRY it?

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