$100 — a Benjamin gets you bottom-of-the-barrel hardware with enough horsepower to cover basic computing tasks.
But don’t expect anything approaching quality. A lot got shaved off the top to hit that psychological price-point of $100. But if you know what to expect, and what’s worth buying, $100 can seriously go a long way.
What Can I Expect From a $100 Laptop?
Expect disposability, portability, and basic functionality. Don’t expect quality and performance.
Look at it this way: 90% of computer users don’t do much more than browse the web, crank out papers or emails, or listen to music — stuff even a smartphone can do. Why spend $600 on a device (such as the Dell XPS 13 pictured below) if you’re only going to use it for penny-ante tasks?
Those looking to save a buck on a laptop need to choose two things properly: the operating system and the size of the device. In the $100 price range, all other components are virtually standardized.
What Operating System Do I Need?
Ultra-cheap laptops come with one of three different operating systems: Android, Windows 10, and ChromeOS. Like all OSes, each possesses limitations. But the most important thing to watch out for? Some software simply won’t run on a $100 system.
So, for example, that means if you need iTunes, then a ChromeOS laptop (also known as a Chromebook) isn’t the right device for you. Here’s a quick primer on each system:
- Windows 10 — Runs all desktop programs but with less speed than either a Chromebook or Android device. For this reason, Windows 10 devices virtually require at least 2 GB of RAM. You’ll often see devices equipped with 1 GB, which you should avoid at all costs.
- Android — Runs apps designed for a mobile interface. Most Windows apps have an Android counterpart, but a few do not.
- ChromeOS — Runs 90% of the stuff you’d find on Windows 10, but that 10% can be a deal-breaker. On top of its limited ability to execute programs, Chromebooks cost around $50 more than Windows 10 or Android devices.
- Linux — Few retailers carry Linux-equipped laptops. Fortunately, most Windows 10 and ChromeOS systems can install Linux, the open source operating system.
What Size Should I Get?
With an OS in mind, you need to pick a size (AKA form factor). The size, measured in inches, refers to the diagonal distance between the top and bottom corners of the screen. Smaller screens usually cost less while larger screens offer better visibility.
In the $100 price range, resolutions are almost universally 1280 x 800 pixels, which barely classifies as high definition. The format is usable on 7-inch, 8.9-inch, and even 10-inch screens, but everything will appear slightly fuzzier and with less detail than more expensive devices.
All laptops selling for $100 and under come in these three sizes: 7-inch, 8.9-inch, and 10.1-inch form factors (which we often refer to as netbooks). Generally speaking, you want to stay away from 7-inch tablet-laptops (also known as laplets) because 7-incher keyboards are uncomfortably small.
However, a properly designed keyboard for 8.9-inch and 10.1-inch screens won’t impact your typing speeds too much — even so, those with large hands should stay away. It’s not until you reach the $150 price point that screens reach the 11.6-inch form factor, which is suitable for most users.
My recommendation is to use either 10.1-inch or 11.6-inch devices. They strike the sweet spot between usable and portable.
Which Laptops Are Worth Buying?
Three companies dominate the low-end market for Android and Windows 10 devices: Ematic, E-Fun, and RCA. A few other “manufacturers” exist as well, such as Vulcan. You often see devices from these brands on shelves at department stores. In general, they provide barebones functionality and low cost — ideal for brick-and-mortar stores trying to foist impulse buys off on consumers.
Out of this sorry bunch, the best company is RCA based on their one-year parts and labor (but not shipping) warranty and low prices. Unlike some other brands, RCA offers a functional website, telephone number, and email contact for support questions. Even so, I advise looking at your credit card’s extended warranty policy — chances are, your credit card will double the length of the manufacturer’s warranty.
Before you buy anything, consider RCA’s history. There’s more to the RCA branding than meets the eye. RCA (once known as Radio Corporation of America) went belly up in 1986. A French company called Technicolor SA purchased the RCA trademark. But it appears Technicolor SA does not design or build their tablets — which means they almost assuredly use a Chinese white label manufacturer.
A white label manufacturer allows companies like RCA to slap their branding on what’s essentially a no-name product. I couldn’t verify whether or not RCA uses a white label and RCA didn’t respond to requests for comment. If they do use a white label manufacturer, chances are you can find the device for even less than what RCA charges.
Best $100 Windows 10 Laplet: RCA Cambio 10.1 Tablet (CA)
It’s decidedly mediocre, yet no superior Windows 10 device exists at this price. The RCA Cambio 10.1-inch 2-in-1 convertible tablet offers the flexibility of a tablet combined with the functionality of a laptop.
With its maximum six hours of battery life and touchscreen, it’s similar to other hybrid devices like the Microsoft Surface 3 (CA/UK). In fact, other than a much lower resolution 1280 x 768 twisted-nematic (TN) display, its internal specs are very similar to Microsoft’s $530 (with keyboard) Surface 3.
The handful of websites that even bothered to review the Cambio all rank it somewhere in the ballpark of three-out-of-five stars. The major pitfall to watch out for is its tiny amount of storage capacity (around 32 GB of which the OS consumes 15 GB). Users can expand the storage by adding a microSD card — microSD cards are awesome, by the way.
And here’s a review of the 11.6-inch variant of the Cambio:
Best $100 Android Laplet: RCA Viking Pro 10 (CA)
The lowest priced Android laplet you can get away with is the RCA Viking Pro 10. It includes a keyboard, a 1280 x 768 TN screen, and mediocre specs. While the specs appear anemic compared to its Windows counterparts, on Android the Viking should run apps fluidly. Overall, it’s a solid device for handling basic computing tasks, such as email, word processing, basic photo editing, music, and more.
Most reviewers stayed far away from the Viking Pro, mainly on account of its weak specifications. Even so, the Viking Pro is reported to offer snappiness and portability. But unlike many of its competitors, it includes a modern version of Android (Lollipop). Don’t expect any software updates, by the way.
Here’s a review of the Viking Pro 10:
Best $150 Chromebook: It’s Complicated
Chromebooks do not sell for $100 — the lowest suggested retail price hovers around $150. Chromebooks offer immunity to malware and come without manufacturer-included bloatware. On top of that, Chromebooks are almost universally snappy, reliable, and offer long battery life. On the downside, they won’t run Windows applications. At the $150 price point, there’s another drawback: no big brand names exist.
To the extent of my knowledge, there’s only a single white label fabrication facility which supplies different manufacturers. A few examples: Hisense, Haier, and Poin2 (and probably a few others). As you can see from the screenshot below, Haier, Hisense, and Poin2 all appear to sell an identical Chromebook but with different branding.
Even though it’s produced by a white label manufacturer, the Haier/Poin2/Hisense Chromebook received excellent reviews on account of its excellent value and good performance. Here’s a video review:
Buy Now — Amazon
Should You Buy a $100 Laptop?
Most reviewers rely on a perverse logic to make product recommendations: for $50 more you can get a better device. That’s always true up until you hit thousands of dollars. For those of you looking to save some money, you absolutely can get away with a $100 or $150 device, provided your needs are modest — but for those looking for a powerful PC, you will need to spend at least $500. If you’re planning a vacation, a disposable laplet might offer a better solution.
What’s the cheapest laptop you’ve ever bought? What were your experiences?
Image Credits: Green Apple/Shutterstock