Everyone wants to get more for less. This is true when it comes to groceries, gaming, 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 situations in which cheap laptops shine and where they fall flat. By the end of this article, you’ll be able to decide whether or not you should shell out the extra cash for a higher-end machine.
What Are You Buying the Laptop For?
i need a new laptop before I return to school, this Toshiba from 2010 isn't gonna cut it.
— jason (@dangitmol) December 15, 2016
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 touchscreen so they can create drawings easily.
Many people who spend the least money possible on a laptop do so because they don’t have the money for something more expensive. Or they might not see a more expensive model as worth the cost.
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.
The Downsides of a Cheap Laptop
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 explore the computer aspects that are commonly sub-par when you buy a cheap laptop. This will help you better 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 1920×1080 while 4K is 4096×2160. A lot of cheap computers display in 1366×768, 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 gets saved. With cheap machines, you can run into two storage problems.
The first is low disk space. While even many cheap laptops now include a solid-state drive (SSD) instead of a hard disk drive (HDD), space is still a concern. The average cheap laptop ships with an SSD as small as 32GB or 64GB drives. After you account for Windows installation files, that’s barely anything for you to use.
If you want to keep lots of programs and files on your system, you” run out of space in no time. You can always purchase an external hard drive (or SD card) to get more space, but that’s an additional cost.
The second big problem occurs if you don’t get an SSD. The traditional HDDs often found in cheap machines are much slower than newer SSDs. 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.
Most cheap laptops on Amazon have 4GB of RAM, which is passable 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, 4GB of RAM isn’t going to cut it.
You can only use so much RAM, but having 8GB or more will give you a lot more breathing room than a basic 4GB 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
This laptop has the loudest, clickiest and worst touchpad of all time. It reverberates around the living room… *TAP CLICK TAP*
— Owen (@owrangle) June 5, 2016
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.
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.
Is a Cheap Laptop Right for You? Considerations
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 laptop 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 as an entertainment hub 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? Worth it—and the same is true of a laptop.
Future-proofing an infrequently used laptop is a waste, but suffering from slow performance on a machine you use every day is counterproductive and will stress you out. Would you rather spend $400 on a laptop that you scrap after a year, or buy a better laptop for $700 that lasts three years?
But if you’re budget-restricted, here are some great cheap laptops to consider. For even cheaper options, check out these $100 laptops.
Best Cheap Gaming Laptop: Acer Aspire E 15
You can spend a fortune on gaming laptops compared to ones for general use, so we’ve raised the price ceiling on “cheap” in this case. But if you want to play games on a budget, you can’t do much better than the Acer Aspire E.
This machine features a big 15.6″ screen with a 1080p resolution. You also get a Core i5 eight-generation processor from Intel, along with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. On the graphics side, this packs a GeForce MX150 with 2GB of video RAM. That’s nothing crazy, but it’s enough to handle modern games at modest graphics settings.
And while it’s a rarity these days, this laptop has easily accessible compartments for you to upgrade the drive and memory, meaning this should serve you well for a while. Remember that you might be able to get a better value by building a cheap gaming PC yourself instead, though.
Best Cheap Laptop for Students: Acer Swift 1
If you’re a student on a budget, the Acer Swift 1 represents a great buy. It’s amazing to find a laptop at this price point with a 1080p screen, but this one packs it into its 13.3″ frame. The machine even features a fingerprint reader for securely locking your account.
On the downside, this computer only has 4GB of RAM and a paltry 64GB storage drive. However, you can buy an SD card to alleviate the former. If you don’t plan to do much with your computer other than check email and use Microsoft Office and don’t want a Chromebook, this should serve you well. It’s under three pounds, which makes it easy to carry around all day.
Best Cheap Chromebook: Acer Chromebook 14
You don’t have to stick with a Windows machine if you want a cheap laptop. Chromebooks provide good value for the money if you’re a light user. The Acer Chromebook 14 one is about as good as Chromebooks come, with a 14″ screen that’s full 1920×1080 resolution. It includes 4GB of RAM and a 32GB SSD, which is standard for a Chromebook.
There’s no SD card slot, so you’ll need to rely on Google Drive cloud storage for additional space. This model also features an all-metal finish, lending it a premium air.
Best Cheap Laptop for General Use: HP 15 Series
For the price, the HP 15 Series is a solid laptop for all-around use. It includes 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD, so you have a decent amount of storage and enough RAM for normal use. It also features an SD card reader if you want to expand the storage.
The screen is a large 15.6 inches, but unfortunately is only 1366×768 resolution (this machine’s only major shortcoming). Elsewhere, you can expect three USB ports (two of them USB 3.1), a number pad on the keyboard, and even a DVD drive if you still need that.
Improving Performance on a Cheap Laptop
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 years is a worthwhile investment.
If your current computer is still hanging on, check out our tips for speeding up an older computer so you can continue saving for a new one.