How to Buy a Budget Laptop in 7 Easy Steps

How to Buy a Budget Laptop in 7 Easy Steps

Published on: 04-07-2016 | by Misty in laptops

Jeff Dunn writes this guide to buying a budget laptop for Tech Insider.

Buying a cheap laptop is hard. You get dozens of options, hardly any of them are ever advertised, and you're flooded with a barrage of details that aren't always easy to understand. If you’ve only got, say, $450-600 to spend, you’re walking into the tech equivalent of a minefield.

Sometimes, though, you’ve got no choice. So to help you ensure nothing blows up, we’ve put together a few quick pointers to walk you through this delicate process.

Step 1: Don’t do it if you don't have to.

I know, I know. Still, just to make it perfectly clear: A laptop is worth investing in. You’re going to use it to do important things, and it’s going to be put under stress, both internally and externally. The only way to ensure it handles its responsibilities well, unfortunately, is to pay up. (Ex: You can’t even get a MacBook without approaching $1,000.)

So if you can afford something good, buy something good. When it’s still serving you well years down the road, the upfront cost should be worth it.

Step 2: Consider a Chromebook.

Okay, so you’re absolutely sure you have to stick to a budget. The next question you have to ask yourself is, “What will I use this thing for?” If you want to run Photoshop, Excel, or certain modern games (poorly), you can head to step three.

If you’re mostly in this for web browsing and casual entertainment, you might be perfectly fine with a Chromebook. At their best, these Google-run machines are faster, better built, and cheaper than their affordable Windows counterparts.

Now, that’s mostly because their operating system, Chrome OS, is basically a stretched out version of the Google Chrome browser. In other words, they can only really do the things you’d do online, through the web. This lowers production costs.

For many people, that’ll be fine — Facebook, email, and word processing are all totally doable in Chrome. By the end of the year, though, several Chromebooks will also gain the ability to run thousands of Android mobile apps.

That won’t be a seamless transition, but it’ll fill in many of the OS’s current gaps, like photo editing and working offline. In fact, if everything goes well, there’s a good chance I’ll have to revise this guide come September.

The only problem for now, though, is that Android apps still work best with a touchscreen, and not many good cheap Chromebooks have that. The best of the bunch is probably Dell’s Chromebook 13, but that goes for a relatively pricey $430. If you can live without touch, though, the Acer Chromebook 13 is a solid alternative.

Also, if you’re really just web browsing, you may be fine with a tablet. I’m assuming you understand that those are different types of devices, though.

Step 3: Know that you’re making compromises somewhere.

Alright, you understand the caveats, and you’ve decided that only a full-fledged Windows machine will be enough for work, school, or whatever. Now, it’s time to set your expectations appropriately.

Cheap Windows laptops are all about compromises. If it’s fast — and it’s never too fast— it’s probably got a meager battery. If its display is nice, it’s probably got something wrong with its keyboard. Very few of them are thin, light, or small —14- or 15-inch displays are the norm on what’s competent — and many of them are saddled with pre-installed “bloatware” that you’re unlikely to ever use. (More on that later.)

It’s unfortunate, but companies don’t make laptops for charity. You’ve got to say goodbye to good, and look out for good enough.

Step 4: Look for these specs.

Excited yet? Well, now that you’re nice and angry about being boxed in, let’s go through the features you should look for to make your purchase as painless as possible.

  • First, you’ll usually find displays with a resolution of 1366x768. That’s not sharp by modern standards, and will make it harder to fit multiple windows of info onscreen. If you can find it, a 1920x1080 (or, “1080p”) panel will be much more pleasing. Don’t worry about going higher than that.

  • If possible, get what’s called an IPS display, instead of a TN one. Those are generally more colorful and easier to read at wider angles, but, of course, they’re not as easy to find for cheap. I generally prefer “matte” panels to “glossy” ones too, as they hold up better in sunlight.

  • Also, don’t fret over a touchscreen. Windows 10 is perfectly usable without one, and any cheap touch-enabled devices are usually more compromised elsewhere than usual. It’s hard to find many good “2-in-1” machines in this range.

  • Moving to the internals, aim for an Intel Core i5 processor. Without getting too technical, that should be strong enough to do most of what you need to do. If you have no plans to game, a Core i3 is okay too. Intel refreshes these yearly, so look for a current, “6th-gen” chip to keep yourself as future-proofed as possible.

  • The amount of RAM you have is crucial to making your whole experience smooth. Here, you want 8GB if possible, or 6GB if the rest of the machine doesn’t have any deal-breaking flaws. Don’t settle for 4GB.

  • As for storage: You’re not going to get many solid-state drives (or, “SSD”) for cheap, so try to make the most of your slower, beefier hard disk drive (HDD). 500GB is the norm, so if you can go higher, great. Ideally, your machine would let you upgrade to an SSD if you ever find the cash down the road.

  • Dedicated graphics processors, or GPUs, are rare, so if you see any Nvidia GeForce unit in your machine, consider it a bonus. Those are only really tenable for those who want to play games anyway.

  • Battery life is mostly about what you can live with. Just know that companies tend to overstate their projections.

  • It’s a similar deal with ports and connectivity. You’ll want to ensure your device supports the fastest 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard, if nothing else. It probably wouldn’t hurt to have a few USB 3.0 ports on there, either.

Phew. Again, you’ll have a hard time finding an affordable laptop that hits all of these points, but Acer’s Aspire E5-574G-52QU looks to come close. It’s not svelte, but for $520, it checks off the display, CPU, RAM, storage, and Wi-Fi boxes admirably, and it has a solid GPU for the occasional game.

Step 5: Try to get a clean version of Windows.

My colleague Tony Villas-Boas has noted this before, but if you can, look into buying your laptop directly from Microsoft. Not because you’re feeling nostalgic about the Zune, but because the “Signature Edition” models they sell come with a completely clean version of Windows 10. That means no bloatware, which means you have less unwanted programs hogging up your memory and storage space.

Step 6: Get used to things disappearing.

In addition to being remarkably unremarkable, cheap laptops are frequently dropped and refreshed by their predecessors, often out of nowhere. This doesn’t mean you should rush to jump on a seemingly good deal; it’s just something to keep in mind as you’re looking around.

Step 7: Research and try before you buy.

All of these tips should make you more confident in your search, but at the end of the day, your laptop is your laptop. Especially with these riskier bets, you should be voracious about finding user feedback on the web, and getting your own hands on your machine if at all possible. (It's the only way to get a feel for that trackpad and keyboard anyways.) Take advantage of those return policies. Do what research you can, and hopefully, your investment won’t go to waste.

Formitize – making paperwork paperless.

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