As we start gearing up for the holiday shopping season, it’s the perfect time to learn how to shop for a cheap laptop. I don’t mean cheap in the pejorative sense: What I mean is an inexpensive laptop that performs well and offers good overall value, despite the low cost. Colloquially, people say “cheap”, so let’s talk about it.
I’ll spend less time talking about individual makes and models because, especially at the low end, they’re constantly changing — a situation exacerbated by ongoing supply chain issues that keep inventory out of stores. The default choice for many people is Apple’s MacBook Air, but at $999 for the older M1 model and $1,199 for the newer M2 model, it’s out of reach for many budget shoppers. You can read more about the MacBook Air and our other.
What defines a budget laptop?
We were using $500 as the cutoff point for a budget laptop. But over time, laptops available for under $500 started to look grossly inadequate. I’d say a budget laptop is unofficially something under $700 right now. For $500 or less, your options will be very limited, and frankly, there’s a good chance you won’t be completely happy with the experience.
Give yourself some breathing room, closer to $700, and the possibilities open up. Do this and it’s much easier to get something that will last a long time and that you’ll be happy with. There are exceptions: Even if you spend, you’re good. A recent example I liked is the .
Should I just get a Chromebook?
Probably., which is a laptop running Google’s Chrome OS. This has traditionally been the Chrome web browser and a few plugins, but Chrome OS now also includes the ability to run Android apps from the Google Play Store, Linux software, and .
Most of what you do on a laptop – email, web browsing, video streaming, social media, shopping – is usually done through the browser. And if you want to spend under $500, you’ll end up with a better machine that’s more responsive than a budget Windows laptop for the same price.
Why wouldn’t you want a Chromebook? Maybe you have some special Windows-only software for work or school that needs to be installed locally on the laptop. I could say the same thing about programs like Photoshop or video games, but if you’re buying a $500 laptop, it’s probably not what you want.
What specs should I look for?
Right around $500 or a little under, it will be pretty bare bones. Generally stick with it until you find a decent CPU. Intel is up to the 12th generation of Core chips now, so ideally, you want one of the previous two generations, otherwise you’re old stock.
You’ll probably have to go over the $500 mark, but I’d default to an Intel Core i5. At under $500, it’s hard to beat the cheapest Core i3 version. Generally, skip anything with an Intel Pentium, Celeron, Atom or M3 chip. On the AMD side, look for an AMD Ryzen 4000-series chip Instead an AMD Athlon. Chipmakers launch new chip models at least once a year, if not more, and this is my personal tip for spring 2022 big shots.
Running Windows 11, you really want 16GB of RAM, but that’s also going to be hard to come by until you hit $700 or so. Again, I say save the money and get that Core i5/16GB laptop that will perform better and last longer. If you can’t, get at least 8GB of RAM. And if you downsize, look for a laptop that lets you jump in and add more RAM down the road. (Many low-end laptops and gaming laptops allow you to do this.) If the laptop’s memory is listed as “onboard,” it’s more likely to be stuck. you won’t be able to add more later.
I’m not a stickler for storage. Most people store everything in the cloud anyway. Get a solid state drive (SSD), not a spinning platter (HDD). Size-wise, the 256GB capacity is great, and 512GB would be better, but hard to find. Only settle for 128GB if you really have to or really use cloud storage primarily. But I’d go for more RAM over larger storage if that’s what it comes down to. Like RAM, budget laptops can sometimes be opened up so you can swap in a larger drive later if needed.
What should I avoid in a budget laptop?
Be on the lookout for doorbuster holiday deals that sound too good to be true. They are usually old stock and underpowered. A $200 Black Friday laptop might wear out its welcome by Cyber Monday.
Displays are usually where PC manufacturers cut costs on cheap laptops. Look for a screen resolution of 1,920×1,080, also known as Full HD. I’ve already talked about what CPUs to look for, but I’d also skip anything that’s a low-power ARM processor… unless it’s in a Chromebook. I could be talked into a laptop with a Qualcomm Snapdragon chip, but those are usually for laptops with always-on mobile data connections and will be more expensive.
If you are shopping from the Amazon or Walmart websites, check who is actually selling the laptop. Is Amazon or Walmart or some other seller just using them as a shopping platform? My advice: Stick with electronics sold directly by Amazon or Walmart.
When is the best time to buy a cheap laptop?
I love holiday deals like Prime Day or Black Friday, but you have to look very carefully at the deals as some stores like to pull old junk out of the warehouse. However, there are still some great deals to be found, especially as you approach the $500-$700 range.
Back-to-school season is also a hot season for laptops as everyone prepares for the fall semester. There are fewer faux doorbusters, but again, make sure you check how old the laptop being sold is and what parts are inside. For a Chromebook, be sure to check the automatic update expiration (AUE) date, after which it may not receive operating system updates from Google.
And if you’re worried that whatever you buy might soon be replaced by a new model, I usually advise people not to worry about it. Unless a brand new version is released within the next few weeks (and new PCs are generally announced in advance, weeks before they go on sale), go with what works best for you and your budget. Every tech device is going to be replaced or retired eventually, so spend less time worrying about it and more time using your new laptop.
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The best laptops in every category
Originally published on May 23, 2022.