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Back to school on a budget: Choosing a cheap laptop to fit your needs

Hayden Dingman | Aug. 18, 2015
Bargain back-to-school laptops exist for a reason: Not everybody can afford a $2,000 laptop. Honestly, most people don't even need a $2,000 laptop.

bts
Some people spend more on a single computer than the total cost of these eight budget laptops. Credit: Gordon Mah Ung

Bargain back-to-school laptops exist for a reason: Not everybody can afford a $2,000 laptop. Honestly, most people don't even need a $2,000 laptop.

For this set of reviews, we're looking at the other end of the spectrum--basic laptops that let you work and browse without crippling your budget. We asked a number of the biggest PC manufacturers (HP, Lenovo, Acer, Dell and Toshiba) to send over their best laptops costing $500 and lower. There's no need to point out that we're pitting an Atom-based machine against one with a Core i5. This is about price point, not conformity. If we missed your personal favorite in this tier, let us know and we can try to take a look at it.

Two things we learned:

1) If you can spring for a $750 laptop, do so. We took a look at some laptops in that range also, and the difference is palpable. A $500 laptop is all about trading off one important feature for another. You tend to get one standout feature amidst a bunch of compromises. We've found that $750 laptops are generally more well-rounded.

2) On the other hand, you can get a surprisingly competent laptop for $500. These machines aren't going to make a power user swoon. For basic web browsing, office work, and movie streaming, however, a $500 machine nowadays is a much better proposition than it was ten years ago.

The range of laptops on display here is also pretty interesting. On the high end we've got a handful of fairly traditional (albeit low-end) full-sized laptops with Core i5 processors:

On the low end, we look at three less conventional models, including some Atom-powered miniatures and tablet/PC hybrids:

There's something for pretty much anyone.

The bloatware is free

We also examined what third-party software/bloatware came with each laptop. One way manufacturers push down costs on these low-end machines is by laying out deals with software companies: "We'll put your software on our machine so you get more customers, and in return you subsidize part of the cost of the laptop itself." It's a purely profit-driven practice, and as Lenovo learned last year it can get you in quite a bit of trouble if you're not careful.

 

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