Low cost computers have limitations and so they are not suitable for everyone. However, with the right components you can get a laptop for very little money that can do most everyday tasks such as email, web browsing, office applications, education apps and more.
One of the reasons why many people like Windows laptops compared to MacBooks is the price and they can be bought for a fraction of what you would pay at an Apple Store. There is also a huge variety of hardware configurations, with different processors, screen sizes, disk types and capacities, and so on.
The variety and choice of hardware is a bonus, but it is also a drawback and it can be confusing trying to work out what to buy. What should you look for in a Windows laptop and which components are best?
Avoid the bottom of the market
There are some very cheap Windows laptops and they might look attractive because of the price, but there is always a reason why they are cheap. They often use low powered processors, have small disk storage, provide limited memory, and screen sizes.
Don’t choose an ultra cheap laptop unless you realise how limited they are and know what you are doing. Just above the market bottom are some useful laptops that are fine for many people.
Make sure it comes with Windows. Browse the Dell website for example, and you will find a really cheap laptop that comes with Linux. This has its uses, but for most people Windows is more familiar and easier to use.
How much memory do you need?
Windows 10 will install and run in 2GB of memory. However, it will run very poorly and lack of memory will drive you nuts if you try to open more than one application at a time.
The absolute worst combination of hardware components is 2GB of memory with an old style mechanical disk drive. The next worst hardware setup is 4GB of RAM with an HDD. Open half a dozen tabs in Chrome when browsing the web and the computer will slow to a crawl. A memory bug can cause Chrome to use 2GB on a single tab and the computer freezes.
It is therefore recommended that you have more than 4GB of memory. many laptops at the cheap end of the market come with 4GB, but if you can afford it, get at least 6GB and preferably 8GB.
Laptops with 8GB are not the cheapest, but you can still find fairly cheap models with this amount of memory. It is probably the single most important component. Laptops on display often only have 4GB because it makes the price look super cheap, but 8GB might be an option when ordering it, so check. Paying a bit more for a decent amount of memory makes a huge difference to the performance.
You might see memory speed quoted, such as 1600MHz or 2400MHz. Higher numbers mean faster memory.
Disk type and capacity
Most laptops at the budget end of the market have old style mechanical disk drives. The reason is that they are cheap and have a large capacity. Most are at least 500GB and some are larger, even as much as 1TB.
This is more disk space than most people need and the only way you will fill it is if you store a lot of raw video and audio. Disk space is not usually a concern with a hard disk, even with a small budget.
At the top end of the budget laptop market you just start to see models with SSDs (solid state drives). They are not cheap, but they have a massive speed advantage over HDDs (hard disk drives) and the performance of the computer will be far superior. It will start up faster, sleep and wake faster, and run faster.
As you open more applications, laptops with HDDs can slow down to a crawl, but those with SSDs maintain their speed much better. If you can afford it, buy a laptop with an SSD.
SSDs in low cost computers can be quite small, so avoid them if they are less than 128GB. Many people will struggle even with 128GB of storage, so 256GB is recommended as the minimum if you want an SSD.
In addition to being faster, SSDs use less power, which makes them more suitable for laptops running on batteries.
Which processor is best?
The processor in the computer used to be the most important component, but these days it is not. An SSD and amount of RAM affects the performance more than any other components. Focus on getting an SSD and 8GB of RAM more than getting a powerful processor because they will affect the performance more.
There are dozens of CPUs and quite possibly more than 100! It would be impossible to list them all and it is even harder to compare one model to another.
In an effort to make choosing your laptop as simple as possible, here is a very simple guide. It is not perfect and experts can no doubt point out excepts, but as a general rule of thumb:
- Intel processors are usually better than AMD
- Intel Core i7 > Core i5 > Core i3
- Core i3 is better than others, like Celeron, Pentium
- Higher generation numbers are usually better
So a laptop with a Core i5 is better than one with a Core i3, and 7th generation Core i3 is better than a 6th generation Core i3.
This is greatly simplified, but unless you want to Google every CPU you see and read tech specs till your brain hurts, the rules are good enough.
Touch screens and 2-in-1 laptops
Touch screens work so well on phones and tablets that someone had the bright idea of putting them into laptops. However, touch does not work well with a traditional clamshell laptop. It does not feel right because the screen wobbles when it is touched.
Some laptops are hybrids and can work like tablets. The screen may fold over like an upturned V or even flat against the keyboard. Some are even detachable. These are better suited for touch because they are more stable or can be held in your hand.
At the bottom end of the market the specifications are very limited and the devices are often more tablet than laptop. Top end models like the Microsoft Surface are great, but cheap ones are not so good, so avoid them unless they have the right specifications - RAM, disk space, CPU and so on.
Get a big battery
Low priced laptops generally have low power batteries, so you won’t get all-day use from them. Good batteries are expensive and so they are usually only found in the most expensive laptops. Here is a rough guide:
- The more cells there, the longer the battery will last
- The higher the WHr number, the longer the battery will last
Get a battery greater than 50 WHr if you need to work for very long periods away from mains power. You may not find a budget laptop with one though. Around 40 - 50 WHr will give good battery life, but less than 40 Whr might not last long. However, it does depend on the laptop’s specification and it could last 4 or 5 hours with a battery just over 40 WHr.
Most budget laptops have integrated graphics, which usually means Intel powered chips, but sometimes AMD and Nvidia are used too.
When comparing the graphics capabilities, higher model numbers are better, so Intel HD Graphics 6000 is better than 5000, and better than 4000.
You can’t choose the graphics card, but by comparing the graphic card model numbers between laptops, you can see which has the more powerful graphics.
Get USB 3 ports
Devices like external USB drives run up to 10 times faster on USB 3 sockets than they do on USB 2 sockets. You therefore want the laptop to have at least one and preferably more USB 3 sockets.
If there is only one USB 3 socket then a USB hub can be used to add more sockets and devices. It is inconvenient, but it will work fine. It makes it simpler if there are several USB 3 sockets because then you don’t need a USB hub.
Check the laptop’s specifications and choose a model with several USB 3 sockets if possible.