So the sales fliers for the 2014 Christmas shopping season are out, and I’m seeing tons of cheap laptops. If you only have $200 to spend, they have something for you.
Some of them look like they’re even worth having. Yes, I’m shocked too. Here’s how to figure out which ones are worth taking home, and which ones are best left for some other sucker. Whether you’re shopping for yourself or someone else, you’ll probably want to keep the following in mind.
Memory expandability. Many of these laptops come with 2 GB or 4 GB of RAM and they can’t be expanded any further. Look for one that’s expandable to 8 GB. You’ll probably have to replace whatever memory is in there with an 8 GB SODIMM, because at this price point you only get one SODIMM slot, but you want the option. Acer looks like the winner here–most of the Acer laptops I’ve looked at can take 8 GB of RAM, but be sure to verify. Think about buying the memory upgrade next year.
I actually care more about how far I can expand the memory than how much it comes with initially.
CPU. The cheapest of the cheap have low-end Intel Atom or AMD CPUs in them. But I’ve seen Intel Pentium-based laptops with 4 cores for as little as $230, and Core i3-based laptops for $250. So if I could get something that could take 8 GB of RAM and had 4 CPU cores, I’d be pretty happy. I’d rather have one of those than have an Atom or low-end AMD laptop, even if the bargain-basement system only cost me $175.
Given the choice between a Core i3 with 4 GB of RAM and a Pentium with 8 GB, I’d probably step down to a Pentium. For that matter, I might even step down to a 2-core Celeron in order to have 8 GB of RAM. Celerons expandable to 8 GB of RAM are a bit of an odd bird, but they exist this year. The Core i3’s advantage is that it can run Bromium, but consumers can’t buy Bromium now, if they ever will be able to.
I have nothing against AMD, but its laptop CPUs have a hard time competing with Intel right now.
Operating system. In this price range, your choices are Chrome OS and Windows 8.1 with Bing, unless you buy a refurb with Windows 7. If you’re just going to be doing web surfing and e-mail, a Chromebook might be just fine, so don’t rule that out. I’m no fan of Windows 8.1 but Windows 10 isn’t out yet. Will I be upgrading when it does come out? You bet. Or, if I buy one of these machines, I may just run Linux on it.
Hard drive. At this price point, it’s going to be slow and small and terrible. Don’t worry about it, and budget for an SSD upgrade next year.
Brand. At this price point I have a hard time believing brand will make any difference–the same contract manufacturer is probably making just about everything at this price, using pretty much the same parts. Most of the Acer laptops I’ve seen are expandable to 8 GB of RAM and I’m not seeing that from any of the other manufacturers. (Keep in mind Acer also owns Gateway and Emachines, so you may find one of those brands.) But if you find everything you’re looking for from another manufacturer, go for it.
Long-term outlook. A 4-core CPU teamed up with 8 GB of RAM and an SSD will be useful for a very long time, and you’ll have perhaps $400 in it when you’re all said and done–around $230 for the laptop, $70-$120 for the SSD upgrade and $80 for the memory upgrade. I can’t guarantee that something that started out as a $230 computer will run for 5 years, but if it does, it won’t drive you nuts while it’s doing it.