What to make of this Black Friday’s sub-$200 laptops

It’s still a couple of weeks off, but we already know two retailers will be offering sub-$200 laptops on the day the United States gorges itself on bargains.

The question is, what do you get for your $200 on these minimalist laptops? I’ll answer those questions, then you can decide whether they’re worth $200 and braving the crowds, the weird hours, and likely the cold. (Yes, there are costs beyond the money you spend.)

Wal-Mart and Best Buy are dueling with a Compaq Presario CQ58 and a Lenovo G585, priced at $179 and $188, respectively. Both are basically glorified netbooks, with AMD netbook-class CPUs running at 1.3 or 1.4 GHz in a full-size laptop package, so they offer 15-inch 720p screens and full laptop keyboards.

The rest of the machine is fairly minimalist too: 2 GB of RAM–possibly expandable to 8 GB, and most likely expandable at least to 4 GB, but I can’t verify that presently–and a 320GB conventional HDD.

This is an assumption, but based on experience with Black Friday computers of ages past, most likely these laptops are built with low-bidder components. Don’t expect one of these laptops to give you five years’ of trouble-free service or anything. Odds are it will survive the warranty period and perhaps a year or two beyond that–these machines are highly integrated so there aren’t a lot of parts inside to break–but these are products designed primarily to hit a price point, not the highest standards of quality.

So what can they do?

I haven’t used either of these exact machines, but similar machines have been available most of the year for between $229 and $299, and I have used one of those.

For web surfing, e-mail, and watching videos, they’ll be just fine. I don’t expect Microsoft Office 2010 to run well on them, though older versions of Office probably would be OK. Wordperfect Office and Libre Office probably are OK. CPU- and graphics-heavy games will struggle.

So what would I do with one of these, as someone with a history of getting the most out of underachieving machines?

I’d format the hard drive and install a clean copy of Windows on it. It’s unclear whether these come with Windows 7 or Windows 8, but at this price point, you can expect tons of trialware and other bloatware. Better to just start over with a clean Windows install, then add Microsoft Security Essentials and go from there. I’ve covered the process of installing Windows 7 without a disc before; Windows 8 is a bit different and I’ll cover that later.

I would upgrade the memory just as soon as the machines’ memory capacity comes to light. It’s possible they left out the second SODIMM socket to save a dime, so 4 GB may be the maximum. Still, a 4 GB SODIMM costs $20, and it’s best to buy memory when it’s cheap.

And of course I’d drop in an SSD. A $100 SSD would do wonders for the machine’s performance, since the hard drive is undoubtedly the slowest, cheapest drive the manufacturer could source. Any SSD is going to be an improvement over that.

So that $180 laptop would be a $300 laptop by the time I was done with it. But you can do the upgrades in stages, and as long as you’re using the laptop for the kinds of things you’d do on a tablet, rather than a desktop PC, it would be up to the job.

I wouldn’t buy one, myself. I could buy a similar machine at Micro Center for $240 with no hassle, bring it home today, know exactly what I was getting in terms of upgradability and operating system, and know that the store will stand behind it.

But if it’s what you can afford, and you’re willing to live with its limitations and the difficulty of getting one, these machines have some potential upside.

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4 thoughts on “What to make of this Black Friday’s sub-$200 laptops

  • November 21, 2012 at 9:12 pm

    I’m posting a relevant direct quote of someone else’s post on a forum you prefer not to frequent:

    “rick says:
    21 November 2012 at 12:48

    I am playing with a $200 Linux laptop I received Monday. Google sells the Acer Chromebook C7 for $200 (plus shipping). Best Buy is also supposed to sell it. It has a dual core Intel Celeron Sandy Bridge architecture processor, 2 gb of RAM, a 320 GB hard drive, both wired and wireless Ethernet, 3 USB ports, an HDMI port, a VGA port, an SD Card reader and an 11.6” screen. Not bad hardware specs for $200. There is already a Linux distribution tailored for it, Chrubuntu. (see http://liliputing.com/2012/11/how-to-install-ubuntu-12-04-on-the-199-acer-c7-chromebook.html) Chrubuntu installs over the wire.

    The hardware is nice, especially for the price. It is light (about 3 lbs) and its battery is smaller than I’d like, but, all in all, a bargain.

    The Chromebook C7 is at http://www.google.com/intl/en/chrome/devices/landing-acer.html#utm_campaign=en&utm_source=en-ha-na-us-bkws&utm_medium=ha

    Best Buy will supposedly sell it, but they don’t show it in stock. Right now they show free shipping, which would make it cheaper than buying from Google, but any sales tax might make a difference. (No sales tax here in Oregon) I ordered mine from Google on November 12, the day it was announced, and it arrived on November 19. Google charged about $14 for second day shipping.

  • November 22, 2012 at 8:27 am

    That is good hardware for $200. The difference is you’re only paying for the hardware. With a sub-$200 Windows box, you’re getting $110 worth of hardware and a Windows license.

  • November 23, 2012 at 2:21 am

    Heck, even what it comes with would work; but when you get a clean operating system (Chrubuntu), Libre Office, and put the latest Firefox up, it does all most people would need at no extra cost. Heck, Office 97 still does everything I need except browsing.

    • November 28, 2012 at 3:20 pm

      Agreed on all counts, though I found Office 97 didn’t hold up all that well under my workload. It crashed a lot while I was writing my book. Office 2000 held up under similar conditions when I was writing my aborted second book. I didn’t use Office XP long enough to come to a conclusion about it. I think Office 2003 is the best version of Office that Microsoft ever made, and probably ever will.

      I also think Office 95 was underrated. It was designed to run well on a 486, so it was awfully nice on marginal machines. From time to time I used it even after Office 2000 came out.

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