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.