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With people increasingly working from home, there’s a drastic rise in people needing more laptops at home — you don’t want to share your laptop with other family members. If you’re on a budget, we’ll show you what to look out for when shopping for a cheap device.
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However, in many cases you’ll want the flexibility of Windows, which lets you install anything you want and is familiar territory. There are excellent Windows laptops in the budget category. Laptops made by Acer, Asus, and Lenovo offer great quality even on a budget.
Lower class laptops often come with a “Pentium” (Silver or Gold) processor. These are low-powered processors that run a bit slower. While they might be enough for basic web browsing, doing anything more will end up annoying you. If you can, opt for a Core i3 (or i5 if you can find one in the class) processor or an AMD Ryzen chip from 2020. You’ll easily see this in the specifications or on the sticker.
Do your eyes a treat and get an IPS display instead of a traditional TN display. Why? The answer:
Comparing an ISP display (left) to a traditional TN display (right)
On the left is an IPS display. This technology (“Integrated Plane Switching”) allows for more vibrant colors and crisper images as well as fantastic viewing angles of up to 180 degrees. The older TN-style display looks washed out in comparison. More and more laptops in the budget class offer IPS technology, so make sure you pick one with it and avoid the older ones.
The more pixels on your screen, the sharper images, fonts or movies will appear. When shopping for a new laptop, don’t go below “Full HD” which offers a resolution of 1920 x 1080. It’s also called 1080p.
If it just says “HD” or offers a resolution around 1280 x 800, try to avoid it. The image will appear a lot rougher and more pixelated. Obviously, if you can grab a laptop with an even higher resolution, go for it. Common laptop resolutions are WQHD (2560 x 1440) or even 4K (3840 x 2160), which are usually found on higher-end laptops in the $1000+ price range.
Old-school hard disk drives (HDD) are totally out of fashion: They are still based on mechanical spinning platters and are painfully slow. If you don’t want to wait minutes for Windows to boot up or for your programs to launch, then make sure your laptop comes with an SSD with at least 256 GB. These SSDs are often at least 10 times faster than old school HDDs and last longer as well.
Careful: Some very cheap laptops (usually in the sub-$300 category) come with very small “MMC” drives. These are essentially SD cards put inside laptops and are much slower than a regular SSD. Avoid those unless you’re on a real budget, because performance will be noticeably worse.
Most budget laptops come with 4 GB or more of RAM (random access memory), which is enough for basic browsing. Try to make sure the laptop has 8 GB of RAM or more — otherwise you’ll notice slowdowns. However, if you’re the type that keeps on working with dozens of browser tabs open, or if you’re into gaming or a bit of photo or video editing, then consider opting for 16 GB of RAM.
You want to make sure your laptop comes with a healthy amount of ports: The one at the top offers only a single USB-C port on the right and a SD-card reader — and no classic USB-A port (the one we’re all used to). A mixture of both old and new USB ports are important to be ready for the future (USB-C is faster and more convenient, as you can’t plug anything in the wrong way and it doubles as a charging port) as well as backwards-compatible with the majority of USB devices out there.
In addition, you should make sure it still comes with an HDMI port so you don’t need to mess around with an adapter when trying to connect it to a projector or TV. Note: Many modern displays can also be hooked up with USB-C.
In the $500 category, you probably won’t find a laptop capable enough of smoothly running any modern games. On such systems, the processor usually integrates a small “graphics processor” called Intel HD graphics (on Intel laptops) or APU (Ryzen).
If you want to game, you need to spend a bit more and get a more powerful graphics chip, such as an AMD Radeon or (even better) a dedicated Nvidia GeForce graphics processor. To be able to play modern games smoothly, you need at least a GeForce 1650 in your laptop.
Gamers will want to look into building their own gaming PC anyways, or get a laptop with a 2060 or 3060 GPU at the very least to play modern games in high quality.