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Cheap Laptops

What to know before you buy cheap laptops.

While the hardware of cheap laptops often leave a lot to be desired, the price is hard to argue with. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
While the hardware of cheap laptops often leave a lot to be desired, the price is hard to argue with.

As need for portability increases and consumer electronics drop in price, cheap laptops become more attractive to prospective computer buyers. According to the CNET Laptop Buyers Guide, subnotebooks (or Netbooks) -- less powerful versions of more expensive ultraportables -- can be purchased for $500 or less. Cheap laptops also include budget priced mid-size notebooks, refurbished computers and used computers bought directly from the previous owner or through an online intermediary such as Craigslist or eBay.

Advantages and Drawbacks of Cheap Laptops

While subnotebooks have the portability of their ultraportable big brothers, they usually offer cramped keyboards, low-power processors and 9- or 10-inch screens. They are good second computers for Web surfing, checking e-mail and processing office documents, but they are not suited for significant multimedia use.

Budget priced mid-size laptops are intended as all-around machines, but the attractive budget price usually infers the exclusion of available add-ons which could otherwise improve the laptop's performance. Cheaper mid-size laptops may suffer from poor battery life and, at six to eight pounds, may be too heavy for regular travel. However, mid-size laptops do offer roomier keyboards and more readable 14- or 15-inch screens than subnotebooks.

Refurbished laptops are used computers and demonstrator models reconditioned by having any defective components replaced. These laptops come either factory direct from name-brand manufacturers or from online discount houses. While they seldom offer the latest technology, their functionality is comparable to budget-priced new machines. Moreover, warranties of refurbished laptops often run for only 90 days instead of the full year offered with the purchase of a new machine, and some resellers may offer substandard after-sale service.

Pre-owned laptops generally come without warranties and with whatever wear and tear or abuse the previous owner inflicted. They may also have defective or hazardous batteries, monitor screen cracks or discolorations. Often they can come preloaded with unlicensed software. Older laptops bought used may also be too outdated to meet the buyer's needs.

A consumer can also choose to accept one of the "free" laptop offers on the Internet. However, obtaining cheap laptops this way usually involves hidden costs when complying with the terms and conditions of associated offers, as well as dealing with an onslaught of spam e-mails.

Hardware and Software Considerations

Before purchasing a laptop, it is advisable to consider how it will be used. Cheap laptops without enough power to properly run desired software applications or sufficient battery life to be truly mobile are not bargains. Also, some cheap laptops come with older versions of Windows rather than the newer Windows XP or Windows Vista. Consumers should be aware that Microsoft stopped supporting the older Windows 98 and Windows Me in July 2006, so any problems with these versions of Windows will not be serviced by Microsoft..

Laptops bought for special purposes should have the hardware to perform those jobs properly. Such hardware would include dedicated video cards (indicated by a video RAM specification) for graphic intensive applications like video gaming, or a DVD burner drive if burning exceptionally large files to disc. Laptops bought for general use, however, don't need the latest features. Cheap laptops can be upgraded later with extra RAM or add-on PC cards or ExpressCards for things like wireless Internet connections. However, if a larger hard drive is needed, it should be bought with the accompanying laptop.

Other Considerations

If buying cheap laptops for business use, it is advisable to look for bulk deals on new budget laptops or wholesale refurbished laptops.

How long the laptop will be used is another necessary consideration to make before purchasing. If it will be used for only a short time, a used cheap laptop may be sufficient. If its intended use requires more power and features than an inexpensive machine comes with, leasing a new laptop may be a better option. If the laptop will be used for a long period of time, a new or refurbished unit with warranty is superior to a used cheap laptop without one.

Before Buying

Reading reviews of various laptop makes and models is extremely helpful. Laptopical recommends PC Magazine, NotebookReview.com, CNET and Epinions for their consumer reviews and posted user opinions, as well as using Internet search engines for more information on a specific model. Some shopping search sites, such as BizRate, offer side-by-side comparisons of various models.

The seller's reputation is also important. If available, feedback posted for online sellers is helpful in determining reliability, as is information on laptop review sites. If purchasing a used machine from a private owner, buyers should ask what kind of use the laptop received, as well as why the owner is selling. It is also recommended that buyers inspect the laptop for surface defects and deeper problems.

Laptop Advisor offers the following advice for buying cheap laptops:

  • Determine which laptop to buy and comparison shop for the best price, looking for legitimate bargains and avoiding "too good to be true" offers.
  • Buy only enough computer for the job and no more.
  • Wait for the next technological advance and buy the computer it supersedes.

If buying new, it is always best to purchase the basic warranty in order to keep the price low. Extended warranties tend to be steeply priced; it's often cheaper to budget for replacing the laptop.

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