Even though I’m happy with my six-year-old computer, I can’t help but take interest when new laptops come onto the market. It’s like how you don’t stop noticing other people you’re attracted to just because you’re in a relationship. (Note to my fiancee: I only have eyes for you!)
Because the variety of laptops is staggering, it can be hard to figure out what computer you actually need, the best place to buy a laptop, and how to get the best deal.
Whether you simply need a slim, cheap laptop to work online, or a powerful machine that can handle your company’s finicky security requirements, here’s how you can get the performance you need from a laptop without breaking the bank.
Bare Bones Models Offer More Than You Might Expect
Even for those looking to spend the bare minimum on a laptop, there are a number of good options. For instance, Google’s sleek, light, Chromebook line comes highly regarded.
The cheapest Chromebook starts at $179, and still comes packed with 2 GB of RAM, an Intel Dual Core processor, and a solid state hard drive. Various models are produced by Hewlett-Packard, Samsung, Acer, ASUS, and other manufacturers, but no Chromebook gets less than a four-star rating on Amazon.com, which is impressive for such an affordable machine.
Chromebook hard drives are quite small, however — about what you’d find on a basic smartphone — so these computers are better suited for people who don’t mind storing most of their data in the cloud, or as a backup computer that won’t be tasked with storing an entire video catalog or iTunes library.
That said, they’re pretty useful for people who do most of their work online – especially for the price. “I’ve used a Chromebook for 99% of my work the past two years,” says Money360 editor Jon Gorey. “It’s lightweight, it’s fast — it starts up in literally five seconds — and the Chrome OS gets updated automatically so I’ve never had any virus issues or anything… knock on wood. If you’re comfortable with Google Docs and work mostly online, it’s a bargain; I think mine was like $229, I’ve long since got my money’s worth. But we do have a desktop Mac as kind of an anchor computer for the house when we need it.”
Other computers in this price range to keep an eye on, according to PCMag.com, are the Lenovo Ideapad, the ASUS Vivobook, and the Dell Inspiron 11 3000 series.
The Oft-Forgotten Mid-Range Options
When I start searching for computers, I tend to focus on the extremes. I get excited thinking about owning something spartan and cheap, because I wouldn’t be very upset if it got damaged. Alternatively, I like to fawn over the best of the best, thinking that if I spend a bundle it’ll last me forever.
But there are plenty of great computers that won’t deplete your bank account and also offer more raw power, storage, and memory than the budget lines.
For our purposes, we’ll consider mid-range to be anything from $600 to $800. Sean Hollister, senior editor at CNET, recommends looking long and hard at the Dell Inspiron 7000, the Samsung Galaxy TabPro S, and the Lenovo ThinkPad 13.
Another way to snag something in this range is to be savvy about looking for computers that are normally very expensive but have come down in price. For instance, Hollister notes you can get a ThinkPad with even better specs in this price range if you find it on sale or refurbished. “You can find them in this price range when you look at the right time,” he says.
Buy Refurbished to Save Big
As Hollister notes, buying refurbished is one of the best ways to get a high-end laptop at a mid-range price point.
This is different than simply hopping on Craigslist or eBay and buying used. In those situations, you have no guarantee that the seller is being honest with their listing. While there are deals to be had on these sites, make sure you do your due diligence.
When you buy a refurbished computer straight from the manufacturer, however, you’re getting a pre-owned machine that has been repaired and restored to almost-new condition by the company’s own technicians. They typically come with warranties, so you’re protected against buying a faulty product.
So not only are refurbished machines guaranteed to work, they’re also much more affordable than a brand-new version.
For example, if you’re an Apple fanatic, but you’re also trying to be frugal, Apple’s refurbished outlet is going to be your best place to buy a laptop. Every computer on Apple’s refurbished site is at least 15% off — and any fanboy knows Apple rarely, if ever, discounts its products.
Dell and Lenovo also have well-regarded sites where you can find great deals on refurbished machines.
How (and When) to Find Cheap Laptops for Sale
There are certain times of year that are always going to be good for saving money on tech purchases, such as Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the back-to-school months (July to September.) If you have patience, you can find heavy discounts on most laptop models around these times. The best places to search are reputable sellers who are inclined to have sales, such as Best Buy, NewEgg, and Tiger Direct.
Also, you might benefit from setting up price alerts. This means that you install a web application on your browser that lets you know when a computer you have your eye on drops below a certain price. Some popular ones include Amazon Price Watch and CamelCamelCamel.
Another thing to keep in mind is that after a new model of computer is released, the previous year’s model will inevitably drop in price. This is especially useful if you’re looking at higher end laptops, where the new releases sometimes only improve on specs you don’t care that much about, such as weight or screen resolution. (Now that we have retina displays, how much better can screens really get? Do I need to get Lasik eye surgery to fully enjoy the newest crop of laptops?)
A Final Tip: Don’t Be Seduced by Processor Speeds
You might want the latest and greatest laptop because it promises to turbocharge your computing experience via a state-of-the-art processor. For instance, everyone wants their machines to have an i7 Intel chip these days. Of course, ever-improving processing speeds are also part of the reason new computers can be so expensive.
But, it turns out that processing speed might not be that important after all. Notable online tech experts, such as the writer who simply goes by “Daley” at Techmeshugana.com, are shedding light on this fact. “Most 10-year-old processors are still more than capable of performing the same tasks as today’s top processors for the average user,” Daley says.
It turns out that the improved processing speeds have helped things like battery life and power consumption, but for the average user, top of the line speeds won’t make that much of a difference in performance. According to Daley, “Unless you’re editing large media files, insist on watching 1080p or higher resolution videos, or game heavily… pretty much any dual core (or greater) processor running at 1.8GHz (or faster) should be plenty for most people’s needs.”
Keep those specs in mind as you hunt for deals, because you don’t want to overpay for something that won’t end up mattering to your overall computing experience.
Sometimes after I watch a particularly compelling truck commercial, I’ll be convinced that I’ve been depriving myself because my car doesn’t have enough torque. Then I remember I don’t really know what torque is, and I’m pretty sure I won’t be hauling three tons of construction material up a rocky cliff anytime soon.
The same thinking should apply when you’re looking for laptops. Keep in mind that even the cheapest options are very powerful these days, and should be more than enough for the average consumer.
Finally, if you make sure that you always investigate refurbished options and keep an eye on seasonal price fluctuations, you’ll set yourself up to find the perfect laptop for your budget.