For all of those looking to buy a laptop on the cheap, here’s what you should be looking for:
1. Windows 7. Look, I hate to break it to you, but you will never get an Apple laptop for $500. They just don’t walk that way. You’re looking squarely at a Windows 7 PC. Don’t worry, though, Windows 7 is a fine OS — it really is — and will run every program you will ever need.
2. Netbook or Laptop? You can pick up a quality netbook for $300 or less. It will most likely have a 10″ screen, no DVD drive, and low end specs. Is that bad? No, not necessarily. A netbook will handle all of your school and work based tasks with ease. It will do image editing fairly well, but video editing might be a struggle. As for entertainment, video games will be limited, but streaming audio/video will not be an issue. Intel is even coming out with faster chips aimed squarely at netbooks, so performance is improving all of the time. Generally, a netbook has fantastic battery life. It is very, very easy to transport and travel with, and the small size means you could even use it to keep notes in class. Go to a local Best Buy and check one out, just to see how you like typing on the keyboard as it is a bit smaller than a full size laptop. It will be a bit cramped at first, but unless you have crazy big hands, once you get used to it you’ll find you can type fairly well.
2. Intel i3 CPU. A budget laptop is budget because of it’s guts. Screen and hard drive are pretty much standard across the board. True, you might come across something really, really cheap that has inferior base components, but you’d have to look. That leaves the CPU. The budget laptops of today are generally packing either an AMD C-60, and AMD E-350, or an Intel i3 chip. I would go with the Intel i3 on this one. At the higher end, I don’t see that much difference between an AMD or an Intel chip for most applications (some programs are finicky, but those are pretty exotic), but on the low end the Intel i3 is the more reliable chip. Don’t believe me? Check out the Bench Scores (the metric for overall chip performance) for yourself HERE. The Intel i3 ranks at 407 (or less, for some setups), AMD C-60 at 951, and AMD E-350 at 859 (lower scores are better). If you’re sharp (and quick!) you might even be able to snatch up an Intel i5 based laptop — that’s a good bargain for under $500!
3. Drive Size and Speed. Shoot for a minimum hard drive of 250GB at 5400rpm and RAM of 4GB. You’re unlikely to see much more RAM than that (you might find one with 6GB on sale somewhere), but you can always add your own later if that’s a problem (it’s not hard). 250GB is pretty low end for a hard drive, though. You’re more likely to find something in the 320GB range, though still at 5400rpm instead of the quicker 7200rpm. As for solid state drives, that’s way out of this price range.
4. Graphics and Audio. A 15.6″ screen is certainly possible, as are several 14″ options. Normally, I’d advise the larger screen, but that will lessen battery life and take up more desktop space. If you’re a heavy traveler/frequent flier, consider a 14″. If not, go for 15.6″. You can still get some dedicated graphics cards in this price range, they just won’t be high end nVidia or anything. Like I said, you won’t be playing graphics heavy games with a budget laptop. A webcam is pretty much standard these days, even for low end machines, so it’ll be Skype ready. Speakers will be a bit tinny and undersized, but that’s no big deal. External speakers and/or headphones are cheap in comparison and will sound much better than even BEATS qualified laptops will.
5. What about Tablets? While there are a couple of cheap Android tablets out there, I don’t recommend them for school work. The only one that gets that recommendation is the Asus Transformer Prime and its outside the $500 price range. An iPad is not for full time use, and, besides, it’s outside the range as well.
Where to Find?
The usual suspects, but I recommend Amazon, HHGregg (if one in your area) and Best Buy. Bust Buy is surprisingly good for this type of laptop and will even have exclusive deals from manufacturers that you won’t find anywhere else.
Here are several laptops computers under $500 with decent specs:
Acer Laptop PC with i3-370M chip: $449 HHGregg
Acer Laptop PC with i3 2310M chip: $449 HHGregg
Asus k53E PC with i5 chip: $479 Best Buy
Dell Insprion with i3 chip: $449 Best Buy
Gateway Laptop PC with i5 chip: $429 Best Buy
Toshiba Satellite with i3 chip: $449 Best Buy
ASUS A53E-XA2 with i5 chip: $499 ($150 off!) Amazon
HP G6-1c79nr with i3 chip: $489 ($70 off!) Amazon
When shopping for a bargain laptop, look for minimum specs of Intel i3, 250GB Hard Drive, and 4GB RAM. If you find more, jump on it and Netbooks are OK unless you really need a DVD drive (or have big hands!), and tablets are a no-go.
Good luck and Happy Hunting!