Laptops can be expensive, but they don’t have to cost an arm and a leg. These days, you can buy a perfectly serviceable computer without having to break the bank. Laptops are essential if you want to work from home or just want a device to play some simple games and watch streaming video on, so finding one that’s inexpensive but will last a long time is important.
Basic Specifications to Look For
For the uninitiated, looking at computer specifications can be like reading a foreign language. Understanding what the different terms mean and what specs are important can help you compare different computers to make sure you’re getting a good deal.
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Random Access Memory (RAM) is temporary storage that your computer uses to hold information about active processes. When you open a web browser or a document on your computer, your laptop places the information from that browser or document into RAM.
RAM is much faster than permanent storage, so your laptop can access data in your RAM much more quickly. If your computer had to keep reading and writing everything you do to permanent storage it would run much more slowly. This is exactly what computers do if they don’t have sufficient RAM to store all of the processes that you’re running at once, which is why your computer might slow down if you have a lot of windows open at once.
In layperson’s terms, more RAM gives your computer more ability to multitask. The more RAM it has, the more windows and apps you can open simultaneously before your PC slows down.
These days, you want to have 8 gigabytes (GB) of RAM as a minimum. Running an operating system alone takes up a couple of GB of RAM, so getting a laptop with 4GB will severely limit your ability to have multiple browser tabs or programs open.
If you’re the type who likes to have lots of windows open at once, you might consider increasing your laptop’s RAM to 12 to 16GB.
Your laptop’s Central Processing Unit (CPU) is the part of your computer that handles the instructions that you give it. You can think of it like your computer’s brain. When you try to open a web browser, the CPU is the device that executes that command and makes the browser open.
CPUs can have multiple cores and each CPU has a different clock speed, measured in GHz. The more cores a CPU has, the more instructions in can execute simultaneously. The higher the clock speed, the more instructions it executes per second.
Intel i-Series processors are among the most popular on the market these days. You’ll commonly see i3, i5, and i7 processors in laptops. For a budget laptop, an i7 processor isn’t necessary. You can usually get by with an i3 processor but if you find a laptop with an i5 processor for a similar price, it might run a bit faster.
Hard Drive vs. Solid State Drive
Your computer’s drive is its long-term storage. Whenever you install a program or save a document, it gets saved to the drive.
There are two types of drives on the market, hard drives (HDDs) and solid state drives (SSDs).
Hard drives are cheaper than solid state drives and tend to have more storage space. However, they are significantly heavier and slower than solid state drives. Solid state drives are more expensive and typically have less storage, but run much faster and aren’t as heavy.
To illustrate the difference, a high-end hard drive can read and write data at about 125 megabytes per second (MB/s), although many drives will be slower than this. A standard solid state drive can reach read-and-write speeds of 520MB/s, more than four times faster.
These days, you want a computer with a solid state drive. The speed increase is more than worth the cost and the smaller amount of storage space. Most people who aren’t storing huge amounts of music or movies can get by with a 256GB SSD on their laptop. The lighter weight of SSDs is also a big plus for laptops.
If you need additional storage space, you can purchase an inexpensive external drive or sign up for a cloud storage service like OneDrive, Google Drive, or Dropbox.
Your computer’s graphics card is responsible for rendering complicated graphics, especially those that appear in games. Laptops can have integrated graphics, meaning the graphics cards are built into the motherboard, or dedicated graphics, meaning the graphics card is a separate component.
Graphics cards, especially laptop graphics cards, are expensive, so any budget option will come with an integrated graphics card.
Different laptops are different sizes. Whether you want a large or small screen will depend on your priorities. The larger the screen, the larger the laptop has to be. Bigger laptops tend to weigh more and are less portable. Smaller, more portable laptops typically come with smaller screens.
You should consider how you plan to use your laptop when selecting the optimal screen size. If you’re mostly keeping the laptop at home, you can get a larger screen at the cost of a heavier and less portable machine. If you’re bringing the laptop to school or work every day, you might want a smaller machine that will fit more easily in a bag.
The Best Budget Laptops Under $850
These are some of the best budget laptops that cost less than $850.
1. Microsoft Surface Go 2
The Microsoft Surface Go 2 is a tablet, but it comes with the full Windows 10 experience, making it a fully functional laptop. Its small form factor makes it supremely portable and its touch screen capability makes it a breeze to use.
The machine doesn’t come with a built-in trackpad and keyboard, which may be a dealbreaker for some people. You can purchase a protective screen cover that includes those accessories, but they’ll run you about $125, which does increase the cost somewhat.
- Price: Starts at $399
- Incredibly portable
- Touch screen
- Long battery life
- Use as a laptop or a tablet
- Trackpad and keyboard not included
- Base model only has 4GB of RAM and 64GB of drive space
- Minimal ports for external devices
If all you need from a laptop is web browsing, text editing, and maybe the option to watch a few streaming videos in your downtime, the Surface Go 2 should fit the bill. If you need to do slightly more complex tasks, you might need a more powerful machine.
2. Acer Aspire 5
The Acer Aspire 5 is a more typical laptop than the Microsoft Surface Go. It lacks a touch screen and the portability of the tablet, but comes with a full complement of USB and other ports to connect accessories.
The base model has 8GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD, which is plenty of storage space for most people. You can upgrade both the RAM and storage when making your purchase if you’re willing to spend the extra money, meaning you can settle for the budget option or soup up the computer to meet your needs.
- Price: Starts at $659
- 8GB RAM and 512GB SSD in the base model
- Customizable storage and RAM (up to 32GB RAM and 3TB storage)
- Multiple USB and other ports for external devices
- Mid-tier processor speed
- Mostly plastic exterior
The Acer Aspire 5 is a great mid-level choice for people who want to use their laptop for a bit more than text editing and web surfing. You won’t be running the latest games at the highest graphics settings, but you’ll be able to play more than just Minesweeper. You can also rely on the computer not to freeze up when you’re working with large spreadsheets or databases.
3. Samsung Chromebook 4+
Chromebooks are a type of laptop that run ChromeOS. ChromeOS is a distinct operating system, much like Windows or macOS. Samsung’s Chromebook 4+ is one of the cheaper, sleeker models.
Chromebooks are designed to be inexpensive and easy to use, but their low cost also means they lack many of the features of computers running operating systems like Windows and macOS. Chromebooks are primarily for surfing the web and using Google applications like Google Docs and Google Sheets. Many common programs, like Microsoft Office, aren’t available for Chromebooks.
- Price: Starts $229
- Incredibly cheap
- Highly portable
- Designed with web browsing in mind
- ChromeOS means you can’t install many applications
- Small storage capacity
If you want a laptop solely for browsing the web and you use Google Docs and Sheets instead of Microsoft Word and Excel, a Chromebook might suffice for your needs. If you need the laptop to run other programs or do other computing tasks, you’ll need something more advanced than a Chromebook.
4. Dell G5 15
The Dell G5 15 laptop is more expensive than the other computers in this list but it easily justifies the cost. The basic model comes with a strong processor, 8GB of RAM, and a dedicated graphics card, meaning the computer can run most modern PC games with reasonable frame rates.
The primary drawback of this machine is its weight. It’s a bit heftier than other computers on the list, so if you’re looking for an ultraportable device, this won’t fit the bill.
- Price: Starts starts at $829.99
- Dedicated graphics card means you can run games
- 8GB RAM and 256GB SSD on base model
- Customizable RAM and storage capacity
- Most expensive option on the list
- Weighs more than 5 lbs
If you’re looking for a budget gaming laptop, this is a solid choice. You can also upgrade the machine with additional RAM and storage if you want to get a higher-end laptop.
Having a computer is a necessity in this day and age, and many people need a laptop to take their work with them wherever they go. Whether you’re using yours to work from home or just need an easy-to-use device that lets you surf the web, you don’t have to break the bank. A budget-friendly laptop can last for years and won’t put a huge hole in your wallet.
Do you have a favorite budget laptop that delivers great value? What features or specs are most important to you?