Budget Laptops Buyers Guide

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Sometimes you don’t need the most expensive laptop and “just the basics” will do, but buying a budget notebook is more than finding one with a low price. We go over what you need to look for from top to bottom when shopping for a budget notebook.

A typical 14-inch budget laptop from Lenovo.

A typical 14-inch budget laptop from Lenovo.

What is a “Budget” Notebook?

A budget notebook is classified primarily by its price; when sold as new they fall in the $600 or less price range with a typical consumer target closer to between $400 and $500. These notebooks provide the essentials for work and play but will almost certainly lack features found on more expensive notebooks including full HD displays, dedicated graphics cards, catchy designs and name-brand speakers. The next step up from a budget notebook is a multimedia notebook – see our buyer’s guide on those here. For the workaholic in you, there’s also our Business Notebooks Buyers Guide.

Although you’re not spending as much on a budget notebook, they can be every bit as capable as a more expensive model for most conceivable tasks including as web surfing, office productivity and minor multimedia usage such as HD video streaming.

Size Tiers

The majority of budget notebooks have either a 14-inch or 15.6-inch display (measured diagonally from opposite corners) with the occasional 17.3-inch model. It’s rare to see low-priced notebooks with less than a 14-inch display mostly due to cost – smaller designs are more expensive to produce. That being said, you can find some budget-priced 2-in-1 laptops with smaller screens like the Asus Transformer Book series since these are essentially tablets that come with a keyboard docking station included.

The overriding factor when deciding on a screen size is portability. A realistic way to decide is to view as many differently-sized notebooks as you can in person to find out which size makes you most comfortable. A 15.6-inch or 17.3-inch display may be easier to look at for extended periods compared to a 14-inch display and may include the additional benefit of a larger keyboard with a separate numeric keypad. A 14-inch notebook will comparatively have superior portability and battery life. Don’t be the kind of person who pulls out a massive 17-inch laptop to use on a plane if you’re a frequently traveler.

T100 keyboard and a "man hand" for comparison

T100 keyboard and a “man hand” for comparison

Keyboard and Touchpad

It’s easy for a professional reviewer to rate a keyboard as good or bad but ultimately it’s about what makes you feel comfortable. Keyboard feel and key layout varies widely from maker to maker. Ensure the keyboard on the notebook you’re looking at has a layout that looks familiar with all of the keys you expect. Verify in person or by reading reviews that the keyboard has minimal flex, a solid feel and precise key action. As we noted in the previous section, smaller laptops have smaller keyboards and often times a larger 15.6-inch or 17.3-inch notebook will include a separate numeric keypad which can come in handy for spreadsheet and financial work.

Our reviewing experience says that notebook makers have a harder time getting the touchpad right than the keyboard. The current trend in the notebook world is to use a ‘clickpad’, or a touchpad with a surface which can be pressed in the absence of traditional right and left mouse buttons. Clickpad implementations tend to be less than perfect because the clickpad surface may interpret your click as an attempt to move the cursor or vice versa; definitely take a look at reviews and see the notebook in person if at all possible. Notebooks with traditional touchpads and physical left and right mouse buttons tend to fare better in our testing.

Display Quality

The Achilles heel of budget notebooks is the display quality both in terms of resolution and picture. The resolution, often termed “HD” or “Full HD” is presented on specification sheets as the number of pixels horizontally by the number of pixels vertically. A display advertised as 1600×900, or 900p has 1,600 pixels spanning across and 900 up and down. Multiply the two numbers to get the total number of pixels in the display. Each pixel can take on one of millions of colors to form a coherent image on the display.

Dell Inspiron 14 5000 Series frontSub-$600 notebooks with 14-inch and 15.6-inch displays tend to have 1366×768 resolution “HD” displays while 17.3-inch models usually have slightly higher “HD+” resolution at 1600×900. Both are considered low in their respective size ranges – you’ll have to do more scrolling in web pages and may have to squish windows to use them side-by-side unlike on a higher resolution display which has more pixels and therefore more space to show content at the same time without scrolling or zooming.

Picture quality is the other side of the display equation. The resolution just discussed usually does correlate with its picture quality (higher resolution displays having better quality) but it’s not a reliable rule. The picture quality on most budget notebooks will appear duller and less lifelike than on a notebook with a better display. This is due to a number of reasons, primarily the type of display. Budget notebooks almost exclusively come with “TN” displays as opposed to the considerably more expensive “IPS” displays found on some higher-end notebooks.

If we had to choose between the two, we’d take resolution over quality because the benefit of a higher resolution is more easily realized especially during web browsing and other productive work. If you plan to use the notebook for mostly media such as HD video, picture quality would be your priority.

System Performance and Battery Life

The good news in today’s market is just about any notebook you buy will have ample power for general tasks such as web browsing, office productivity and HD video watching. The other bit of good news is that budget notebooks tend to have very similar performance across price tiers since the components they include are similar; this includes battery life. Use the following guidelines when shopping for a budget notebook computer:

  • Processor (CPU): AMD A8 or A10 or Intel Core i3 or i5
  • Memory (RAM): 4GB to 8GB, with 8GB being preferable
  • Storage (Hard Drive): 500GB to 1TB (1,024GB), with more being preferable
  • Screen Resolution: the more the better; you’ll likely find 1366×768 in 15.6″ and under. We consider 1600×900 to be excellent on a budget notebook.
  • Optical Drive: most modern notebooks no longer include an internal optical drive. Verify the notebook you’re looking at has one if you need it.
Dell Inspiron 11 3000 Series

Dell Inspiron 11 3000 Series

Warranty and After-Sales Support

Any notebook you buy should have at the minimum a one year warranty that covers both parts and labor. Thoroughly read the notebook’s description and verify this is the case.

It may be tempting to upgrade the notebook’s warranty to something more than one year but exercise caution; it makes little sense to spend hundreds of dollars to upgrade the warranty on a notebook that’s supposed to be inexpensive. In general, warranties and services should not exceed more than 20% of the cost of the computer – that’s around $100 on a budget notebook. You’re eroding the value proposition by spending any more, and this rule applies to any notebook purchase. We recommend a thorough read of our Notebook Warranty Guide to ensure you know what you’re buying – it goes through all the warranty basics plus advanced topics like accidental damage protection and guides you towards making the correct warranty buying decision.

Conclusion

Budget notebook shopping is more than just looking for a notebook that’s under a certain price range. We stressed the importance of finding a notebook that is comfortable to work with both in terms of display size and the inclusion of a solid keyboard and touchpad. The good news on the performance front is that most notebooks these days have plenty of power for general tasks; nonetheless we provided guidelines on what to look for. Finally we tackled the often-confusing topic of how much to spend on an upgraded warranty.


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