How to find a good cheap laptop

January 2, 2012 – 5:37 pm

I recently bought a new laptop and it’s worked out well for me so I wanted to share what I discovered in the search process. I am by no means an expert in the laptop market, but it can be helpful anyway to hear from someone like me who attempted their own product research and ended up with something they liked. So here is what I learned:

1. Brand is irrelevant. The exception of course is Apple. I have had a lot of good Apple products over the years and if you have plenty of money, buying Apple is a good way to ensure your machine will have good components and generally not suck. However, this post is about cheap laptops.

2. For cheap laptops, you can’t get (or at least I couldn’t find) a mix-and-match your own components type of vendor, so you have to choose among the pre-assembled options. When I went into this, I was thinking that I didn’t need a CD drive since they are increasingly obsolete. However, all cheap laptops had them, so I didn’t have a choice.

3. At the low end ($300-$800), the main thing separating laptops is their processing power, so a laptop is a good deal if it has high processing power for a low price. The other components are pretty standardized at the lower prices. When I was looking, they all had a 15″ screen, probably 1366*768, 500GB hard drive (more than enough for almost all users), and 4GB RAM (don’t skimp on RAM).

4. Review sites like CNET are pretty much useless. It’s not impossible that you will discover a useful nugget about why a particular machine sucks, but these reviews tend to be really subjective and bad at comparing the hundreds of available choices. User reviews on vendor sites can be slightly more useful, but still should not guide your narrowing process.

5. The best comparative shopping tool I found was on It allows you to sort many different ways and narrow by particular features. There may be one or two other good comparison tools online, but I was surprised by how much these tools tended to suck. Even the Amazon one is crap. After sorting by price on newegg, you can isolate the dozen or so low-price machines that are currently available.

7. To choose among those, evaluate their processor performance by checking their listed CPUs and GPUs on these lists. One trick here is that the GPUs are often integrated into the CPU, so that can be helpful in identifying the GPU by looking for a similar number.

This is where you will find a lot of variation. Some machines are cheap because they are a good deal and others are cheap because they have crap chips from two years ago. You also want to be able to see if you are paying a lot for a small performance boost or vice versa. These lists are the only quantitative way I found to assess differences among the chips. Don’t just check CPU: you want good graphics performance for streaming media and even just navigating through your files and apps.

8. Finally, once you identify a model you like, read the user reviews on newegg and amazon and elsewhere to see what they say. If you did good research, you may discover that other users can confirm for you that they came to the same conclusions. Also, search around the web to see if any of the other vendors have good deals on your model. I found my machine on newegg, but then Amazon ended up having a sale on it so I got it there.

I ended up with a machine that was $425 on amazon with a CPU benchmark of 3562 (AMD A6-3400M) and a GPU benchmark of 453 (AMD Radeon HD 6520G). Thanks to the glory of the invisible hand, you should be able to find an even better deal today.

  1. 3 Responses to “How to find a good cheap laptop”

  2. I don’t think Apple is really any better in terms of component quality, but that’s another discussion. I agree that probably has the best filtering tool out there. ‘s filtering tool seems to be broken. I often get products that aren’t computers in the results.

    Since I run models or process data on supercomputers, I just need a good Internet connection and bare minimum in terms of specs so I am happy with the free net book I got from Google. (I find it silly that Google is trying to sell their chrome books whatever they are.)

    Anyway, it comes down to finding out what you’re going to use your laptop for. I bet over half of the people using Macs can probably do everything they do on a cheap $400 laptop, especially in science. OK, I’m starting to sound like my advisor!

    By Brian on Jan 4, 2012

  3. I agree with what you said about Apple components not being better. I was just saying they won’t be very likely to put crappy components in their machines, which can be a concern when buying a cheap PC. Macs tend to have the latest chips, nice screens, etc. I also think the MacBook Air is a sweet design that doesn’t have a cheap PC competitor yet.

    But I also agree with what you said that there is increasingly little difference in capability between Macs and PCs and it’s probably not worth the cost. I do wish someone would make a PC version of BBedit though. I loved that program when I was on a Mac.

    By Anthony on Jan 4, 2012

  4. Good advice. Thanks. I own a MacBook and love the build quality, but I want to buy another laptop just for doing LINUX builds and tests and LAMP stuff. Your advice will help.

    Joe Ahearn

    By Joe Ahearn on Apr 28, 2012

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