How to Choose a Cheap Laptop

The summer is winding down for college-bound students, and time is running out for school shopping. For some, especially freshmen, the biggest investment on their shopping lists will be a new laptop.

Students can find reliable laptops for well under $500. The budget category offers ample display size ― between 14 inches and 16 inches is comfortable to view for extended periods and to carry around campus ― and fairly speedy processors.

Here’s help in making an informed decision.

Specs to compare

After you determine a budget limit and screen size, there are just a handful of specs to compare.

Budget laptops typically have between 3GB and 4GB of RAM (random access memory). With more RAM, applications will run faster and more applications can run at the same time. The hard drive figure, usually between 320GB and 500GB at this level, refers to how much data can be stored on the computer’s hard drive, things like photos and music. A smaller hard drive can be offset by using cloud services, such as Flickr for photos.

Here are three student-budget-friendly models, released this year and available from BestBuy:

HP Pavilion Laptop 14-inch display (1366 x 768) $379.99
Model # g4-1117dx
AMD A-Series Processor (dual core, 2.5GHz)
4GB memory / 320GB hard drive
Battery up to 4 hours
Weight: 4.7 lb., 1.4 inches thick

Toshiba Satellite Laptop 15.6-inch display (1366 x 768) $379.99
Model: C655-S5212
Intel  i3 processor (dual core, 2.1GHz)
3GB memory / 320GB hard drive
Toshiba laptop battery up to 6 hours, 45 minutes
Weight: 5.3 lb., 1.6 inches thick


Dell Inspiron Laptop 15.6-inch display (1366 x 768) $379.99
Model # I15R-526MRB
Intel i3 processor (dual core, 2.53GHz)
4GB memory / 500GB hard drive
Battery up to 4 hours
Weight: 5.9 lbs., 1.3 inches thick

Buy factory-refurbished

There’s a big difference between buying refurbished and buying used. While purchasing a secondhand laptop may mean spending half as much as buying new, you won’t have the warranty and return policies that you’d get with a refurbished unit.

Buying a refurbished laptop may save 10 to 20 percent of the price of a new unit. Refurbished laptopsare computers that have been returned by customers, then sent back to the manufacturer and restored to like-new condition. Most include a warranty.

Look for the same specs in a refurbished laptop as you would in a new laptop, and make sure the operating system is current: Microsoft Windows 7.

If you’re pining for a Mac, there are some older used models in the under-$500 category, but most are running pre-Lion versions and some pre-OS X. Apple does not support these older systems, and compatibility issues are sure to be a problem.

The lowest priced Apple-certified refurbished laptop was a $749 MacBook Air with an 11.6-inch screen, representing a $150 savings. Apple offers the same one-year warranty on its refurbished units as it does on its new units.

In case of emergency

Campus Wi-Fi networks are notorious for being overcrowded. Connections may slow or go down altogether. Consider a pay-as-you-go mobile broadband device. Virgin Mobile offers a MiFi card for $149 and a USB card for $68, with prepaid plans starting at $10 for 10 days of use. In a no-connection emergency, students can activate the device, connect via 3G and keep working.

Battery Tips

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