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What to Expect With a Budget Laptop

For about $250, you can get a brand-new computer. But you can't have everything on it

spinner image Laptops in line at a store
Ibrahim Sahin / EyeEm / Getty Images

How's this for irony? Because of the pandemic, millions of Americans have been forced to work or learn from home on a computer, yet the simultaneous economic strain means they might not be able to afford one.

One solution: a low-cost computer.

While the average price of a laptop for the past five years when adjusted for inflation hovers around $700, according to Stamford, Connecticut-based research firm Gartner, you can get away with one for much less. Laptops can be bought for less than couple of hundred dollars for a Chromebook from Lenovo or ASUS, or a tad more for an HP or Acer entry-level Windows 10 machine. (Sorry, Apple doesn't make any cheap Macs.)

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When looking at the pros and cons of an inexpensive computer, the big positive is price. The negatives are just about everything else.

But as long as you're aware of trade-offs that come with the low price, you might be OK with a few compromises.

Chrome operating system

While a handful of Windows 10 devices are available for $250 or less, most laptops you'll find in this price range run Google's Chrome operating system. To get going on a Chromebook, you'll log in with your Google account to gain access to all your online stuff, such as documents in Google Docs, email through Gmail, image sharing via Google Photos, music through Google Play, saved places in Google Maps, and spreadsheets in Google Sheets.

Google handles updates, so you don't have to remember to do it yourself. Most Chromebooks offer built-in virus protection.

Even if you're not too familiar with Chrome — Android phone and tablet owners may pick it up faster — it shouldn't feel vastly different from a Windows PC or Mac but will use different software. Because you're mostly accessing files online (in the cloud), be aware you will need a Wi-Fi connection for most tasks, plus most Chromebooks have small hard drives.

Slower processor, less RAM

Don't expect a lot of power in this price range. Sure, it likely will be fine for basic tasks, such as browsing the web, reading email or writing in a word processor, but forget about doing graphic design, editing videos or playing high-end games.

Multitasking, such as having several windows open at the same time, may prove to be a challenge, too.

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Much of this limitation comes from the processor, also known as the central processing unit (CPU). Many of these laptops use an Intel Celeron, AMD E2 or A6 or Mediatek chip instead of a beefier Intel Core i7 or AMD Ryzen 7 processor. Also, these laptops will have an “integrated” graphics chip to render visuals, instead of a preferred separate, “dedicated” graphics card that can do all the heavy lifting independent of the processor.

More random access memory (RAM) gives programs that you have open a way to use to more short-term memory. A computer with more RAM generally can juggle more tasks better.

Smaller screen size

Most laptops with a small price have a small screen, too. Many have 11-inch screens, measured on the diagonal; one that calls itself a combination Chromebook and tablet is 10.1 inches.

A tablet can mimic a laptop

Newer tablets, either Apple iPads or Android tablets, can become more like their laptop cousins with the addition of a Bluetooth keyboard. If you want to type email and do more than a little internet searching, a separate keyboard will be more comfortable and accurate than the tablet touchscreen.

Add a wireless mouse, too, for more ease of use.

Count yourself lucky to find a 14-inch screen, which is more akin to the average laptop display.

Also bear in mind that a smaller screen usually means a smaller keyboard. You might find it a bit cramped to type on keyboard that may be less than 9 inches wide if you buy a laptop with an 11-inch diagonal screen. But you probably can add a larger, external keyboard via USB or Bluetooth for extra money.

If you find yourself squinting at the small screen, you also might be able to connect to a larger monitor or TV if your laptop has an HDMI port, which is something to look for before you buy. Of course, a second screen also adds to the total cost of your new setup.

Limited storage

An entry-level Chromebook or Windows PC has less space inside to stow your files and additional apps you might want. A $500 laptop may have 512 gigabytes (GB) of storage or twice that at 1 terabyte (TB), but a $250 laptop may have only 32GB or 64GB of storage.

You have two ways to get around that for file storage:

• Pick up a memory card and snap it into the side of the laptop. Most will take a microSD card, a full-size SD card or a USB thumb drive, also referred to as a jump drive.

• Leverage free cloud services, such as Microsoft's OneDrive or Google Drive, which typically give you at least 5 gigabytes of storage for free. As long as you have an internet connection, you can access documents, photos and videos as if they were stored locally.

Should you buy refurbished or open box?

Finally, make sure you clearly read what you're buying. It might not be brand new.

An open-box item means it was returned to the store for some reason. Refurbished machines were repaired to return them to like-new condition.

A quick rule of thumb: New and sealed is always better than open box, which is better than refurbished.

If you're comfortable buying a used or repaired computer, do so only from a retailer that offers a good warranty in case anything goes wrong. The problem with buying from a stranger at an online classified site is that you likely won't hear back from the seller if you have difficulties.

Marc Saltzman has been a freelance technology journalist for 25 years. His podcast, Tech It Out, aims to break down geek speak into street speak.

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