By Kara Reinhardt
On back-to-school shopping lists, "notebook" used to refer to something spiral-bound that would set you back no more than $5 or so. But notebook PCs are now essential equipment for many students and can easily cost upward of $1,000. Unless you need support for serious gaming and graphics, however — or prefer the image of a piece of fruit on the lid — you can pick up a solid machine for about half that price. A market analyst writing for Computerworld reports that laptop prices dropped about 7.5 percent in the most recent quarter, thanks in part to the emergence of tablets.
Even with a student discount, Apple’s most basic model, an 11-inch MacBook Air, still costs $949. That makes a PC the only option for frugal shoppers in the market for a new laptop. Most budget notebooks (not to be confused with smaller, less powerful netbooks) run Windows 7 Home Premium and have Intel CPUs. The most popular is the Core i3, the entry-level CPU in Intel’s latest family of processors. For better performance, look for a second-generation Intel Core processor, such as the i3-2310M, which you can identify by its four-digit model number (in this case, 2310). First-generation Intel Core CPUs, such as the i3-380M, have three-digit model numbers.
As for memory, low-cost laptops typically come with 4 GB of RAM; look for no less than 2 GB. Hard drives range from 320 GB to 640 GB of storage, more than enough for most users. You can find affordable laptops with up to six-cell batteries, but battery capacity isn’t the only factor that influences battery life, which can vary widely from laptop to laptop. Expect a low-cost notebook with a six-cell battery to run for at least a few hours.
Below are Cheapism’s top picks for affordable laptops, all of which run Windows 7.
- The 15.6-inch Lenovo IdeaPad V570 1066A9U (starting at $630) boasts an Intel Core i5-2410M processor, which is faster and more powerful than the typical Core i3. That, coupled with 6 GB of RAM, makes for a very fast machine, according to reviews. This laptop also comes with a 640 GB hard drive. (Where to buy)
- The 14-inch Toshiba Satellite L745-S4210 (starting at $500) offers impressive hardware for the price, with a second-generation Intel Core i3-2310M processor, a 640 GB hard drive, and 4 GB of RAM. Experts and users note its extra-long battery life, which totaled more than six-and-a-half hours in a test. (Where to buy)
- The 15.6-inch HP Pavilion g6-1a69 (starting at $500) packs a more modest Intel Core i3-380M processor and 500 GB hard drive, along with 4 GB of RAM. The first-generation CPU is harder on battery life, but experts and users alike are satisfied with this middle-of-the-road option. (Where to buy)
- The 13.3-inch Dell Vostro V131 starts at $500, but experts advise spending another $100 to upgrade the Intel Celeron processor to a second-generation Core i3-2310M CPU. Even then, with a 320 GB hard drive and 2 GB of RAM, this laptop may not stand up to the multimedia demands of home users -- it was designed with business users in mind. Mobile professionals and students on the go will appreciate its light weight, strong magnesium case, and marathon battery life -- more than eight hours in expert testing. (Where to buy)