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Cheap Laptops Buying Guide

Our picks among the best cheap laptop computers are the Dell Inspiron 15 3521 (starting at $350) and the Lenovo G500 (starting at $330). Both models offer a good combination of performance, features, and value.

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The Toshiba Satellite C855D (starting at $220) is about the cheapest traditional laptop you'll find that's still worth buying. If you're curious about a Google Chromebook, experts seem to agree the Samsung Chromebook (starting at $249) is a good model to check out, although all Chromebooks have some core limitations potential buyers should be aware of. One cheap laptop we don't feel comfortable recommending is the Asus X54C (starting at $360). It looks nice enough on paper, but we saw quite a few complaints in consumer reviews about this laptop breaking down, which is disconcerting.

Many other cheap laptops have specs that promise good value and performance even if they haven't attracted enough online reviews for us to make a judgment. In fact, consumers may feel a bit overwhelmed by the sheer number of budget laptops and assortment of configurations available these days. Manufacturers offer a wide array of models, many of which are nearly identical. Some are sold exclusively by certain retailers and you may find almost the same system at another vendor under a different model number. To reduce at least some of the confusion, we've specified the key components of the best cheap laptops and highlighted critical performance criteria so you know what to look for.

Expect a cheap laptop computer to run Microsoft's Windows 8, as almost all our picks do. The exception is the Samsung Chromebook, which runs Google's Chrome OS and offers a low-cost alternative to a Windows machine. Most budget laptops use Intel CPUs (or central processing units, a.k.a. processors), although some models, such as the Toshiba Satellite C855D, are equipped with AMD processors. Experts highly recommend looking for an Intel Core i3 CPU over an Intel Celeron or Pentium processor. Some of the cheapest laptops rely on Celeron CPUs, but you can often upgrade to a Core i3 for about $50 more. The standard for a laptop these days is 4 gigabytes of RAM (or random access memory), which is sufficient memory for most users' needs. Hard drives vary in size, but most of the top budget systems offer 500GB of storage for software and files.

Battery life can vary quite a bit; some of the best cheap laptops exceed five or six hours on a single charge. Perhaps the most popular display size in this price range is 15.6 inches, which is big enough that many desktop converts won't miss their monitors. Users who put a premium on portability may want to look for something smaller and lighter, such as Toshiba's fancy Portege Z930 Series ultrabook (starting at $700 for the Z935), which has a 13.3-inch display, or the Samsung Chromebook, with an 11.6-inch display. Regardless, the screen resolution should be good enough for high-definition video. Most laptops have numerous useful connectivity options, such as USB 3.0 ports, memory card readers, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, and an HDMI port for connecting a HDTV. Make sure you see the ones you want listed in the specs.

The best strategy is to use the model numbers of the top cheap notebooks simply as a rough starting point. Mail-in rebates and other discounts can put other models in play that normally fall hundreds of dollars outside the budget range. When you see an attractive offer, take a close look under the hood at the computer's key features -- processor, memory, hard drive size, and battery life -- and check for desirable extra features such as an HDMI port and at least one USB 3.0 port. Ideally, get your hands on a laptop before you buy to check out the display, test the weight, and try out the keyboard and touchpad.

by Michael Sweet (Google+ Profile)

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