Buying a budget laptop in 2022: a simple (but comprehensive) guide

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As we begin to prepare for the holiday shopping season, it’s a great time to learn how to buy a cheap laptop. I don’t mean cheap in a pejorative sense: what I mean is a cheap laptop that performs well and offers good overall value, despite its low cost. Colloquially, people say “cheap”, so let’s go.

I’m going to spend less time talking about individual makes and models because, especially at the lower end, these change all the time – a situation made worse by ongoing supply chain issues that are preventing inventory from get out of stores. The default choice for many people is Apple’s MacBook Air, but at $999 for the old M1 model and $1,199 for the new M2 model, it’s out of reach for many budget buyers. You can learn more about the MacBook Air and our other top picks in our list of the best laptops.

What defines a budget laptop?

We used to use $500 as the threshold for a budget laptop. But over time, laptops available for less than $500 started to look too underpowered. I would say a budget laptop is unofficially under $700 right now. For $500 or less, your options will be very limited, and frankly, chances are you won’t be entirely happy with the experience.

Give yourself a little wiggle room, closer to $700, and the possibilities open up. Do that and it’s a lot easier to get something that will last a long time and that you’ll be happy with. There are exceptions: Even if you spend under $500 for a Chromebook, you’re good. A recent example that I liked is the $379 Lenovo Duet 3, reviewed here.


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How to Buy a Budget Laptop in 2022


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Should I just buy a Chromebook?

Most likely. Most people would be okay with a Chromebook, which is a laptop that runs Google’s Chrome operating system. It was traditionally the Chrome web browser and a few extras, but Chrome OS now also includes the ability to run Android apps from the Google Play Store, Linux software, and some games.

Most of what you do on a laptop – email, web browsing, video streaming, social media, shopping – is usually done through a browser. And if you’re looking to spend less than $500, you’re going to end up with a nicer machine that feels more responsive compared to a budget Windows laptop for the same price.

Read more: Best Chromebook for 2022: 8 Chromebooks starting under $300

Why wouldn’t you want a Chromebook? Maybe you have special Windows-only software for work or school that needs to be installed locally on the laptop. I could say the same about programs like Photoshop or video games, but if you’re buying a $500 laptop, that’s probably not what you want.

What specifications should I look for?

Just around $500 or just below is going to be pretty straightforward. As a general rule, stick with it until you find a decent processor. Intel is now on its 12th generation of Core chips, so ideally you want one from the last two generations, otherwise you’re getting old stock.

You’ll probably have to go over the $500 mark, but I’d default to an Intel Core i5. At under $500, it’s hard to top the cheaper version of the Core i3. Generally ignore anything with an Intel Pentium, Celeron, Atom or M3 chip. On the AMD side, look for an AMD Ryzen 4000 series chip In place of an AMD Athlon. Chipmakers roll out new chip designs at least once a year, if not more, and that’s my personal advice in the spring of 2022.

On Windows 11, you really want 16GB of RAM, but that’s also going to be hard to find until you hit $700 or a bit more. Again, I say save a little and get that Core i5/16GB laptop that will perform better and last longer. If you can’t, get at least 8 GB of RAM. And if you’re going low, look for a laptop that lets you go in and add more RAM down the road. (Many low-end laptops and gaming laptops allow you to do this.) If the laptop’s memory is listed as “onboard”, it’s more likely to be soldered down; you can’t add more later.

I am not a storage enthusiast. Most people store everything in the cloud anyway. Get a solid state drive (SSD), not a turntable (HDD). In terms of size, the 256GB capacity is great and 512GB will be better, but hard to find. Only settle for 128GB if you really have to or if you primarily use cloud storage. But I would go for more RAM over more storage if it comes down to that. Like RAM, budget laptops can sometimes be opened up so you can swap out a larger drive later if you need to.

What should I avoid in a budget laptop?

Beware of “doorbuster” vacation deals that sound too good to be true. They are usually old and undernourished. A $200 Black Friday laptop might exhaust its Cyber ​​Monday welcome.

Displays are usually where PC makers cut the cost of cheap laptops. Look for a display resolution of 1920 x 1080, which is Full HD. I’ve already talked about what processors to look for, but I’d also skip anything that’s a low-power ARM processor…unless it’s in a Chromebook. I could be talked into a laptop with a Qualcomm Snapdragon chip, but those are usually for laptops with always-on mobile data connections and will be more expensive.

If you are shopping on Amazon or Walmart websites, check who is actually selling the laptop. Is it Amazon or Walmart, or is another seller just using them as a shopping platform? My advice: stick with electronics sold directly by Amazon or Walmart.

When is the best time to buy a cheap laptop?

I like holiday promotions like Prime Day or Black Friday, but you have to look at the offers very carefully because some stores like to pull old junk out of the warehouse. But there are still some great deals to be found, especially as you get closer to the $500-$700 range.

Back to school is also a hot time for laptops as everyone prepares for the fall semester. There are fewer fake doorbusters, but again, be sure to check the age of the laptop on sale and what parts are inside. For a Chromebook, be sure to check its Auto-Update Expiration (AUE) date, after which it will no longer be able to receive operating system updates from Google.

And if you’re worried that anything you buy might soon be replaced by a new model, I generally advise people not to worry about that. Unless there’s a whole new version coming out in the next few weeks (and new PCs are usually announced in advance, weeks before they go on sale), go for what’s best for you and your budget. . Every tech device will eventually be replaced or retired, so spend less time worrying about it and more time using your new laptop.

The review process for laptops, desktops, tablets and other computing-like devices consists of two parts: performance testing under controlled conditions at CNET labs and extensive hands-on use by our expert reviewers. This includes evaluating the aesthetics, ergonomics and functionality of a device. A final review verdict is a combination of both these objective and subjective judgments.

The list of benchmarking software we use changes over time as the devices we test evolve. The most important baseline tests we currently run on every compatible computer include: Primate Labs Geekbench 5, Cinebench R23, PC Mark 10 and 3DMark Fire Strike Ultra.

A more detailed description of each benchmark and how we use it can be found on our How We Test Computers page.

The best laptops in every category

Originally published May 23, 2022.

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