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Cheap Laptop: Choices, Pointers & Pitfalls of Buying Cheap Laptops

A quick web search on "Cheap Laptop" or "Laptop for Sale" gives plethora of choices, ranging all the way from low-end offerings from large vendors like Dell to "No Brand" or "White Label" notebooks from small regional vendors. Choosing a laptop from various low-end offerings is not easy, as it is difficult to figure out various trade-offs. Features, such as Gigabit Ethernet or Wireless, which only a couple of years ago were expensive add-ons are now becoming standard in even some low cost offerings.

While MIT's $100 laptop is not really available to general public at $100, there are several options for buying a laptop on the budget:

"Free Laptops": Why not start an article talking about buying a cheap laptop, with possibility of getting one for free!? By now you have probably seen emails or links claiming to offer a free laptop just for filling up some information, survey etc. Needless to say there are tons of hidden costs here, not the least of which is your time. While I am yet to meet anyone who got a real laptop after filling up some surveys, it may be worth a try if you have a lot of time, and are ok with dealing with lot of spam in your mailbox. Be aware though many of these would want you to commit on items which will have on-going financial implications. E.g. Fine print of one such sites says: By "completing an offer", we mean that you take delivery of the product or service provided by the sponsors and abide the Terms and Conditions of their offers.

Refurbished Laptops: Note that in the laptop world sometimes the word "refurbished" has different implication than other gadgets. Since speed and capacity of laptop components have improved very dramatically in last 5 years, lot of users and corporations tend to upgrade to new laptops very rapidly. This results in availability of a wide choice of refurbished laptops in the market. Refurbished IBM Thinkpads have the best reputation when it comes to used laptops. IBM Global Services leases thousands of laptops every year, and then sells off-lease laptops, after refurbishing them, through hundreds of resellers. Many users find a three to five years old refurbished laptop to have sufficient power for their usage. While buying refurbished laptops, make sure to find out how long will be the warranty (if any) and what the state of the battery is. A dead battery vs. a brand new battery can make a difference of as much as $150 in the cost of a laptop. Some stores may also sell "floor units" at a very attractive price. These are basically units which have been used for display or demos. Make sure to inspect these units carefully, and check what the warranty implications are, i.e. does it still have full manufacturer's warranty from the day of purchase.

Low end offerings: Some vendors like Dell periodically have very attractive offers and discounts particularly for home users. Some of the advertised prices recently are as low as $399. These typically have three months warranty, instead of the standard one year warranty. In most cases, a new discount laptop will represent better value than refurbished laptops. Advertisements for refurbished laptops typically compare their current selling price with the selling price of the same model in new condition when it was introduced. This is not a fair comparison, because price for a laptop with same power drops very aggressively over time.

Tier two manufacturers: Desktop computers have long been commoditized. Custom desktops built by small manufacturers is a huge proportion of overall desktops sold. Many of these manufacturers focus on low-cost systems. This phenomenon is fast catching up in laptops market as well. Laptop platforms are becoming a commodity and many laptop manufacturers openly advertise themselves as "tier two" brand. The overall idea is that these vendors save on marketing costs of the bigger vendors and pass on the savings to you. Of course, you need to evaluate the true cost of the ownership, which includes initial purchase cost and cost of maintenance.

eBay:The largest marketplace on the Internet is of course great place to look for a cheap laptop. At any point of time, eBay has more than 20,000 laptops on sale. Standard cautions apply while buying over eBay. eBay has listings for all kinds of laptops mentioned above. While buying used laptops on eBay, pay special attention to quality of battery and cracks on screen. "No warranty on battery" typically implies that the battery is dead. "Battery holds charge" typically implies that the laptop will run for about five minutes on battery. Also, make sure that you will have proper rights to all software that you get along with the laptop. If you see a very cheap laptop on eBay, more than likely there is a catch to it - read the listing very very carefully!

If Craigslist is active in your area, it is a good alternative to consider before buying over eBay. You may pay a little premium on Craigslist, but you will be able to physically see the notebook before handing over the cash. This will enable you to ensure that display quality and keyboard quality is to your liking.

Shopping search sites like BizRate are another good resource for searching and comparing cheap laptops:

Component considerations:Depending on your specific needs you will need to decide on which part of the laptop you want to beef up, and which part you can compromise. The comparison matrix can be reasonably complex. Following parameters are usually looked at while buying a laptop: Screen size and resolution, Processor speed, Processor Cache Size, Processor Front-side-bus speed, Memory size and speed, Disk size and speed, Graphics card type and Video RAM size, availability and type of wireless card, availability and number of I/O ports (such as USB and firewire), optical drive availability and type, and weight of the laptop. Current low-point for most applications is 1GHz Processor, 20GB Disk, 256MB Memory, and 1024x768 (XGA) resolution screen. Windows Vista's minimum memory requirement is 512MB. Disk speed at low-end is 4200RPM, with 5400RPM becoming more standard, and 7200RPM at the higher end.

Operating System:Most laptops come with Windows and associated "Windows Tax". You can save some money by chosing a Linux laptop instead. The LC2210S laptop from LinuxCertified is a great option for a cheap linux laptop.

The key factors to keep in mind while buying a low-cost laptop are:

Like buying any computer, the purpose of buying this laptop needs to be clear, and the laptop you buy should meet the required needs in the long term. So, the cheapest laptop that you find may not be the most optimal choice in most scenarios. E.g. if you are planning to mount your laptop in your car, you may need to consider buying a rugged laptop (usually more expensive) which can absorb all the vibrations.

If you are buying the laptop for corporate needs, an important consideration is whether you can buy the exact same model and configuration repeatedly. If you bought a notebook on a special deal by standing for few hours in a queue after Thanksgiving, it may be very hard to get the same notebook at a similar price at a later point. If you are buying in bulk you may be able to get some attractive deals on used or refurbished notebooks from a wholesaler.

Overall, this author's recommendation is to go for a cheap new laptop - since it provides the security of full manufacturer's warranty (which can be very important in case of a laptop) and provides access to relatively recent technology, with a clean operating system installation. With proper research and patience, you can land a notebook at a great price which optimizes above parameters for you. Also, checkout our own brand new Laptop Deals page.

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