Recommendations for cheap (__cheap__) notebook/laptop
April 21, 2014 10:13 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to buy a small (10-12 inch screen) very inexpensive (sub-$300) notebook, to use for reading PDFs, taking notes, and very light coding (i.e. emacs and python). Any recommendations would be most welcome.

My main desiderata are a decent screen (ideally something I could use in direct sunlight e.g. at the park, but I doubt that's feasible) and a usable keyboard. I'd like to avoid Windows so I suppose it'll have to be Linux, which is fine with me.

Besides those preferences I'm basically open, so if it's something like a Chromebook with a different OS, I would be fine with that. Thanks!
posted by uninformative to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
My Acer C7 works pretty well using Crouton to run Ubuntu. But yeah, battery is kinda sucky, direct sunlight is kinda sucky as well.
posted by zscore at 10:35 AM on April 21, 2014

the acer chromebook c720 can run linux quite well.
posted by duckstab at 10:36 AM on April 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You are describing a netbook, which is more-or-less a dead product category. I've been using an Asus 1210PN with Lubuntu very effectively in the capacity you describe for several years now.

I think today your best option is a Chromebook running Linux. Acer C720 is cheap ($199-$229 base price) and has received pretty good press.

Some resources:
ArchWiki: Loading Arch Linux on a Chromebook
Linux Action Show does a feature on putting Linux on an Acer C720 How to install Linux on an Acer C720 Chromebook
posted by mcstayinskool at 10:37 AM on April 21, 2014

Ex-lease refurb Thinkpad? Decent screen, solid build, good Linux support. That's at the 12in end, sizewise, but you can find older X-series models around $300 on eBay.

That said, older used vs newer low-spec is more of a toss-up now than it once was, because even low-spec hardware like the Acer c720 has good battery life thanks to the processor architecture.
posted by holgate at 10:40 AM on April 21, 2014

Start watching Woot and tech.woot for deals on low-end laptops. Their stock changes daily/weekly and the interface is crummy but I've gotten two netbooks from them over the years.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 11:22 AM on April 21, 2014

I say this whenever anyone looks for inexpensive laptops, but check out office and electronics stores (Staples, Office Depot, Office Max, Best Buy, even Walmart) for their latest sales. Some discounts will bring the prices for "full-sized" laptops down near your $300 mark, and there are smaller form laptops that get cheaper. You can also find sales directly from the various manufacturers, but with store sales, you can see the products in person and return them to the store for some level of local support. See when the ads run, and if you see something you like, call around or check websites to see where it is in stock. If there's a particularly good deal, you might have to act fast. For instance, I think Staples sales start on Sunday, so you might want to dash off on Sunday morning.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:24 AM on April 21, 2014

Maybe any of the first few options in this Amazon list of search results?
posted by shivohum at 11:33 AM on April 21, 2014

I'd recommend an off-lease business laptop (Lenovoa, Dell HP) if weight and portability aren't your primary concerns.
posted by cnc at 12:34 PM on April 21, 2014

Nthing Lenovo if you can get a deal--my work Thinkpad works great even in direct sunlight and has otherwise been a solid machine.
posted by rustcellar at 2:14 PM on April 21, 2014

I tried to find something like this mythical beast as a holiday present. After hours looking online, I discovered that WalMart had the best return policy (don't like it within 30 days? get your money back no questions asked) as well as the best price. Shipped from wherever to the store and picked up for no charge. I can only assume that WalMart gets their machines built to spec, cause else was selling what I wanted with an optical drive.
posted by Jesse the K at 5:35 PM on April 21, 2014

IMHO a refurbished Thinkpad x200 would probably be your best choice. They run Linux *perfectly* and you can get them for less than $200 on ebay.
posted by Poldo at 6:19 PM on April 21, 2014

I really like my HP 2133 mini-note.

It's got a small footprint, but is quite thick and heavy. What sets it out from other 'netbooks' is the 1280*768 screen, and the nearly full-size decent quality keyboard.

The problem you'll have now is finding one with a decent battery life now.
posted by chrispy108 at 4:38 AM on April 22, 2014

I picked up a Chromebook a couple of weeks ago to eventually use as a lightweight development machine. It.s the Acer C710-2490, which is a bit wierd among Chromebooks in that it has a full ~300GB hard drive instead of the usual ~16GB SSD. I was able to get Xubuntu working on it without a lot of trouble.

One thing to know about Chromebooks is that you need to put them into "developer mode" before they will let you install another OS. You do this with a hotkey combination on bootup. The tricky thing is that when you leave Developer Mode (and you're prompted to do this on every bootup by pressing the space bar), it wipes the disk and reinstalls the base ChromeOS. If you use something like Crouton, you'll end up losing everything the first time you or someone else hits space and then enter (I think) to confirm.

However, if you re-partition the disk and install Linux on its own partition, it won't touch that, although it *will* remove the Linux partition from the boot order, requiring you to fix that in a Developer Mode shell. (I discovered this when I accidentally locked myself out of the Linux partition by breaking the password file. Rebooting into normal mode, then back into Developer Mode got me to a place where I could fix the damage.)

I found this site invaluable, as well as some of the blog posts here. (I don't have time right now to give you the specific pages; sorry about that.)

It's a nice little machine. The keyboard is a good size (and I have huge hands) and the screen is decent if small. Battery power also seems pretty good. It looks like it can manage ~4-5 hours. I haven't tried the screen in direct sunlight but it seems decent.

Feel free to memail me if you have specific questions.
posted by suetanvil at 4:47 AM on April 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

so why not a tablet?
It works with all of your specifications.
small (10-12 inch screen) very inexpensive (sub-$300) notebook, to use for reading PDFs, taking notes, and very light coding (i.e. emacs and python). Any recommendations would be most welcome.

If you are coding for a long time, you might want to get a keyboard but otherwise ipad's and samsung note will suit you just fine.
posted by radsqd at 8:38 AM on April 22, 2014

Lenovo outlet.

I'm currently configuring for a user at my work, a very nice thinkpad x131e that was under $300 on there. Chromebooks have shitty keyboards, this has an awesome keyboard. The screen is also way nicer than any chromebook or cheap netbook i've seen, and it's built like a tank since it's meant for k-8 kids to smash around. There's also A+ linux support if you're going that route.

There's several other series' of small lenovo machines that regularly pop up on there in the 11-14in range for cheap. Check it out a couple times a day for a few days and you'll find something that'll do what you want.
posted by emptythought at 9:58 AM on April 22, 2014

Response by poster: Followup - thanks to everyone that answered. I ended up going with a acer c720 with ubuntu - it's been basically great. The battery life is unreal and it's fast enough for web browsing (even videos!), which is all I can really ask for $250. So I guess I can recommend doing the same.

Thanks again!
posted by uninformative at 6:10 PM on June 14, 2014

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