Halp me choose an inexpensive laptop
July 18, 2016 10:40 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for laptops under $500 that meet my special snowflake needs (inside).

I'm in the market for a laptop that will function as my primary computer. I want to pay less than $500 total, including software, any required peripherals, shipping, taxes, etc.

I haven't bought a laptop in quite a few years, but the last two times I've gotten Dell Vostros, which turned out fine for my purposes at the time (I was a web developer). I had a bigger budget then, though. I am open to a refurbished Dell or other types of refurbished laptops as long as they have a year minimum warrantee and are from a genuinely reliable company.

I'm a Windows person, not by preference but simply by having used it far more than anything else in work settings where I had no choice. I'm not open to learning Linux, and honestly probably not open to Mac. Life is too complex already. Sorry and I understand that this makes me a Bad Person and traitor to the human race.

I'm a massage therapist/small business owner, and I plan to take this laptop back and forth to work, and use it every workday for such things as writing client session notes, scheduling appointments, and processing credit card payments, as well as less frequent updates to my web site. I use massagebook.com and abmp.com a lot. Some functions aren't available at all on a phone, and many are awkward on a small screen. I've tried using the site on someone else's kindle, and yuck. So, first requirement is for a decent sized screen.

Battery life isn't a big deal as I plan to be using this laptop plugged into wall outlets most of the time. Although I guess those are famous last words, because probably as soon as I buy a laptop with shitty battery life, I'll find that, for unforeseen Reasons, I need to use it where there's no outlet. Sigh.

I don't do any fancy modern computer gaming that would require great graphics or tons of resources. I will want to watch Netflix and YouTube videos though.

I will also want to play music for massage sessions. My roommate is planning to get a sound bar, but the audio should still probably be decent enough that poor sound quality doesn't actively bug my massage clients.

I have unlimited data through a shared phone plan, so I am hoping to use that in order to connect my laptop to the internet when I'm at work (I just rent office space and there's no WiFi included).

I'll also want to be using the laptop for word processing.

As we've established, I'm an inveterate, soulless Windows user, so my productivity suite of choice will probably be Office. I hate this new concept of endlessly bleeding users for money through Office 365. So many laptops now seem to come with only a short free trial of 365. I want regular Office installed, even if that means buying a cheap laptop, buying Office separately and installing it after I get the laptop.

For physical space and sanity reasons, I want to get rid of my old desk and laptops, with this laptop being my sole computer. So, this laptop needs to be a complete solution.

I don't *think* I need a tremendous amount of storage space. All of my massage records live in the Cloud (with HIPAA compliant backup), as does my email for the last many years (yes, I would be upset if I lost access to my gmail, backing it up is on my list). My photos, word files, web site files, and audio/video files are scattered between my phone, old laptop and old desktops. Most of it is backed up to Google Drive and/or Carbonite. Though I've thus far never had to restore anything. It wouldn't be a huge tragedy if I couldn't keep everything all in one place on the laptop.

I'm sure there are all sorts of other pieces of information I should be including in this. But I can't think of what else to write at the moment, so I'll just come back and answer questions if need be...
posted by mysterious_stranger to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Spend $55 on a Costco membership then go buy a Lenovo. You get extra years of warranty and support. All of your use requirements can be done using OSS (Open Source Software) such as Libre Office and VLC. The Costco concierge service (tech support team) is hands down the best I've had dealings with in the past 5 years.
posted by ptm at 10:51 PM on July 18, 2016

Response by poster: As I tried to make clear in my initial post, I do not have the time or energy to learn a new OS or productivity suite. Please, regardless of your personal opinion of Windoze or Office, accept that the guidelines I have stated are in fact my guidelines!
posted by mysterious_stranger at 11:11 PM on July 18, 2016

Best answer: You can buy a refurbished Dell Latitude (e.g. an E6230) on Ebay for under $300 then pick up a copy of Office somewhere. (I'm not sure I absorbed all of your requirements.)
posted by salvia at 12:35 AM on July 19, 2016

For a lot of reasons (not the least of which being that Windows 10 really doesn't play nice without a LOT of RAM), there just aren't any Windows options within your price range that don't involve significant compromise.

You'd be better off saving up a couple hundred bucks more and getting something like the Asus Zenbook ($645 here at the moment, Office suite not included) or the Acer Aspire Skylake ($549 on amzn). Even the low-end Skylake Dell Inspiron is clocking in at $529 (here), and, again, you're going to need some software and, as you said, cables, taxes, shipping, what not.

The thing is, spend $50-100 less and you're going to get something with a dramatically quicker path to obsolescence. Or a machine without the RAM or processing power to do even the relatively basic things you're looking for without causing you frustration.

If your budget's really unbudgeable, you might try shopping used, but that comes with its own set of pitfalls, not least of which is the obvious risk of buying a lemon. I don't usually suggest someone buy a used laptop unless they have (catch-22) experience buying used laptops - and unless you've got a very savvy cousin or neighbor kid in a back pocket, bribing someone more experienced to shop on your behalf is only going to take another bite out of your already tight budget.

Oh, and at this price, I would definitely NOT recommend getting a refurb. Or, if you do, like salvia says, aim to get one for under $300, and plan on making this kind of decision again in less than 2 years.

Good luck. Shopping for a new machine is always stressful, and it sounds like your limited resources for learning new stuff is creating extra obstacles for you.

tl;dr - I highly recommend saving another $200 and getting yourself a laptop that will last you a solid few years.
posted by myrrh at 12:39 AM on July 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

I should add: laptop manufacturers know that $500 is a psychological breakpoint for purchasers. That's why you see $300/$350 netbooks and $700/$750 ultrabooks and very few reputable models in between.

One other thing you might consider is aiming at a sub-$300 laptop to handle your Office needs and a tablet (I really like the Dell Venue 8) for your Netflix/YouTube/music needs.
posted by myrrh at 12:45 AM on July 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm basing this off of what I've done in the past. The laptop I am currently typing on is an Acer E series - 17 inch screen. Came with whatever windows was on it. Did the free upgrade to windows 10. The computer came with 6gb ddr3 ram. I paid less than $500 for this a couple years ago. This shit still works great for what I need it to work for - basically some bullshit coding, non-intensive jpg editing, interwebbing, and watching Netflix. The sound is fine through headphones or using a speaker. Not great, but okay. I have no experience using Office on this computer - anything that I need to make using Office-y products I just use google docs or spreadsheets or whatever free google thing I need to use. I would imagine Office would have gone on this computer just fine but I wasn't going to pay to make that happen.

So my advice would be to look at acer laptops in the $400-$500 range. Both of the acer laptops I've owned have been completely solid as far as being good at periods or casual usage or heavy usage. There are a few 15.6" versions on Amazon for $400 right now.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 12:59 AM on July 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Here you go.

I hate this new concept of endlessly bleeding users for money through Office 365.

Well, then you can either buy Office 365 annually for $95 or you can accept that you cannot get a laptop in your price range and Office for under $500.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:01 AM on July 19, 2016

Best answer: I have a Surface 3 and it'll d everything you want for $350-400 or so. Except play music, the speakers exist but suck but you could buy a cheap external and be within budget.

As far as software: mine came with an Office subscription for either one year or two, I can't recall. It has a computer and a tablet mode, the computer mode is basically a normal Windows machine, the tablet mode is a little buggy at times but basically works just fine. It's very intuitive and I pretty much leave mine in tablet mode all the time. I've had zero problems doing things like connecting to mobile hotspots or speakers and I lovelove the touchscreen. As far as learning curve, if you use windows and have a smartphone you already know how to use it.

I love that the keyboard is replaceable as that's always what died first on my old laptops. The attached keyboard works well and you can attach a better one for serious typing if you want to. I just bought the cheap one and stuck an SD card in it for additional storage, which works well. I'm pretty evangelical about these machines now, it's a perfect little deal for me.
posted by fshgrl at 1:02 AM on July 19, 2016

Best answer: Are you affiliated with any schools? I was able to get a free Office 365 subscription because I was taking one class at a community college. (Some details here.)
posted by needs more cowbell at 1:19 AM on July 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

1. "I have unlimited data through a shared phone plan, so I am hoping to use that in order to connect my laptop to the internet when I'm at work (I just rent office space and there's no WiFi included)." That concept is called tethering, and mobile providers generally charge an extra fee per month/want you to change your plan entirely for adding that feature to your data plan because that tends to blow through planned data allowances, even on "unlimited" plans [there's generally a 20 gig threshold where they'll start throttling your speed even without tethering]. ATT, for example.

2. Re Office: I don't know if Office.com is HIPAA-compliant, or if it has all the features you'll need, but it is free [it's made by Microsoft, it's Office in the cloud with a smaller feature set, a la Google Docs]. My gut says no, Microsoft wants you to pay for HIPAA compliance, but given your constraints, it's worth investigating if other options don't work out.

Free student 365 subscriptions are, as you noted, most likely to be a stopgap rather than a full solution - IIRC, Microsoft checks on your student eligibility when it's time to renew the subscription, and it's school-dependent.

Otherwise, do you already have an Office license for Office 2010/2013 on your old laptop? You may be able to transfer it to the new laptop, in some cases, depending on how old things are. If you're currently running Office 2007, though, you should know that Microsoft has declared Office 2007's End-of-Life to be in April 2017, and if you use it after that, you will not be HIPAA-compliant.

If you don't, without some other ace in the hole, you're going to be spending $210-$230 for Office 2016, meaning you really have less than $300 to spend on a laptop.
posted by Pandora Kouti at 4:52 AM on July 19, 2016

Best answer: Have a look at Dell outlet. They have refurbs, and previously ordered new machines, the orders for which were canceled for some reason or another.

They often have 30% or more off sales.

I bought my last 2 Alienware computers from them at something under 40% of retail price. I'm not shy about throwing RAM, a bigger SSD or even a new screen into a laptop, but you wouldn't need to in most cases. (Alienware used as example only, you said you didn't game, so.)

They have a home And a work section, in case you want to look at latitudes, which are their business line.

We use Dell at work, and they are soild enough for most uses.
posted by Ecgtheow at 5:25 AM on July 19, 2016

As I tried to make clear in my initial post, I do not have the time or energy to learn a new OS or productivity suite. Please, regardless of your personal opinion of Windoze or Office, accept that the guidelines I have stated are in fact my guidelines!

New OS is one thing but Google Docs, Live Office, etc. aren't really learning anything new. They perform the same basic functions, open the same documents and are less of a change than the changes between versions of Office.
posted by TravellingCari at 1:30 PM on July 19, 2016

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