What laptop do you recommend for a 14-year old writer? Budget: ~$350
May 4, 2020 1:40 PM   Subscribe

My kid is constantly borrowing my company laptop to do writing (mostly in Google Docs) and log in to their school portal to do whatever they need. They don't really game at all. It's mostly YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok, all of which is really done on their phone. So I think the primary purpose of this machine will just be writing with occasionally streaming videos on Hulu/Prime/Netflix.

I don't think we want a Chromebook because we want flexibility on being able to run more stuff on the operating system. While they do a pretty good job of taking care of their belongings (and my laptop has never been damaged, only left off the charger constantly so I show up for a morning meeting with a dead battery), I don't really expect this to last more than 2-3 years before they either break it or it's obsolete.

I think I'm comfortable with refurbished. I think rather avoid eBay or Amazon resellers (but feel free to say I'm wrong). If spending a little extra money is required to not get a piece of crap, I'd like to know that. I think we need a Windows machine but I'd be cool with a Macbook or something running Linux (as long it can do everything they need it to do). Definitely more comfortable in Windows. Optical drive not required (does anyone actually still use that?). Lack of SSD not a deal breaker. Don't have any idea how much RAM you need these days. Our IT guy at work says "oh, you're running applications X, Y, and Z so have this machine" and I never really have to think about these things.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints to Technology (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Dell has several laptops under $350 dollars. First one that came up upon searching is the Inspiron 15 3000 Laptop.

It's more than powerful enough for Google Docs and some streaming.
posted by Young Kullervo at 1:45 PM on May 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

I've had reasonable luck with eBay refurbs - better luck than I've had with new $350 laptops. Look for someone who has many of the same model for sale, some kind of warranty, and a good reputation; if you have any problems with the hardware, they're likely to be able to replace the one they sent you with one of the other 50 or 500 identical laptops they got in whatever corporate off-lease deal they got the batch in. 5 year old boring corporate laptop is the sweet spot for me.

I'm writing this comment on a Dell Latitude E5540 that I bought off eBay a few weeks back, as it happens. I got the model with the 1920x1080 screen, which is a little easier on the eyes with lots of text than the 1366x768 screens you often see on cheaper laptops.
posted by clawsoon at 2:14 PM on May 4, 2020

Best answer: You're going to have to be clearer on what other stuff you want to be able to run because otherwise a Chromebook sounds like a perfect choice honestly, especially with that price point.

I think not being able to do more with this computer might be a feature, not a bug.

Honestly the distinction between what happens on a phone and what happens on a computer is now gotten super blurry. The only real exception is gaming which you said isn't planned for this computer (and that's good, because very few games would play on any laptop, refurbished or not, that you got for ~$350).
posted by Deathalicious at 2:17 PM on May 4, 2020 [8 favorites]

Agreed on the "other". As a chromebook isn't the only competitor at this price point; so is the entry level iPad. Even with the addition of a cheap bluetooth keyboard.
posted by mce at 2:26 PM on May 4, 2020

I've had good experiences with used thinkpads from the lenovo outlet store in the past. (My experience is mostly running linux, but they come with Windows installed.) They often have significant sales.
posted by eotvos at 2:30 PM on May 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

Dell sells refurbished laptops direct, and has frequent 35-50% off coupons.

These are on sale at the moment. The coupons are listed on the page.

This one for example is just under $350 with the coupon, and has an SSD, 8 gb ram and a higher-resolution screen.
posted by alexei at 2:33 PM on May 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: here's one plus for a Chromebook: many of them can run Android apps. Thus some phone stuff can be done more comfortably with a keyboard and a bigger screen. Plus there's no worries about the OS getting corrupted or installing something weird. A windows laptop at that price point will struggle because of the lack of enough processor power or memory.

The Wirecutter recommendation at that price point is the ASUS Chromebook C425 which is fine for student level work. (Their overall best pick if $500, so more than you wanted to spend). Their least-expensive recommended Windows laptop is about $500. Windows runs better with more RAM than ChromeOS does, so this machine struggles.

Honestly Chromebooks are pretty great and you'll be surprised how much you can do without Window or MacOS, doubly so at that price point.
posted by GuyZero at 2:33 PM on May 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

I have two other (Windows 10) laptops (for a few work-related things, or some more intense photo editing or gaming) but I primarily just use my Chromebook as my main computer (I work as a web developer if that makes a difference for you). So unless you have concrete plans for the reason you don't want a Chromebook ... I think the answer is ... a Chromebook. I haven't found it to be limited by its capabilities except in the cases cited above.
posted by darksong at 2:36 PM on May 4, 2020

Response by poster: OK! Thanks, ya'll. I'm now open to Chromebook suggestions. The advice about $350 just not having enough oomph for Windows makes sense. Keep 'em coming.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 2:51 PM on May 4, 2020

If you don't know about it already, the Passmark CPU benchmark list can be handy for comparing machines with otherwise identical memory and hard drives. That way you won't make the mistake I did of buying a cheap laptop with a Celeron N3050 like I did once when there are better options available.
posted by clawsoon at 3:05 PM on May 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: For someone that wants to write a lot, I would recommend a Chromebook in the Asus family, as they tend to have excellent keyboards.

I also nth the idea of a Chromebook for a teen, as their inherent security posture is way better than that of Windows. You can also install the Linux subsystem, which will allow installation of some apps beyond the native ones and Android apps.

Check the expiration date for updates for any Chromebook before buying to make sure you won't get something that will quickly lose support.

Don't consider anything with less than 4GB of RAM and 8 is preferable though relatively uncommon on Chromebooks.

If you do still want to consider a Windows system, I'll nth a refurb Dell or Lenovo.
posted by Candleman at 3:17 PM on May 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

I agree with the Chromebook idea, but if you're still considering a Windows machine:

I got my refurb ThinkPad 420 with an i7 chip from FreeGeek for $170, and it's been great. The build quality on ThinkPads is fantastic, it hasn't been sluggish at all and it came with an extra-large battery in great condition. It came with Linux, I installed Windows 10 which runs ~$140, plus your kid may be eligible for an educational discount. I had a nightmare of a time getting synced cloud storage (e.g. Dropbox, GDrive) to mount on Linux, if you aren't using that, Linux is much more user-friendly than it used to be and may work for you.

It looks like there are other similar non-profits across the US, searching your local area might bring up more options. They get a lot of former corporate machines donated, so they typically have good specs and aren't too abused.
posted by momus_window at 4:15 PM on May 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

Consider an iPad, honestly. That plus a keyboard is a surprisingly full platform with excellent battery life, great security, access to all those online bits you want, and a very rich app ecosystem.

The base model just-plain-iPad is $329 with 32GB of storage. That's probably enough unless music/video/gaming enters the picture, at which point the $429 128GB model sounds better.

The Smart Keyboard is excellent at $159, but you can get better protection for less money with something like the Rugged Folio from Logitech ($139).

If you did an iPad Mini instead of the full size one, there's a keyboard-folio from Logitech for $89. iPad Minis are priced differently -- the lowest end model is a little more money ($399) but comes with twice the space (64GB) which probably makes it a better deal, if the smaller screen isn't a problem.
posted by uberchet at 5:06 PM on May 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Totally a chromebook situation. Perfect for google suite stuff and streaming services. If you can find one I'd get one that has the 180 degree fold - something like this (I don't have that one, just recommend the idea). Our kids use them for writing, for art on the touchscreen (with a drawing pen), for all their school stuff, and for watching media. They generally can run android apps too.
posted by true at 5:46 PM on May 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Is there any reason I shouldn't get the machine that true links above? That looks like it might fit perfectly with what they need.

I'm off to check clawsoon's CPU benchmark link now.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 5:59 PM on May 4, 2020

Best answer: Another vote for a Chromebook. My son has a Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA, purchased in 2017 and it survived middle school and he's still using it in high school.

It's worth noting that many Intel-based Chromebooks can run GalliumOS which is a Linux distribution specifically for Chromebooks. It replaces ChromeOS if you need access to more applications or if auto-update support from Google has expired for your model.
posted by dweingart at 6:13 PM on May 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

What kind of phone do they have?

Why not skip the laptop altogether and just get them a kickass bluetooth keyboard they can connect to their phone. They can write in a text editing app and have a far better keyboard than one can find on any laptop. For instance.
posted by dobbs at 9:14 PM on May 4, 2020

Best answer: If it is writing/school, another Asus Chromebook recommendation here - the kiddo has used it in 5th and 6th grade so far, it looks beat up but it has survived and still chugs along. Plus his school uses chromebooks, google classroom, docs, etc. For streaming/watching etc. he uses a (3 year old) kindle, which he prefers for portability.
posted by carter at 4:28 AM on May 5, 2020

I have bought refurbished dell ultrabooks for ~$300, the ebay store of the company Revive IT

This was a midrange i5, 8gb ram, and a working touchscreen dell inspiron. I was happy with the purchase.

This was for kids to do remote learning.
posted by nickggully at 5:37 AM on May 5, 2020 [3 favorites]

spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints: Is there any reason I shouldn't get the machine that true links above? That looks like it might fit perfectly with what they need.

I had an Acer with a Celeron and 4GB of RAM and it was painful with Windows 10. I expect that it'd be much better with Chrome OS, though some websites will still be sluggish.
posted by clawsoon at 9:15 AM on May 5, 2020

I bought a refurbed ThinkPad for around $350 and it's great. It was (I believe) a year old. I bought it from MicroCenter, but I don't know if they ship refurbs. I live quite close to one of their of stores.
posted by kathrynm at 11:58 AM on May 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: We got an ASUS C214 Chromebook and I want to keep it for myself. It's absolutely perfect for what they've been doing with it for the past few days. The stylus is a big hit.

I am in love with the weight and feel of the machine. I wish I could get it with more storage and a better processor and try running Steam. I'm thinking about picking one up for myself to learn Linux.

The kid has been drawing on it, writing, or watching Netflix with it. The only downside is that the speakers suuuuuck. Even when turned up all the way they're never really loud enough.

We have an iPad and I asked couple weeks ago about bluetooth keyboards they could use with it, but they changed their mind and didn't really want that option.

Oh, I also used the USB-c video port to connect to a Dell docking station and it ran a dual monitor setup with external mouse and keyboard perfectly, in case anyone's curious.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 2:10 PM on May 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

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