Budget laptop for bare-bones use?
July 6, 2021 10:51 AM   Subscribe

I need to replace my elderly, slowly dying Toshiba laptop (c. 2010, still running Windows 7), but want to do this w/out taking a big hit.

I need it primarily for email/internet, light streaming (no games), a small amount of storage, and some very basic photo editing using GIMP. I need it to have some USB ports, and an SD card reader would also be helpful. Compact, 11-14" screen will probably be ideal. What, hivemind, should I buy?
posted by ryanshepard to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I always have had good experiences with refurbs from the big makers - Lenovo, Dell, HP. I buy from their outlets, though I do have one beater laptop I got off Woot from a third-party refurber and it's fine. Thinkpads are the best of the bunch, I think, and I have one refurbed from Lenovo and one I bought retired from work, but I'm also really happy with the $325 Dell Inspiron I got early in the pandemic when Thinkpads were impossible to get your hands on.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:02 AM on July 6, 2021 [4 favorites]

Lenovo's Thinkpads have always been reliable. These 14" AMD ones start at around $700, and it will definitely do what you need. No SD slot but I have always kept a USB SD reader around anyway since I need it for MicroSD and CF cards.

Dells start around the same price, you can pick and choose a bit.

I'd caution against going too much lower in price if you're buying new because it's clear you intend to keep this for a while and it's good to stick to solid brands and established lines! (And on preview yes consider refurbs!)

But if you'd rather not spend quite so much, check out the always good Wirecutter recommendations, I'm never sure with Acers but they seem to have found the good ones there. Sounds like Lenovo's IdeaPads are also an option.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 11:03 AM on July 6, 2021

I'll add that my rule of thumb for specs, with a similar use profile as yours, is be willing to go a little low on processor if it'll let you max the RAM. 8GB is about the most you're going to get in an older (but not terribly old) chipset like i3, but you see a lot of them sold with 4GB - look for the 8s. You'll take quite a price bump to get up to 16gb with an i5 or higher, and it's varying levels of difficulty to upgrade that yourself.

$540 for a 15" Inspiron with good specs

Similar Lenovos in the $600 range, they all seem to have teensy hard drives but if you're going to mostly cloud store or use external drives for photos.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:15 AM on July 6, 2021

Response by poster: Similar Lenovos in the $600 range, they all seem to have teensy hard drives but if you're going to mostly cloud store or use external drives for photos.

My current one has 4GB, which has been sufficient for keeping stuff around while I'm working w/it, before it moves to externals for storage.
posted by ryanshepard at 11:19 AM on July 6, 2021

Best answer: Hi! I am both cheap and often broke and spend as little as is practictable. Which is somewhat different than what is possible.

Let's start with the fact that people telling you not to spend less than $700 on a laptop have $700 to spend on a laptop and move down from there. 4GB of memory is fine if it has served you until now and can be upgraded - everything gets more memory hungry every year so the ability to add more RAM is important. Just as important: don't buy a laptop without SSD. I'm not one to tell people they need the latest whatever but a laptop without SSD is already obselete, and you need to maximise the lifespan of your new laptop purchase.

This HP from Best Buy has 4GB of extendable memory and 128GB SSD and is $329.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:37 AM on July 6, 2021 [3 favorites]

Sticking an SSD in has been an upgrade that restored life to older laptops slowed by spinning rust.
posted by k3ninho at 12:23 PM on July 6, 2021

My current one has 4GB, which has been sufficient for keeping stuff around while I'm working w/it

That'll be the RAM, not the storage memory.

I would recommend a used X-series Thinkpad. Built like a tank and easy to upgrade. My current is an X220 with an i7 processor, 8GB of RAM and some 450 GB of storage. It would certainly do all that you require.
Spend $250 tops and you'll have a ton of bang for your buck.
posted by Too-Ticky at 1:05 PM on July 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

get a used t420 or t460 thinkpad with at least an i5 and a solid state drive. ideally it will come from a corporate fleet of machines and be wiped with fresh install of windows of your choice .. used imo is better because it will lack bloatware. i think this seller in hartford is one i have bought such an item from ! probably not helpful specifically, bc odds of you being near them are slim, but plenty of people on ebay and in local computer shops are buying and reselling these sorts of machines, so here it is as an example: https://hartford.craigslist.org/sys/d/south-windsor-lenovo-t460-thinkpad/7336290865.html (this one is a t460 with ssd , asking 290.00 )

these older machines are cheap and easily upgradeable/pretty modular. hope this helps !
posted by elgee at 1:38 PM on July 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

There was a Samsung barebones laptop for $210 or so advertised on Amazon / BGR deals, but it may have expired now. It does run Win 10.
posted by kschang at 1:48 PM on July 6, 2021

Best answer: I'm on Team Refurb Thinkpad. Currently using a T440 I got a year ago for 210. I keep an absurd number of tabs open and it does fine. I just got an SSD to put in it; this is a do-able task, or get a pal with tech skills to do this for a fee. Surprisingly, the battery still has a couple hours' life. Thinkpads are workhorses, designed to be repaired and upgraded, parts are plentiful. They are business-class computers, sturdy and powerful. Businesses lease them, use for 2 - 3 years, replace them, and they get sold in lots to refurb companies. They stay useful for many more years than the consumer-grade crap at Walmart, etc.

When I'm buying a used laptop, I check to see what they're selling for over a week or 2. I decide what my minimum specs are and track several, and use a sniping tool to make one bid at a time. A good deal or 2 may get away, I'm happy with a pretty good deal.

examples: T460 T460, and I didn't look very hard.
posted by theora55 at 3:35 PM on July 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

This article from Low Tech Magazine talks about ways to spend under 300 euros on a used laptop and set it up for low-energy, low-intensity operations by upgrading the hardware and downgrading the software.
posted by mdonley at 12:13 AM on July 7, 2021

Response by poster: Thanks all - I went with a refurbished Thinkpad from the Lenovo outlet. It was squarely w/in my budget for this.
posted by ryanshepard at 7:08 AM on July 7, 2021 [3 favorites]

Coming in to say how much I love my refurb Lenovo ThinkPad. The wireless card in it just died, so I plugged in an external USB one and it's as good as new.
posted by kathrynm at 4:57 PM on July 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

@kathrynm FWIW, if you are willing to open your laptop by following proper procedures, you can probably find a replacement wifi card (probably an Intel) pretty easily on eBay or such and replacement procedure is usually quite easy. Check ifixit to see if it has a lot of ribbon cables and such to mess up. Up to you. :)
posted by kschang at 5:48 AM on July 8, 2021

In the past I would have. But I don't have enough spoons to deal with opening it up. The guy at MicroCenter said it would be cheaper to get a USB dongle than to go through diagnostics and repair. I respect him for that.
posted by kathrynm at 4:52 PM on July 8, 2021

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