Cheap Laptop That’s Great for Writing
October 12, 2021 6:53 AM   Subscribe

I need a cheap laptop PC (under $350, the cheaper the better) for writing papers, notes, and exams for class. It needs to be Windows 10 or higher to be compatible with the exam software. Typing and navigation ease are my top priorities.

Via a hub, I want to hook this computer up to 1-2 monitors, a webcam, a mechanical keyboard, a mouse, and a printer at home. But I also need to be able to grab it and take it to class to take notes and (most importantly) to write exams.

The exams require a special software that runs on Windows 10 or above. My school gives us a free subscription to an online Office subscription that I also need to be able to use. We also need to run searches/research in large databases, but that’s all online as well. My stuff is all saved to the cloud.

I need to be able to write comfortably on this laptop — that is my #1 concern. Part of that is the actual typing, part of that is navigating between windows, within the document, etc.

I had to use my MacBook Air to write a paper this week and it was hell. I hate that computer with the heat of a thousand suns.

I don’t care if this cheap computer lasts 1 year or 10. I need it urgently, and don’t have a ton of money, so the cheaper the better.
posted by rue72 to Computers & Internet (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
Urgently as in "today" or "within a week"?

The standard AskMe answer -- if you're in the US and can wait a week or so -- is "an old refurbished work laptop from a reputable seller on eBay", especially a Lenovo Thinkpad T-series. It's better than anything you could buy new at that price.

The Thinkpad T470/470s/470p or A475 is towards the upper end of your price range. A T420/430 would be fine for what you need and closer to $150-200. An older one that leaves you a little money left over to swap in an SSD / add more RAM is better than a newer one with a spinning HD.
posted by holgate at 7:35 AM on October 12 [5 favorites]


Response by poster: Urgently as in "today" or "within a week"?

The timeframe is more a week than a day.

I have another paper that I need to start this weekend, so if I could get it going this weekend, that would be great.

That said, I have not had good luck with eBay in the past. Maybe there’s a learning curve.

My boyfriend is setting up a profile for me on his old Surface, but I am not sure about taking it to class to write finals.
posted by rue72 at 7:48 AM on October 12


Caveat emptor, but again, if you are in the US, you might look at Costco. I bought this Lenovo Flex at least 3 years ago for $500, which I know is out of your price range. It's actually been a really good computer for doing the exact things you are talking about. Almost everything I do is online (rather than running software on the machine itself). My local Costco is showing quite a few Windows laptops for $350 and under. Sure, they might not last longer than a year, and they might not be the fastest, but they should all do what you want. Some even have Windows 11 already.
posted by Snowishberlin at 7:50 AM on October 12


Refurbed ThinkPad or Dell is going to be the recommendation across the board, but do also keep in mind that you can add the aftermarket keyboard and mouse of your choosing, dramatically reducing the general discomforts of typing and navigating on any computer. Frankly, even if you're doing your writing at coffee shops or libraries you can get better-than-onboard keyboards that are still fairly slim and portable (tip: keep the box the keyboard comes in, to prevent key damage in transit). On the not-small side, for home use, I swear by Logitech's ergonomic Wireless Wave MK570 pair.

Laptops are not ergonomic in any way. You might find some options that are slightly more comfortable with full-size keys and a decent trackpad, but unless you have a very small frame laptop keyboards are not really meant for adult shoulders.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:52 AM on October 12 [1 favorite]


One reason other reason why old ThinkPads get recommended a lot, is that they come with pretty good keyboards for typing on. But you talk about using an external keyboard. Can you explain why you found the MacBook Air so hellish to use?
posted by rongorongo at 7:52 AM on October 12 [2 favorites]


I did not have a good experience with Windows 10 on a __20 level Thinkpad, even with an SSD & 8gb of RAM, even when I tried reinstalling. (Ubuntu is fine on the same machine.) I love Thinkpads but I'd hesitate to recommend anything that old to someone who is wedded to Windows 10.
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:00 AM on October 12 [1 favorite]


Look at the HP Stream series. I had very decent luck with one a few years ago when I needed a cheap laptop. The biggest problem is the lack of onboard storage, but if you aren't planning to install much software, you should be OK. For ease of typing and window management, get the 14-inch model and NOT the 11-inch model.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:27 AM on October 12


I've always had good luck with refurbished computers from Woot. They've got a bunch of smaller Win10 computers in the $150-$250 range right now:

1st Gen Lenovo Thinkpad 11e, $180
Dell Latitude 3190, $250
HP 215, G1, $250
Acer TravelMate, $250
posted by hanov3r at 9:00 AM on October 12 [2 favorites]


Ditto with Woot.com, as these are basically old business lease returns. They aren't much good for games or such, but they are okay with relatively minimal uses. Shipping is a bit iffy, as it can come REALLY fast, or take a whole week.
posted by kschang at 10:32 AM on October 12 [1 favorite]


Just as a datapoint, I am running Windows 10 on a Dell E6410 former-business-lease machine, upgraded with 16GB RAM and an SSD (the SSD is at least 5 years old so nothing special). It runs just fine, at least in my opinion, so I don't think you need that much horsepower just to run Win10 and basic Word/Office apps.

I do think that Win10 is a RAM hog, so the fact that it has 16GB instead of the default 4 or 8 is probably significant.

It looks like you can pick up one of those on eBay in "B Grade" condition for under $200 with 4-day shipping, and both the RAM upgrade and HDD-to-SSD swap were simple, because the machine is designed to be easily repaired. It also has an externally-replaceable battery, which I think is a plus.

Also, you can get a Dell dock for it very inexpensively, so all your peripherals (mechanical keyboard, monitors, etc.) can stay connected to the dock and you can just grab-and-go when you head to class. It is capable of driving two monitors, although I'm not sure what the max resolution is. (Probably it won't drive dual 4Ks or anything crazy, but it seems to be fine with the built-in display plus an external 1080p panel.)

The built-in keyboard is fairly nice; perhaps not "classic IBM Thinkpad from the 1990s" good, but better than most. I have done a fair bit of typing on it without thinking too many hateful thoughts about the engineers who designed it. It also has a Touchpoint-style mouse in addition to the regular (smallish) touchpad, which I really like, especially when editing text.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:07 AM on October 12


That said, I have not had good luck with eBay in the past.

I've bought quite a few ThinkPads off eBay, but all of them from (European, i my case) sellers that deal with refurbished ex-lease units. None of them were lemons except one, which was returned without hassle. Those sellers are easily recognised by the fact that they offer dozens, sometimes a hundred or more of the same model though not all of them with the same memory and disk specs, graded by their state (clean, some scuffs and scratches, or looking quite used). They also tend to have fair warranty clauses.
posted by Stoneshop at 11:25 AM on October 12 [3 favorites]


I've had great luck with used Thinkpads, T Series, from ebay. There's a buyer's guide. It takes a couple days to shop careful and find a good laptop. I'm on a T440 that is a workhorse with a surprisingly good battery.
Right off the bat, I saw
$250 - Lenovo ThinkPad T460s 14" i5-6300U 2.4GHz 8Gb RAM 256Gb SSD 1920x1080 Win10
$280 - Lenovo ThinkPad T460s 14" i7-6600U 2.6GHz 8Gb RAM 256Gb SSD 1920x1080 Win10
$300 - Lenovo ThinkPad T480 14" (500GB Core i5 8250U, 1.60GHz, 8GB)
posted by theora55 at 11:47 AM on October 12 [4 favorites]


Yeah, the basic point here is that the refurb ex-lease market -- which basically means Lenovo and Dell these days -- is invariably better at $X than anything you could buy new for $X. And it's a huge and established and reputable market.
posted by holgate at 11:46 PM on October 12


The other thing lurking behind your question: a good desk setup: use a health & safety desk assessment and take breaks.

I like an upright mouse, Perixx were the first company I saw with inexpensive optical mice but the design is copied by other brands on my Amazon.
posted by k3ninho at 12:14 AM on October 13


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