Laptop on the cheap. What are the minimum specs?
December 18, 2006 1:30 PM   Subscribe

Shopping for a cheap used laptop: What are the minimum specs I should be looking for with respect to CPU, RAM, HD? I'm planning to use WinXP (maybe I'll settle for 2K), Open Office, and FireFox (including some AJAX-heavy web sites such as gmail, Google Docs,, with a wifi card. And not much else. I want to avoid "I'm always waiting for this stupid slow computer!" but not spend much more than the minimum needed to avoid that.
posted by Leonard of Vince to Computers & Internet (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The two specifications for a computer which most affect the "this damned computer is too slow" perception are: #1 the seek time of the hard disk and #2 the amount of RAM. CPU speed turns out to not be critical for the most part unless you're running a lot of heavy computing tasks, and it sounds like you won't be.

You want to make sure that the laptop has at least 512M of RAM, and twice that would be better. Unfortunately, as regards HD speeds, there's not a lot you can do about it because the physically small, low power drives used in laptops generally are slow.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:42 PM on December 18, 2006

What's your budget? 'Cheap' is pretty vague.
posted by mullingitover at 1:48 PM on December 18, 2006

What's your budget?

A this point I'm trying to determine what is the least I can spend to achieve the objectives stated above. Basically, I can't afford to buy one at all but it is absolutely required that I get one.
posted by Leonard of Vince at 1:55 PM on December 18, 2006

I'm using a Toshiba 3490CT. It's a P3 750 processor with 128 MB of RAM. In Windows XP, it runs just fine with multiple tabs open. I recently replaced the OS with Ubuntu, and that runs fine too. It's also ultraportable, so 3 pounds light is easy to talk to school/work. I fall more in love with this computer every day.

I'd think you should be able to get a reasonable laptop on ebay or through Craigslist in the $100-$300 range. I'd go with a P3 processor, 20 GB hard drive and 128-256 MB of RAM if possible.
posted by fcain at 2:18 PM on December 18, 2006

How definite is the WinXP requirement? You'll be able to get away with much lower specs if you use something like Ubuntu as your operating system. Xubuntu, the even-lower-requirements version, lists the following as minimum specs: 128MB, 1.5Gb. I've run it on a 500MHz MiniITX machine with very few slowdowns, though 256MB makes a lot of difference. The software you've listed will all run fine on *buntu.

That said, *nix can be a bugger to get wireless set up with certain cards/chipsets so if you do go down this route, check for compatiility first.
posted by blag at 2:24 PM on December 18, 2006

Yes, I agree to some extent that amount of RAM and speed of the hard disk will be the two most relevant factors. But with the HD, you are pretty much doomed to a standard 2.5" 4200 RPM (or 5400 RPM if you're lucky) laptop sized drive, so it's not really something you have a lot of control over. The amount of RAM however, certainly is, as most every laptop allows you to install RAM and you should definitely do so to the maximum amount.

I have an old Pentium MMX 233 (yes, circa 1997) laptop, but I maxed it out to 256 MB of ram and it runs Windows XP acceptably. It's no speed demon, of course, but it would be usable. I mention this only to point out that RAM is essential above all else.

1G DDR SO SIMM price comparison. Laptop RAM is standard, so don't believe that you need to get a special kind from the manufacturer. You just need to determine the type used, i.e. SDR, DDR, or DDR2 and then find it in the SO-DIMM package style.
posted by Rhomboid at 2:25 PM on December 18, 2006

Oh and before we get to the "you should use win98 or 2k and not XP" debate, let me say a couple of things:
  • Windows XP allows you to disable the visual themes and fancy effects.
  • You can disable unnecessary services and startup programs.
  • WinXP includes ClearType which is a godsend on an LCD.
  • WinXP includes prefetching, which was not present in any prior version, and is a HUGE speed benefit for startup of programs where the HD is slow, which is especially criticial for laptop drives.
  • Wireless support under XP SP2 is light years ahead of 2k. (I wouldn't even consider 9x, that is torture.)

posted by Rhomboid at 2:29 PM on December 18, 2006

128 MB of RAM. In Windows XP, it runs just fine with multiple tabs open.

Interesting. I had a Dell with 256MB of RAM and XP and it was slooowww, particularly with Firefox using multiple tabs. But I wouldnt go crazy worrying about disabling things and going to other OS's and so forth. I ended up buying a gig of additional RAM from for about $150 and now it flies. (I probably could have gotten away with only adding 512 or even 256 for even less money)

RAM is cheap and, as pointed out above and OS flamewars aside, win XP is a solid, proven OS that I have literally never seen crash on a solid machine.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:39 PM on December 18, 2006

[to edit the above comment, the slowness was sporadic and not intolerable, but it annoyed me at times.]
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:41 PM on December 18, 2006

With a limited amount of ram (and it pains me to say this) but wouldn't IE be better, given Firefox's notorious memory leaks? Pardon my ignorance tho, I haven't used IE voluntarily in years.

I'll 2nd/3rd/whatever the ubuntu recommendation, however, IF you have a supported wireless card. I still haven't got mine to work tho, so YMMV.
posted by cgg at 2:56 PM on December 18, 2006

Len, meet Zed.
posted by theora55 at 2:57 PM on December 18, 2006

You may be confused by the differences of opinion about necessary RAM size. Some say "128M is fine." Others are saying "512M at a bare minimum."

All RAM which isn't being directly used by programs under WinXP is used for disk caching. That means that to some extent having more RAM ameliorates the performance issues associated with slow hard disks.

It's true that it's possible to use XP with only 128M of RAM, but only if you only use one program at a time, and only if that program doesn't tend to use a lot of memory. If it needs more memory than you have, you start to swap a lot, and performance goes into the toilet. With a browser, that'll happen to you when you view any web page which has a lot of graphics, for instance.

With more memory, you won't have to swap, and if a program or the system are accessing the same disk files over and over, they'll use the memory copies instead, for a huge increase in effective speed.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:09 PM on December 18, 2006

Ok, so no answer to the budget question.

I'll wing it: You want something like this.

It's a Thinkpad. The entire laptop costs less than I spent on RAM for my MBP and it meets all the requirements you're looking for.
posted by mullingitover at 3:17 PM on December 18, 2006

On ClearType being a godsend on LCD's: On a 1024x768 LCD display, many people prefer to see jaggies than an antialiased font, which most people will perceive as somewhat blurry by comparison even with ClearType's sub-pixel smoothing. Antialiased fonts work much better on higher-resolution displays. Unfortunately, Windows apps generally react badly to high-resolution displays.

To my eye at least, the standard antialiased fonts that Ubuntu uses for UI elements look much, much nicer than the corresponding Windows fonts, even on a 1024x768 screen. Ubuntu also does LCD sub-pixel antialiasing, just without the fancy marketing name, and you don't need to download a special power-toy or visit a tuneup web page to tweak it.

One last thing: if you're open to the possibility of running your nominated open source applications on an open source OS instead of on Windows, check out Puppy Linux, which runs entirely in RAM, only touching the disk when you start it up or shut it down. Puppy is seriously quick even on quite old hardware, and has the unique feature of being able to boot from a USB stick or multisession CD-ROM and save your work back to the boot device on shutdown. If you use it this way, nothing you do is tied to a particular machine's hard disk, which gives you a secure and extremely portable personal computing environment.
posted by flabdablet at 3:28 PM on December 18, 2006

256mb ram Any less and you'll want to gouge your eyes out waiting for things to load. Firefox is a ram hog, and you really should look @ 512mb if you expect to use Firefox and Open Office at the same time, and not have it take 3 days to redraw the screen.

1024x768 (xga) Screen This isnt standard yet.

P3-700mhz+ I would call this a bare minimum.

I buy and sell used computers, and I have picked up quite a few sub $200 machines lately for sale on Craigslist and other forums. Dell is your best bet for a cheaper, lower end system. The Cxx series is a good choice, and you should be able to find a decent machine for < $300 that has a p3/p4-1.5ghz, 256/512mb ram, and a 30+gig hd for that kinda>
Thinkpads are supernice, but you are paying for the name/quality. You will get more machine for your money with a Dell/Toshiba (IBM = 20hp Lexus, Dell = 200hp Kia).
posted by SirStan at 3:39 PM on December 18, 2006

Sometimes I wonder what you people are smoking! A lot of you seem to have it in your head that "1gb of RAM is the bare minimum, anything else and the computer crawls to a stop".

Where does this mentality come from? Doesn't anyone realise that Windows XP is now 5 years old? 5 years ago NOBODY had 1gb of ram... In fact, most of us were running Windows XP on 256mb and thinking it was SO cool! So how can the same operating system now need 4 times the amount of ram to function?

Anyway, Leonard, I gotta second those people that are telling you to buy a nice used P3 laptop with about 256mb of ram (see above). A lot of people don't realise how powerful the P3 chip is compared to the P4... You can get really good performance out of Windows XP with a simple P3 600MHz chip and 128/256mb ram (I did it with a really nice compaq armada m300 laptop.. It was great and SO tiny!)

Oh, and just to echo the previous thread, if you do go for a P3 laptop, make sure you do find that 1024x768 screen... Sometimes the native resolution of the display on these machines is 800x600 and, if you want to web browse, that would kind of suck!
posted by ranglin at 4:05 PM on December 18, 2006

I run XP on a PII 333 with 192MB ram. All visual styles turned off, and it runs just fine. Firefox, xp sp2, office 2k3. I have found that windows 2003 has a faster 'feel' to it on the same machine though. (all server options turned off). I also had a PIII 800 w/ 256mb ram, 20ish gb hdd, (laptop) which ran XP beautifully, w/out problems. 256 is my reccomended minimum for a nice XPerience (r). 128 will work, but it's sluggish.
When XP was still in beta I ran it happily on a PIII 450 with 128mb ram, and was really pleased when I upgraded to 256. Money does seem a concern, but if you can upgrade the HDD to a 5200rpm model, it makes quite a bit of difference. (See the first machine above, went from a 4200rpm to 5200 rpm, new drive, much higher seek times, very nice)
Good luck.
posted by defcom1 at 4:59 PM on December 18, 2006

Just chiming in that my Compaq m700, with 448M of RAM and a PIII-650 runs XP fine and would do everything you're talking about.
posted by rfs at 6:48 PM on December 18, 2006

B1tr0t, a G4 iBook won't run Windows XP, and won't run the OP's Windows applications that he already owns. (At least, not at anything remotely like an acceptable speed.)

G4 iBooks are also deprecated.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:05 PM on December 18, 2006

Another thing to keep in mind is that laptops, particularly cheaper machines, often dedicate a portion of main memory for use by the video system, as video memory (This is often referred to as "shared memory," but in fact, there is no sharing of this memory with Windows dynamically. Windows is sharing the total system memory with the demands of the video system, and won't have the full amount of populated memory to use for programs.) On my laptop, with 512mb of memory, Windows has 480mb to use, and 32mb of memory is always used by the video system. If I only had 256mb of memory in the machine, the video system would still use 32mb, and I'd only have 224mb for Windows. So, in these kinds of machines, adding main memory from low amounts has a disproportionate benefit.

Another thing that can help on low end laptops is to avoid using 32 bit color depth settings. 16 bit color settings allow the video hardware to do a lot less work in painting screen images, and in recalculating screen output during video update, so you'll get faster response with very little perceptible color degradation by selecting 16 bit color mode for regular browsing. In Windows XP, you set this using the Display control panel.

More expensive laptops have an actual video adapter, which has its own video RAM. This kind of memory is faster, and this kind of video system will not demand system memory. It may also have 2D and 3D hardware acceleration, which might help a little with scrolling, but no business application or Web browser is going to take advantage of 3D hardware. These kinds of video systems usually have faster GPU chips, but generate more heat and pull more power from the battery, and so require more engineering to manage.

A lot of cheap laptops were built in 2002 and 2003 using regular desktop Pentium chips as their processors. Mine is like this, with a 2.2 Ghz P4. At the time, these chips were comparatively much cheaper than Pentium-M chips, and for those of us who use our laptops as transportable machines, and aren't concerned about battery life, their higher power demands and short battery life are fine. But if you expect to use the machine for more than an hour or so without being plugged into AC, it would behoove you to look for a machine built around an Intel mobile processor. Pentium-M chips are very good about managing power, and they are faster, clock cycle for clock cycle, than P4 based chips, because of their shorter on board pipelines, and better on board caches.

Another thing that determines used laptop value is the age and condition of the battery. Laptop batteries are expensive to replace, and may need to be replaced every year or two, depending on your use patterns, and the kind of battery. A 2 or 3 year old laptop with a lithium battery that is dead, will need a $125 to $200 battery, depending on the maker and specs of the battery, if you're going to replace it. So, keep this in mind as you check out used laptops, as it is major "condition" element in the price you'll pay, particularly if you need to use the machine on battery a lot.
posted by paulsc at 8:38 PM on December 18, 2006

The perception that XP runs sluggishly in less than a gig of RAM is, obviously, because software is bigger now than it was five years ago. At my former employer, we tested XP on 256MB machines (~700-~900Mhz) that had run Win2K famously and found they ran sluggishly for even low-end users -- users that basically ran Outlook, Word and IE all at once. Once we upgraded the office to XP, it was in new 512MB machines running 1.3 Ghz or better and everyone was very happy until sometime in 2005, when we rolled out Office 2003 and people were adding Adobe Acrobat Reader to the mix of things open on their machines all the time. We started adding 512MB of RAM to these three year old machines and everyone was happy again.

So, my experience is that 512MB is the minimum for WinXP if you want to be happy with it.
posted by lhauser at 10:02 PM on December 18, 2006

Where does this mentality come from? Doesn't anyone realise that Windows XP is now 5 years old? 5 years ago NOBODY had 1gb of ram... In fact, most of us were running Windows XP on 256mb and thinking it was SO cool! So how can the same operating system now need 4 times the amount of ram to function?

Absolutely true, so if OP only runs software from the same period then he'll be just fine with less. However the memory footprint of almost every piece of software that's been updated since then has increased. In task manager my instance of Firefox shows it using 183,684k. My copy of MS Word - currently only loaded as an editor in Outlook - is consuming about 25M. I won't list the other crap below it but suffice to say it's over 256M.

1G is overshooting a bit but all things being equal you should get 512M if you can manage it.
posted by phearlez at 8:22 AM on December 19, 2006

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