With PC sales slowing in recent years, manufacturers have been promoting pricey thin-and-light ultraportables to prop up their profit margins. Truth is, the best-selling laptops remain 15.6in models that cost less than £600. See all budget laptop reviews.
There’s plenty of choice in the low-cost category, and it can be difficult to sort the true bargains from the cheap tat. As always, our advice is to buy the best specification you can find within your budget – you might just regret saving £100 now if your laptop’s screen is of such a low quality that it hurts your eyes, or the processor is so underpowered that you’re left twiddling your thumbs as it launches the apps you need.
The key specifications are the processor, memory and storage capacity. And since you’ll be spending a lot of time staring at the screen, and can’t easily swap it out for a better one, the display quality is also important.
Don’t look purely at the processor’s clock speed. Turbo Boost, which is built into Intel’s Core i5 chip, offers a noticeable performance bump by ramping up the clock speed when more power is required.
Core i5 processors offer your laptop a degree of future-proofing, allowing it to still feel quick in a couple of years’ time. However, the cheapest laptops are likely to pack older Intel Celeron on AMD chips that operate at a fixed speed. If you’re on a budget then these are adequate for your daily computing needs, just don’t expect them to be up to much when it comes to video editing and gaming.
Memory and storage are relatively inexpensive, so even the cheapest laptop should offer 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard disk. This is enough to run most common Windows software, such as Internet Explorer and Microsoft Office, and to store a vast collection of music, photos and videos.
Don’t overlook the screen, keyboard or touchpad. You can’t judge their quality from the spec sheet, so it’s important to read reviews. We’ll tell you, for example, whether a screen is bright and clear, and if its viewing angles are wide or narrow.
Battery life should also be considered. Manufacturers’ claims for battery life tend to be rather optimistic. Expect a budget laptop to last for between three and six hours before needing a recharge. If you’re buying a laptop as your main computer for home use, battery life is perhaps a less important consideration than making sure you get the best hardware for your money.
We were pleasantly surprised by the laptops in this round-up, which prove that you can get a great-value laptop for well under £500.
Manufacturers tend to use the same chassis, screen and keyboard for entire laptop ranges, which means you can usually save hundreds of pounds on what looks like a top-of-the-range laptop, but with a much slower processor, smaller-capacity hard disk and less memory.
The Toshiba L850D is a case in point. It’s attractive (if you like the colour) and well built, offering a real bargain at £340. Its AMD processor is relatively slow, but the Satellite will still cope with daily tasks such as web browsing, editing photos and working on documents, and it handles Windows 8 apps without any problems.
The Toshiba Satellite L850D has a good keyboard and a touchpad with physical buttons. It also has plenty of connections, including a pair of USB 3.0 ports. The USB 2.0 port can charge USB devices even when the laptop is turned off.
If your budget will stretch to £400 then Lenovo’s G580 offers good value. Its Core i3 processor is quicker, and also has more powerful integrated graphics. The touchpad is frustrating, though.
If you can afford another £100, Dell’s Inspiron 15R-5521 is a perennial good buy. The 15R name has been around for years, but the actual laptops are constantly updated with a new chassis, the latest components and ports. The model on test here has a fast
Core i5 processor, lots of memory and a large hard disk.
The Dell’s warranty allows certain repairs to be carried out onsite, too. This means you won’t find yourself without a laptop and unable to work should something go wrong.