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How to choose a budget laptop: what you need to know when buying a sub £500 laptop

Here's how to choose a budget laptop

Budget Laptops

If you're not a technology boffin, then knowing what to look for when buying a budget laptop isn't easy. Don't worry though, to aide you with your decision here is an article showing you how to choose a laptop. See our Group test: what's the best budget laptop? story for an up-to-date list of the best cheap laptops.

Buying a budget laptop inevitably means compromising somewhere. But if you must go cheap, just make sure the compromises won't make you rue your choice too soon after purchase.

Compromises can be the looks, the feel, the attention to detail that makes you want to connect on a more emotional level. Or it could be in the build quality, the choice of internal components or the available options for connecting the laptop to all manner of peripherals – and don't forget for connecting to the world at large through wired or wireless networking.

Unless you go for real bottom-dollar shelf fillers, the one area where you're less likely to feel the pinch is, perhaps surprisingly, in program performance. The Wintel world was built through the 1990s on a cycle of upgrades, new versions of Microsoft Windows and Office treacling a PC and forcing people to chase hardware upgrades.

That gravy train ground to a halt first with the Windows Vista debacle in 2007, which over-reached the cyclic software bloat too far even to captive Windows users; followed by the universal mass migration to mobile computing started by the iPhone in the same year, and hammered home by the introduction of the iPad in 2010. Mobile computing demanded leaner software. Even Microsoft got the memo, so that now, Windows 7 and Windows 8 can run on some 10-year old PCs without such issues.

There are many other ways you can be sold short though when buying a cheap laptop. Here are the key areas to look at. (See all our laptops buying advice.)

How to choose a budget laptop: Design

Laptops are much more personal than desktops, and typically owned and used by one person. They cannot avoid becoming as much a statement about you as the clothes you wear.

We can't tell you what fashion to follow, but be aware that cheap laptops are rarely catwalk models. They may use cheaper, lumpier plastic components, or simply be designed by people with no aesthetic sense, so be prepared to deal with something that's been not so much hit as battered into submission by the all-powerful ugly stick. It's not just about thicker-than-hoped chassis either – high-gloss black plastic has been de rigeur in some consumer electronics lately, a facile attempt at emulating piano black lacquer, and good only for preserving greasy fingerprints for posterity.

Design considerations also span into the engineering, so pay attention to points like the hinges, keyboard, access hatches and ask yourself if they look like they'll survive continued use or abuse.

How to choose a budget laptop: Materials

Premium-grade materials often serve a purpose. Take aluminium alloy, chosen for its strength, lustre, resistance to corrosion and malleability. Cheap laptops are nearly universally plastic constructs, and while that's not in iteslf a bad thing, it usually signals fatter and heavier designs than notebooks fashioned from metals like magnesium, titanium and aluminium.

Be aware that cheap laptop makes often disguise their use of inferior materials by spraying plastic to look like metal. Not only is it pretentious, it will look even worse after some gentle wear removes the faux-metal paint to expose dark plastic below.

How to choose a budget laptop: Build quality

Look how well the chassis has been put together. Check along the seams for air gaps, and see how well joined is the lid to the deck, for instance. Keyboards and trackpads are common cut-back components, leaving you with soggy typing or skittish mice pointers from low-grade capacitive touchpads.

How to choose a budget laptop: Components

The Windows PC sales machine was built on promoting internal components above less tangible aspects like battery life and build quality. So laptops would be sold on the strength of namechecking an Intel processor, the number of gigs of RAM or hard disk, and the size of graphics card inside.

At the budget end, you may see huge hard disks included as they're now so cheap. Solid-state storage makes life-changing improvements to your computing experience, but don't expect to see any in the cheap category, or rarely a small amount bolted on to speed up booting and program launching.

Displays are nearly always gloss finished, as they look more impressive in showrooms against matt screens. It's true they can have rich colour and even useful contrast ratio – but only in a pitch-black room. Unless they have an expensive anti-reflective optical coating – unheard of at the budget end – expect to see distracting reflections, and to have to reposition yourself, your laptop or your curtains for proper viewing of what's on screen, rather than what's behind your head.

How to choose a budget laptop: Performance

Don't be fooled by processor clock speed. AMD dropped out of this race years ago and rarely lists the gigahertz figure in its marketing. The fact is, a speed rating like ‘2.5 GHz' gives only the most rudimentary guide to performance, unless given the context of the type and generation of processor, and how many cores it includes, and any other go-faster tricks added by Intel and AMD to keep the aged x86 architecture in business.

A laptop review should include a performance score, but unless you follow the tech, a single number of, say, 3500 points in PCMark 7 is also worthless. Look out for comparison tables in reviews that may let you gauge the current possibilities together.

Graphics performance is never great on cheap laptops – a decent graphics processor to enable fast-running shoot 'em up Windows games is an expensive part of the parts budget. Instead expect to find an integrated graphics processing unit (GPU) inside the main chip. And these are getting faster every year. But cheap laptops don't usually have this season's Intel chip, so will be behind the current-best anyway. For the most part, expect to do little more than play basic undemanding games; or to drop quality settings to their minimum to keep action reasonably fluid.

Performance is about much more than how quickly your spreadsheet or DVD rip is rendered though. Thanks to the iPad, people now rightly demand longevity too, and the days of the four-hour laptop are now behind us.

Except in the budget category, that is, where batteries are always scrimped. So look out for tiny, inadequate battery packs. Batteries are still relatively expensive so a manufacturer will do its best to give you as little capacity as possible (and thereby aiding the laptop's ‘weight' spec too).

‘Performance' also stretches to connectivity. Specifically, Wi-Fi wireless performance. Budget laptops are shackled with the most basic of 802.11n capabilities – the IEEE spec allows for three antennae to provide half-decent indoor range and throughput enough to meet last century's ethernet connections. But budget laptops may only have one aerial (sometimes rarely dubbed ‘half-n'), which limits wireless performance further.

How to choose a budget laptop: Connections

Modern laptops now sport usefully fast USB 3.0 ports for getting data in and out quickly. But budget laptops may still have part- or total complement of slow USB 2.0 to save on the parts bill.

HDMI is now ubiquitous for video output, but gigabit ethernet is far from a given – it's a way a manufacturer can save a few cents out of view of the buyer.

How to choose a budget laptop: Software

Windows is no longer a given, and the consumer is finally seeing more choice on the high street and its online equivalents. Google is edging into the budget space with its cheap-to-buy Chromebooks, although these come at the high cost of personal privacy.  

Macs are now more popular than ever before, albeit at the more premium end of the price scale, leaving Windows as still the incumbent offering on budget laptops. If you look around you may find Ubuntu laptops ready to buy, skipping the Windows tax and providing a more secure computing option; but for the most part expect to find unloved Windows 8 as your only choice, unless you can track down older end-of-line Windows 7 machines.

Beware that Windows laptops may have their low price subsidised in part by an obscene amount of pre-installed software from companies who pay to be put there. Also known as crapware, this includes software that pays kickbacks to the laptop maker when you sign up for expensive anti-virus or backup yearly subscriptions. Cheap laptops may make you pay with your time, as you spend hours trying to remove all the unwanted and obstructive software dross. See our Group test: what's the best budget laptop?

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