PC Advisor outlines 11 ways to find and buy a laptop bargain.

It's often said that there's never a right time to buy a new computer. Technology and the components used in consumer electronics move on at breakneck pace. Consequently, the PC, laptop, satnav or audio player you buy today will seem slow, lacking in memory and generally old hat a year, or even a few months, down the line.

Add in the credit crunch, and it's trickier than ever to work out when, what and - perhaps most critically - where to buy. After all, who would have predicted this time last year that old stalwart Woolies would enter receivership and that many UK banks would now be co-owned by the populace?

See our Laptop Advisor website for expert reviews of today’s best laptops, plus read our essential advice to make sure you choose the right specs

Needless to say, demand for consumer electronics for both business and leisure use continues to be strong. However, our priorities have changed and, rather than being keen to get the latest big thing, getting a good deal has become much more important.

This, of course, means the market is flooded with products appealing to the cash-conscious consumer - and demand for the very best deals is fiercer than ever. Should an apparent laptop bargain appear on your radar, you'll need your wits about you to judge whether it's worth having and, if so, to bid for it before someone else snatches it from under your nose.

Over the next few pages, we'll outline where the best bargains reside, while our group test looks at what to expect from a good-value Vista laptop or one primed for HD entertainment.

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NEXT PAGE: Linux love-in and broadband sweeteners

PC Advisor outlines 11 ways to find and buy a laptop bargain.

1. Linux love-in

Research conducted in November by Be Broadband suggested consumers could save £245 by buying Christmas goods online.

In 2009, that saving should be enough to buy a well specified laptop.

If you're willing to compromise on specifications, you can certainly get a netbook for this sort of money.

Click here for our mini laptops and netbooks reviews

Note, however, that if you really do want to go the bargain route, you'll be looking at a Linux-based machine and you may need to learn the ins and outs of OpenOffice or another alternative to Microsoft Office.

There's nothing wrong with this, of course, and there's a lot to be said for the low power-consumption, light weight and long-lasting battery of such machines, but don't expect it to become the focus of your family PC entertainment needs.

See our Laptop Advisor website for expert reviews of today’s best laptops, plus read our essential advice to make sure you choose the right specs

2. Broadband sweeteners

Because the idea of a low-cost laptop - or better yet, a free one - is so appealing, marketers of other technology have begun using them as a means of attracting custom. Hence you can get a laptop for £50, or even nothing - provided, of course, you sign up to a particular broadband or mobile phone contract, probably for longer than you wish.

The rule here is to look closely at what you're being offered - and what the company is offering in return. For example, The Carphone Warehouse is selling Asus Eee PC 701 laptops for a base price of £155.

The site refers to this 7in netbook with a 900MHz Intel Celeron processor and 512MB of RAM as ‘the portable dream'. It's not a dream specification if you want to do much more than get online, though: it comes with an 8GB solid-state memory and a webcam and runs Windows XP Home Edition, but it has a low-resolution screen while the cramped keyboard is tricky to type on and not ideal for composing longer letters or reports.

More importantly, it's not a massive bargain, either. It requires you to sign up for a 3G mobile broadband deal for 24 months - adding between £68 and £244 to the cost. Delivery charges add another £14 on top, so even the cheapest deal comes in at £239.

While this means you can also get online whenever you want (at a maximum connection rate of 2.8 megabits per second [Mbps] - the lower limit for 3G broadband), the cheapest deal gets you 3GB of data usage a month, which may not suffice as your primary web-connection option.

You can also buy the Asus laptop for £193 without the broadband commitment, which isn't a bad price for a secondary laptop. Bear in mind, however, that this deal has obviously been priced to compare unfavourably with the tie-in offer for the same model.

The Toshiba NB100, also offered at the Carphone Warehouse website, is arguably a better bet: there's no initial outlay, a monthly cost of £30 on 02 is the base broadband deal (again with only a 3GB limit) and a much better laptop specification is on offer.

You get an 8.9in display, an Intel Atom processor running at 1.6GHz, 1GB of RAM and a 120GB hard-disk drive.

But the overall cost soon mounts up: £30 per month for 24 months comes in at £720. For that, you could have a home Wi-Fi network that all your PCs and laptops could hook up to and a far better laptop with a specification of your choosing.

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There are some better deals than this. While it doesn't cover all the mobile broadband deals around, the Broadband Genie comparison service on PC Advisor outlines data limits and subscription costs for free laptop deals.

If you're after 3G mobile broadband, consider shopping for this separately from your bargain laptop. Such services are themselves a competitive battleground, so good deals exist - and you don't necessarily need to saddle yourself with a subscription.

Dongles cost as little as £25 to buy outright and 02 has just launched a £29 3G stick that costs just £2 a day to use or £15 per month. This could work out cheaper, especially if most of your web use is in the office.

NEXT PAGE: January sales and other people's cast-offs

PC Advisor outlines 11 ways to find and buy a laptop bargain.

3. January sales

So just what can you get without paying over the odds? The obvious place to start is the January sales, which actually seem to begin in November and drag on until spring. Let's not knock them for that, though.

While the very best bargains may already have gone, it's still worth seeing what's been left on the shelf. If you don't need anything particularly powerful, but turn up your nose at a netbook, it's definitely worth scouting around.

It's not going to be practical to search every website that sells laptops to see what they have on offer; instead, just Google for January sales deals and enter ‘laptops' in the resulting site's search boxes, and you'll be surprised what turns up.

For example, Tiscali informed us of an offer from Micro Direct for a 15.4in Gateway Pentium M750 1.86GHz model with an 80GB drive, 128MB ATI Radeon graphics chip and 802.11g connectivity for just £251 inc VAT.

Though its storage was limited by the standards of many of the models in our latest group tests, this Windows XP Home laptop would definitely be worth a punt. If storage is all that's putting you off a deal such as this, consider that an external hard drive can boost your backup options and costs as little as £50 for another 320GB.

See our Laptop Advisor website for expert reviews of today’s best laptops, plus read our essential advice to make sure you choose the right specs

4. Other people's cast-offs

The other good thing about the post-Christmas period is that you can capitalise on other people's generosity. Consumer technology products such as laptops are a popular present - so, logically, if someone has received a shiny new model this year, they're likely to be done with the old one.

The first thing is to find out whether a family member or close friend has lucked out in this manner and, if so, to put in a subtle plea for their unwanted machine.

If they're worried about their personal data and documents on the laptop you've got your eye on, point them in the direction of our safe PC migration guide, where they'll find all the information they need about how to effectively, safely and legally transfer from an old PC to a new one.

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NEXT PAGE: supermarket sweep

PC Advisor outlines 11 ways to find and buy a laptop bargain.

5. Supermarket sweep

Supermarkets are another rich hunting ground for laptop bargains. Some electronics companies make a point of offering their goods on a ‘get it while it's hot' basis. Acer's popular Aspire One was partially sold this way, while Medion famously broke into the German and UK markets by selling inexpensive laptops via the Aldi supermarket chain.

It's a business model that has proved successful for Medion and it continues to operate in this manner, selling some models via one supermarket to the exclusion of the others.

Other brands also use favoured retailers. You can pick up Philips and Dell laptops from PC World, for example, where these well-known brands compete directly with PC World's own-brand Advent machines.

See our Laptop Advisor website for expert reviews of today’s best laptops, plus read our essential advice to make sure you choose the right specs

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6. End-of-line offerings

One reason why supermarkets are a good place to buy electronics is the sheer number of people who shop in them. We all have to stock up somewhere and it's something most of us do on a weekly basis.

That means there's a huge potential customer base - and this dovetails nicely with the pace at which manufacturers crank out new machines and discount ones that are a couple of months old, and with the ever-increasing expectations of consumers.

Tesco, Aldi, Waitrose, Sainsbury's and Asda not only sell really cheap laptops, they do so online, so you don't even need to be seduced into buying that extra bottle of wine while tracking down your tech bargains.

NEXT PAGE: getting clearance

PC Advisor outlines 11 ways to find and buy a laptop bargain.

7. Getting clearance

Dabs Clearance Corner is a well-known destination for hardened technology bargain-seekers, while the likes of eBuyer, Overclockers and IT247 do a good job of keeping Dabs on its mettle.

Similarly, if you try a website such as Laptops Direct that specialises in laptop deals, you'll find some good bargains. This site was offering an Acer Aspire One with 120GB hard drive for £199 in early December - a modest markdown from its usual selling price of £230, but still worth having and, notably, cheaper than the supermarkets.

It's also worth looking at the bargain and refurbished goods sections of some of the best-known retail brands. Dell Outlet is one good example, as is Toshiba, which uses a £150 cashback incentive for its laptop customers. Toshiba also has a discontinued models section where you can select one of its older laptops for less.

HP Hot Offers operates by selling you a laptop, PC or other item and giving you £100 cashback or a voucher towards your next purchase. Other offers are pure discounts: for example, at press time you could pick up its C4850 photo printer for £75 rather than the usual £150.

See our Laptop Advisor website for expert reviews of today’s best laptops, plus read our essential advice to make sure you choose the right specs

8. Rich pickings at fire sales

Right now, unfortunately, you're as likely to find a bargain in the sorts of store that have pitted themselves against the mighty supermarkets for passing trade. Woolworths famously cited its inability to compete with the aggressive price policies of supermarkets on electrical and electronic goods as a major factor in its having to go into liquidation.

The other reason we're now seeing such good deals on the high street as well as online is that, as consumer confidence in buying over the internet has grown, shops have been forced to match the deals found on the web.

Given that overheads are high for bricks and mortar stores in comparison with websites, the faster they can churn through stock and realise their assets the better - hence the fire sale that started in December as Woolworths called in the receivers.

Woolworths may be the highest profile high street retailer to be crippled by the financial crisis, but it had credit problems for many months before it entered receivership and will simply have cleared the shelves of anything it couldn't send back on a sale-or-return basis. PC and laptop makers themselves can't do this, but the likes of Amazon, Pixmania and other clearing houses are likely to be able to sell surplus stock.

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If you buy from a failing company, check first what sort of warranty or returns policy you're offered. If a laptop is sold for £100 and you know the store is closing up forever that same week, it's unlikely cover will be provided. However, it's worth looking into which company is expected to provide the warranty cover - it may be a separate company that is still trading as normal. Similarly, don't naively assume you'll be able to call on the support service of a company in three years just because it said your laptop came with three-year cover. There's no guarantee it'll still be in business.

As with the issue of buying a Windows XP machine given that standard support for it is due to end soon, there's plenty of advice and support online. Just know what you're getting - and what you're not - before parting with your money. And if it's a purchase of more than £100 (which it will be if you're buying anything other than a secondhand machine), put it on a credit card. This way, the credit card company will be jointly liable if the laptop you ordered doesn't show up because the company folded before delivering your goods.

NEXT PAGE: pre-loved products

PC Advisor outlines 11 ways to find and buy a laptop bargain.

9. Pre-loved products

So what of the companies that have gone to the wall as a result of the credit crunch? Businesses that have gone under are keen to realise their assets, but also to quickly offload no-longer-needed kit. A search for such items on eBay and other auction houses, as well as local sources such as Loot, will reveal failed business owners who will be only too pleased if you express an interest in buying their old kit for a song.

eBay and Amazon Marketplace are a good bet at any time, of course, as is Computer Exchange where you can buy, sell and trade games and hardware both online or at high-street stores.

See our Laptop Advisor website for expert reviews of today’s best laptops, plus read our essential advice to make sure you choose the right specs

10. Discount promotion alerts

While not an immediate route to bagging a cheap laptop, it's worth investigating sites that alert you to cut-price tech deals as these often throw up juicy bargains. For example, SmartClicks is a UK service that sniffs out deals and special offers from a range of stores, including Dixons and Currys.

A number of readers have told us they rate Boffer. This site offers a heavy discount on one or a handful of items each day, which are available only for that day until stocks run dry.

If you're after money off a disparate range of goods, it's also worth checking out MyVoucherCodes (myvouchercodes.co.uk) - a site that aggregates deals and displays any that match your search criteria.

Not every deal is a good deal, of course. In among some genuine offers will inevitably lurk others that are best avoided - or aren't being sold by reputable traders. That's why, if you're after a decent tech deal, you need to research the product area first.

NEXT PAGE: all for 'em

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PC Advisor outlines 11 ways to find and buy a laptop bargain.

11. All for ‘em

The buying guides and comparative group tests, as well as the individual reviews on PC Advisor's website, are a good starting point, but we also recommend consulting our forums - there's a real wealth of wisdom represented at pcadvisor.co.uk and, as well as tipping you off about bargains and deals to avoid, you'll find pundits who have bought or considered buying the very same items that have caught your eye. It's always worth picking other people's brains.

The Shopping section of PC Advisor and the price-comparison links on our reviews will help you find the best current online deals, but you'll want some best-price reassurance when you're traipsing the high street too.

See our Laptop Advisor website for expert reviews of today’s best laptops, plus read our essential advice to make sure you choose the right specs

It's not just John Lewis that is ‘Never Knowingly Undersold' - other shops offer guarantees of being the best deal around too. If you're in a shop that says it will match the price of local or even national retailers, it's a fair bet that you're getting a great deal. It's worth checking whether they have get-out clauses for sale items, of course. Having bought your bargain item, check up on the veracity of the retailer's claim using an online price checker.

Armed with this arsenal of knowledge, we're pretty confident you should now be able to bag a technology bargain.

Just remember to pay by credit card for anything over £100 and to keep the receipt in case you later find a better deal.

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