Best budget laptops 2016 UK: budget laptop buying advice
Everyone likes cheap when it comes to spending their own money. After all, who pays more than they need to, to get what they want? Also see: Laptop Advisor
Fewer people like cheap in the sense of low quality, but if you can’t spend more than £500 on a portable computer and you don’t want to play 3D games, read on for a guide to buying a cheap laptop for not much money.
When you see laptops and PCs advertised on the telly, there are usually a few specifications called out to help define what’s on offer. These typically include the main processor type, the screen size, and how much memory it has installed. And don’t forget, memory means random access memory (RAM) and should never be confused with the storage capacity of a hard disk or solid-state drive.
Screen size is a good starting point for finding the laptop you need. Most today are sized at either around 13- or 15 inches, the viewable screen area measured diagonally; there are also some 17in models made as gaming machines, professional workstations or all-round family entertainment centres. At the smaller end, you may also find some laptops with 11.6in displays.
The screen also gives a guide to the overall weight, helping you make a decision if portability is key to your needs. Most 13in laptops weigh between 1.3- and 1.6kg, while 15in models are usually between around 2- and 3kg.
The screen is frequently the poorest-performing component in a low-cost laptop. Alongside its physical size and resolution listed in advertisements, there’s rarely any quantitative indication of quality, helping manufacturers to fit the cheapest and lowest-grade screen they can find to pare down costs. Such displays will have very low contrast ratios, and limited colour gamut, while colours will look crude and garish. These crude twisted-nematic (TN) displays also have severely limited viewing angles. Compare these to the better-grade IPS displays now common on your phone or tablet, and you’ll notice that it’s difficult to view the laptop screen from the side, forcing you to keep your head in certain positions.
Look out for the screen finish, too. Shiny screens became popular about five years ago, as they seem to have better colours and contrast, but in use these untreated gloss panels reflect daylight, bulb light and your own image straight back at you. Matt anti-glare screens are more versatile, but also beware of cheap coatings that give a sparkly, fuzzy effect to images. Also see: Best laptops 2016 UK
Best budget laptops 2016 UK: Which processor for a cheap laptop?
The processor is the heart of the computer, although today it’s not so much performance we need – laptop chips reached a fast-enough level years ago – as good battery economy. Apart from the slowest chips such as the Intel Atom, almost any processor from Intel or AMD is fast enough to smoothly handle the Windows operating system and programs such as Microsoft Office.
However, the cheapest chips fitted to low-cost laptops, such as AMD’s or Intel’s entry-level Celeron, also tend to be less power efficient than Core i3/5/7. This means they burn energy needlessly to do the same work, so they require a larger battery to run the same time; or more often they feature the same size batteries but have shorter usable life before running flat.
For better quality laptops fitted with the latest Intel chips and other power-saving measures, you can expect seven- to 12 hours of actual battery life. Budget laptops meanwhile may run for only around two- to five hours.
The most efficient and powerful chips are currently Intel Core series, such as the i3, i5 and i7. Recent generations, codenamed Haswell, Broadwell and Skylake can be found even in budget laptops. The mobile chips are mostly dual-core designs, some with Hyper Threading Technology, which makes them perform like even faster quad-core chips with the right programs.
Clock speed should not be used as a guide to speed any more. But clock speed of a processor does give you an idea how quickly it will drain the battery – the higher the number, the faster it’s gone. Modern laptops usually have chips running at around 2GHz or lower, and which perform as fast as the 2.5GHz and over chips of a few years ago. Watch out for laptop manufacturers who only list an inflated overclock (‘Turbo’) speed, since most consumers still believe that higher numbers are always better.
And so to memory. Historically, RAM was expensive and represented a significant part of the investment in a computer. Today, however, it’s so cheap that whether your laptop has 4-, 8-, 12- or 16GB is less important, providing you can still upgrade yourself if required. Windows 7, 8 and 10 will run fine on 4GB, although even sub-£450 laptops often come with 8GB, now that it’s such a cheap commodity.
To make a computer feel fast and responsive it’s as important that it have fast storage. The cheapest laptops do not yet feature the best option of a solid-state drive (SSD) unless you’re prepared to accept a pitifully small capacity, so you must make do with a slower hard disk instead.
Disks are now so cheap that laptop makers can afford to put in 500GB or 1TB disks; great for hoarding weeks of music and video, but don’t forget your backup plan to safeguard your personal files when the disk breaks or your laptop is stolen.
As a halfway measure, a small amount of flash and a larger disk are sometimes combined into what’s being called an SSHD (‘solid-state hard drive’). This is a cost-effective way to get some of the benefits of both technologies.
Best budget laptops 2016 UK: Ditching Windows
One way to get a cheap laptop is to swap Windows in favour of a free operating system such as Ubuntu or Chrome, or one that runs Windows with Bing (it's the same thing as standard Windows, but Bing is set as the search engine by default).
Ubuntu and Windows with Bing are both traditional desktop OSes, but Chrome is an online operating system that requires you to have internet access. For more details on Chromebooks see our best Chromebooks round-up.
Best budget laptops 2016 UK: I can't find this laptop
At the time of press every one of the laptops listed here was available to buy in the UK. However, the budget laptop market is extremely volatile, and retailers tend to secure limited stock of any model. Laptop makers will make many slight variations of the same laptop, with subtly different product codes. They typically use the same chassis, complete with the same ports, screen, keyboard and touchpad, so you can use our reviews as a basis for some of these models from the same range.
13 best budget laptops 2016 UK
14. Toshiba CB30-102
- Reviewed on: 21 February 14
- RRP: £250 inc VAT
The usual caveat of ‘Chromebooks aren't for everyone' of course applies, but the Toshiba CB30 is a very useable and capable laptop for anyone who spends the majority of their computing time online using Google services. The increased screen size is a definite bonus over 11.6in models, even if it isn't a high-quality display, while the plastic construction keeps the weight to a portable 1.5 kg. For £250 this is a great device if your creative and privacy needs are modest.
Read our Toshiba CB30-102 review.
- Reviewed on: 15 December 14
- RRP: £370 inc. VAT
Very short battery life recommend this laptop to a life on the mains leash, although its older IO, low-res screen and chunky build still make it hard to get excited about this dated design. In its favour are relatively easy memory and drive upgrades, fairly fast main processor and an anti-glare display.
Read our Fujitsu LifeBook A512 review.
- Reviewed on: 27 July 15
- RRP: £280 inc VAT
Beware of quality-control issues on an otherwise just about serviceable Windows laptop. The Extensa 15 keeps price and performance low with its cheap components and free Windows OS, but at just £280 it should prove popular.
Read our Acer Extensa EX2508-C3QZ review.
- Reviewed on: 9 September 15
- RRP: £430 inc. VAT
Approaching £500 we hoped for a better screen, trackpad and build quality from the Toshiba Satellite L50D-C-12X, and battery life is below par. But light gaming is just possible from this 15in budget laptop.
Read our Toshiba Satellite L50D-C-12X review.
- Reviewed on: 13 October 15
- RRP: £395 inc VAT
The Satellite C55-C includes a recent Haswell processor but elsewhere the budget cuts show, especially the poor screen. Upgrading is not feasible so don’t expect to easily fix the limited memory or slow disk storage later.
Read our Toshiba Satellite C55-C-175 review.
- Reviewed on: 14 October 14
- RRP: £259 inc. VAT
There’s a lot to like about the HP Chromebook 14. It’s big, nice to use, and offers something a bit different to Chromebook users. We’d like to see an improved screen quality to really make it stand out, and maybe a firmer keyboard, but if you want a larger way to enjoy ChromeOS then this is a great place to start.
Read our HP Chromebook 14 review.
8. HP Stream 11
- Reviewed on: 2 April 15
- RRP: £179 inc. VAT
The HP Stream 11 is using the cheapest Intel chip that can run Windows comfortably, has a very limited eMMC storage card with just 20 GB available space, and includes a free version of Windows given away to PC makers to keep Google Chrome OS at bay. But the result is a surprisingly useful compact laptop, attractively styled for anyone that likes bold bright colours. It runs quick enough to surf and type, and always remains cool and silent. To use HP’s own bizarrely chinglish marketing prose, that’s got to help you ‘work from happy place’.
Read our HP Stream 11 review.
- Reviewed on: 13 October 14
- RRP: £239 inc. VAT
Dell’s debut offering is pretty much exactly what most people want from a Chromebook. It’s fast, easily portable, smart looking, features a great keyboard, and even manages to add in a few bells and whistles like the two USB 3.0 ports. If Google’s vision for a laptop fits your needs, then the Chromebook 11 will make you very happy.
Read our Dell Chromebook 11 review.
- Reviewed on: 19 March 15
- RRP: £219 inc. VAT
Acer knows how to make good, solid, reliable Chromebooks, and this model is no exception. Performance was always decent, the screen size is a welcome addition, and the long battery life makes it a great option for travelling. It’s just a shame that the display panel doesn’t quite match up to that of the Toshiba Chromebook 2, which is similarly priced but does offer a richer experience. If you can accept the screen though, the Acer Chromebook 13 is a very nice machine that will get the job done.
Read our Acer Chromebook 13 review.
- Reviewed on: 31 July 15
- RRP: £200 inc VAT
The little Toshiba has the best build and weighs less than half the 2 kg+ of most budget laptops. It may not measure well in benchmarks but the flash drive means the machine feels more responsive in normal use. Add your own SD card and the CL10 becomes viable.
Read our Toshiba Satellite CL10-B-100 review.
- Reviewed on: 30 July 15
- RRP: £442.80 inc VAT
Battery life is disappointing and screen quality is poor. Application performance measures well but it often felt slow to respond in actual use. Corners have been cut but overall the Dell Vostro is a workable machine that leads with the latest Intel silicon.
Read our Dell Vostro 15 3000 review.
- Reviewed on: 13 February 15
- RRP: £269 inc. VAT
If you're happy to live in the cloud for the majority of your tasks, then Toshiba's Chromebook 2 is currently the best way to do it. The device is light, fast, and that screen is worth the money alone. Chromebooks are quickly coming of age, and this Toshiba model is something that could easily convert a legion of fans to the ever improving ChromeOS universe.
Read our Toshiba Chromebook 2 review.
- Reviewed on: 28 July 15
- RRP: £300 inc. VAT
Asus has restricted build and component quality to fit the attractive £300 price point, but all the essentials work well together. The Haswell Intel chip means overall performance is better than any Celeron-based competition in the Asus X555LA-XX290H.
Read our Asus X555LA-XX290H review.
1. HP 255 G4
- Reviewed on: 7 January 16
- RRP: £269.99 inc VAT ($319.99)
The HP 255 G4 is a budget 15.6in Windows laptop with budget build and performance. We found no single serious flaw and it should get the job done eventually, making it ideal if you're on a tight budget and don't need lots of speed or a high-quality screen.
Read our HP 255 G4 review.