Sales figures from 2019 show average laptop buyers spending about $700 on their new machines. That means some people spend more, but it also means that a sizable number spend less.
Seven Benjamins isn’t a ton of money for a laptop, although it may seem so when you’re at the store. For that money, you’re limited to Chromebooks, multimedia laptops and a handful of low-end Ultrabooks. Many of the laptops available at this price are adequate, but they’re just that. Adequate. OK. Usable. They are computers, and they will do computer stuff.
But cheaping out forces you to give up many tangible benefits, which means inexpensive laptops are often a poor value. You can’t get what you don’t pay for. Here’s why you should pay for more.
One of the first concepts you’ll learn in any basic economics or business class is that of durable goods. A durable good is an item that provides utility over a long period of time — like a laptop. Paying more for a superior durable good ends up rewarding you over and over again, every time you use it. A better, faster, more usable laptop can, for example, decrease the time you spend waiting for a video encode, increase your typing accuracy, and make entertainment far more enjoyable.
Spending less money on a laptop can be tempting, but think about how often you use it.
This argument comes first because it’s the most important. Spending less money on a laptop can be tempting, but think about how often you use it. The American time use survey found that in 2018 the average computer owner uses his or her computer for leisure about 86 minutes every day. If this average user kept a laptop for just three years, they would use it for a total of 1,565 hours. And that’s just leisure — any time spent on work isn’t part this statistic.
This is more time than an average American spends reading, relaxing or exercising. Suddenly, sacrificing a laptop’s quality to save a few hundred bucks seems like a raw deal.
Your laptop’s display serves as a window for all of this content, yet cheap laptops offer the worst displays among all modern consumer electronic devices. The resolution on the least expensive laptops will usually be 1,366 x 768 (although Full HD, or 1,920 x 1,080 is becoming more common), which is less than some modern tablets with much smaller displays. Contrast and viewing angles suffer as well.
You can do better by spending more. Some cheap laptops offer a better display as an upgrade, but only premium laptops commonly come with high-quality displays as standard equipment. 1080p should be considered the minimum resolution you opt for, unless you’re on an extreme budget.
Some laptops go a step further, offering 1440p or even 4K. While we don’t think that’s essential, the improvement in image quality is noticeable and can make the use of small windows and fine fonts more manageable — though the different is less pronounced with 4K, especially on smaller screens.
When it comes to panel type, gamers might prefer a TN or “Twisted Nematic” panel, as it can often offer the fastest response times and refresh rates for high-speed gaming. But if you’re more interested in quality, an IPS or “In-Plane Switching” panel offers broad viewing angles and (usually) better color than the less expensive TN type.
Good on the go
Companies often slash battery life to make sure they can sell a laptop at a low price. Batteries are expensive, and no standards exist for validating battery-life claims. This means a manufacturer can sell a laptop with a small battery while still advertising endurance that seems reasonable.
We rarely find a laptop under $700 that offers more than six hours of real-world battery life.
We’ve recorded this story time and time again. Almost every laptop we’ve received that seemed to be a great hardware value has achieved this goal by axing the battery. Note that this is changing, though: in the past, we rarely found a laptop under $730 that offers more than six hours of real-world battery life. Now, some budget laptops can last you a full day.
You don’t have to spend much for a better battery, either. The standout is the Asus ZenBook 13 UX333, which in our last review scored more than 10 hours of battery life. The base version can be had for around $800, which likely means even better endurance. Most laptops that are close to $1,000 easily exceed a full day’s battery life unless they’re specifically designed for high-end gaming.
Spending for solid-state
A solid-state drive (SSD) remains the most important single contributor to the everyday “feel” of a computer’s performance. This is mostly due to their near-instant access times. A disk doesn’t have to spin up, and a read/write head doesn’t need to move, so data starts flowing a few milliseconds after it’s asked for.
While no longer a new technology, SSDs are still more expensive per gigabyte of storage than mechanical disks, and that means they’re less commonly found in inexpensive laptops. But there’s some good news. Lower pricing does mean an SSD can be found in systems that cost a hair more than a typical budget laptop.
Treating yourself to solid-state storage should be considered mandatory, but if you can’t afford it right away, then at least do yourself the favor of buying a system that can be upgraded. Most laptops use a common 2.5-inch SATA drive form factor, so you should be able to replace it at home so long as the interior is easily accessible. A new laptop that can’t be upgraded to an SSD will feel outdated very, very quickly.
Core counts matter
There was a time when budget laptops were universally equipped with low-cost Pentium and Celeron CPUs with at most dual-core designs. That’s not as true today, with many budget laptops utilizing Intel Core CPUs and AMD Ryzen 3000 quad, and even six-core CPUs in some cases. A modern 10th-gen Intel CPU, like that in the Acer Swift 3, for example, provides excellent performance across the board in both single-threaded and multi-threaded tasks.
Even so, you’re much more likely to get a faster quad-core (or even six- or eight-core) CPU by spending a few hundred dollars more. You can even find Qualcomm ARM-based laptops with awesome battery life and connectivity for a slight increase in your investment.
The significant boost in performance means a longer operational life span.
This advice doesn’t apply to everyone. If your budget is extremely low, then you might need to settle for an Intel Pentium or Celeron CPUs. But you can certainly find Intel Core i3 and i5 and AMD Ryzen 3000 CPUs that don’t cost much more than the $700 average, if at all.
Our laptop reviews tell a consistent story. Expensive laptops often receive high scores. Only a few cheap laptops have ever managed a 9/10 or higher, and most laptops in such esteemed company sell for $800 or more.
We consider value when reviewing premium laptops. Our scores reflect that expensive laptops provide more for your money. For example, Dell’s XPS 13 starts at around $900. For that little bit of extra cash, you’ll get a much better-built, faster, and longer-lasting laptop.
The $800 to $1,000 range is where you’ll find the best laptop value. This amount of money can’t buy you everything, but it can buy you a laptop that’s excellent in important areas. You only have to spend more if you want a gaming laptop. In that case, we recommend budgeting at least $1,500.
I don’t recommend buying something you can’t afford, but for most people, the difference between a great laptop and an OK one is just a couple hundred dollars. That’s a couple of nice dinners, a single weekend vacation, or a few months of going to Starbucks every day.
If you need perspective, open your calculator and multiply the daily time you spend on your computer by 1,095 (the number of days in three years). The result should remind you why spending more on a laptop is worthwhile.
- Laptop buying guide: What to look for in 2020, and what to avoid
- The best cheap desktop computer deals for Black Friday 2020
- The best cheap gaming laptop deals for November 2020
- The best desktop computers for 2020
- The best cheap HP laptop deals for November 2020