What is the difference between a $300 laptop and a $3,000 laptop? It may be difficult to discern the true difference amidst the marketing jargon.
Indeed, you cannot have your cake and eat it too. There are certain trade-offs to be made, and these trade-offs could either mean nothing or be a deal breaker depending on your needs. Without much further ado, let us find out about the components that make up a laptop, and from there the potential trade-offs you may have to make.
The screen is probably one of the most important part of a laptop. Apart from occupying a large portion of the laptop’s exterior, it’s where you see the results from every other part of the system.
Unfortunately, the screen is usually the first to go on budget laptops. Screen resolution is usually reduced to 1366×768, barely adequate in an era where even smartphones are pushing Full HD (1920×1080). If you’re going to stare at Excel spreadsheets the whole day, it may be a deal breaker unless you don’t mind plugging in an external display.
On the upside, such budget laptops are generous with screen size. 15.6″ laptops are commonplace, and I think it’s because it’s cheaper to produce such large but low resolution displays. Overall, this means you won’t have to squint your eyes just to read text on the screen even though you may not have much screen estate to work with.
Low resolution displays also perform well for gaming. Less resolution equates less pixels, and it means a less beefy graphics card will be able to handle your game of choice at your display’s native resolution (where graphics appear most sharp).
Many manufacturers offer a higher resolution display of the same product for a $100-200 premium, which is something you may want to consider.
Ironically, it is in budget laptops that you find the last bastion of optical media. DVD-RW drives are still common in budget laptops, as they’re cheap and these laptops are generally big enough to fit one. If you regularly burn DVDs, budget laptops may just be your best choice.
As for the hard disk, it isn’t so much of an issue of space than speed. The lowest I’ve seen these days is 320GB which I feel is still plenty to go around. Unfortunately, your budget laptop is likely to come with a traditional hard disk, which is one key factor in making a budget laptop feel ‘budget’.
If you can, Google the model you’re interested in beforehand to see if you can upgrade to the much faster solid-state drive (SSD) on your own. Cheap 128GB ones like the Crucial MX100 can be had for about $75, and trust us on this: it will make a BIG difference. You can also live with the hard disk for now and upgrade later–SSD prices can only go lower.
The Graphics Card
If you’re looking to play games, then perhaps a decent graphics card would be something to look for. It’s hard to get top-of-the-line graphics cards in budget laptops, but mid-range ones shouldn’t be too hard to find. On the other hand, higher-end integrated graphics (such as the Intel HD Graphics 4400/5000 or Radeon R6) should make for a decent gaming experience on most 2011/2012 era games and at lower resolutions.
For discrete graphics, try to aim for at least a GT840M or R7 M265. Otherwise, if your needs are just to watch HD videos on YouTube, the integrated graphics experience of today should be sufficient.
At the bottom, you’ll find Intel Celeron and Pentium processors lurking around, though there are two kinds you’ll want to take note of. The first kind runs on the same microarchitecture as current generation Atoms, so expect them to be pretty slow. They are indicated by a ‘J’ or ‘N’ suffix before the model number. The second kind runs on the same microarchitecture as the current generation Core i3/i5/i7, and bear the ‘G’ suffix. If battery life (explained later) is of no concern, get these if you can. They are much faster.
On the other hand, processors seem to be cheap enough these days that even budget laptops sometimes come with an Intel Core i3 or even i5 processor. I don’t think you’ll save much by not opting for one, so you might as well jump the bullet and get it.
RAM is less crucial because in many budget laptops, you can always upgrade the RAM by yourself later on. That being said, for an optimal experience, look for at least 4GB of RAM (or add in the difference yourself). 2GB borderlines on acceptable, but if coupled with a slow hard disk, it will make for a rather sub-optimal experience.
The sad thing about battery life is that they’re likely to be pretty poor on budget laptops. This is because they tend to use normal-wattage parts from Intel and AMD, not the lower-powered ones.
If you really want to get the most battery life out of your budget laptop, try looking for Intel processors bearing the ‘U’ suffix, for example, the i5-4200U. These are the ones with better battery life. Opting for an Intel Pentium or Celeron with the J or N suffixes, though slower, will probably net you more battery as well.
However, such ultra-low-voltage parts are a little hard to come by on the cheap. It may just be a tradeoff you’ll have to make. The average these days is probably around 3 to 4 hours though, which was considered long just a few years back. Thus, it all depends on your expectations.
Battery ratings provided by the manufacturers themselves could sometimes be misleading. To get an accurate gauge, it’s best to read up reviews of the same or a similar model online.
Weight and Size
Weight and Size are put last because the idea of budget laptops in the first place is that they tend to be big and heavy. That’s usually true unless you opt for a netbook-esque device. The lighter Ultrabooks tend to be priced at a premium. Do note that thinness is sometimes deceiving–many thin laptops pack a hefty weight of ~1.9kg, which I would consider rather heavy. If mobility and budget is of essence to you, then a netbook, or even a tablet would be a better option than a budget laptop.
Weighing the Trade-offs
The crucial part lies in weighing these trade-offs between the above criteria. The reason why this article refrains from making any direct recommendations is because new laptops are being released everyday (reviews of which you can find on this website), and some formerly ‘premium’ laptops may go on clearance sales (where you end up making less trade-offs!). Thus, what is more crucial is understanding the things that go into your laptop and deciding if it’s really that important to you.
If you’re a movie buff who enjoys watching HD videos regularly, the screen would be of utmost criteria. If you’re a mobile warrior, battery is important. If you game, perhaps the screen and graphics card would weigh in. If you’re a productivity king or queen, then hard disk, RAM and the processor will matter most.