Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Value-priced laptops for 2014

The best value-priced laptops for school or work

This is an old article and will no longer be updated. Please see my latest version here

















The ASUS Zenbook UX303. The cheap one is $900 :(

It's that time again--time to think about what you'll need for college! My prior post on premium laptops featured some of my favorite machines, including the latest ASUS Zenbook UX303 ultrabooks.

But let's be honest--most people (myself included) don't need $1000 computers. They feature much more power than most people will need. So, this article will list laptops that are priced much lower--but they're still plenty capable for most tasks! I've kept the price under $500 for all the computers listed here. 

For the sake of organization, there will be tiers: the first, Tier 1, will feature laptops that I can highly recommend, as they will be appropriately future-proofed (that is, they will still be capable enough to keep most people happy for the next several years). Tier 2 will feature laptops with sufficient capacity for light users. Light users will only use word processing programs, spreadsheets, presentation programs, web surfing and maybe listening to music or watching an occasional movie. If you are certain that you will never need any more heavy-duty programs than Microsoft Office or Windows Media Player, you can get away with one of the cheaper laptops in Tier 2. 

It's important to note that computers DO NOT come with Microsoft Office unless otherwise specified. Most computers don't; you have to buy it yourself, or else download competing software (free ones include OpenOffice, Google Docs, and Kingsoft Office Free). Modern computers DO, however, come with Windows Defender, which is Microsoft's built-in antivirus software. It's perfectly competent; I rely on it as my antivirus. If you do the same, I recommend downloading Comodo's free firewall as added protection, as well as Malwarebytes Anti-Malware in case you do get a virus and need to remove it. 

All photos come from the Amazon product pages, unless otherwise noted.

Note: Prices will fluctuate, as they are wont to do on Amazon. At any given moment, my listed prices may not be accurate; be prepared to see a disappointingly higher price than I listed. If you hold down the 'Ctrl' key while you click a link, it will open the link in a new browser tab, which will allow you to compare multiple products at once through having multiple tabs open. 

Ready? Here goes...
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Tier 1

ASUS D550CA-RS31, $399, http://amzn.to/1A3dUU4 


I know, technology manufacturers really need to work on their names for products. Who gave the engineers naming rights, anyway? Nonetheless, ASUS continues to make excellent products, despite their less-than-creative names. 

This one has a good, 3rd-generation Intel i3 processor (the i3-3217U), with 6 GB of RAM and a 500 GB, 5400 rpm hard drive (which is the most common drive capacity and speed, so I'll refer to this as "standard hard drive" from here on). The battery life is unknown (3-4 hours is a reasonable guess), but unlike some computers, it does come with a CD/DVD reader/writer (the geek term is "optical drive," which I'll use because it's more concise--and because I'm a geek). It also comes with a 15.6" 1366 x 768 screen, which is pretty typical, particularly at this price point. This computer does NOT feature a touchscreen. Some (like myself) prefer it that way, so as to avoid getting marks and smears all over the screen from touching it all the time. Others may want a touchscreen, and there are certainly a variety of touchscreen computers available, including some on this very list. 

I like this one because of its reasonably fast processor and 6 GB of RAM, which enables some serious multi-tasking. Got a dozen browser tabs open, a Word document, a PowerPoint, and playing music all at once? With this computer, it'll still run smoothly. I think this is sufficiently powerful and future-proofed to be a recommended Froogal deal, especially for $400! 

I've said it before and I'll say it again, ASUS is known for the build quality and reliability of its products. So all around, this computer is a safe bet--powerful and reliable, and available for a good price! 

This is absolutely the computer from this list that I'd get for myself. At $400, this represents a good value for the performance, reliability, and build quality. This one is listed first for a reason!
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ASUS X551CA-RI3N15, $370 $350, http://amzn.to/1ncgfXq 

It looks so similar to the previous model that I won't even bother to include pictures. It has the same processor as the previous model, only 4 GB of RAM (compared to 6), the same standard hard drive, the same 15.6", standard resolution, non-touchscreen display, and the same optical drive. It's a very similar computer, aside from the difference in RAM. For basic needs, 4 GB of RAM is actually fine; you only need more than that when you start getting into more complex, resource-intensive programs. Even if you like to do a bunch of things at once on a computer, 4 GB is typically enough. 

If the 2 extra GB of RAM isn't worth the extra money to you, then go with this one instead. It's cheaper, and will get the job done very well. 

UPDATE 8/16/2014: Now $350, plus shipping! Even better! :)
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Lenovo Thinkpad E545, $380, http://amzn.to/1v17GOF



A lot of people swear by Thinkpads, originally made by IBM and now made by Lenovo. They're built for business customers, so they're built tougher than consumer-grade laptops. At a hefty 5.2 pounds, it better be tough! They also have the TrackPoint (that little red dot in the middle of the keyboard), which some people prefer to  the touchpads normally found on laptops.

This one comes with a standard-definition 15.6" screen, an AMD A6-5350M processor to go with 4 GB of RAM, an optical drive, and a smaller-than-normal 320 GB 5400 RPM drive. Lenovo claims a 6-hour battery life for this model.

Since this is marketed as a business laptop, Windows 7 is installed, which is great for those of you who do not like Windows 8! Overall, this laptop is a pretty good value at under $400. (As of the time this was posted, Dec. 19, 2014, there are several new ones available for around $370 on Amazon. As always, however, prices will fluctuate).

All things considered, this is another recommended Froogal deal for under $400!
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Toshiba Satellite C55D-B5212, $350 Now $340, http://amzn.to/Ur6zN3 


This Toshiba Satellite laptop is powered by an AMD A8-6410. Despite the higher number (A8 vs. A6), this processor offers similar performance. For around under $350, though, we're talking about a real bargain! This computer comes with 4 GB of RAM as well, a standard 500 GB hard drive, an optical drive, a 15.6" screen, and an optical drive. A sub-$350 computer with good performance? Now THAT'S a highly recommended Froogal deal! 

If you know what you're doing or you're willing to learn, try getting this computer, along with a 120 GB solid-state drive and a SATA to USB cable (which you'll need in order to clone the contents of the original hard drive to your new SSD. Unless you install another operating system, the SSD, which is faster and more reliable than a standard hard drive, won't work without going through the cloning process). 120 GB SSDs are available for less than $70, and sometimes you can find a 240 GB version for under $100 (both the Crucial MX100 http://amzn.to/1B0azHr and the Silicon Power S70 http://amzn.to/1wUAcW1 are highly regarded SSDs that aren't as expensive as some of the better-marketed alternatives).

There are many SATA to USB cables; some of them cost less than $10 (like this one by Patuoxun: http://amzn.to/1nllofe, or this one by Kootek: http://amzn.to/1nSIF4h, or this generic one: http://amzn.to/1pbBXdK).  So, for around $420, you'll end up with a very fast computer AND your old 500 GB hard drive as an external storage device! This would be a great way to get a computer that can hang with laptops twice its price!

UPDATE 10/13/2014: This particular model is now available for $340, or even less if you go with a used model! Whether you're getting this one used or new, it's a great deal and a recommended buy!
You can read more about the advantages of a solid-state drive here
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Lenovo IdeaPad G505s 59406417, $460 $550, http://amzn.to/1qz5PEN 


Maybe you'd like a computer that's a little nicer than the ones listed above. If this applies to you, then here's the bargain computer of your dreams: the Lenovo G505s! With a powerful AMD A10-5750M, 6 GB of RAM, a 1 TB hard drive, 15.6" screen, roughly 5-hour battery life (likely closer to 4 hrs in actual use), and an optical drive, you have a very good computer with nice specs for less than $500 $550! 

It also features Lenovo's renowned keyboard, which is known to be comfortable and accurate. I have my eye on this one myself, in case one of my current laptops goes kaput. I think this computer represents an excellent value a decent value for the money now that the price increased by about $100, and it is highly recommended!

UPDATE 8/16/2014: Disappointingly, this computer is now about $100 more expensive than it used to be. 
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Toshiba Satellite C55-A5100 (refurbished), $340, 

If you're willing to buy a refurbished product (which I recommend, because it can save you a significant amount of money), this one is an excellent buy! You won't find a 3rd-gen i3 for much less, and this laptop also has 6 GB of RAM and a 750 GB hard drive, as well as a standard 15.6" screen and an optical drive. For a computer that normally retails for $450 according to Toshiba's website, $340 is quite a bargain! This is another one that I'd buy for myself, if I needed a computer! 

UPDATE 9/8/2014: Sadly, this refurbished computer is no longer offered on Toshiba's website. 
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Toshiba Satellite L55-B5276, $500 $650,


Again, if you need a more powerful computer to run complex programs, like design software or video editing software, consider this one for $500. It's got a strong 4th-gen i5 processor to go with 8 GB of RAM, a 1 TB hard drive, a standard 15.6" screen, and an optical drive. Battery life is in the neighborhood of 4 hours. This is a very good computer (compared to the budget laptops listed elsewhere in this article), and I'd be very pleased to own this one, as well! Two years ago, a computer like this would have cost $800-900--which just goes to show that as technology advances, you can get nicer products for less money!

UPDATE 8/16/2014: Unfortunately, the sale is off now, and this computer is a much pricier $650. Still not too bad for a machine with these specs, but it's not the fantastic deal it was at $500. 
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Toshiba Satellite C55-B5246, $380 $430, http://amzn.to/1kS2FUA 

This is similar to the earlier Toshiba laptops, except that it runs an i3 processor instead of an A6. The 3rd-gen i3 processor goes with 4 GB of RAM and a standard 500 GB hard drive. It's got the same 15.6" display as every other computer on this list, and an optical drive. Nothing particularly special; but $380 is a good price for this caliber of laptop!

UPDATE 8/16/2014: Unfortunately, the price has increased by $50. Watch to see if it goes on sale again, but as of right now, there are better deals. 
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If you really want a deal and you're willing to risk getting a not-new laptop, try this: http://amzn.to/1rzQmDU

It's the ASUS Q200E, with an older 2nd-gen i3, 4 GB of RAM, a standard 500 GB hard drive, an 11.6" touchscreen, and no optical drive. It weighs less than 3 pounds, which is very light for a laptop--this one is definitely small and portable! It's currently (7/22/14) available for $339 refurbished, or $289 used. If you're decent with computers and willing to give it a try, this still represents a lot of bang for your buck!

UPDATE 8/16/2014: Now available from $300 used; no refurbished versions available. 
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UPDATE 11/12/2014:
Lenovo G50, $370, http://amzn.to/1xPA89r

With a pedestrian Intel Pentium N3530 processor, 4 GB of RAM, a standard 500 GB hard drive, a standard 15.6" screen, and a claimed 5-hour battery life, there's nothing terribly impressive here. However, its performance will be adequate for many people; web browsing and editing documents will be perfectly speedy on this machine. Nobody gets excited over specs like this, but for $370, this is a perfectly capable (though ordinary) laptop--just fine for the vast majority of users who don't run anything more taxing than an occasional movie.
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Okay, those are my Froogal-recommended Tier 1 laptops. As you can see, good laptops are available for under $500 (and most cost under $400!). These computers will satisfy probably 95% of computer users. If you heed my recommendation of replacing the hard drive with a speedy and reliable SSD (like Crucial's MX100 http://amzn.to/1B0azHr or the Silicon Power S70 http://amzn.to/1wUAcW1), you'll have a mighty fast budget computer on your hands! And now for...


Tier 2

I'll spend much less time marveling over this section--but remember that 7 years ago, these would have been unfathomably fast for laptops. The fact that computers this capable are available for under $350 today is mind-boggling! 

As with anything else, you get what you pay for: these computers are made of  plastic shells, more prone to various problems than more expensive (and typically better-designed) computers, and equipped with cheap, cost-saving components. As long as you understand that these computers are low-end devices, they can be reasonable, cost-effective solutions for you. 
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ASUS X200CA-DH21T, $286 $300, http://amzn.to/1wYJL3Z 
 

This one won't blow anyone out of the water, but it's good for the sub-$300 price tag. It's got an Intel Pentium 2117U, 4 GB of RAM, a standard 500 GB hard drive, an 11.6" touchscreen (a touchscreen computer for under $300?!) and an advertised 5-hour battery life, which is more like 4 hours under regular usage. Pretty good specs for a computer in this price range, and a recommended buy for anyone who prefers a light, portable laptop to a powerful one.

UPDATE 8/16/2014: Now $300. Still a good price for a reasonably nice laptop. 
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Toshiba Satellite C55-A5300, $300, http://amzn.to/1p93TMs

If you're going to get a $300 laptop, this is the way to do it. The Intel Celeron 1037U is surprisingly competent for a Celeron. With 4 GB of RAM, a 500 GB hard drive, a standard 15.6" screen, and an optical drive, this computer has everything you'd expect and doesn't cut corners. Between Toshiba's historical reliability and the not-especially-good yet surprisingly decent hardware, this is the kind of laptop I'd recommend to my parents. It'll do the job, and it'll be cheap--and that's all they'd ask of it.
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ASUS X551CA, $290 $250, http://amzn.to/1A4cB7h

This one features an Intel Celeron 1007U, 4 GB of RAM, standard 500 GB hard drive, standard 15.6" screen, and no optical drive. For $290 $250, this computer will get you through the day reasonably well. If you go with a used or refurbished version, you could pay less than $250, which is not a bad deal!

UPDATE 8/16/2014: $250 is as cheap as a new Windows computer will get--but the performance is actually reasonable! If this model stays put at $250, it's a strongly encouraged buy for shoppers in this tier!
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Dell Inspiron i3542-1666BK, $330, http://amzn.to/1A4agJq 

With a Pentium 3558U, 4 GB of RAM, a standard hard drive, a standard 15.6" screen, and an optical drive, nothing really stands out about this computer. The battery life is rated at 6.5 hours, which is always an optimistic claim from the manufacturer. Still, a more realistic 5.5 hours is still pretty good!
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Toshiba C55D-B5241, $250, http://amzn.to/1tWaEU9


Currently available for $250 on Amazon, this computer is actually quite good for the price! It comes with the standard 4 GB of RAM and 500 GB hard drive, as well as the typical 1366x768 pixel, 15.6" screen. The new AMD A4 processor in this computer is actually reasonably fast, particularly compared to other sub-$300 computers! Battery life for this model is unknown.

This is highly recommended for $250 if you need a new computer that costs as little as possible! (But if the price goes above $320 or so, forget it).
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ASUS VivoBook X502CA-RB01, $320, http://amzn.to/1jUtRqF

An Intel Celeron 1007U powers this computer, with 4 GB of RAM, a 320 GB hard drive, standard 15.6" screen, and ~5-hour battery life. Not great, but $320 is pretty cheap. You can see why I was so excited about the $340 computers in Tier 1, because they represent a much better performance value. _______________________________________________________________
ASUS F55A-ES01, $280, http://amzn.to/1A4aNv9 

This has an Celeron B830 processor, with only 2 GB of RAM, a 320 GB hard drive, standard 15.6" screen, and an optical drive. Due to the low RAM, this won't be any too capable, but it should be OK for web surfing duty. But if you're not going to do anything else on it, a Chromebook might be better--and cheaper.
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ASUS X551MAV-EB01-B, $249, http://amzn.to/1jUvg0i

Well, it's a $250 laptop, so it's as slow as you'd expect: really slow. [UPDATE 8/16/2014: This model has a much slower processor than the version listed above. Spend the extra dollar and get that one if it's still available for $250. You'll be glad you did.] The Celeron N2830 processor is probably the slowest component in this computer. The 4 GB of RAM and 500 GB hard drive should be expected, as should the standard 15.6" display and lack of an optical drive. They made it as cheap and light as possible, and that will show. Honestly, this is 8-year-old kid or 80-year-old grandpa territory; first-time computer users will be delighted to have their own brand-new computer! Otherwise, the extra $30-50 for a computer with a better processor will be worthwhile. 
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If you need to go as cheap as possible while maintaining a full-function laptop (i.e. not a tablet or a Chromebook), then consider a used computer. The Toshiba Satellite C55D-A5163 (link: http://amzn.to/1pbNV7c) has a downright anemic AMD E1-2100 processor. Everything else should be familiar by now: 4 GB of RAM, 500 GB hard drive, 15.6" screen, and an optical drive. Battery life is claimed to be 5.3 hours (5h 18 mins). The upside is that you can get used ones for under $200, including shipping, at the Amazon link above. If your goal is to get the cheapest possible computer, there you go!

UPDATE 9/18/2014: Toshiba has announced that they're scaling back on their consumer PC sales in some countries. In order to make profits more consistent, they're focusing more on selling computers to businesses (and other approaches, like cloud computing). The press release is here. This won't affect customers in the U.S. (source here), which is good news for many of my readers. However, if you don't live in the United States, then it may be worth monitoring the state of Toshiba's consumer PC business in your country/region.

If none of these are powerful enough for you, check out some of my favorite premium laptops!