Friday, January 23, 2015

Value Laptops 2015

Value Laptops 2015

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













It’s no secret that I’m a fan of laptops. However, I’m also a fan of saving money and living within my means. If you're looking for a great deal on a new computer, I've picked out some of the best deals around to include in this article. Isn't it nice to have someone else do your shopping for you? :)


Years ago, you had to spend $1000 on a desktop computer if you wanted it to be reasonably fast. Today, a $500 laptop can easily handle almost anything you can throw at it--even though they're much smaller and much cheaper than that old desktop!


I’m amazed when I think of how much faster computers are today than they used to be! Even a cheap $250 laptop in 2015 can run as fast as an $800 laptop from 2008! The new one will also have more storage, probably a better screen, and may run programs that an older one could not. That kind of progress in under a decade is nothing short of incredible!

Such is the state of the computer industry: an expensive device is obsolete in a few years [though progress is beginning to slow down as manufacturers bump up against the laws of physics].


Flash drives show the same kind of progress: $20 would get you a 4 GB flash drive in 2008 (reference: the PQi drive around row 21 on http://www.jcmit.com/flashprice.htm), whereas the same amount can get you a 32 GB flash drive on sale today!

Processors (one of the major components in your computer) have come along similarly in that same span, particularly when it comes to laptops. Laptops in 2008 ran hot, had poor battery life, and were slow compared to their modern counterparts—and you would have paid a lot more for that mediocre performance! 


http://core0.staticworld.net/images/article/2013/09/transformer_t300e_1160-100052648-orig.png
Sometimes I'm pretty impressed by tech innovation

Fortunately for the vast majority of computer users today, a modern $400 laptop will get the job done admirably. If you don't have specialized needs like a gamer or video production professional, it's only sensible to get a reasonably-priced computer! This article will have details, pictures, and links to some of the best computers in this price range in 2015. (And in 2020, when computers are even more capable, you can look back at this page and have a good laugh! I’m sure I will!)

Why spend more? Despite what manufacturers want you to believe—if you're like many people, there's no need for anything more powerful or more expensive than the computers you'll see in this list! 




http://www.excaliberpc.com/images/615926_2/original.jpg

If you’re interested in learning a bit about what all the specs mean, I’ve posted a handy detailed guide to the dirty technical stuff, and a quick tech guide here, to explain the jargon and make sense of the marketing.

For reference, here’s a link to my guide to Premium Laptops 2015. For comparison, here are links to my older guides for 2014 computers: Value-priced Computers for 2014 and Premium Laptops.

*As always, prices are subject to change. I’ll update this list sometimes, but prices (and availability) on Amazon fluctuate frequently. These computers are recommended for their value and reliability as perceived by me; as such, they may not be the best for you (if you’re a gamer, for example, or you have specific needs for your work). You alone are responsible for making the final decision as to whether a particular computer is right for your needs. You’d also be wise to shop around before buying, as the same computer might be for sale by another retailer for less money. Amazon usually offers the best prices, but not always. Good alternatives include Newegg, TigerDirect, Staples, and sometimes Best Buy or Fry’s Electronics.*

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s dive in!

ASUS D550CA; $380



This was first on my list of Value-priced Computers for 2014, and it’s first again this year! Though the processor technology is older and less efficient than newer ones, this computer is still plenty capable! If you choose to implement my recommended upgrade detailed below, it will further enhance responsiveness, battery life, and reliability: SSDs may be the best value in personal computing today!


SSDs may be the best value in personal computing today!

The i3-3217U processor is reasonably powerful, though not as power-efficient as a newer one would be. Consequently, battery life tops out at 5 hours, though you can expect less in everyday computing. The 6 GB of RAM is more than enough for the majority of users to multitask or run almost any program. The 500 GB, 5400 rpm hard drive and a 15.6-inch, 1366 x 768 (HD) screen are standard on a variety of laptops, including the cheapest $250 ones—so nothing special with the hard drive or screen!

Because it offers a pretty fast processor and 6 GB of RAM, $380 is a great value for this computer! It wouldn’t be a good value if it were likely to fail, though: this is why I look up manufacturer reliability ratings, starting with (but not limited to) the report published annually by RescueCom. Their annual report is typically published in February. RescueCom also publishes quarterly rankings, for more up-to-date information. ASUS has historically performed well, staying in the upper echelon of manufacturers for most years since 2009, and did well most recently in the 2nd and 3rd quarter of 2014.

As good a value as this computer is, one upgrade will make it even better: install a solid-state drive. I explain this, and provide links to step-by-step tutorials to swap out your hard drive for an SSD, at the end of my guide to the dirty technical stuff. This laptop remains a good value, regardless of whether or not you perform my recommended upgrade.

*Note: An SSD installation is a recommended upgrade for ANY computer that comes with a mechanical hard drive, including every computer on this list.*

I recommend the Crucial BX100 120 GB SSD or the Silicon Power S70 120 GB SSD. If you need a SATA-to-USB cable, I use this Patuoxun cable, which runs about $8. If you’d prefer, you can use an external hard drive enclosure like this one or this one, instead of the SATA-to-USB cable.

Here’s why I recommend the time and effort to do an SSD installation. For about $450, you’ll get this ASUS D550CA (about $380), a 128 GB SSD (about $60), and a SATA-to-USB cable (or external hard drive caddy) (about $10). With an SSD installed, the computer will run faster, cooler, longer, and will be less likely to fail if you drop it.

Furthermore, you’ll still have the original hard drive, which you can use for backup storage! Just plug in the SATA-to-USB cable (or hard drive enclosure—whichever you bought) and you'll have easy access to your music, movies, pictures, and so forth.

$440 is roughly half the cost of a new premium computer with more powerful components—but a modified D550CA will exhibit similar everyday performance!

Now THAT'S a deal!

Similar: ASUS X551CA; $330

This option is pretty much the same as the one above, except that it comes with only 4 GB of RAM. If you want to, you can add RAM yourself, but it could be a hassle. But, if you already have laptop RAM lying around and it's compatible with this computer, why not save yourself the extra money?

Toshiba Satellite C55D-B5310; $330


This one originally caught my attention for being on sale for $300 at Best Buy, though the Best Buy deal is off (http://www.bestbuy.com/site/toshiba-satellite-15-6-laptop-amd-a8-series-4gb-memory-500gb-hard-drive-jet-black/8790174.p?id=1219370472837&skuId=8790174).

The A8-6410 processor is no slouch! It’s a quad-core processor that can handle most tasks with ease; it’s actually a little faster on some benchmarks than the i3 in the ASUS D550CA listed above! This chip also features superior integrated graphics, compared to the ASUS. 4 GB of RAM and a 500 GB hard drive are standard, as is the 15.6-inch, 1366 x 768 display.

All in all, this computer has solid specs that will easily tackle the needs of many students or home users. Toshiba is also a brand that has historically made pretty reliable laptops. I feel comfortable recommending this as a great deal for just about anyone!

Similar: Toshiba Satellite C55D-B5212; $350
Toshiba Satellite C55D-B5351; $320

Both of these feature the same A8-6410 processor, 4 GB of RAM, a 500 GB hard drive, and a standard 15.6-inch screen. Prices will fluctuate; check out each of these to see which one costs the least. 

Lenovo G50; $400 


With an A6-6310 processor that's comparable to the Toshiba Satellites listed above, as well as 4 GB of RAM and a whopping 1 TB hard drive, this computer features reasonably powerful components and tons of storage . The claimed 6-hour battery life is pretty good, too! Like the other computer manufacturers recommended here, Lenovo has generally scored well on reliability measures.
With a combination of power, lots of storage, and a low price of $400, this computer is a good one for value-seekers!

Be aware that there are other versions of this computer available, from expensive, high-end versions with the i7-4510U and mid-range versions with the i5-4210U or i3-4030U on down to a low-end version with the Pentium N3530. Be sure of which computer you’re getting! I’d heartily recommend a version with the A6-6310, or the A8-6410 if it’s priced in the same $400 range, over one with the Pentium N3530. The Pentium really isn’t too bad; it’s the Rodney Dangerfield of processors. It just can’t get no respect! Nonetheless, the A6 and A8 offer more power for the similar money. And a value hound like me can’t ignore that.

ASUS Transformer Book Flip TP500LA; $400

Feeling fancy? The ASUS Flip...well, it flips!

The price of the Flip TP500LA seems to have settled around $400: a deal that I couldn't resist when I needed a new computer! Now that I have one myself, I can give you my personal impressions: it's pretty well-constructed and durable, and performance is good for a computer at this price. I can also vouch for the claimed 7-hour battery life!

If you're just working on editing a document and listening to music, you will see roughly 6 and a half hours on battery power alone. If you turn off the wireless, you can get around 9 hours! A more typical usage scenario, involving Internet browsing with several tabs open, will still return around 6 hours of battery life, depending on how hard you push the machine. I also rarely flip the computer back into tablet mode, though it's nice to have the option if you want to watch a movie while lying down. 

The i3-4030U provides reasonable power and great efficiency, but the 4 GB of RAM is typical of many budget computers, and the 500 GB hard drive and 15.6-inch 1366 x 768 touchscreen aren’t special. Overall, it’s a solid, reasonable setup geared for value-seekers rather than power-users.

The appeal lies in the versatility of the 360-degree hinge, so you can use it in stand mode, tent mode, tablet mode, or laptop mode, just like the more well-known (and pricier) Lenovo Yoga series. At the MSRP of $480, I wouldn't be a fan—for nearly $500, I’d rather have a lighter and/or more powerful device instead of one with a gimmicky hinge.

But for $400, this is a top-notch device that will get you reasonable performance and excellent battery life of more than 6 hours, all without looking or feeling like a cheap computer! 

Does this form factor tickle your fancy, but you wish it were more powerful? The Transformer Book Flip TP500LA gives you a variety of choices, including an i5-powered model or an i7-powered version. Either one comes with 8 GB of RAM and a 1 TB hard drive; the i5 version features a Full HD 1080p touchscreen (but, curiously, not the i7 version).

The smaller Transformer Book Flip TP300 has a 13.3-inch Full HD (1920 x 1080) IPS touchscreen, a powerful i5-4210U backed by 8 GB of RAM and a standard 500 GB hard drive, for around $700 here or here.


ASUS X551MAV; $249


Though it has a similar name and a similar look to the ones above, the X551MAV has different internal components. And it can make a world of difference!

This computer is currently (January 2015) the top-selling laptop on Amazon! It features the same chassis as the laptops listed above, and it comes with 4 GB of RAM, 500 GB hard drive, and the normal 1366 x 768 15.6-inch display.

The reason this model is so much cheaper is the processor: the dual-core Celeron is slow. Reviewers note this, and just realize that it won't be satisfactory for everyone. But if you only need a basic, low-cost Windows computer to edit documents, check e-mail, store your files, and do some light Web browsing, this model may do the trick for you.


Lenovo B50; $490



The real selling point of this computer is not its i3-4030U processor, nor its 4 GB of RAM, 500 GB hard drive, 15.6-inch screen, or claimed 5-hour battery life. No, the real selling point here is the fact that this computer comes with Windows 7. For those who hate Windows 8 and 8.1 and don’t want to use the free program Classic Shell (http://www.classicshell.net/) to skirt the Metro interface issues, this is a chance to skip the disastrous Windows 8 entirely, as Windows 7 will be upgradable to Windows 10 for free, once the new operating system is released later in 2015.

Nearly $500 is more than I’d be willing to pay for this, as there are equal (or better) options available for less. But hey, if you really hate Windows 8...

The following product is now selling for $250 more than when I first posted this article! 
If it's offered again for the target price, great! Otherwise, forget it--it's no longer a bargain. 

ASUS X200LA; $420
http://amzn.to/15IObFU


Picture from Amazon product page of ASUS X200LA-DH31T

This is a good option for a compact 3 pound, 11.6-inch computer, though it's more expensive than many of the alternatives listed above. The higher price is likely due to the newer hardware inside the computer. It'll be pretty fast and reasonably efficient as well, with a claimed 5-hour battery life.

The i3-4010U processor combines with a standard 4 GB of RAM, 500 GB hard drive, and a standard-resolution screen with 1366 x 768 pixels (on such a small screen, however, this pixel count should yield better clarity than it would on a bigger screen). As you might expect from such a small computer, there's no room for an optical drive, so don't expect to play your CDs or DVDs in this. Overall, this is a nice option for people who want a light and highly portable device!

(I apologize for the link to an Amazon search instead of the product page itself. Amazon wouldn't let me link to the product page, but the ASUS X200LA-DH31T should be the first link down. Amazon may tell you about the "newer version," the K200MA. Don't fall for it; the K200 has an inferior processor and will be much slower than this one!)

HP 15-f111dx; $450

This has been seen on sale before for as little as $380 at Best Buy. $380 is a very good deal for a computer that comes with an A8-6410 processor, 8 GB of RAM, a 750 GB hard drive, and a standard 15.6-inch, 1366 x 768, screen. It also comes equipped with an optical drive for CDs and DVDs—not a given in today’s market!

For the going rate of about $450 on Amazon, it’s still a decent value. But the ‘wow’ factor really comes in if you can get this for under $400.

Caveat emptor: HP’s reliability has not been good historically. That’s not to say that this one will fall apart, but other manufacturers like Toshiba, ASUS, and Lenovo inspire more confidence in their products. So you’ve been warned: if you opt for this computer, you’re taking the risk of getting a lemon. If you experience no problems, though, you’ve escaped with a bargain!

HP 15-f003dx; $370
This computer looks just like the HP pictured above, and comes with the same reliability caveat. For over $50 less than the previous laptop, you can get this very similar option. It sports an A6-5200, an optical drive, a 750 GB hard drive, and only 4 GB of RAM. This one also has an optical drive and a standard 15.6-inch screen. If you're on a tighter budget than the previous computer would allow, this is a good option. But thanks to the manufacturer reliability reports like this one, I'd be apt to go with the Toshiba Satellite C55D-B5310 (listed second in this article) or the Lenovo G50 (listed third) instead, because their products are more reliable.

ASUS EeeBook X205TA; $200
http://amzn.to/1EsNBXz


If you're really strapped for cash, and/or you want a very small laptop to carry around, this is one of the lowest-priced Windows computers you can get. Tech journalists actually like it, despite its lack of power. If you just want a low-budget traveling machine, this one will fulfill your needs. Just don't expect it to be your only computer, or you'll find yourself very frustrated!

This slim, 11.6-inch laptop comes with only 2 GB of RAM and an Intel Atom Z3735 processor (it's a quad-core, but don't get too excited: it was designed for tablets, so it's light on both power consumption and performance).

It also features a small 32 GB solid-state drive—the majority of that space is used up by Windows, so we're talking smartphone-level storage space here. Again, this was clearly intended to be a secondary, travel computer, not your only one!

The real selling point here (aside from the low price) is the battery life: 12 hours of battery life on a single charge is very impressive! Even more impressive: that number was actually borne out in real-world testing by LaptopMag [link here]! So if you're a frequent flyer who's been looking for a cheap device with a keyboard (which rules out tablets) that can get you through a cross-country (or international) flight, this may be just what you've been looking for!

But, it bears repeating: if you want to get only one computer, I would not recommend this one. You would be better off spending $250 to get the ASUS X551MAV (http://amzn.to/1CsSyQo) described above, or a little over $300 on a Toshiba Satellite like this one.

Refurbished

ASUS Q302LA; $400
http://amzn.to/1LfFX9G

Wow! For a limited time, this convertible computer with a 4th-gen i5, 8 GB of RAM, a 500 GB hard drive, and a 13.3-inch touchscreen (though it's the basic 1366 x 768 resolution). At a price of $400, that's a great deal! It's still a good deal at the regular (refurbished) price of $430, but you won't find a better laptop for the current $400 sale price.

It comes with only a 90-day warranty, but this computer would end up being a real bargain if it lasts a couple years! Definitely worth considering.

Lenovo IdeaPad S415; $350

Talk about a fantastic deal on a refurbished computer! This is a solid computer all around, for less than the price of some bargain computers! This one comes with an A6-5200M processor, 4 GB of RAM and a 500 GB hard drive. Battery life is a claimed 5 hours.

The display is actually a touchscreen (for under $300?!), and comes in the 14-inch format, which I like as a compromise between screen size and portability. The 1366 x 768 pixel resolution will yield slightly better resolution on this 14-inch display than on a typical 15.6-inch screen, because the same number of pixels are packed more tightly into a smaller screen. I’m really enthusiastic about this deal—but at less than $300, don’t expect the lone available computer to last long!

Dell Inspiron i15RV-1333BLK; $340
http://amzn.to/1uCHZKS

Like HP, Dell is not known for stellar reliability. If you’re willing to take the risk, you can get an Inspiron with i3-3227U, 6 GB of RAM, the same ordinary screen and hard drive that you’ll get in nearly any other computer on this list, and an optical drive, for under $350 refurbished. Not bad overall, if you’re willing to risk a possible headache later on.

Pictures from Amazon product page, unless otherwise noted.

Happy saving!