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The Best Computer You Can Buy For: $100

To continue my blog series, The Best Computer You Can Buy For $X, this post looks at what you can get for $100 or less!

Unfortunately, the best computer you can get for $100 looks an awful lot like the best computer you can get for free. If you haven’t read that post yet, it’s worth reading because there’s a chance the best computer you can buy for $100 could also come from a similar place - like Craisglist or a friend. The difference, however, is that if you’re willing to spend up to $100 you don’t necessarily need to settle for absolutely anything, and with a little bit of luck you can probably find something better than what you could find for free. Let’s take a look at some options.

Raspberry Pi

If you’re willing to spend $100, purchasing a Raspberry Pi is probably an option. The Raspberry Pi 400 is currently listed for exactly $100 at Micro Center, so it is just within your price range. Of course, that Pi 400 does not include a monitor (though it does include a power cable, HDMI cable, and mouse), so you’d have to find a monitor for free/cheap for this to be a viable option. You could, of course, get a Pi 4 (just the board) instead of a Pi 400 (with keyboard, etc), but if you get a complete Pi 4 kit (like the one from CanaKit) with cables and an SD card, and maybe a keyboard an mouse, the price difference isn’t much. You could also buy an older Pi (like the 3B+ perhaps) to have more money for a monitor and peripherals. In any case, the Pi 400 is a very reasonable option for a $100 computer (assuming you have a monitor). It would work fine for web browsing, email, and programming, and should even be able to play video, so it will be the thing to beat when we consider some other options.

Chromebook

Chromebooks are another option for a sub-$100 computer. For example, you can get this refurbished Samsung Chromebook for $95 from Walmart, or a refurbished Lenovo X131E Chromebook for $99 from Newegg. With 4GB memory, the Lenovo chromebook seems roughly comparable to the Pi 400 as far as what it should be capable of. The Samsung is probably worse/slower than the Pi 400 since it has only 2GB RAM, but it’s a complete laptop that comes with its own monitor, so maybe that’s more useful than the Pi. With these Chromebooks, you’re somewhat limited to ChromeOS. Which is totally fine if all you need is internet, email, Google Docs, and other simple apps. While it’s possible to get a Linux environment installed on a Chromebook like this, it’s a little tricky and some things might not work quite right. So the Pi is probably more versatile with software (it runs a Debian-based Linux distribution), and while any Chromebook limits you to ChromeOS, it comes with a monitor and provides great portability.

eBay

eBay is another place we might be able to find a sub-$100 computer, and something like eBay is probably the only place we can find real computers for under $100 instead of Pis and Chromebooks. Of course, ordering from eBay is a little more risky than ordering a brand-new Raspberry Pi, so read the descriptions carefully and check the seller’s rating before you buy anything. But if we find a good deal, maybe we can find something that would be better than the Pi 400 and more capable than a Chromebook. To start the search, I’m going to search for “laptop” on eBay and specify I want “buy it now” items. You might look for a desktop if you already have a monitor, but I’m going to assume we want a laptop (which will include all preipherals in our cost). Many results seem to be chromebooks, but we already knew we could find some chromebooks in this price range. I’m going to specify “Not included”, “Linux”, or any version of “Windows” in the OS filter. Now we’re getting some good results!

Right off the bat, I see a couple older Dell Latitudes and ThinkPads for about $100. This and this are great examples. I like Dell Latitudes and ThinkPads because they’re well-built business laptops that are very common, so it should be easy to find parts for them and they should last. In this price range, cosmetic damage is your friend. It’s great if you can buy a faster laptop cheaper because it has some scratches and cracks in the plastic.

How to Compare Performance

Comparing performance of computers like this can be tricky. CPU Ghz is basically meaningless, so it’s hard to know if one option is actually faster than another. But with some other easy-to-find stats, you can still get a pretty good rough comparison.

Start with the memory (RAM). More RAM does make the computer feel faster (it can do more at once and needs to read/write from disk less often), but it’s also a useful indicator of overall system performance. Nobody puts 8GB RAM in a laptop with a crap CPU, and nobody limits the performance of a great CPU with only 1 or 2 GB RAM. For $100, I wouldn’t buy anything with less than 4GB RAM and I’d look for 6GB or 8GB if I could find it in my price range.

After memory, look at the hard disk. You want an SSD, not an HDD. SSDs were a huge breakthrough in making systems feel faster because a system with an SSD spends significantly less time loading the OS and software from the disk. Assuming you don’t need tons of storage space, I’d prefer even a 64GB SSD over a 500GB HDD.

Finally, after comparing RAM and disk, look at the CPUs. (We’re treating the CPU as more of a tie-breaker here). As I said, you can’t necessarily compare CPU speed in Ghz from one CPU to another. Instead, you need to look for CPU benchmark scores. Simply google, for example, “i5-5200U vs Atom N455”, or whatever CPUs you want to compare. It shouldn’t be hard to find some benchmarking sites that compare the two you’re interested in, and this will give you a rough idea how much faster one might be than the other.

In addition to or in lieu of CPU comparison, you might also look at the monitor specs and the year the systems were build. Newer systems will generally use less power, have faster components, and be lighter weight. A system with 4GB RAM built in 2016 is probably better than a similar-looking system with 4GB RAM built in 2012.

So Which Computer is Best?

Of course, it depends on your needs. I’d get a refurbished Chromebook only if lightweight portability is your highest priority and your needs are very basic (so you can use ChromeOS). Otherwise, I think the Pi or an eBay laptop would be a better deal. If it’s important to you to buy something brand new and you don’t need the portability of a laptop, the Pi is a very good option. Personally though, I think an eBay laptop is the best deal. Rather than running an ARM processor on an SD card, you get a complete, portable system with a monitor based on a normal x64 processor, and this is the most flexible and most powerful option. It’s also the only option that stands a chance at running Windows, if that’s important to you.

In my view, the best system you can buy for under $100 is a used Dell Latitude or Lenovo ThinkPad. From the eBay search results, it looks like you can find something with at least 4GB RAM and an SSD, and an i3 or i5 processor from about 2013. You can probably even find one that comes with Windows 10 and is fast enough to be usable with that OS. My personal pick in this price range would be a Dell Latitude, and I’d put Ubuntu on it. See the Software section in my previous post, The Best Computer You Can Buy For: Free to see what some of your other OS options are.

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