The Best Computer You Can Buy For: $25003 Feb 2021
To continue my blog series, The Best Computer You Can Buy For $X, this post looks at what you can get for $250 or less. And this is an interesting price point. At the $100 price point (from my previous post), the goal was simply to find anything that will be fast enough to be usable, and to compromise on things like cosmetic damage (scratches) and where you buy from (eBay) to bring the price down as low as possible. At $250 on the other hand, we have a little breathing room to buy from a more reputable shop (like Newegg) and get a product that’s new or at least professionally refurbished. Let’s see what we can find!
Buying a new Windows laptop from a retail store is possible for $250, but I wouldn’t recommend it! Manufacturers need to take every possible shortcut to get the price that low, and you’ll see it in the performance of the system. You’ll be stuck with a low-end processor, a low resolution monitor, and probably an HDD instead of an SSD. For example, this HP Stream 11 Pro G5 has 4GB memory and a Celeron N4000 processor – nearly identical specs to the Acer Chromebook 314 we’ll look at below. And while the Chromebook at least uses a light weight OS to compensate for the slow specs, I think the N4000 processor would feel quite slow on Windows. At the $250 price point, I think it is not worthwhile to buy a new Windows laptop.
If you can buy a bottom of the barrel Chromebook for $100, spending up to $250 opens many more options. You still can’t buy a blazingly-fast Chromebook, but you can find something that will be fast enough to feel usable. And because you’re spending a little more you can decide if you want something really small and light (11 inches) or something with a bigger screen (15 inches). The Acer Chromebook 314 is priced just within our range at $249, and comes with 4GB RAM and a Celeron N4000 processor. Again, that won’t feel really fast, but should be usable with a lightweight OS like ChromeOS.
If you decide to go the Chromebook route, you will be limited by ChromeOS. You can do simple things like browse the web and check email, but you don’t have the experience of a full Windows or Linux operating system. I think a Chromebook makes sense only if you know for sure that you don’t need functionality beyond what ChromeOS offers and if it’s important to you to buy a new and lightweight Chromebook instead of something that’s refurbished but also more capable.
I do think a refurbished computer will be the best deal we can find for $250 (assuming we care about performance more than buying something brand new). So let’s see what we can find. I really like shopping for refurbished computers on Newegg since they have such good search tools. I personally really like Dell Latitudes and Lenovo ThinkPads because they’re popular business-grade laptops that seem to last forever and are easy to upgrade and repair. So I like to see what I can find in either of those categories as a starting point when shopping for refurbished systems. This Latitude Wikipedia Page is really helpful because it breaks down the Latitude model numbers in a meaningful way. Here’s a refurbished Latitude e6420 with 8GB memory and an SSD, and an i5 2520M for $248. If you prefer a ThinkPad, here’s a comparable refurbished ThinkPad L460 with 8GB RAM and an SSD for $250.
Using those laptops as a starting point, we can see what else is available refurbished on Newegg using their search tools. We want something with 8-16GB RAM, an i5 or i7 processor, and an SSD (any capacity will do). With those criteria, and sorting the results with the lowest price first, we find a few more interesting options. This refurbished Latitude e5440 with 8GB RAM, a 128GB SSD, and an i5 4300U has nearly identical specs to the other latitude, but is a little newer and costs only $239.
The refurbished Latitude e6420 is from 2012, but its processor benchmarks much better than the Celeron N4000 used in the HP Stream and the Acer Chromebook. Let that sink in for a minute. The brand-new 2021 HP laptop or Acer Chromebook are using a processor worse than what was available in 2012. This is why I so strongly prefer refurbished business-grade laptops over low-end new stuff. Not only do you get a faster processor, you get 8GB memory instead of 4 and you get a 120GB SSD. With 8GB RAM and an SSD, you should be able to run Windows 10 without too much pain. And as I’ve mentioned in my posts for lower price points, alternative operating systems can make it feel faster still.
In my opinion, by far the best computer you can buy for $250 or less is a refurbished business grade laptop like a Dell Latitude or Lenovo ThinkPad. Any of the models linked above would do, and any of those models would provide much better performance than anything you could buy new for a similar price. $250 isn’t a lot to spend on a computer – everything we’re looking at here is still slow compared to the newest systems available. But at least the refurbished laptops shouldn’t be unbearably slow, even if they are running Windows 10. So if your price limit is $250, I think it will be good enough to get you by.