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The 2021 Cheap Computer Buyer's Guide

I just wrapped up a blog series, The Best Computer You Can Buy For $X. In case you missed it, here are links for all the posts:

Writing that series was fun because I got to explore what kind of computers are available at a bunch of different price points. Now, I want to synthesize all that information into a single buyer’s guide. What kind of computer would I recommend to a friend who needed to buy one? How much should he or she spend? Where’s the best value for their money? A lot of “buyer’s guides” I see are really just ads for high-end laptops. Which is great, but only if you need a high-end laptop. This is the opposite of that. This buyer’s guide is all about maximizing the value you can get and spending the minimum possible to get something you’ll be happy with.

The High-End Option

If you’re able to comfortably spend about $1,000 on your new computer, I think you should get the new M1 MacBook Air. It’s $999, and I think that’s probably the best value per dollar you can get right now. Nearly everyone who reviews this computer loves it (just checkout YouTube or some reviews on other blogs). It’s a fast computer that’s good at almost everything and you’ll be happy with it for years! It’s lightweight, has incredible battery life, and benchmarks faster than any other computer near the same price. In my opinion, there really isn’t any other option that delivers anywhere close to the same value near this price point, so you should definitely get the MacBook Air if it matches your budget.

The Mid-Range Option

Not everyone wants to spend $999 on their next computer purchase, and I don’t think you have to. You can find really nice computers for much less than that. The trick is knowing what to look for so you find something that’s fast enough to get your work done rather than something that will feel slow in a year. If you want to spend less than $1,000 on your next computer purchase, I’d consider two options. One is to buy something new, the other is to buy something refurbished.

If you want to buy a new laptop for under $1,000, RAM is the most important metric I’d look at. RAM is usually a good indicator of overall system performance – manufacturers don’t typically put a ton of RAM with an awful processor nor an amazing processor with not enough RAM. And if you’re buying something new, most processors will be the same generation so you don’t need to worry as much about comparing against an older/slower processor. So look for something with 16GB of RAM, and if you can’t find it in your price range look for 12GB or 8GB RAM. And then within that RAM tier, look for other features you care about like storage space or screen resolution. I wouldn’t buy something new with less than 8GB RAM – at that point, I think you’d be much better off getting something refurbished in terms of the performance you can get for your money. Whatever you find, it will probably be similar to the $500 laptop I found for my blog series.

If you want to buy a refurbished laptop for under $1,000, I think RAM is still the most important metric to look at. But compared to the new option, you’ll get more RAM for your money. Also, when buying refurbished, it becomes important to look at how old the computer/processor is. A 2012 computer with 16GB RAM will be significantly slower than a 2019 computer with 16GB RAM because it’s processor will be a much older generation. I’d start my search for a refurbished laptop on Newegg, and I’d start by looking at computers with 32GB RAM and a processor that’s no more than about 3 years old. If you can’t find something within your price range, go down to 16GB RAM and up to about 5 years old on the processor. The computer you find will probably look similar to the $500 refurbished or the $250 refurbished option I found. By tweaking the RAM, processor generation, screen resolution, and storage space, you should be able to find something close to your price range, and I think that any refurbished option like those above is great value for the performance you get. No matter what, make sure you buy something with an SSD. An SSD is crucial for performance that “feels fast”, so don’t buy a computer without an SSD, even if it’s cheap.

The Low-Range Option

I don’t think you can get a good Windows laptop for less than about $250, even on the refurbished market. I recommend spending at least $250 on a refurbished computer if you can. The e6420 I found for $250 is an 8 year old computer. So to go lower than $250, you’re looking at an 8+ year old computer with only 4GB RAM. While that might run a modern version of Windows, it won’t run it well. It will feel very slow for all but the lightest uses. So if you really can’t spend at least $250, I think you should strongly consider either getting a Chromebook – which will feel faster because of a lighter weight OS – or using a lightweight Linux distribution. I explored cheap Chromebooks and lightweight Linux options in earlier posts, and you might find some useful info there.

What should you spend?

If you’re still not sure what to spend, I think aiming for a $500-$700 new Windows laptop is probably what most people want. In that price range, I think you’re spending enough that you’ll be happy with what you bought a couple years down the road. If you’re more frugal, and spending $700 on a computer sounds outrageous to you, I think you should look for a refurbished computer in the $300-$500 range. Buying refurbished gets you good performance cheaper, which is important to some people. Last time I bought a personal computer for myself, I found a used Precision 5510 with 32GB RAM, and an i7-6820HQ for $850 on eBay in 2019. Two years later, I’m very happy with it and it still goes for $750+ on eBay, so it hasn’t depreciated too quickly. Whatever you decide to shop for, good luck with your search!

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