Are you looking for a cheap laptop? Make sure your pursuit of a deal doesn’t end up costing you more than you bargained for. Here are some drawbacks you may encounter when you opt for the cheapest of the cheap.
Chips Don’t Lie
It might sound obvious, but cut-price laptops often use the cheapest and most underwhelming hardware. This means that they can struggle to do even the most basic of tasks, like running a web browser or watching a video. Take the Intel Celeron N4120 found in the $250 HP 14-inch Ultra Light, for example.
This chip scores poorly in UserBenchmark tests, which you’d probably expect. It’s limited to four cores and four threads, and these are relatively slow, ranging from 1.10GHz to 2.5GHz turbo on all cores. Though it’s designed for fanless, passively cooled systems, the fact that it’s produced on an older 14-nanometer process negatively affects its power efficiency.
Compare this to the 11th-gen Intel Core i3-1125G4 found in the pricier (but still budget) $479 HP 17. The UserBenchmark scores are notably improved, and though it is also limited to four cores, the additional four threads and higher clock speeds (2.0GHz to 3.7GHz) boost overall performance. It’s built on a more modern 10-nanometer process and, though it sucks up more juice and produces more heat, the newer fabrication method helps improve overall efficiency.
It’s not only the brain of the operation that can suffer. Cheaper laptops usually have less RAM, which can bite when it comes to multitasking operations. It’s worth noting that GPU performance, even at the upper end of the sub-$500 range, commonly relies on integrated chips so performance in gaming, video editing, and so on isn’t going to improve very much until you opt for a discrete GPU.
Some Laptops Cut Corners on Storage
It’s one thing to have a laptop with an underwhelming CPU, but many manufacturers compound this issue with sub-par storage solutions. The good news is that you’ll be hard-pressed to find laptops that still rely on slow, spinning hard drives. The bad news is that manufacturers have started using eMMC storage to keep prices low.
eMMC stands for embedded MultiMediaCard. It’s the same type of storage used in removable memory devices like SD cards, and it’s much slower than solid-state storage. Speeds for this type of storage cap out at about 400MB/sec, though real-world speed tests can yield far worse results.
In tests performed by Windows Central, a 64GB eMMC drive achieved a maximum throughput of 223.1MB/sec, compared to 1069.5MB/sec on a 128GB solid-state drive. Performance isn’t only limited to raw speed, however, but overall bandwidth. Solid-state drives can generally handle more operations at once before they choke, which is pretty important when this storage is used for everything on your PC.
Operations will take longer to complete since they’ll stack until space in the “pipes” becomes available. This makes eMMC storage slow and unsuitable for moderate to high-intensity operations like video editing, playing games, music production, and frequent heavy data transfers. It’s a bottleneck you don’t want, and it makes sub-par hardware even slower.
You should also be sure to buy enough storage for the lifetime of the laptop unless you’re confident that you can upgrade the storage (with eMMC this is rarely the case) and that you are comfortable doing so.
Bad Displays Are Hard to Look At
You’ll spend most of your time on a laptop looking at the built-in display. A sub-par display will deliver a sub-par user experience, foregoing many of the traits that are associated with display quality like pixel density, good viewing angles, and contrast ratio. You may also find that cheaper laptops have big chunky bezels around the outside of the screen, which gives them a dated look.
Unfortunately, many older laptops still ship with sub-1080p displays, with resolutions like 1366×768. Pixel density is a measure of how many individual pixels fit into a sample area, with a higher number being more desirable. The higher the pixel density, the harder it is to distinguish individual pixels. The harder pixels are to distinguish, the better the display will look.
Modern smartphones typically have very high pixel densities, but you’re also likely to hold them closer to your face. Laptops don’t need to hit such heady heights. A 15.6-inch laptop with a full HD display (1980×1080) has a pixel density of 141.2 pixels-per-inch (PPI), while the $250 14-inch HP laptop we mentioned earlier only hits 111.9 PPI (1366×768 at 14-inches).
While pixel density doesn’t affect performance, it can negatively affect user experience. On top of this, some laptops skimp even on backlighting by opting for Pulse Width Modulation, or PWM for short. This is a method of controlling brightness by flickering the LED backlight (shorter bursts mean less light). This can cause eye strain and even headaches in some users, especially at low brightness settings.
Lastly, the display will probably have a built-in webcam. It should come as no surprise that the cheapest laptops have the cheapest webcams (and microphones too). If you intend to do any sort of video conferencing it’s a good idea to buy a webcam that doesn’t make you look like a potato. There’s only so much you can do to improve how you look on a video call.
Don’t Forget the Keyboard and Trackpad
Your laptop’s keyboard and trackpad are important because they are the primary method of interacting with your laptop. These inputs can have a massive impact on the user experience. Small frustrations add up over the lifetime of the laptop and can mar the overall experience.
A bad keyboard isn’t just unsatisfying to type on. A cheap feel and hollow sound is only one part of the equation. Cheap keyboards can lead to more typos and missed keystrokes. This is especially true of longer keys like Spacebar and Shift, which may not actuate properly with less-than-perfect keystrokes. Poor build quality can also accelerate degradation, leading to dust and debris to cause problems with keys working at all.
And then there’s the trackpad. While you can easily replace your trackpad with a quality mouse, you may still be stuck with it in some instances. Don’t expect multi-touch on the cheapest laptops, and it’s not uncommon to find a spot on the keyboard where applying pressure will actuate both the left and right mouse buttons at the same time.
Cheap Laptops Can Be Flexible (in a Bad Way)
Most of us don’t expect the highest possible build quality from the cheapest gadgets, but just how much flex you’re willing to accept is up for debate. Not only are cheap laptops made of cheap plastic, but they can feel and sound cheap too. Many will creak and flex even during normal use (like when typing, for example).
Weighting can also cause issues, particularly with laptops that use passively cooled components like cheap Celeron systems-on-chip. Since there’s not a lot of copper (or anything else for that matter) in the base of the laptop, much of the weight resides in the lid. This can lead to some “interesting” issues like a laptop that wants to tilt back on itself in certain scenarios (particularly when used on surfaces that aren’t flat like your lap).
Don’t even dream of doing the one-finger-open, since many budget laptops lack enough weight in the base to keep the unit on the desk while you lift the lid. The one silver lining to this is that these laptops can be very light to carry around.
Make Sure the Ports Are Useful
A lack of ports is not a problem that is exclusive to cheap laptops, as many Apple users can attest. The MacBook Air still only ships with a MagSafe charging port, 3.5mm stereo output, and two USB-C ports, and it is far from cheap. With that in mind, cheap laptops can suffer from poor I/O too.
Many moderately priced laptops now include USB-C charging, but the cheapest still rely on “barrel” chargers and bulky adapters. USB speeds can also be inconsistent, with some ports limited to USB 2.0 speeds (480Mbit/sec) even when USB 3.0 (5Gbit/sec) is advertised. If you’re especially unlucky you might find yourself saddled with a micro-HDMI port, a display output often maligned for its poor build quality.
Not everyone is going to have issues with a limited port selection, but some will. If you intend to rely on an external monitor, make sure your laptop is suitable (preferably with DisplayPort over USB-C or at least a full-sized HDMI connector). The same is true if you want to use removable storage like SD and microSD.
Spend More Today, Save More Tomorrow
Your cheap laptop can end up costing you. Sub-par performance out of the gate is only going to get worse over time. You might find yourself needing to replace your laptop sooner than if you’d spent marginally more in the first place.
Even if the price works out the same over the same period, spending more will yield a better user experience. You’ll spend your time looking at a nicer display, using a keyboard that doesn’t force you to make mistakes or a trackpad that doesn’t make you angry.
There’s also an argument to be made about e-waste. You probably already try your best to be mindful of consumer habits to save money and buy things that last. Repairing or replacing components where necessary is unavoidable. Buying a laptop made of recycled parts has a marginal domino effect, but buying laptops less often is better.
Looking to save some money on a new laptop? Check out our best budget laptop recommendations, our best overall laptop roundup, and our guide to MacBooks if you prefer macOS to Windows.