Cheap doesn’t always equal nasty when it comes to sub-$350 computers.
Sometimes you only want to spend the bare minimum to get the job done. Perhaps you're after something basic for the kids to play around with. Maybe all you need is a laptop that can run a web browser and that's it, or something simple to use whilst travelling and a tablet isn’t good enough. These types of reasons are why laptops under $350 exist. They’re not the greatest units, but if you pick the right one, they’ll complete a wide variety of tasks.
Laptops under $350 fall into three categories - 11.6in units that are upgradeable, 14in models that can have the HDD and RAM swapped out. and the increasingly popular Chromebooks.
Virtually all the 11.6in laptops under $350 are based on Intel Atom or Celeron CPUs. Their reputation for a lack of speed belies the fact that in 2016, very little of the tasks we do are CPU bound by their requirements. The fact there's a “low performance” CPU in a new laptop isn't that big of deal for the vast majority of people.
Unfortunately, the 11.6in based laptops are hamstrung by the inclusion of only 2GB of RAM. This is probably because Microsoft chucks in a free licence to Windows 10 if the machine has 2GB of RAM or less. As an added bummer, most of them use 32GB or 64GB of eMMC based storage. eMMC storage is relatively slow compared to a proper SSD and the 32GB capacity in particular only leaves you 5-6GB of free space once Windows 10 is installed.
If 2GB of RAM is okay with you and you're also okay with the limited amount of eMMC based storage, there's a couple of machines to choose from:
- Asus X205TA (Atom Z3735) - $298 at Good Guys
- Lenovo Ideapad 100S (Atom Z3735) - $249 at Officeworks
- HP Stream 11-r008TU (Celeron N2840) - $280 at Officeworks
- Dell Inspiron 11 3000 (Celeron N3050) - $299 from Dell
All those units are cut from the same cloth. All have 11.6in screens with a 1366x768 resolution, weigh about 1KG, have Wi-Fi and the Intel Atom CPU & 2GB RAM combo. Unless you have a particular taste in the style or design, grab the Lenovo Ideapad 100S, because it's the cheapest.
The next category are sub-$350 upgradeable laptops. The main befit of these machines are upgrade options. If you want, you can crack it open and replace the 2GB of RAM with an 8GB SO-DIMM and the 500GB SATA HDD with any 2.5in SSD you like. That sort of flexibility is great for building a very usable machine for very little cash.
There are only two machines available under $350 right now, both from MSY. The Lenovo B4130 which is $299 and the HP G4 250 for $349. Both have the Celeron N3050 CPU and are pre-loaded with Windows 10.
The clear buy here is the Dell Inspiron 11 3000, currently selling for $299 at MSY. Unlike the cookie-cutter Atom machines, this Lenovo unit has a 14in screen and 500GB HDD. It uses the commonplace Celeron N3050 CPU, only has 2GB of RAM and it weighs 2.32KG instead of the lightweight 1KG of the 11.6in laptops. As a little extra icing on top, it has two RAM slots (so you could install 16GB of RAM if you like) and 802.11ac Wi-Fi.
Compared to the HP G4 250, the Lenovo has a smaller screen (14in vs. 15.6in), comes with 2GB of RAM vs. 4GB and is actually a little heavier, despite the smaller dimensions (2.32kg vs. 2.19kg). But if you spend that $49 on 8GB of RAM instead and install it into the Lenovo, the benefit of that extra memory outweighs the larger screen and the extra 121g and becomes much more useful than the sub-$300 11.6in machines.
Finally, in the sub-$350 price point are Chromebooks. These cheap laptops run Google's Chrome OS, which is essentially just a web browser. They don't run Microsoft's Windows and only applications from Google's Chrome store can be installed. Some people love Chrome OS, some find it lacking. The main benefit is that they're simple to use and maintain. Chrome OS tends to perform better on low end machines with 2GB of RAM and small hard drives than Windows.
It's tough to separate the two, as each has their strengths and weaknesses. The Acer has a little more CPU grunt with the Intel Celeron N2830 over the ASUS's Rockchip RK3288 ARM based CPU. In web benchmarks like Sunspider, Octane and Kraken, the Rockchip is either slightly behind the N2830 or in some cases, slightly beats it. So surprisingly, there's little lost in performance.
Where the ASUS shines is battery life. Thanks to that ARM CPU, the C201 Chromebook achieves 13 hours of battery life versus around 8 hours on the Intel based Asus CB3-111 Chromebook. The ASUS is also a smidge lighter, at 920g versus 1100g.
I'd be keen to recommend the ASUS C201 as the cheap Chromebook worth grabbing as 13 hours of battery life in a sub-1kg package is perfect for travelling and hauling around town.
If you're after a bare bones Windows laptop, the Lenovo Ideapad 100S is a bargain at $249. If you need a little more grunt and want some upgradeability, the Lenovo B4130 can form the base for a very usable computer. If ChromeOS is your style and you need a long lasting battery and light form factor, the ASUS C201 Chromebook will please.