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10 Tips When Shopping for a New Laptop on a Budget

Last updated 06/04/2024 by

Audrey Henderson
One day you push the button on your laptop and – nothing happens. After hours of pleading, cursing, calling everyone you know for advice, reality begins to sink in. Your computer is dead. May it rest in peace.
You were figuring on purchasing a new machine eventually, but suddenly, someday is TODAY. And no, a tablet won’t do. You need a computer with a real keyboard and hard drive space and USB ports and RAM. And yeah, desktops are awesome for gamers, but you need a computer that you could slip into your briefcase or backpack.
Beyond that, you don’t really have a clue about the laptop market. The last laptop you bought was one of those bright-colored Dell’s from 2007. You never figured out how Mountain Lion differs from Snow Leopard or why Microsoft couldn’t just keep upgrading XP (which was perfectly fine). These tips will help you find a laptop that will get you back up and running without breaking the bank. In time, you may not even miss your old machine.

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1. Set a Realistic Laptop Budget

If you have a credit card with a high credit limit, you will probably have more latitude than you would if you have to pay cash. But use your brain–don’t buy the most expensive laptop at Best Buy just because you can. Taking on $2,000 in credit card debt just to buy a laptop that can level up effortlessly in World of Warcraft is kind of wack. But if you need a fancy Macbook for graphics based design programs, or an Alienware for power, get it. Charging the cost of a computer you’ll use for classes or for work is definitely worth it.

2. Scout Out the Current Available Features

If it’s been several years since you purchased a laptop, you will find that the market has changed dramatically. A good laptop doesn’t just come with word processing software and a big hard drive nowadays. The features are endless. It is worth your while to scout out computer showrooms and websites to determine what features are available at various price points. Otherwise, you may find yourself stuck with an overpriced laptop that is lacking on things that are standard on models with comparable price tags.
Consumer Reports has a recent Computer Buying Guide with all the new features and models in the market.

3. Understand How Different Operating Systems Function

Are you considering making the switch from PC to Mac, or vice versa? Maybe you’re thinking about taking the leap to Linux. Perhaps a Chromebook might be an option. Or you may already know that you want a PC running Windows 7, NOT Windows 8, but do you want Home Premium, Professional, Ultimate or Enterprise? Don’t be afraid to ask the questions that may seem super basic, because otherwise you could wind up wasting money buying an operating system with features you don’t use, or frustrated because the OS that is installed on your new laptop can’t run your old software.

4. Make Sure To Buy What You Need

Along with choosing the right operating system, ensuring that your computer has the features that you need is essential. Especially if you are operating with a strict budget, knowing which features are deal breakers can help you stay within your spending limits. For instance, if you know you will be running programs that demand large amounts of memory, don’t skimp on RAM. If you were running out of hard drive space on your old computer, look for a laptop with as large a hard drive as you can afford.
Additionally, be aware of other volumes that might be taking up space on your current system. Managing these can help you understand your actual storage needs and make a more informed decision when purchasing a new device.
If your work computer or the desktop in your house can handle your day-to-day workload, write down the specs and bring them with you when shopping as a starting point.

5. Skimp on Features That Can Be Upgraded Later

The Stones had it right. You can’t always get what you want. If your budget is tight, you may not be able to afford a laptop that has every feature on your wish list. If you can’t afford 8 GB of RAM now, buy a computer with as much RAM as you can get now – and which includes expansion slots for more memory. The same goes for a top-notch graphics card (unless you can’t live without it). Likewise, be sure that your new computer has at least as much hard drive space as your previous model – and USB ports to connect an external hard drive or flash drives for additional storage.

6. Consider A Used or Refurbished Laptop

If your budget is super tight, you can obtain more bang for your computer buck by purchasing a used or refurbished computer. If you decide to go this route, seek out computers that have been serviced through certified outlets. You shouldn’t have to dig much for this information – certified outlets often promote their status prominently in their advertising, on their websites and on their in-store signage.

7. Last Year’s Model May Be an Option

OK, so your heart is set on a new computer. No worries. Many manufacturers and retailers offer laptops from the previous year or two along with their latest and greatest machines. The best deals can be found around New Years, when stores are clearing out yesteryear’s models. You can often score a sweet bargain that way. Look for labels like “discontinued,” “outlet” or “overstock.” As a bonus, these computers often carry the same warranty as brand-new laptops, which is a real win-win for you.

8. Check Out the Return Policy

One week after you receive your new Chromebook, you realize that you hate always having to be connected to the Internet. Maybe the keyboard on your PC or Mac feels like mush. Or the Linux machine you received was just a straight up lemon. You should have a reasonable amount of time to return computer that is damaged, malfunctioning or just wrong for a full refund. Read the fine print before you buy: some refund policies carry a “restocking” fee that can take a significant chunk out of your refund.

9. The Warranty is Definitely Worth It

Most new computers carry at least a 12-month warranty. By contrast, warranties on used or refurbished computers can be as short as 30 days. Before you lay down your money, determine whether parts and labor are included in the warranty and if your laptop can be serviced on site or if you must send it in for repairs. If your heart is set on a machine with the right features but a really bad warranty, a third-party extended warranty or replacement value insurance policy can provide peace of mind.

10. Be Wary When Buying From Online-Sellers

Think twice or even three times about buying a computer online, from a private seller or through an auction site. That’s one way to be stuck with a lemon that doesn’t work any better than the computer you’re replacing. If you are referred to a private seller by someone you trust, exercise the same level of caution as you would when purchasing a used car. Ensure that the installed operating system is genuine and that you receive the proper license. Check out the computer thoroughly before you pay any money and obtain a written receipt or bill of sale. If the would-be seller balks on any of these conditions, move on.

Welcome to the Twenty-First Century!

Since tablets hit the scene laptop sales have plunged, which means that there are bargains to be had for laptop buyers. Laptop configurations and feature packages that once ran well into four figures can often be had for $600 or less. You may very well be pleasantly surprised to find that you can get a much better laptop now for less money than you spent on the machine that just kicked the bucket.

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Audrey Henderson

Audrey Henderson is a Chicagoland-based writer and researcher. She holds advanced degrees in sociology and law from Northwestern University. Her writing specialties are sustainable development in the built environment, policy related to arts and popular culture, socially and ecologically responsible travel, civic tech and personal finance.

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