Class is back in session, though many schools have chosen to stick with distance learning over in-person instruction. This introduces a number of challenges—like supplying all three of your kids with their own laptops for school.
After all, if you google “best laptops,” you’ll probably find models in excess of $1,000, with maybe a few $500 models thrown in. That’s awfully pricey when you tally up the whole family, and even tougher when everything seems out of stock. When push comes to shove, though, you might be able to make do with an old or used laptop and a few upgrades—for much less than a new model would cost.
Figure out what you need
First, let’s talk about narrowing your search. If you haven’t already, ask your kids’ teachers what kind of laptop they require. Do they only need basic tools such as Zoom and Google Docs? If so, a Chromebook may give you the best bang for your buck. Since a browser-based operating system requires fewer resources, you can spend less money for the same level of performance from lower-tier components. You’d be surprised how far a browser can take you these days—most of what we do is in the browser anyway (my work laptop is a Chromebook and when I use it, I miss very little of my Windows software).
If the teachers require more-specialized tools that only work on Windows, you’ll need to find a compatible machine that matches the recommended specs for what they’re doing. If the teacher knows what’s required, make sure you note any CPU and RAM guidance, along with other necessary features (like a touch screen). If you don’t have anything to go on, I’d recommend something with an Intel “Core i” CPU from within the past four or five years, or a recent AMD Ryzen processor. Avoid low-end Celeron and Athlon processors for Windows machines, as they’ll provide sluggish, sub-par performance. You’ll also want an SSD and 8GB of RAM to keep things snappy. Once you have your minimum specs in hand, you can go shopping.
Check out the used market
You can buy an affordable laptop at Amazon or Best Buy, of course, but the cheaper you go, the more sacrifices you’ll have to make. Once you get below $500 or so, you’ll start encountering machines that are, frankly, unbearable. So if you want to spend as little as possible, or you’re having trouble finding something in stock, look to the used market instead.
While the highly-reviewed “best” models tend to keep their value—think MacBooks or Dell’s XPS line—most other Windows laptops lose a ton of value as soon as you drive them off the proverbial lot. On sites like Craigslist and OfferUp, you can often find barely-used Windows laptops at huge discounts, since people are rarely searching for those specific models. (I’ve bought $500 laptops, in almost-new state, for $200 with a bit of negotiation.) Your mileage may vary depending on the city you live in and increased pandemic demand, but a little negotiation goes a long way. Just make sure it has a working webcam, doesn’t smell like cigarette smoke, and that you take the proper precautions when picking up the machine: wear a mask, turn it on and ensure it works, then disinfect the keyboard and case before handing it over to your kid. Don’t use Clorox wipes on the screen, though—use a bit of water or a screen-safe cleaner.
By the way, the used market extends beyond public sites like Craigslist. If you have an old laptop in your closet, you may be able to upgrade it for basic school usage. Or perhaps a family member has a “slow” or “broken” computer they’ll gladly hand over for you to fix up. Ask around before you start spending your money.
Buy cheap and upgrade (or repair) yourself
If you’re having trouble finding a laptop with the specs you want at a reasonable price, you may be able to fine-tune the hardware on your own. You can’t necessarily make up for a CPU that bogs down under the weight of Zoom (laptop CPUs are almost never upgradeable), but many laptops allow you to swap out the storage and/or RAM, which can help make a once-low-end laptop feel snappy.
As you shop, do some digging on Google and YouTube to see if you can find any disassembly guides or teardown videos for the model you’re looking at. You’ll want to do this before you buy, so you can see if it’s even possible to upgrade the memory and storage by hand. Some thin and light laptops may have one or both soldered firmly onto the motherboard, which is no good. Understanding whether the necessary pieces come apart will help you avoid buying an outdated, non-upgradeable PC.
Typically, 4GB of RAM isn’t enough for a Windows laptop these days, so if you can upgrade to 8GB, you’ll almost certainly want to do so. Look up the type of RAM the machine uses (e.g. DDR4-2666 SODIMM), or type the laptop’s make and model into Crucial’s compatibility tool. You can usually get an 8GB stick of RAM for $30 or less, making for a very affordable improvement in multitasking performance.
Similarly, any machine with a spinning hard drive (or HDD) is going to feel sluggish these days. A solid-state drive (or SSD) is one of the best ways to make a slow computer feel brand new, and there are plenty of affordable models from companies like SanDisk. Just make sure you get enough storage for everything your kid needs, particularly if they’re going to use this laptop for personal stuff like music and movies—I’d recommend at least 240GB, if not 480GB.
Make up for low-end shortcomings with external hardware
The guts of your laptop aren’t the only important pieces—the keyboard, trackpad, and hinge can also make or break the experience. If the trackpad is a pain to use, the laptop will be a pain to use, no matter how fast it is.
That said, when you’re using a laptop at home, you can make up for these failings with external peripherals. If your laptop has a clunky keyboard, for example, you can easily buy an external keyboard that will do the job much better. Jumpy, unusable trackpad? Grab a cheap wireless mouse. It won’t make for the most space-saving setup, but it’ll do the job, and will still probably be cheaper than a new or higher-end machine.
Oh, and if the Wi-Fi feels spotty—and you’ve done all you can to improve your coverage—you might try wiring your laptop directly to your router with an ethernet cable and, if necessary, an ethernet-to-USB adapter (if your laptop doesn’t have an ethernet port). Sometimes, older laptops have cheap Wi-Fi cards that don’t work well, and when it comes to distance learning over video chat, you’ll want the best connection you can possibly get.