Ask LH: How Should I Buy A $500 Laptop?

Ask LH: How Should I Buy A $500 Laptop?

Dear Lifehacker, I am on the cusp of completing my university degree, but I need to finish one final placement of two months unpaid full-time work. For this placement, I really need to have a laptop so I can work between classes (on making up materials, lesson plans, presentations and so on). I only have $500 maximum to spend on getting a new laptop. Where would I get the best bang for my (small) buck? I’m looking at the usual outlets, but I’m also considering going for a refurbished ex-government laptop due to costs. Would you advise new or second-hand, and where should I go? Cheers, Teaching On A Budget

Picture by Stuart Pilbrow

Dear TOAB,

Good luck with the placement. A laptop is definitely going to be essential if you don’t want to face additional hours of work doing lesson planning in the evening (though I suspect that will still be the reality on some nights). $500 isn’t a large budget, but it isn’t unworkable.

Given the choice, my personal bias would be to buy a basic new machine rather than a second-hand one, simply because you won’t know the individual history of a refurbished computer. The OS and software will be cleanly installed, but your odds of a hardware failure go up. You can get better specifications if you go for a second-hand machine, but bear in mind you can also upgrade your basic new laptop (with additional memory or drives) down the track.

If you are going to buy a refurb laptop, make sure you get one with some kind of warranty (at least three months to cover your placement). I’d resist buying from a private seller through eBay, Craigslist or Gumtree — it’s too hard to know what you’re getting and you won’t get any kind of guarantee.

Your budget definitely eliminates some options even in second-hand. For instance, Apple’s own refurb store is an excellent source of (relatively) cheap Mac hardware which comes with a warranty, but even so there’s nothing right now in the notebook category for under $800.

In the new hardware space, basic Windows 7 machines can be had for under $400. A quick search via StaticICEsuggests that won’t get you a very grunty processor (a Celeron more likely than not), and you’ll probably only have 2GB of memory on your machine. That means presentation apps and so on may run more slowly than you would like, but they will run. (If you’re technically inclined, switching from Windows 7 to Linux will improve your performance in many cases, but you probably don’t want to be learning a new platform at the same time you’re working on a major part of your degree.) Shopping online might undercut big-box retailers, but make sure you include postage costs when comparing.

Finally, whatever machine you choose, make sure you’re using an online service like Dropbox to back up your work files (if not a totally automated backup solution). You don’t want your studies to be ruined by a hardware failure.

If readers have additional suggestions for good places to buy refurb laptops, or sources for cheap new laptops online, we’d love to hear them in the comments.

Cheers Lifehacker

Got your own question you want to put to Lifehacker? Send it using our contact tab on the right.


    • Yep.

      “Windows 3.1 dropped real mode support and required a minimum of a 286 PC with 1MB of RAM to run. The effect of this was to increase system stability over the crash-prone Windows 3.0. Some older features were removed like CGA graphics support (although the Windows 3.0 CGA driver will still work on 3.1) and compatibility with real mode Windows 2.x applications.”

      Theoretically, it can also address up to 4.0GB of memory. So even your newer machines can experience the wonders of Windows 3.1…

  • I bought a $500 laptop a few years ago, it had twice the specs of my aged macbook but ran at half the speed.

    Don’t do it….. unless of course its for your kids.

  • Hmmm… I’ve picked up three decent Core i5 Toshiba’s for my mother from Harvey Norman all sitting around $450-500 in the past few months. Just keep an eye out for a sale, and you can get yourself a fairly decent laptop.

    Key is, look for laptops that don’t have anything more than entry level GPU’s, or one without a dedicated one at all. You won’t need much grunt there, so your dollars can be better used looking for a machine with decent amounts of RAM and a newer CPU.

    • I’ve had nothing but horrible experiences with Acer laptops. They seem to be “spec-ed out” but they end up running incredibly slowly and breaking just after their warranty period. I’m an Apple kid, but I have had good experiences with Toshiba and Asus in the Windows space.

      • Same deal here. I’ve experienced many thing (servers, desktops, laptops) from Acer, and they always have a high failure rate on the hardware.

        Dell are better for enterprise, if only because of ProSupport. HP is also really good, and I haven’t had nearly as many failures compared to Acer or Dell’s.

    • There is plenty of good advice in the comments to this post – I particularly like the advice to ‘negotiate’; you will be amazed at the price cuts you can achieve with polite but firm negotiation. Also, this advice here about Centrecom; for example there are currently five Intel i3 laptops with 4Gb or more or RAM listed at under $500.

  • If you know you have a steady (but small) stream of income or know you will have a stream of income in the future, is that sometimes stores (such as in-store at Apple, maybe even HN etc) have interest free deals. As a computer is something you’re going to use on a regular basis, and you don’t really want something that’s going to die or frustrate you silly, you might want to think about a way of buying something that’s good enough in an economical way. I’m currently slowly paying off my Macbook, which I got with the student discounts on a 6mth interest free deal in store. So long as you’re sure you can pay it off in full within 6 mths, it might be an idea.

    • Its better not to go on these interest free plans as, if you are late with the payment it can go u to 28% interest.
      Also the sales persons usually get a cut from the loan companies, so they usually push you towards it.
      Pay cash and get shop around.
      I got a refubished laptop from graysonline and i am very happy with it but you must look very carefully at the details of the sale.

      • And don’t forget that they won’t just put the interest on the missed payments, but on the back and future payments, too. That’s where they make their money on these things.

  • Try Gray’s online auctions but always check final price before hitting by now or bid button as shipping and buyers premium can easily add $$$. Bought 2 new laptops here and they are going well. You can filter the search for new items. Best bit is you cannot be ninja’d.

  • The better half picked up a sub $500 laptop about 9 months ago now. Fantastic machine for the price, blows away my 3 year old MacBook. Sure you’d really start noticing it if you were sitting there with 2 dozen applications open grinding away doing work, but the same will be said for any second hand laptop in this price range. Sure you could pick up an older T60 Thinkpad or something similar for $500, it will be much better built, but the processor and RAM will be no better than what’s available now, and the battery in it will likely be shot by now.

  • I”m a teacher myself and I bought an Asus U31 for just over $500 and it has been great. Lightweight, runs powerpoint quite well – even with embedded sound and video, handles video editing and what not. The battery is still giving me 5 hours work time after 8 months of solid usage.

    I also bought a similar priced machine for my wife from Lenovo and the HD just died a week after the warranty expired. It had a larger screen but performance sucked.

    • I do. Twice. Windows 7 Premium with 2GB RAM. $398 each. One from Dick Smith. One from Hervey Norman. Use “PC Decrapifier” to remove all the adware, junkware and trial software. and your machine will run fantastic – assuming all you want to do it run Word, Powerpoint, and a browser. Go thirds with some family in a Office family version I think it’s $180 for three installs. Install MS Security Essentials and you are good to go.

  • I’d second, that’s where I got my current, cheap laptop (~$400 if memory serves correctly). One thing you’d have to keep in mind though, at least for auction items, is that the site charges an additional fee on top of the auction price, so add an additional 15% to the current bidding price to figure out the actual amount

  • eBay isn’t necessarily a terrible option if you’re careful about what you look for and where you buy from. A few months ago I got a high spec refurbished Toshiba i5 for only $350 and it’s been as good as new. I would suggest buying from a business rather than an individual though. I think mine came from a pawn shop.

  • For approx $500 you could easily get a budget 15″ with an AMD A6 (or an Intel i3), 4gb ram with 320-500gb HDD.
    If you want to play games/movies on it get the A6 as the integrated graphics will be faster.
    Don’t buy at the sticker price.
    The extra 2gb ram and better CPU IS worth it when running windows 7.

  • I bought a $500 Toshiba (AMD V120 2.2Ghz Processor, 2GB Memory) a couple of years ago and it’s still going strong.

    It’s not a gaming machine but it’s fine for work and web browsing on the couch. I’ll have no worries about buying another $500 Toshiba when I need an upgrade.

  • Get a used laptop, throw Xubuntu linux on it. The learning curve is minimal. You can get laptops that are perfectly fine for well under $500, and throw LibreOffice on it.

    Gumtree is your friend.

    • I’ll second Sasha on this. Learning curve on any Ubuntu variant is minimal (if not almost non-existant) these days, so if you can save some $s by using that, then I’d say, “Go for it.”

  • I’d personally recommend the Dell Outlet for Australia, going refurbished is an excellent option for the budget conscious.



    – it’s hit & miss with what’s available at any time and $500 is a bit of a squeeze, but there are options and you get a 1 year warranty.

    I spent $800 on a roughly $3500 retail configuration Latitude for university and couldn’t be happier.

  • Check your the pawn shops. My Core i7 Macbook Pro (2010 model, so no Thunderbolt or such) with 4GB and a 320gb drive was $800 and the same shop had an older Macbook (non-pro) for $400. 90 day warranty.

  • I’m a new teacher (high school, casual teacher) and I bought a new laptop at the beginning of this term as I was sick of not having access to a computer when I needed it. An ultrabook would have been ideal, but I couldn’t afford it. Instead I bought a fantastic ASUS U32U from the good guys for $480 (I upgraded it to a SSD and put 4gb more RAM in it, but this isn’t really essential). It is PERFECT for school. 13″ screen and light enough to carry to every class, which was extremely important for me as I already have to carry so much stuff around. 10 hr battery life, so I don’t have to take my charger with me even though I use it all day at school. It wakes up from sleep nearly instantly and this is an important time saver when you need to open and close it every lesson. I also tether my phone’s internet while I’m at school and use that rather than schools wifi.

  • “Ask LH: How Should I Buy A $500 Laptop?”

    With money, I suppose.

    Homer: “Aww $20. I wanted a peanut”
    Homer’s Brain: “$20 can buy many peanuts!”
    Homer: “Explain how?!”
    Homer’s Brain: “Money can be exchanged for goods and services!”

Show more comments

Log in to comment on this story!