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
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.
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