Computing on a budget: buying a £200 laptop that doesn't suck
Technology12 October 2017
If you walk in to a high street store and tell them you're looking for a laptop that's fast, built to last, and your budget is around the £200 mark, you'll probably give the salespeople a good chuckle. Conventional wisdom is that when buying laptops, you either spend big on a Macbook or a similarly top of the line ultrabook, or you spend somewhere around £500 - £600 on something that feels a bit cheap and plasticky, but gets the job done. In the £200 range and below, you have either Chromebooks (which might be a bit restrictive depending on what you want to do with them), or utter junk. I recently discovered there's a better way though, and I'm a total convert to the used ThinkPad way from now on.
Why used ThinkPads?
- They're cheap and plentiful
- They're fast
- They're sturdy and serviceable
- They're better for the environment?
- They're cool
Cheap and plentiful
I mean "cheap" as in "affordable" here, not as in "low quality". Businesses acquire enormously powerful ThinkPads in large batches for their staff to use, often on some sort of lease agreement that lasts three or four years. When the lease is up, they all get replaced with a new model, and the "old" ThinkPads are often decommissioned by the business and released on to the second hand market. You'll find a lot of them on eBay at significantly lower prices than brand new consumer laptops.
When businesses first acquire a batch of ThinkPads, they tend to go for newer models with powerful components, and then replace them a few years later with the latest and greatest. The top spec laptops of a few years ago still pack far more power than most consumers need today, and more often than not they match or surpass the performance of midrange or budget offerings bought new.
Sturdy and serviceable
ThinkPads are built to last. They need to endure years of being hauled around by professionals and are true workhorse machines. As they need to be kept in good working order by corporate IT teams, they're also very easy to open up and service, and replacement parts are readily available. This is the complete opposite to the way ultrabooks are designed - you need to take them to certified technicians (or an Apple store in the case of Macbooks) for even simple maintenance tasks like upgrading memory or replacing the battery.
Better for the environment?
I've put a question mark here because it probably is better for the environment to buy a second hand laptop than a brand new one, up to a point. Many of the recent advancements in components have been in energy efficiency rather than raw power, and older chips tend to be less energy efficient than newer ones. That said, I've no idea what the age cutoff might be before you start offsetting the benefits of buying used over new because of less efficient components.
What to look out for
You can pick up a bargain if you know what you're looking for, and don't buy more computer than you need. As an added bonus, you can save even more money by buying a used ThinkPad that is a little below the spec you'd like, and upgrading it yourself. In general though, make sure:
- You're buying from a reputable seller
- There's no supervisor password in the BIOS that'll stop you doing things - more details in this buyer's guide
- Computrace anti-theft software is not active - details on what it does and why this is important in this forum post. The last thing you need with your bargain new (old) laptop is the original owner being able to track and remotely deactivate your computer, or spy on you
Your options for £200 or less
Judging by eBay listings at the time of writing, up to £200 will likely get you:
- A ThinkPad T410, T420, T430, X220, or similar
- Intel Core i5 processor
- 4 GB - 8GB of RAM
- A reasonable size standard hard drive, or a small (but much faster) solid state one
- HD screen resolution (1366 x 768) as a minimum, but quite likely HD+ (1600 x 900)
These are perfectly reasonable specs for anyone with modest requirements. Web browsing, emailing, document editing, social media, watching movies, even playing games that aren't too demanding are all possible with these specs. It's worth noting though that the difference between a laptop with 4 GB of RAM and a standard hard drive, and another with 8 GB and a solid state drive (SSD), is night and day. Startup times can go from minutes to twenty seconds or less with the addition of some RAM and an SSD.