Do I need a touch screen? Windows 8 changed the game with its touch-friendly interface. Most new Windows laptops now ship with Windows 8 -- but not all have a touch screen. You can certainly use Windows 8 without one, but a touch screen does maximize the experience. Our Best Reviewed cheap Ultrabook, the Toshiba Satellite U845T (Est. $800) has a superb touch screen, but some very good cheap laptops (including our other two Best Reviewed picks) omit the touch screen to lower the price. One, the Dell Inspiron 17, is also available with Windows 7 Home Premium for those not ready or willing to make the jump to Win8, making the lack of a touch screen pretty much a non-issue.
Which processor? Most users will do just fine with an Intel Core i3 processor. It provides sufficient power for everyday computing, web browsing and more, and it won't falter when multitasking, although gaming will be limited to less-demanding titles. If you have the leeway and the need, budget laptops with Core i5 or i7 processors provide a performance boost along with notably better battery life and integrated graphics capabilities.
Consumer ultralow voltage (CULV) processors found in some Ultrabooks and other ultraportables don't perform quite as well as their non-CULV Core processor counterparts, but they allow for long battery life and are lightweight. Other processors are generally less powerful and less desirable, though the ARM-based chips used in some Chromebooks are actually a good match for the Chromebook's niche and help keep prices down.
How big a hard drive do I need? Though some Chromebooks eschew traditional hard drives altogether in favor of cloud-based storage, most cheap laptops have at least 320 GB hard drives, which will hold thousands of MP3s and photographs. However, if your laptop is going to be your primary computer, or if you anticipate storing large files such as videos, consider a choice with more capacity.
Solid-state drives (SSDs) are faster than traditional hard drives, but have lower capacity and are much more expensive per megabyte of storage. Some Ultrabooks marry the best of both, pairing regular hard drives with small SSD cache drives that speed boot times and the load times of your most-used applications.
3D gaming possible on a cheap laptop? Yes, but only with the most powerful
models. Even then, you'll have to
dial down settings on some games. Budget-friendly models usually only include
integrated graphics solutions or lower-end discrete graphics cards, which lack
the power to adequately handle demanding 3D games. If a satisfying high-end
gaming experience is a must, see our report on more powerful
What kind of connectivity options do I need? Even cheap laptops come with built-in wireless networking, which lets you connect to a Wi-Fi network without any additional hardware. If you plan to connect to the Internet with a dial-up modem, be aware that many laptops no longer include one. Ethernet connectors for broadband are standard, but verify that a laptop you're considering has one, especially when buying ultraportables. A few cheap models include a Bluetooth radio, and many have an HDMI output for sending video to an HDTV. A few also have Intel WiDi technology, which allows you to stream video to a TV without a connecting cable, although an adapter for the TV is required (Est. $80).
Turning to ports -- USB, FireWire and more -- the selection in budget laptops varies tremendously. The Best Reviewed Dell Inspiron 17 (Est. $450 and up) has more ports than you can shake a stick at, but most budget offerings skimp on available connections. Make sure your choice has the ports you need.
What kind of features should I expect in a cheap laptop? One way manufacturers cut the price of cheap laptops is by eliminating some features, including those that have become standard. Many omit the optical drive, for example, so you have no way to play a CD or DVD. We see some reviews from disappointed owners who didn't realize certain features were missing until after they got their purchases home.