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. Some well-reviewed laptops -- particularly business-centric models -- instead still ship with a version of Windows 7 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? Users are faced with a sometimes bewildering array of choices when it comes to processors. Older-generation Intel Core processors can still fit the bill for basic and even business use. However, fourth-generation Core processors with Haswell technology raise the stakes by providing epic battery life and greatly improved graphics. Regardless of the technology generation, 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 integrated graphics capabilities, particularly in the case of fourth-generation Core i7 processors.
Haswell technology is also finding its way into Intel Pentium and Celeron chips, and our top-rated Chromebook uses a Celeron chip to power its way past older models using ARM processors. Bay Trail technology has transformed the lowly Atom processor into a chip that bears serious consideration for everyday computing. It's making possible a new generation of low-cost but reasonably powerful Windows tablets and convertibles, the first of which have debuted to solid reviews.
How big a hard drive do I need? Although 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 will be your primary computer or you anticipate storing large files like videos, consider a choice with more capacity.
Solid-state drives 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 load times of your most-used applications. Most convertibles and all Windows slates have an SSD only; opt for the largest one your budget will afford.
Free or cheap cloud storage can be used to expand how much data you can stockpile, but access will be slower -- sometimes a lot slower -- than from a local drive, so it's best for seldom-used files or to archive videos, photos and large files.
Is 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 laptops usually include only 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 laptop computers.
What kind of connectivity options do I need? Even cheap laptops come with built-in wireless, which lets you connect to a Wi-Fi network with no 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 commonplace, but verify that a laptop you're considering has one, especially when buying ultraportables. Many cheap models include a Bluetooth radio, and some 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, 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 saw some reviews from disappointed owners who didn't realize certain features were missing until after they got their purchases home.