Since 2019 will end in a few days, I felt this would be an opportune time to be just a tiny bit critical of the many articles that will be written about the best laptops to buy in 2020. I'll do that by giving some recommendations of my own. However, instead of recommending laptops costing in the range of $350 to $2000, as nearly all the others will, my price range will be just a tad lower. I'll recommend the best laptops to buy for under $100, including shipping charges. Yes, obviously, these laptops will be used.
I chose this price range for three reasons. First, a wide variety of fully functional laptops can be found in this range. Second, truly useful laptops can be found in the middle and upper part of this range. And third, buyers should be able to find laptops that have a reasonable likelihood of continuing to function well for at least 3 or 4 more years, giving them a reasonably long period of useful laptop life for their money.
I'll be recommending the best laptops under $100 for 2020 in three categories: lightweight laptop, general-purpose laptop, and multimedia laptop. If you've read many articles on cheapskatesguide.org, you are probably aware that I am biased in favor of quality, well-constructed laptops that can run Linux well. The reason for my bias is that I believe these laptops last the longest and are the most functional. Another attribute that I consider to be very important in a used laptop is the number that have been sold. The more that have been sold, the higher the likelihood that used parts can be found for reasonable prices by those who want to keep their laptops running as long as possible. Although I do value looks, I favor functionality far higher. Therefore, anyone reading this review should realize that in order to find one of my picks for under $100, they may have to settle for a laptop that has several cosmetic blemishes. One rule that I will follow is that every laptop I recommend must be fully functional with no missing parts. Each must have a working hard drive, RAM, power supply, battery, and operating system.
I will be finding my laptop picks on Ebay. The reason for this is that dozens of laptops are sold on Ebay every day for very reasonable prices. Great laptops can be found in other ways too, but just about everyone has easy access to Ebay. So, no one should have any problem actually buying one of the laptop models that I recommend, given a couple of weeks of waiting for a decent candidate to become available for under $100. The prices I quote will be Ebay's "Buy It Now" prices. This means you won't have to win an auction to buy at this price.
A note about the pictures presented in this article: I was unable to contact the sellers of the laptops on Ebay that I discuss in this article to ask for permission to use their pictures. So, I have instead substituted pictures of similarly priced laptops on Ebay that are free for commercial reuse. The exception is the picture of the Dell Latitude E6220, which I own and would be similarly priced if it were being sold on Ebay today.
Unfortunately, few quality, light-weight, used laptop models are available to those who want to stay away from Chromebooks. The reason I don't recommend a Chromebook for this category of laptop is that when you are on the road (or in the air), you want a laptop that is as flexible as possible. Not only do you need to be able to work efficiently both on and off line, but you also need to be able to connect to any peripheral that you may encounter and load any software you may need. Flexibility is not a quality for which Chromebooks are known. Additionally, most quality used laptops are business laptops. Although there are exceptions, consumer laptops tend to die before they get old enough to become really cheap. And, despite what you might expect, not many business laptops are designed to be light-weight.
My pick for the best lightweight laptop under $100 is one that I have used myself for the last four-and-a-half years, the Dell Latitude E6220. Though not the lightest laptop around, it is a relatively light 3.17 lbs without its power supply. It has a nice, 12.5" display and decent speakers. Its Core i5-2520m processor should be fast enough to handle just about any task--short of some really computationally intensive ones, for which you may want a full-sized laptop with a Core i7. Part of the E6220's flexibility stems from its port and connector selection. It has 2 USB 2 ports and an additional eSATA/USB port. It also has an ExpressCard slot, an SD card slot, an HDMI connector, and a VGA connector. I saw an E6220 on Ebay with 4 GB of RAM (E6220's can hold up to 8 GB), a 320GB hard drive, and Windows 7 Pro for $55 plus $18.02 shipping.
My next choice for a lightweight laptop under $100 would be the HP EliteBook 2570p. It wasn't my first choice for three reasons: 1) it is 0.42 lbs heavier than the E6220, 2) the screen is not nearly as nice as the E6220's, and 3) I don't like the keyboard as much. However, the Core i5-3320M CPU is a little faster than the E6220's Core i5-2520m, and in my opinion, the 2570p's case is just as high-quality and nice-looking as the E6220's. By the way, you can get both the E6220 and the 2570p with Core i7 CPU's. I just wouldn't recommend it, because I highly doubt that either would be able to run a Core i7 at its top speed for very long before thermal throttling kicks in.
Choosing the best general-purpose laptop under $100 was a difficult task, not because there are so few good laptops to choose from, but because there are so many. Business-class laptops are designed to be general-purpose laptops. And, thanks to businesses buying so many laptops and getting rid of them so quickly (generally after only two or three years of use), they can many times be bought used for only a small fraction of their new price. Patient shoppers can frequently find 7 or 8-year-old business laptops on Ebay selling for 5-10% of their original prices. And, due to their quality construction, many business laptops continue to function for 10-15 years.
My pick for the best general-purpose laptop under $100 is the HP ProBook 640 G1. I chose the 640 G1 for its nice screen, fast Core i5-4300m CPU, and four USB 3 ports. The bright, 14" screen on the 640 G1 has a contrast ratio of 494:1, which is much higher than most of its competitors. Business laptops generally have screens with poor contrast, usually in the range of 130:1 to 180:1. This makes them largely unsuitable for watching movies, in my opinion. The 640 G1 also has a DVD burner, which qualifies it as a decent multimedia laptop for those who still watch DVD's. However, it's worth as a multimedia laptop is somewhat tempered by the fact that, although its speakers are top facing, they are not all that good, suffering from a lack of high and low-frequency content. Its fast, non-thermally-throttled CPU and maximum 16 GB of RAM make the 640 G1 something of a computing beast--not so much a lion or tiger, more of a wolverine. One other thing I like about the 640 G1 is that it has a user-replaceable battery. This is despite the fact that it was manufactured in 2014, when most other manufacturers had already slipped into the thin-at-all-costs trance.
I managed to find a fairly banged-up, C-grade (the lowest cosmetic grade that you can usually find on Ebay) 640 G1 for $99.99 including shipping, just barely qualifying it for this article. With patience, you may be able to find one in better cosmetic condition for the same price. The particular 640 G1 that I saw advertised on Ebay came with 4 GB of RAM, a 160 GB hard drive (which is certainly too small to be the original), and Windows 10.
I should probably mention that I have experience with an HP ProBook 640 that one of my employers loaned me for about 2 years. I was especially impressed with its ice-coldness under load and relatively speedy Core i5-4300m CPU. I was also pleased with its nice selection of ports, although I destroyed two USB flash drives by somehow managing to plug them into the display port by mistake. This problem was easily solved with a piece of tape.
Some other laptops that I saw on Ebay for under $100 that I consider to be good multi-purpose laptops are the Dell Latitude E6430, the Lenovo Thinkpad L430, the HP Elitebook 8460p, and the Lenovo Thinkpad T430. Unfortunately, all have the typical, low-contrast screen of most business laptops. Fortunately, all have second or third generation Core i5 processors and at least one USB 3 port. They also have rugged cases, and the Dell and HP laptops have nice-looking metal cases as well.
By multimedia laptop, I mean a laptop that has been optimized for watching movies and listening to music. To me, gaming laptops are a separate category, because the design of a gaming laptop revolves mostly around the need for a massive, heat-producing, power-draining video card. That's not at all required for a laptop that is excellent at playing movies and music. For that you want a bright, high-contrast screen that has good color reproduction. You also want speakers that produce quality sound that is loud enough to fill a room. A good digital-to-analog converter, or DAC, also helps.
Good multimedia laptops can be hard to find on Ebay if you don't know how to look. The first roadblock is that the selection of quality laptops that were designed specifically as multimedia laptops a few years ago was small. The second is that, for some reason, Ebay sellers don't identify their laptops as multimedia laptops. So, you have to know what to look for. The secret to identifying multimedia laptops on Ebay is to look for those laptops that have forward-facing or upward-facing speakers. If you see this feature, you know immediately that the manufacturer intended to provide a quality listening experience. And, that most often goes along with a quality viewing experience. To confirm this, find a good online review. Notebook Check produces great, comprehensive reviews. But, don't search for a laptop review using their website's search application or navigation. Both are awful. Start with a search engine like duckduckgo.com and type in the name of the laptop followed by "review notebookcheck".
My pick for the best multimedia laptop under $100 is the Lenovo Thinkpad T520. It comes with three screen options, so be careful which one you buy. The T520's mid-quality screen has the requisite high contrast (670:1) screen. It also has a decent 1600x900 resolution and good color reproduction, though only typical viewing angle stability. The screen is not as bright as I would like, but it should work fine indoors. It has a matte finish, so you won't be bothered by reflections. The T520 also has good speakers. However, if body-vibrating bass is important to you when listening to music, you will want to use external speakers. The T520 also has a DVD R/W drive, just in case you have a large DVD collection that you want to continue to enjoy. I found a T520 on Ebay with 4 GB of RAM and a 320 GB hard drive running Windows 10 for $59.99 plus $13.10 shipping.
Another good choice for a multimedia laptop under $100 is the Dell E6500. I own one, and I have enjoyed watching movies and Netflix (at their lower 0.3 GB/hr resolution setting) and listening to music on it for most of the last three and a half years. As I write this, one can be found for sale on Ebay for $79 including shipping. Before buying, however, I would wait for a price below $55, including shipping. The reason I picked the T520 over the E6500 is that the T520 is three years newer and has a Core i5-2540m processor, whereas the E6500 only has a Core 2 Duo.
I hope the examples given above have helped to convince at least a
few of you that very cheap options exist for you, if you are mostly
concerned with what you can do with a laptop and less so with its
cosmetic imperfections. Now, when you read reviews next month
telling you that you should be spending $350 to $2000 for a new
laptop, you will understand that you have other options. And,
remember, every time you buy a used laptop and maintain it well,
there is an 80% chance that you have prevented, or at least delayed
it from ending up in a landfill in
a third-world country, poisoning their children. I'm not trying
to make you feel guilty for buying a new laptop. I'm just stating
an unhappy fact.
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