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What's the best laptop for £300? – The Guardian

What’s the best laptop for £300?

I saw your article helping someone find the right laptop for under £700, which I found very useful. I also need a laptop, mainly to run Microsoft Excel. I’d like a big screen and plenty of storage for under £300. Jacy

If you buy a laptop for £700 then you have to compromise on something. At £300 or less, you have to compromise on everything, and the best compromise might be to buy a refurbished laptop from a supplier such as Tier1Online, rather than a new one. See an earlier answer for more information on that idea.

However, you can buy something that will do the job for that sort of money, as long as it’s a proper laptop rather than a netbook.

By a “proper laptop,” I mean the sort of machine that can do much the same job as a desktop PC, but in a portable form factor. The minimum specification should include 4GB or preferably 8GB of memory and either a 320GB or larger hard drive, or a 128GB or 256GB SSD (solid-state drive). Having an SSD makes a laptop feel much more responsive.

Ideally, you should be able to upgrade both memory and storage, but ultrathin laptops may be impossible to upgrade and are consequently hard to repair.

Most cheap laptops nowadays are really netbooks. They are designed to use apps, web-based applications and cloud storage, much like smartphones and tablets. Indeed, many have 360-degree hinges or detachable keyboards for tablet-style use.

Netbooks usually have only 2GB of memory and 32GB of eMMC chip storage, which runs at much the same speed as an SD storage card. (Again, this is typical of smartphones and tablets.) However, you can find models with 4GB and 64GB if you shop around. This is the absolute minimum you should consider.

The saving grace of netbooks is that – unlike smartphones and tablets – they can run the full Microsoft Office desktop programs. These are relatively lightweight compared to resource-gobblers like Google Chrome, but it depends on the size of your Excel spreadsheets. Big, complex spreadsheets with hundreds of columns and thousands of rows can stress even powerful laptops.

Processor choice

Intel typically releases new Core chips each year.

Intel typically releases new Core chips each year. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Intel offers two main ranges of processors for affordable laptops. The cheapest and slowest are based on the Atom design. Most Atoms are now branded as Pentium or Celeron chips, though not all Pentiums and Celerons are Atoms. Faster but more expensive chips use Intel’s Core design. Businesses normally buy laptops with Core i5 processors because they are better value than the faster Core i7 versions. For home users, entry-level Core i3 chips provide better-than-Atom performance at competitive prices.

Intel typically releases new Core chips each year, and the part number shows which generation it belongs to. For example, a Core i5-5200U is a fifth generation chip, while the Core i5-6200U is from the sixth generation. Newer is better.

Last year, you could find affordable laptops with fifth, sixth and even seventh-gen processors such as the Core i3-7100U. Today, they are generally beyond your budget, so you may have to settle for a Pentium or Celeron. If so, check the performance on Notebookcheck’s list of mobile processor benchmarks, or look up its PassMark score. You don’t need to understand the numbers: bigger is better.

Look up some chips from laptops you’ve used previously to get an idea of relative performance levels. Otherwise, try to avoid anything with a PassMark score lower than 2000. The Intel Pentium N4200 squeaks in at 2023, while the Atom x5-Z8350 falls short at 1277. For comparison, a Core i3-7100U scores 3824, while the Core i5-8500 in my desktop scores 12084.

Lenovo, again

Lenovo 320S

Lenovo 320S. Photograph: Lenovo

The Windows PC market is now pretty much a five-horse race. The leaders are Lenovo and HP: both sell roughly a million machines per week. Dell is third, selling mainly to businesses from its website. The consumer-oriented challengers are the Taiwanese companies, Acer and Asus. All five sell laptops manufactured in China.

Given their volume sales, it’s hard to beat HP and Lenovo on price, so those are the brands I tend to end up recommending.

Today, the pick of the £300 laptops is still the 14in Lenovo 320S, which has a part number of 80X4001TUK on Lenovo’s website. PC World is currently selling it as the Lenovo 320S-14IKB for £298.98. You may find it from other sources if you search for the part number.

The 320S has 4GB of memory, a 128GB SSD, and a Pentium 4415U Gold processor that is almost the same as a Core i3-7100U. (They are both hyper-threading Kaby Lake designs.) The Pentium 4415U has a PassMark score of 3161.

The 320S-14IKB seems to be relatively easy to repair, and you can replace both the battery and SSD. (The manual is online.) It only has one memory slot but you could swap the 4GB installed for 8GB for £80.39, though I’d assume that will invalidate the warranty.

The main compromise is the 1366 x 768-pixel non-IPS screen, but you can check that in a shop.

You can also get this laptop with a Core i3-7100U processor for £379.98. The top model has a Core i7-8550U (PassMark 8323), 8GB of memory, a 256GB SSD and a 1920 x 1080-pixel IPS screen for £749.99.

There are other laptops with Pentium 4415U processors, and you could look at the 14in HP Pavilion 14-bk069sa at £329.98. This machine has a 1TB hard drive instead of an SSD.

Alternatively, Acer

Acer Aspire 3.

Acer Aspire 3. Photograph: Acer

You’d have a bigger range of options with a £350 budget, which is more closely aligned with today’s price levels. Getting below £300 will usually require either bigger compromises or bigger discounts on list prices.

The 14in Asus VivoBook Flip illustrates the problem. Its advantages include a decent 1920 x 1080 touch screen and a 360-degree hinge that helps it double as a tablet. However, the processor drops to an Intel Pentium N4200, and you get a 64GB eMMC chip instead of a 128GB SSD for your £299.98.

Argos is currently offering a 14-in Acer Aspire 3 with a Pentium N4200 and 128GB SSD for £299.99, which should be adequate for your purposes. It would bust your budget to buy the red version with a 15.6in screen, a Core i3 processor and 1TB hard drive for £314.99. (You can get it in black for the original price, £399.99.) Argos doesn’t say which chip it is, but I assume it’s the i3-6006U, which as a PassMark score of 3109.

However, I think your best alternative to the Lenovo 320S, within your budget, is the 15.6in Acer Aspire 3 (A315-51) that ebuyer.com is selling for £299.98. This has a Core i3-6006U processor and a 128GB SSD.

In fact, this version of the Acer Aspire 3 beats the Lenovo 320S in some respects. First, it has a higher-resolution 1920 x 1080-pixel screen (Full HD instead of HD). Second, the Core i3-6006U has some slight technical advantages over the Pentium 4415U, though there is no significant difference in their PassMark scores (3109 vs 3161). Third, you could expand the 4GB of memory to 8GB or 16GB, though you’re unlikely to spend £80 or £160 doing that.

I’d probably still go for the Lenovo 320S because it’s well known and widely available, but it would be interesting to see the two machines side by side.

Have you got a question? Email it to Ask.Jack@theguardian.com

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