With new laptops now available for as little as £200, you might think any advice about how to buy a ‘cheap’ portable PC is redundant.
But buyer, beware: very low-cost laptops don’t always have the best specifications, and it’s worth doing some careful shopping around to find something that’s suited to your particular needs.
What to buy
Laptops come in all shapes, sizes and specifications, so it’s sensible to have an idea about what you want the computer for before you start looking.
If you’re buying something to carry to work and back, then a lightweight ultraportable is your best choice, for example. But weight is less of an issue if you just want something to use at home.
Almost any laptop, even if it’s a few years old, is suitable for web browsing and word processing. But editing photos or playing games needs something more up to date, with more power.
What you'll use it for will make a huge on which model is right for you, so think long and hard about which features are important to you.
Where to buy: cheap
Just because you want a cheap laptop doesn’t mean you can’t buy it new from a retailer. Buying new has many benefits: you know what you’re getting, and your purchase is protected both by a manufacturer warranty and the UK Sale of Goods Act. The latter means you can make a legal claim for faulty products for up to six years after the purchase date, which also renders a costly extended warranty worthless.
If you're in the market for a cheap new laptop, a Chromebook could be for you. These are stripped-down laptops with very few bells and whistles. They run Google's Chrome OS operating system, which is web-based (hence most of its files are stored in the cloud instead of locally on the machine).
The upside is these are very light and portable. The downside? You'll need a web connection to carry out most tasks.
Where to buy: cheaper
Many retailers sell old laptops at steep discounts. Don’t worry that you’re not getting the latest model - laptop specifications don’t change that quickly and a lower price is more appealing than a marginally faster processor. Especially if you'll only be using it for basic tasks.
Since they’re not allowed to re-sell them as ‘new’, some retailers also offer laptops that have been returned by customers at a reduced price. Amazon's Warehouse Deals is a good place to start.
Devices sold here may have cosmetic damage or damaged packaging, but they still come with a warranty and the usual consumer protection.
You may not necessarily get an ultra-cheap laptop with such deals, but you can get one with a great specification for much less than its original price. The only catch is that availability varies considerably, so finding the laptop you want may take time.
Where to buy: cheapest
The biggest bargains are found by buying second-hand. This carries some risk, since there’s usually no comeback with a purchase, but common sense and choosing carefully will avoid most pitfalls:
Buying a laptop from someone you know is usually a safe bet, since you’ll also probably know something about its history - whether or not it’s been looked after, in other words.
While you may not be inclined to haggle over the price, you should still check that you can’t find a better deal elsewhere and that everything is working properly.
2. Retailers and auctions
CeX (Computer Exchange) is also worth a look. Being able to see and try what you’re buying beforehand is a major plus, as is being able to return a purchase if there’s a problem.
eBay is another source of cheap laptops and there are two main options. The first is to buy from a business seller who specialises in refurbished models with a warranty. Just don’t let a low price blind you to a low specification.
For example, a £150 model might look tempting, but not if its spec is years out of date compared with a much newer £200 model. Do your research!
Better deals can be had from private auctions, but check the seller’s listing very closely, since you’ll only have some redress if a laptop differs from its description.
If you can, pay using PayPal, as it offers the best chance of a refund. And never get caught up in a bidding war - there’s no shortage of laptops on eBay so set yourself a maximum price and stick with it.
Don’t necessarily be put off by a laptop that’s described as ‘broken’, either, as long as any damage is reflected in the price. This does involve a bit of chance, but if a problem is clearly stated, it could be simple to fix. Missing keys and power supplies and non-functioning hard drives and DVD drives are easily and cheaply replaced, for example. But a damaged screen isn't.
Don't forget that Amazon sells second-hand laptops. Click on the 'used' option of a laptop you like to find private sellers.
3. Small ads
Buying privately through a small ad can be safer than buying on eBay, since you can try what you’re buying before handing over the cash. After that, though, you’re on your own. The usual common sense advice applies – if you have doubts about the item or the seller, or if an offer seems too good to be true, then look elsewhere.
Where to buy: free
If you are prepared to mend a laptop, then you may not need to pay for it at all. Laptops are routinely given away on Freegle and Freecycle, and while you may chance upon a working model, you’re more likely to find one that needs some attention.
Again, be sensible here - there’s no point spending £200 to get a five-year old laptop working, but £30 to replace a hard drive or £10 for more memory is easy to justify.
Don’t forget the software
Check what software is supplied with the laptop. We’ll skip the complex legalities of reselling software and simply point out that without an installation disc and registration code, installed software will cease to exist if you ever have to reinstall the operation system.
One final word of warning when buying a laptop second-hand. Whatever the source, if a laptop is more than two years old, it’s safe to assume its battery will have seen better days. So always factor in the cost of a new one before buying, at least if you plan to use the laptop away from mains power.