The days of having to shell out thousands of dollars for a decent laptop are long gone. You can now find great, brand-name devices for just a couple hundred dollars that are more than adequate for the average user. You just need to know what you're looking for so you can make the right decision.
To help you decide whether or not a sub-$200 laptop is the right choice for you, let's take a quick look at what these devices are good for, what features you'll get for the money, and what internal specs these computers typically have.
Ask yourself what you'll be doing with it
This is probably the most important question you need to ask yourself before buying your laptop, because it will determine whether your inexpensive laptop is the perfect device or a source of frustration.
For example, if you just want a laptop for browsing the Web and streaming videos, then nearly any sub-$200 laptop running Google's Chrome operating system -- called Chromebooks -- will most likely be a good fit. These laptops typically won't have lots of internal memory or the ability to run traditional computer programs, but they will allow you to access the internet on the cheap.
If you're looking to get some more work done with the device (but not use it as your primary work computer), then an inexpensive laptop running Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows operating system will probably be a better fit.
Keep in mind that neither the Chromebooks nor the Windows laptops in the sub-$200 price point will be good for tasks like video editing, graphic design, gaming, or running lots of apps at same time. But if just need a laptop for word processing, going online, or streaming videos, then these computers should have everything you need.
Check the screen brightness, resolution, and size
Once you've determined what you'll be using the laptop for, there are a few things you should know about the laptops in this price category.
For example, most of the laptops priced under $200 have screens that aren't quite as bright as higher-end devices. Screen brightness is measured in what's called "nits." The screens on high-end devices -- like Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) Macbook Pro -- have an output of 500 nits, while many sub-$200 laptops' screens will put out less than 200 nits.
This doesn't necessarily mean you have to compromise, though. Samsung's (NASDAQOTH:SSNLF) Chromebook 3 has one of the brightest screens in this price point, with an output of 220 nits, and it costs just $169.
You'll also want to consider the screen resolution. In the simplest terms, a higher screen resolution translates to a sharper image. At this price point, some of the best-reviewed laptops have screen resolutions of 1366 x 768. This should be more than adequate for most people, though it won't offer the crystal clarity of, say, the screen on a Microsoft Surface Laptop, which has a resolution of 2256 x 1504.
Lastly, you'll need to determine which screen size is best for you. Many sub-$200 laptops have screen sizes of 11.6 inches, but Dell and others also offer laptops in this price range that have a 14-inch screen.
Compare the internal specifications
An inexpensive laptop doesn't make a great workhorse, because won't it have the more powerful hardware. That said, you can still get a decent amount of bang for your buck.
Start by looking for a laptop that has 4GB of RAM. RAM is the memory that allows your computer to handle several tasks at once without slowing down. Many inexpensive laptops have just 2GB of RAM, but some -- like the HP Stream 11 and the Samsung Chromebook 3 -- have 4GB.
Many of the laptops under $200 tap Intel's Celeron N3060 processor, which should be good for most tasks, but remember that these devices won't compare to laptops with faster processors, such as Intel's Core i5 or i7 chips.
And when it comes to internal memory -- the amount of storage space for files, apps, media, and more -- there's a lot of variety. Some Chromebooks may have just 16GB (probably less than your smartphone has), while others could have up to 64GB. Keep in mind that these laptops are mainly designed for online browsing and connecting to cloud computing services, like Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive. Unless you're using the laptop for work, you probably won't need much internal memory on the device.
It all comes down to what you need
When shopping for a laptop, be sure to find one that suits your needs -- and avoid the temptation to buy a machine that far exceeds those needs. If you're swayed by a prettier display, a powerful processor, or other high-end hardware, your spending can easily climb into four-figure territory.
When it comes down to it, sub-$200 laptops are a great choice for many people. If you're looking for an extra laptop to keep around the house for occasional online browsing, or even for some light work, then there are plenty of inexpensive devices that will get the job done.
Teresa Kersten is an employee of LinkedIn and is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. LinkedIn is owned by Microsoft. Chris Neiger has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple and Netflix. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2020 $150 calls on Apple and short January 2020 $155 calls on Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Intel. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.