So you want to pick up a laptop for a holiday gift. The prices are all over the map, from around $200 to $1,000 and up for a premium Apple Mac machine and much more, if you load it.
The good news: That $200 computer, if used for younger students, isn’t the slow, lethargic machine you might expect it to be. That is, if it’s a Google Chromebook and used as Google intended it, notes Anthony Pisano, the co-owner of the Computer Guy NJ, a New Jersey-based computer sales and repair shop.
The original idea for the Chromebook was as a low-cost way to connect to the internet for basic word processing, spreadsheets and presentation software via Google Docs, he says. The ability to add software that’s not available within the Google Play app store was always a potential hurdle. For instance, Adobe’s popular apps like Photoshop and Lightroom are available, but only in the “mobile” light versions, not the full featured apps many love to use on Windows and Apple computers.
The basic specs on a $249 Chromebook, like this Acer, with an Intel Celeron chip and 4 gigabytes of memory, isn’t that different from what you’ll find on machines from HP, Dell and others, he notes. “It’s all you need.”
With the work- and learn-from-home trend that began in March with the beginning of the pandemic, good, low-priced laptops were hard to come by, Pisano notes, but the factories have caught up with demand now. What to look for?
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That Acer Chromebook 314. What do you get for $250? A generous 14-inch display, 64 gigabytes of storage and a meager 4 GB of RAM and slow Celeron N4000 processing chip. But if your little student is just doing Google Docs, Gmail and spreadsheets on the Chromebook, they won’t find themselves hobbled by the Celeron chip, which many consumers have associated with ultra-slow performance over the years, Pisano notes.
Pisano says a Windows 10 computer in this price range will do the basics for many people. Anything less expensive will probably be slower and disappointing to people, he says.
He says to look for a machine with a 10th-generation i3 Intel processor, a minimum of 8 GB of RAM and a solid-state hard drive. Ignore him, and your new computer will be “slow and unbearable,” he says. The biggest culprit for keeping things slow are the older traditional spinning disc hard drive, he says. The SSDs have no moving parts and thus are much speedier.
The minimum hard drive space should be 256 gigabytes, he says, because once you add in the Windows operating system, updates, Microsoft Office, Google Chrome and Adobe programs, that could eat up 200 or so GBs right there, and the extra room will give space for your photos, videos and documents. He recommends stepping up to 512GB if you can afford it, because everyone always needs more room, right?
The Lenovo IdeaPad has a 15-inch screen, 10th-generation i3 chip, 8 GB of RAM, a 256 GB solid-state drive and sells for just over $450. The Acer Aspire 3 starts at $549 and has the i5 chip, 8 GB of RAM and 512 solid state hard drive.
This will get you more power, a nicer-looking screen and the potential to flip back and forth between a tablet and laptop. Example: HP Envy x360, which starts at $699, and has an Intel i5 chip, 8 GB of RAM and 256 of storage. Add $100 to get to 512 GB.
$800-$999 and up
Dell XPS13 for Windows is a more powerful business machine, and it’s one Pisano likes. It has the Intel i7 chip, 512 storage and 8 GB of RAM, starting at $899. Apple’s popular MacBook Air starts at $999. This year’s edition has ditched the old Intel chip and replaced it with ones based on the chips that power iPhones and iPads. Advantage for consumers: way stronger battery life and more power.
$1,000 and up
Apple’s step-up MacBook Pro, with the new M1 chips, starts at $1,299, and would be more appropriate for the power user who wants to do music, film and photo editing. The Windows high-end equivalent would be a Surface by Microsoft. The company offers seven models, ranging from $399 to $1,999. The lower-priced models have older, slow chips and not much storage, so Pisano doesn’t recommend them. He likes the newer Pro 7 ($749) and Book 3 ($1,299), which he says have enough power to handle high-end tasks like music, video and photo editing. He cautions, however, that necessities like mouse, keyboard and pen to draw on the touch screen are extras that can add $300 or more to the purchase.
For instance, the Pro 7, which is advertised as starting at $749, jumps to $899 after you boost the storage from 128GB to 256GB, and it ends at just under $1,100 once you add the mouse, keyboard and pen.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Laptop guide: Macs, Chromebooks and Windows devices from $200 to $1K+