Let’s face it: a good-quality, high-performing lightweight Ultrabook can cost $1,000 or more — sometimes even double that figure. But if you are willing to compromise on weight and performance, it is possible to get a laptop for $250 or less.
The two questions are whether a low-cost laptop makes sense for your needs and how good these models are from a construction and performance point of view.
You can actually get a pretty nice laptop for less than $250. It will have up to a 15-inch display and a fair amount of memory. What it won’t have though is excellent performance for computing tasks or, in general, long battery life. That’s going to constrain what you can do with it.
However, there are lots of business scenarios where performance is secondary to price. One example is if you travel a lot. Sure, it’s nice to have a lightweight ultra-portable device, especially on a long business trip. But taking a laptop on a long trip exposes the device to the possibility of theft or damage. And while a five-pound laptop is generally more of a pain to schlep than an expensive ultraportable, an inexpensive roller bag or a laptop case that fits over the handle of a rolling suitcase is a viable solution.
As far as usage goes, you aren’t going to do a lot of fancy Photoshopping or video editing on a laptop at this price range. But Web browsing, word processing, spreadsheets and creating PowerPoint presentations are well within any of the reviewed laptops' capabilities.
To Benchmark or Not to Benchmark
Benchmarks are useful tools, but some reviewers put too much emphasis on raw numbers. It’s easy to see several sets of figures and want to rank them from better to worse. But benchmarks, no matter what they are, are almost always arbitrary measures and mostly good at comparing one thing to another similar thing. In fact, some of the earliest benchmarks were just that — marks on a workbench that a craftsman used to make sure that similar parts of a piece of furniture, like legs, were the same length from one to another.
By using a program that tests one or more aspects of a laptop’s performance, we can get an idea of how one unit measures up against the others.
To compare compute performance between the three laptops we tested, we used a benchmark called GeekBench. This program tests performance in two areas: the CPU and the GPU (Graphics Processing Unit).
The second benchmark test we used was PowerMark from Futuremark. PowerMark runs a variety of tasks continuously until the battery reaches 20 percent of starting capacity and reports how long it took to get there. The likelihood of you getting exactly the same amount of use as the benchmark is unlikely, but it does give you some basis of comparison, which is really what benchmarks are about.
More than one Core, More than one Score
In the GeekBench chart that accompanies this review, you’ll notice two CPU benchmark scores for each laptop. That’s because this particular benchmark tests performance using just one of the two cores that the Celeron CPU has internally. It then performs the same test using both of the cores. And while you might expect the score to double, keep in mind that the two cores share onboard cache memory on the CPU chip and other resources, regardless if one or both cores are processing data.
That being said, let’s look at the three laptops we tested: an Acer Aspire 15 ES1-571-C7N9, HP Stream 11 and a Lenovo Ideapad 110 - 80T7000HUS.
Acer Aspire E15 ES1-571-C7N9 ($250 at Acer.com)
The Aspire E15 is a full-size laptop. It has a large 15.6-inch screen with 1366 x 768 resolution, measures 15 x 10 x 1 inch, and weighs 4.7 pounds — specs that are very similar to the Lenovo Ideapad we tested. And like the Ideapad, the Acer sports a 500GB hard drive, though it lacks the Lenovo’s optical drive. It’s also somewhat more expensive than either the Ideapad or HP Stream.
Powered by a 1.4GHz Intel Celeron 2957U processor running a bit slower than those in the HP and Lenovo laptops, the Acer still managed to turn in substantially better GeekBench scores than either of the other two machines, though it’s not going to set any laptop speed records. As with the other two laptops we tested, the Acer comes with a 64-bit version of Windows 10 Home.
The Aspire 15 has lots of ports, distributed on the left side of the laptop as well as at the rear. The left side has an SD card slot and a USB port, while the rear edge contains the remainder of the ports, including microphone and headphone jacks, an Ethernet jack, HDMI output and USB 2.1 and 3.0 ports. Also provided are Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for enhanced connectivity.
Unfortunately, like the Lenovo, the Acer also tore through the battery life test, achieving only 2 hours and 49 minutes of run time before shutting down. One thing to keep in mind about the PowerMark test is that it shuts the machine down when the battery runs down to 20 percent of its capacity. That means the Acer could possibly run up to another half hour if you were willing to run the battery dry. And PowerMark figures aren’t absolute. If the tasks and applications you run are different from the test script that PowerMark uses, you may get more or less run time than the PowerMark times suggest. As in the old advertisements, “Your mileage may vary.”
As with the Lenovo, the Acer ES 15 would make a nice desktop replacement, although we would hesitate to suggest it for doing tasks like video editing, which eat up compute capability rapidly. It’s also great as an affordable extra office machine kept in reserve for when one of the other machines develops problems or when your business has a guest who needs access to a computer.
HP Stream 11 ($179 at Office Depot)
With an 11-inch screen providing up to 1366 x 768 resolution, and measuring only 11.8 x 8.1 x 0.71 inches and weighing 2.57 pounds, the HP Stream 11 is the smallest and lightest of the three laptops we looked at. It’s powered by an Intel Celeron N3060 dual-core CPU running at 1.6 GHz, which is the same processor that the Lenovo uses. This is reflected in very similar scores on the GeekBench benchmark tests. The case comes in several bright colors including Magenta. Our review unit was Cobalt Blue with white chiclet-style keys. As with the other two test laptops, the Stream 11 featured the 64-bit version of Windows 10 Home. We found the keyboard a bit bouncy to type on but certainly acceptable — though nowhere near as nice as you would find on a more expensive laptop.
While the Stream 11 had 4GB of RAM, same as the others, it differed in the hard disk, which on the Stream is actually a solid state drive (SSD) with only 32GB of space (actually less when you consider that the operating system takes up about 4GB of the overall space available). If you have large files or a lot of applications that need to go on your laptop, this might pose a problem.
Ports on the Stream 11 are located along the left and right sides of the laptop. On the left side is a headphone jack and a USB 3.1 port, while the right side has a USB 2.0 port, an HDMI output so you can connect the laptop to a large display or many TV sets, and a slot for a MicroSD card. Connectivity is good for a laptop this small, with both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, although the Stream 11 is lacking a wired Ethernet port.
Where the Stream 11 stood out was in run time — almost 7 hours on the PowerMark benchmark. That’s enough to stream several movies on a transcontinental flight.
The downside is that the 11-inch screen is small, not much different from a large tablet. If you can live with that, the Stream 11 is a good choice for travelers who want basic utility with a very portable laptop that’s inexpensive enough to not cause a tragedy if it’s lost, stolen or damaged. And if you want the same basic laptop with a larger screen, HP offers the Stream 14 for just $220. We weren’t able to get one for our review, but it should offer similar performance (though the power draw of a larger screen is likely to reduce run time somewhat).
Lenovo Ideapad 110 - 80T7000HUS ($199 at Bestbuy.com)
Powered by the same 1.6 GHz Intel Celeron N3060 as the HP, the Lenovo has a true 15.6-inch display with the same 1366 x 768 resolution as the other two laptops we tested, and a full-size keyboard with chiclet style keys. As with the HP and Acer, the Ideapad offers 4GB of RAM. It also has an actual rotating hard disk drive with a comfortable 500GB of room, as does the Acer. Unlike the Acer we tested, the Ideapad also offers a DVD optical disc drive so you can run a movie or burn a backup. That’s a nice feature in a laptop that’s this inexpensive.
All these things, like the large screen, rotating disk and optical drive, add weight. The Ideapad weighs in at a somewhat hefty 4.85 pounds and measures 14.9 x 10.4 x 0.9 inches. That will fit many “15 inch” laptop cases, but just barely.
But the large size does bring with it some benefits, such as providing room for lots of ports. With the right side of the laptop taken up with the optical drive, all of the ports are located on the left side. These ports include a headphone jack, two USB ports (one 2.1 one 3.0), HDMI output, microphone jack, and a wired Ethernet jack. Other connectivity options are Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
With all of these ports, drive, and a large screen, the Lenovo’s battery doesn’t last very long — 2 hours and 24 minutes on our PowerMark battery benchmark. That’s a bit less than the Acer and a lot less than the diminutive HP. Still, if you are going to be mostly using it near an AC outlet, the Lenovo’s large screen, large hard disk and optical drive make it an attractive desktop replacement in many businesses.
You Get What You Pay For
Whether or not one of the above laptops is worth the price depends on what you are going to be doing with it. If you want something that’s very portable to do Web browsing, email and light word processing, the $179 HP Stream 11 will fit the bill and give you hours of battery life to boot. The small screen isn’t much larger than many tablets, but it’s a true laptop, not a tablet with an additional keyboard (though that’s not necessarily a bad alternative at this price and screen size). But if you need something light, inexpensive and with a long battery life, the HP Stream 11 is the choice of the three.
Choosing between the Acer and Lenovo is a bit more difficult. The Lenovo is less expensive and it has an optical drive. It also faired just a touch poorer in the PowerMark battery test at 128 minutes versus 148 minutes for the Acer and is a touch larger. If budget is truly a constraint, the Lenovo is the one to choose. In terms of performance, however, the Acer aced out the other two laptops. Both the Acer and Lenovo are fine as an inexpensive desktop replacement for browsing, moderate resolution file streaming, and modest office tasks like word processing or working on a spreadsheet. Keeping multiple browser tabs open, several word processing documents open, or a combination of applications open is really going to bring any of the three laptops to a crawl.
And at the bottom line, that’s the big negative of a $250 or less laptop. They simply don’t have a lot of horsepower. For a lot of business users, that’s okay. Any of the three laptops will serve many business needs that don’t need raw computing power, such as QuickBooks Online and Xero online accounting applications. And having one of these as an emergency backup PC in the office or as a travel laptop that you can afford to lose makes economic sense for a lot of businesses. But if you are looking for something that’s going to serve as an office desktop replacement day-after-day and be able to keep lots of applications and documents open, figure on spending a multiple of what one of these inexpensive laptops is priced at.
Ted Needleman published his first review in 1978. Since then, he has written several thousand hardware and software reviews, columns, articles on using technology, and two books. He has no intention of stopping any time soon.