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How to Turn a Cheap Laptop Great: Tips on Getting the Most Bang for Your Buck

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You can easily find a cheap laptop for just a few hundred dollars. Chances are, though, the machine is slow, taking longer to boot up than it took to deliver it to you. OK, I exaggerated, but seriously, these budget laptops are a pain to use.

The good news is you can spend a little more on an upgrade and turn one into a great performer equal to those costing twice as much. But first, you need to pick the right laptop.

The Acer Aspire E15 is a good cheap laptop you can get.
The Acer Aspire E15 is a good cheap laptop you can get.

Picking the right hardware

You should look for two essential components in a cheap laptop: the display and the processor (CPU). These are not upgradeable, meaning you’re stuck with what you get, so pick them carefully.

1. The display (screen)

Most cheap laptops come with a 1366 x 760 or 720p resolution display. That’s low, meaning you won’t be able to see much on the screen.

For example, if you go to a website or open a spreadsheet, you must scroll up and down a lot. Or when you watch a movie, the pictures won’t be very sharp, either.

That said, get one with a 1920 x 1080 display (a.k.a. 1080p / Full HD) or higher resolutions. Other screen features like touch are nice but not as essential and are generally only available on more expensive laptops.

2. The processor

You want a computer with an Intel Core i3 or Core i5 CPU of the 5th or higher generation.

Core i7 (or higher) is even better but hard to come by at low prices. If you choose an AMD processor, ensure it’s a 7th Gen AMD Quad-Core A12 processor or later.

Generally, I’d avoid any other CPUs.

Notes on other components

Besides, the computer’s system memory (RAM) and storage (hard drive) are easily replaceable or upgradeable. And replacing the hard drive with an SSD is the essential upgrade that turns a slow laptop into a powerhouse.

Budget Windows laptops almost always come with a hard drive. If you find one with a solid-state drive (SSD), chances are it will have a terrible screen or processor. Getting a combo of all the goods at a low cost is impossible.

For this post, I bought the Acer Aspire E15, which I used as a demo for the upgrade process below. This computer has a Full HD screen and Core i3 processor, costing less than $400 after tax and shipping. Get the same unit if you want to replicate what I do or want to save time.

An SATA-to-USB adapter will come in handy when you need to clone the internal drive of a computer.
A SATA-to-USB adapter will come in handy when you need to clone a computer’s internal drive.

Upgrade parts

To upgrade a laptop’s internal storage, you will need two components:

  1. A solid-state drive (SSD). I will use a 250GB Samsung 850 Evo, which is an excellent drive for this demo, but many other options exist. Any 2.5-inch SSD will get the job done, so pick one with the capacity you need. If you don’t intend to store a lot of data, you can get a 120GB drive for around $50.
  2. A SATA to USB adapter. This adapter lets you connect a drive to a computer via a USB port. There are many of them, but this one will do. Or, if you intend to use the computer’s original hard drive as an external backup drive, get an external enclosure instead.

You’ll also need a screwdriver, which most of us already have (most of the time, a small Phillips head will do). That said, the upgrade parts will cost just around $100.

The upgrade process

Now that you have a laptop and all the upgrade parts, here are the steps to turn that low-end machine into a powerhouse.

1. Turn on the laptop, complete the initial setup, and create an account to log in.

2. Download and install the free version of Macrium Reflect backup software. In my opinion, this is the best software to clone a Windows computer’s drive. It’s also a great backup software to restore your machine to a previous state.

3. Connect the SSD to the computer’s USB port using the SATA-to-USB adapter (or enclosure).

4. Run Reflect and choose to clone the laptop’s internal hard drive onto the SSD. (Detailed steps are Detailed steps on this post.)

5. Turn off the computer, open its hard-drive bay, remove its hard drive, and install the SSD in its place. Close the laptop back up, and that’s it. See the slide show below for the details of this step on the Acer Aspire E15.

The upgrade steps in photos

Acer a
Plug the SSD into the computer via the SATA-to-USB adapter. Then use software to clone the internal drive into it.

You must undo three screws to open the Acer laptop’s hard drive bay.

Here’s the hard drive. It can be pulled out easily.

The memory bay has a slot for another stick if you’re unhappy with the existing 4GB.

The original hard drive (inside a caddy) and the Samsung SSD will replace it.

The caddy has now been moved to the SSD.

And the SSD is now installed where the hard drive used to be.

Close the drive bay back up, and you’re done!

9 1
The laptop takes a much shorter time to boot up than before, shown here via Boot Racer.

And that’s it! You’ll be amazed at how much faster the computer is now.

The takeaway

You can always spend top dollars to get the best laptop, and that’s fine. But it’s much more fun and better for your wallet to buy a machine with the design, screen, and processor you want and then upgrade it to its best potential. The result will be gratifying.

By the way, if you have a computer that already runs on a SATA SSD (which replaces a hard drive, upgrading it to an NVMe SSD, when possible, will bring the performance to the next level.

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