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.
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.
To upgrade a laptop’s internal storage, you will need two components:
- 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.
- 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
And that’s it! You’ll be amazed at how much faster the computer is now.
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.