Are sub-$200 laptops too basic to be useful?

Some laptops touted in Black Friday and other holiday sales are priced at less than $200 from U.S. retailers like Best Buy and Wal-Mart. But what do you get in such inexpensive machines?

For one, you can't play the latest games or run intense applications with these lightly configured laptops, and the machines are not the easiest to carry around. The laptops are adequate for basic Web surfing, word processing, or casual gaming; and one could replace an aging desktop or laptop at home.

But these laptops are not for everyone. It may be worth considering a higher-priced laptop with Intel's Core or Advanced Micro Devices' A-series processors for resource-heavy applications or multimedia. Lightweight ultrabooks or touch laptops will also be priced higher, perhaps more than $500.

Lenovo G585
Lenovo G585

One such inexpensive laptop is Lenovo's G585, which which Best Buy advertised for $187.99 starting on Black Friday (and some deals continue through its Cyber Sale). Similar configurations are available, also priced less than $200, at other stores. Wal-Mart began selling the Compaq Presario CQ58 for $179 in some stores on Black Friday; markedowns continue in its Cyber Week specials.

The sub-$200 laptops will have Windows 8 and run on basic processors. The laptops will not have touchscreens, which is one of the major features supported by Windows 8, which started shipping with PCs and tablets in late October. Touchscreens are considered a premium feature, and users will likely pay more for laptops that offer them.

The Lenovo G585 has hardware that may be found in many of the sub-$200 laptops that will be available over the coming weeks of the holiday shopping season. Best Buy is pitching the G585 for daily activities like Web browsing, checking email, or basic video and audio. The laptop weighs 5 lbs., 11 oz.; has a 15.6-inch screen; and runs on an Advanced Micro Devices dual-core E300 chip.

The E-300 processor was released more than a year ago and sits on the bottom rung of chips offered by AMD, and is adequate for the OS and basic productivity applications. Expect some sub-$200 laptops to come with Celeron processors, which are among the cheapest PC chips offered by Intel. Neither E-300 or Celeron will deliver the blazing speeds of the latest Intel Core or AMD A-series processors, which appear in more expensive laptops.

Trade-offs for price

The G585 offers "about the speed of a mainstream notebook from five years ago, but at lower power consumption and with all of the other modern conveniences of being built on a newer platform," said Anand Shimpi, who runs Anandtech, a technology news and benchmarking site. The CPU should be a bit better than the current crop of smartphone and tablet CPUs, but it may not match up with the latest ARM Cortex-A15 CPU in Google's Nexus 10 tablet, Shimpi said.

Users should be able to play light games at low-quality settings with "OK frame rates" on the G585, Shimpi said.

The laptop has a 320GB hard drive, which is also the capacity offered on Walmart's Compaq Presario CQ58 laptop . If documents and high-definition movies start piling up, the capacity will not be enough. Laptop hard drives can be upgraded, but storage will need to be purchased separately.

Acer Chromebook C7
Acer Chromebook C7

"Ultimately, my bigger concerns wouldn't be about compute but the storage subsystem. Mechanical drives can make these systems feel very slow, an upgrade to even a $100 solid-state drive would do wonders for this machine," Shimpi said.

Other features on the Lenovo G585 laptop include a webcam and two USB 3.0 ports, which were not in most of the sub-$200 laptops in previous years. The G585 has 2GB of RAM, which is expandable to 8GB.

Other laptops such as Acer's Chromebook C7 lightweight laptop are already available for $199. The Acer Chromebook comes with Google's Chrome OS.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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