You’re not alone if you’ve been faced with this dilemma: The kids are now schooling from home and each need a computer to attend classes and get work done, yet budgets are tight because of a lost job or reduced hours because of the pandemic.
To complicate matters further, parents may also be working from home this fall, and they, too, need a computer to get things done. And it may be your responsibility to pick one up in this B.Y.O.D. (“bring your own device”) work world we’re in today.
Understandably, you might not be able to afford a fancy new computer for everyone in the home. If taking turns with a desktop or laptop isn’t a viable option, the following are a few suggestions and workarounds that won’t break the bank.
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If you don’t need a lot of power or storage – which might be the case with many online “cloud” services used for school or work – perhaps buy a computer that runs on Google’s ChromeOS, as it will cost a lot less, on average, than a Windows PC or Mac.
For example, the Lenovo 100e 11.6-inch Chromebook sells for $169, and features an Intel Celeron processor, 4GB of RAM (system memory), 32GB of storage (but expandable with a memory card), several ports (USB-A, USB-C, and HDMI) and 720p HD webcam. In fact, this computer even dropped to $99 temporarily earlier this year, so keep your eye out for those kinds of door crashers (subscribe to alerts at Slickdeals).
For $189, there is the ASUS CX22NA Chromebook, which is also an 11.6-inch laptop with similar specs and battery life (up to 10 hours, like the Lenovo).
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ChromeOS is a lean and secure operating system, but make sure it’s compatible with the school or office before you buy.
Buy open box or refurbished – but with warranty
If you must, buying an open box or refurbished computer is another way to go, but only do so from a retailer that offers a decent warranty in case anything goes wrong. (The problem with buying over Craigslist, letgo or other online classifieds sites is you won’t likely hear back from the seller if there’s an issue.)
For example, Best Buy is selling an 11.6-inch HP Stream laptop, in white, for only $176, as it’s an “open box” item. Specs include an Intel Atom x5 processor, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage and several USB ports. This product includes a 1-year manufacturer’s warranty for parts and labor.
Similarly, you can snag a “pre-owned” Dell Venue Pro 5056 ($173) with a smaller screen (10.1 inches), but it’s a touch-enabled and can be used in tablet mode when detaching the keyboard. Specs include an Intel Atom x5 Z8500 processor, 4GB of RAM and 64GB hard drive. This laptop has a 180-day manufacturer’s parts and labor warranty.
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A refurbished Lenovo ThinkPad X131e Chromebook 11.6-Inch laptop sells for $205 at Walmart.com’s Marketplace, but there is no warranty unless you cough up at least $45 for a 2-year plan (and always read what’s covered for repair or replacement). When in doubt, ask, or move on.
In other words, don’t consider a “previously enjoyed” computer without any kind of decent warranty.
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Use smartphone or tablet + keyboard
Another – and increasingly popular – option is to turn another device into a laptop, of sorts.
If you already have a smartphone or tablet, you can also pick up a Bluetooth keyboard on the cheap, which will be more comfortable and accurate for longform typing.
Logitech, for example, has its K380 Multi-Device Bluetooth Keyboard ($40), a minimalist keyboard for computers, tablets and phones, and available in multiple colors (Rose, Off-White or Graphite). This keyboard works with Android, iOS (iPhone, iPad), Windows, Mac, Chrome OS, and Apple TV.
And for only $20 is this Arteck HB030B Universal Slim Portable Wireless Bluetooth 3.0, with has colorful backlit keys and built-in rechargeable battery. And it’s highly rated, too: the average review score is 4.5 stars out of 5, among more than 11,000 customers.
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A wireless keyboard paired with a smartphone or tablet should work well for basic tasks like word processing, web browsing, spreadsheet creation and presentations. Just be aware, you’ll be working on a much smaller screen, which could make multitasking a little difficult (pro tip: you can often connect a phone or tablet to a big-screen TV or monitor).
You could also pick up a wireless mouse, too, to make it really feel like a laptop.
Before you buy, check in with your child’s school (or company you’re with) to double-check it will do the trick.
There are a few other considerations if faced with buying a computer you can’t afford right now:
♦ Don’t be shy in asking a friend or family member if they have a spare computer to borrow for the school year, or as a temporary loan for you to get work done. Or perhaps make them an offer to buy an older machine they’re not using, which you can restore (factory reset) and use for basic tasks.
♦ While less convenient, your local library or community center likely has communal computers to use for school or work. Check with them to see if they need to be reserved ahead of time, and be sure to wipe down the keyboard, mouse and desk or table before and after you use it. Remember to log out of your accounts before you leave, as well.
♦ If it’s a computer you need for work, talk to the boss discretely about not having a good computer to work from home, and see if there’s something you can take from the office if it’s not being used. Or perhaps there’s a small budget you weren’t aware of, for you to buy some tech. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
♦ While you will end up paying more in the long run, some people will finance a laptop or desktop – either with the retailer (or in some cases, offered by an Internet Service Provider or even a cellular carrier) or by putting it on a credit card and paying it off over time. This should be a last resort, however, as you probably don’t want to incur any more debt.
Follow Marc on Twitter: @marc_saltzman. Email him or subscribe to his Tech It Out podcast at https://marcsaltzman.com/podcasts.