There was a time, not too many years ago, when $999 was considered the cutoff price for a budget laptop. How times, and expectations, have changed. Today, along with $50 Amazon Fire tablets and sub-$200 smartphones, it's possible to get a reasonably functional PC experience for much less than you might think.
The latest example of this new low-cost computer trend is the Lenovo Ideapad 100S, an 11-inch clamshell laptop that sells for $199 in the US (£179 in the UK, AU$299 in Australia). It's among the most refined of the ultra-budget PCs, but it's not the first. Note that as of December 2015, Lenovo is selling the system online for a discounted price of $179 in the US.
The $200-and-less (using US prices) computer has been growing category since mid-2014, anchored by products such as the $200 HP Stream 11 laptop and the Intel Compute Stick, a tiny desktop PC that can be found for as little as $119. All run Windows 10 and Intel Atom or Celeron processors, and are intended primarily for web surfing and cloud apps (note the very small amount of onboard storage, ranging from 8GB to 32GB).
The advantage is, unlike a similarly priced Chromebook (a simple laptop running Google's Chrome OS, which is essentially the Chrome web browser and little else), you can install and run regular Windows software, such as photo editing programs or alternate web browsers, as long as they'll fit on the tiny hard drives. You won't be doing pro-level photo editing or playing PC games, but at these prices, there's virtually no good reason to go for a Chrome OS system instead if you only have $200 to spend.
With a colorful chassis (our model was bright red) that doesn't feel too flimsy, and a typically excellent Lenovo keyboard design, this could easily be the clear winner in the ultra-budget category, if not for one issue. The touchpad here is not a simple clickpad-style model, as seen in the HP Stream 11 and nearly every other laptop available today. Instead, it's an older design with separate left and right mouse buttons. But more importantly, the older touchpad design does not currently support common gestures such as two-finger scrolling. For someone who does a lot of long-form reading online, that can be a deal breaker, but you'll have to judge for yourself if the excellent keyboard makes up for it.
Lenovo Ideapad 100S
|Price as reviewed||$199|
|Display size/resolution||11.6-inch 1,366 x 768 screen|
|PC CPU||1.33GHz Intel Atom Z3735F|
|PC Memory||2048MB DDR3 SDRAM 1333MHz|
|Graphics||32MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics|
|Networking||802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (32-bit)|
Design and features
The challenge of any ultra-budget laptop is to look and feel like it costs just a little more than it actually does. No one is expecting a unibody aluminum chassis or sleek edge-to-edge glass over the display -- but a flimsy hinge, a lid that bends and flexes when you move it, or a creaky body that feels like it won't stand up to even modest handling isn't worth it at any price.
Lenovo avoids those missteps by building the 100S into a body that's a little larger and thicker than some other 11-inch laptops, giving the system some protective bulk. The sturdy hinges also fold back a full 180 degrees to lie flat, so you get a lot of useful viewing angles. The matte red outer color, which covers the back of the lid and the bottom panel, is fingerprint-resistant, and the darker red color also looks more upscale than the glossy black plastic on so many budget laptops.
Inside, the keyboard keeps the same basic design as most other Lenovo laptops, with widely spaced island-style keys that curve out just a bit at the bottom on each key, giving you a little more usable surface to hit. It's miles beyond the keyboard on HP's Stream 11, for example.
The touchpad, however, is the single biggest stumbling block for the 100S. The pad loses valuable surface area by breaking its left and right mouse click functions out into separate physical buttons. It's a style of touchpad you rarely see any more, and for good reason. The pad here is also not set up for multitouch gestures. That's important to note, as the standard two-finger scroll won't work, nor will tapping two fingers on the pad for a right-click action. It makes the system harder to use when scrolling down long Web pages, and it's a deficiency to seriously consider before buying.