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.
|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)|
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.
You also can't expect much from the screen on an ultra-budget laptop, although the basic 1,366x768 display here is fine for the price. It has a pleasing matte finish that keeps glare to a minimum, but it's also confined to limited viewing angles compared to the IPS (in-plane switching) displays on more expensive laptops, which means that the image gets washed out quickly when you view the screen from side angles.
|Audio||Combo headphone/microphone jack|
|Data||2 USB 2.0, microSD card reader|
|Networking||802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
While the thicker chassis could fit in more, you're limited to a budget-feeling pair of USB 2.0 ports, an HDMI output and a micro-SD card slot. Faster USB 3.0 and a full-size SD card slot would be have been handy, but a reach considering the price. One of the USB ports will most likely be used for an external mouse to make up for the hard-to-use touchpad.
The only option offered right now is the chassis color, in white, red, blue and silver. All models include the same Intel Atom Z3735 CPU, 2GB of RAM and 32GB of solid-state storage, which matches up with other ultra-budget PCs.
In benchmark testing with other low-cost Intel Atom and Celeron systems, the Lenovo 100S hung around the middle of the pack. To get a significant boost in performance, you'd have to look towards something like the Surface 3, the Atom-powered entry level version of Microsoft's Surface line, which uses a faster Atom processor and more RAM, but also costs more than twice as much, even without adding a keyboard cover. In hands-on testing, the 100S ran well when used for casual websurfing and online tasks, but it's important to keep a few best practices in mind -- especially that Microsoft's own browsers, Edge and Internet Explorer, tend to run much smoother on low-power Windows laptops.
Battery life was a pleasant surprise in the Lenovo 100S. The system ran for 11:17 on our offline video playback battery drain test, which is near MacBook territory, and for 9:57 in an online streaming playback test. The HP Stream 11 ran for 7:58 in the offline test, and the Surface 3 for 7:41. The advantage in all these cases is that Intel's lower-performance CPUs are almost always very efficient at sipping battery power, so these systems tend to run for a long time on a single charge.
Spending less than $200 on a laptop is a surprisingly viable option right now, and for those who mainly use Gmail, Facebook, Netflix and Amazon (or your own list of mail, social media, streaming video and online shopping tools), a laptop with an Intel Atom processor, low-res screen and paltry 32GB of storage may very well be all you need.
Of the current ultra-budget options, the overall design and build quality of the Lenovo Ideapad 100S is my favorite, but the dated, non-gesture-supporting touchpad can be a deal breaker if you plan to scroll through long online articles or Facebook feeds. If the next generation of 100S swaps in a modern touchpad, it would get my highest budget-laptop recommendation. As it is, my generally very positive impressions come with a large asterisk.
|Lenovo Ideapad 100S||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (32-bit); 1.3GHz Intel Atom Z3735F; 2GB DDR3 SDRAM 1333MHz; 32MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics; 32GB SSD|
|Acer Aspire Switch 10 Special Edition||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (32-bit); 1.3GHz Intel Atom Z3735F; 2GB DDR3 SDRAM 1333MHz; 32MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics; 64GB SSD|
|Asus Transformer Book Flip TP200||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.6GHz Intel Celeron N3050; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 144MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics; 64GB SSD|
|HP Stream 11||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.16GHz Intel Celeron N2840; 2GB DDR3 SDRAM 1333MHz; 64MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics; 32GB SSD|
|Microsoft Surface 3||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.6GHz Intel Atom Z8700; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 32MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics; 128GB SSD|