Cheap Computers for Remote Learning

01 Aug 2020

Accessibility to Cheap Computing during COVID-19

Scroll down if you just want to see the recommendations.

Part of the coronavirus crisis in 2020 surrounds equitable access to the internet and online learning. As school districts contemplate (or are required to be) holding classes online beginning Fall 2020, finding an affordable computer is part of that equation.

I am trying to do my part to make it easier for people who might need more help finding an inexpensive computer to allow their child or themselves to do basic work without spending a lot of money, while also putting that money towards something that isn’t going to break within a year.

Terry Pratchett, who wrote a (great) series of books set in a land called Discworld, came up with this analogy in one of them:

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness.

What I am trying to do here is to show you that there is a way to get a good computer for less money.


Used business-grade laptops. The idea is that businesses generally need reliable computers to do their work, and often upgrade their computers every couple of years. This creates a large market of relatively good-condition business laptops.

No, these are not flashy laptops. They won’t look as pretty as Macbooks. Their battery life is adequate, not amazing. But they’re not supposed to be flashy. They’re the Toyota Corollas and Honda Civics of the laptop world. They’ll get you where you need to go, with a minimum of fuss and maintenance.

Buying used

Here are the rules I used to put together these recommendations:


Obviously, you buy used computers at your own risk. While I am making recommendations, please be aware that used products generally don’t have a warranty provided by the manufacturer, especially since I list older products here. I suggest buying from Ebay sellers that have at least a 30-day return policy. Buying from Microsoft Authorized Refurbishers, or Top Rated sellers on Ebay is another way to protect yourself from getting a lemon.

What to look for

Here are some key words to look out for in item listings:

i3/i5/i7: Put simply, this is how fast the “brain” of the computer is. These numbers can be confusing. Bigger numbers are better, but anything that is i5 / 3rd gen / 3310M or newer (later generations, or where the 4-digit number begins with a 4, 5, or higher) is fine.

8 GB RAM: This refers to how easily your computer will handle running many programs or websites at the same time. Buying a computer with this amount of RAM will be sufficient. 4 GB is less-than-ideal, but will work in a pinch.

180 GB SSD: Put simply, this is where you store your documents (the bigger the number, the more storage). An SSD will be much faster than a HD/HDD, and be more reliable. 256 GB is better, 120 GB is less-than-ideal, but will work in a pinch. If it just says “500 GB” without the words SSD, chances are that it’s an HD/HDD (the slower type of storage).

Win 10 / Windows 10: These are all Windows computer recommendations. I can’t recommend Apple computers at this price. Pro or not, doesn’t matter. You want to avoid “No OS” or “No Operating System” computers, because that requires extra technical set up, and those computers will not “just work” out of the box.

Battery: Make sure the seller says it has been tested to hold a charge!

Other things to look for: Make sure it includes a charger, and is not listed as “for parts / not working / has issues”.


Listed from lowest general price to highest general price.

Less than $180?

It’s difficult for me to make a full-faith recommendation with a budget lower than this. I would try to see if you / your child’s school, school district, or local library have programs which allow you to borrow a laptop for the semester.

Budget: ~$180-250

At this budget, you’ll get something reliable that gets you online, though looks and feel are a little dated.

Lenovo Thinkpad T430 or T430s

Search term: “Thinkpad T430 SSD”: Available from $180-250.

Specs to look for: Intel i5-3320m (as long as it says “i5” it’s probably OK), 8 GB RAM, 120 GB SSD or bigger, Win 10.

Budget: ~$250-350

At this budget, you can get something a little fancier and more modern-feeling.

Lenovo Thinkpad T440s

Search term: “Thinkpad T440s SSD”: Available from $250 (128 GB SSD, less storage) - $350 (256 GB SSD, more storage).

Specs to look for: Intel i5-4300U or i7-4600U (as long as it says “i5” or “i7” it’s probably OK), 8 GB RAM, 128 GB SSD or bigger, Win 10.

Lenovo Thinkpad T450s

Search term: “Thinkpad T450s SSD”: Available from $270 - $350.

Specs to look for: Intel i5-4300U or i7-4600U (as long as it says “i5” or “i7” it’s probably OK), 8 GB RAM or greater, 240 GB SSD or bigger, Win 10.

HP EliteBook Folio 1040 G2

search term: “HP Folio 1040 G2”: Available around $300-350

Specs to look for: Intel i5-5300U or i7-5600U (as long as it says “i5” or “i7” it’s probably OK), 8 GB RAM or greater, 180 GB SSD or bigger, Win 10.

Budget: ~$350-450

At this budget, you can get something that looks very modern and will perform accordingly.

HP EliteBook Folio 1040 G3

search term: “HP Folio 1040 G3”: Available around $350-430

Specs to look for: Intel i5-6300U or i7-6500U (as long as it says “i5” or “i7” it’s probably OK), 8 GB RAM or greater, 256 GB SSD or bigger, Win 10.

Thinkpad T460s, FHD

search term: “Thinkpad T460S fhd ssd win 10”: Available around $390-450

Specs to look for: Intel i5-6200U or i7-6600U (as long as it says “i5” or “i7” it’s probably OK), 8 GB RAM or greater, 180 GB SSD or bigger, Win 10.

What to do after purchase

Windows setup

If you start the computer and you see a “create account” screen, you should be in the clear. If you start the computer and your seller provided details to log in to the computer, but also stated “Microsoft Office included” or something like that, you can choose to not reset the computer to keep that software, but I recommend you reset it anyways. Here’s how to reset your Windows 10, straight from Microsoft.

Battery life check

Charge the battery all the way up, turn the brightness of the display to about 80%, and do whatever you normally do on your computer (write a document, browse FB or YouTube). If you get at least 4 hours or so of usage, your battery should be in decent shape.

Office software for free

Depending on you or your child’s school, you may be able to use Google Docs for writing reports and creating presentations. If you need to be able to create “Microsoft Office” documents, I suggest LibreOffice, which is free and does almost everything Microsoft Office does, without the cost. If you really want the Microsoft Office experience for free, Microsoft OneDrive includes the ability to access a limited version of Microsoft Office online, for free.


Hope this helps. Please share if you know people who could benefit!