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2017-03-20

Good laptops for about $200: Windows 10, or Chromebook

by John S. James, March 2017

We found a surprisingly good value in an 11.6-inch Windows 10 laptop for $200, and after three weeks of use we are still impressed by what we got for the money. This laptop (ASUS E200HA) travels very well, so is good for working in coffeehouses or libraries, or for out-of-town travel (for home use you might want a larger screen, which of course is less portable).

But before buying Windows you might also consider the Chromebook - designed and programmed by Google but manufactured and sold by various other companies. Chromebooks can cost even less than $200, and are much easier than Windows to set up and use.
They have excellent data security; in case yours is stolen while turned off (or otherwise not logged in), criminals and probably cops as well will not be able to see your data without your password (the cheaper Windows versions do not come with this security). The main limitation of Chromebooks has been how little you could do offline when the Internet was unavailable, but there has been progress recently; see Chromebooks Beyond the Cloud: Everything Chromebooks Can Do Offline, http://www.pcworld.com/article/2453999/computers/chromebooks-beyond-the-cloud-everything-chromebooks-can-do-offline.html. Also, note that setting up a printer is somewhat complicated, either with Windows or with a Chromebook (and it is very different for the two kinds of computers).

Back to Windows, we bought the "ASUS E200HA Portable Lightweight 11.6-inch Intel Quad-Core Laptop, 4GB RAM, 32GB Storage, Windows 10" - we don't recommend any less memory for Windows today, with all the ads, scripts, and auto-play videos that corporate publishers throw at you now. We paid $200 and got immediate delivery; unfortunately the price later went up to $270 with a 2-4 week wait for delivery, then down to $250 with the computer listed as out of stock, for delivery at some unknown time in the future; that's the situation today. Whether or not you buy this computer, it sets a benchmark for what can be done at a low price, making a good Windows 10 portable laptop available to many who could not afford it before.

What you get with the ASUS E200HA:

* 11.6-inch screen, bright enough and fairly good quality for text and graphics;
* Small size and low weight, 2.2 pounds;
* Good battery life, listed as 10 to 11 hours - we think you can count on at least 9, meaning you can charge the laptop at night and don't need to carry a power supply around and look for a  plug at the train, airport, library, or coffeehouse, even if you use the computer all day;
* Windows 10 works quite well, and is a good skill to have for office jobs. Free Microsoft Office for one year is included with the E200HA; we haven't used it because we prefer LibreOffice instead, but you may want to use Microsoft Office to build job-related skills. Microsoft Office and LibreOffice are similar but not identical.
* We use only Windows Defender for antivirus; it's free from Microsoft, which certainly has the motivation and resources to protect Windows 10. It should be turned on by default, though it wouldn't hurt to check. You don't need to spend the money and hassle of dealing with a third-party antivirus (though we do suggest considering an ad blocker, due to the prevalence of abusive advertising today).
* Any computer comes with a browser, in this case Microsoft Edge. We always download an additional browser, because if you have only one and something goes wrong with it, you cannot get on the Web at all, making it harder to fix the problem. Chrome and Firefox are the two most popular browsers; we use Chrome almost always (with Edge as the backup), but consider Firefox just as good. You have to start with Edge, because it's the only browser that comes with the machine - use it to search for 'Download Chrome' or 'Download Firefox', then go to the download page and follow instructions to download and install the other browser.
* As with most computers, many problems can be fixed by doing a restart. Click the Windows Start button (lower left corner of the screen), then the power icon just above it, to get shutdown options (including Restart). In case you can't use the keyboard or trackpad at all, we have found that holding down the power button for about 10 seconds will force a shutdown. Then it may take about half a minute for the computer to get ready, before the power key works again to restart it.

What's not so good:

* The 32GB storage memory starts with about half of it used by the Windows system. So if you use the machine much you have to pay attention and not download lots of software, or save lots of movies, or you may run out of memory. Fortunately you can buy a micro memory card and insert it for more storage - up to 128MB. But the big ones are expensive, and some of the cards are quite slow, especially for writing data to them.
* No touch screen (which we don't like anyway). And no illuminated keyboard of course, on a $200 machine. Unfortunately, no illuminated caps lock either; if a password just won't work, make sure that caps lock is not on without your knowledge. Fortunately the password request  to log into the computer allows you to view the password you have typed
* The keyboard and track pad are quite sensitive, and it's easy to type or click something without intending to.
* The ASUS trackpad scrolling is not as smooth as it should be - especially for very large Web pages. You may want to experiment with the settings for the trackpad, to find what works best for you. Unfortunately only some of trackpad settings are available through Windows 10 Settings; others can only be reached through ASUS software. You can get to these through the Windows 10 "tray," the row of icons on the bottom of the screen. Click the "Show hidden icons" icon (an up-arrow, ^, near the right-hand side of the tray); that will show more icons, including a white square that may have a flashing circle inside it when you put the cursor over that icon; double-click that icon, and you should get a page from ASUS that gives you more settings to control the trackpad.
* Paying attention to initial setup of your computer is optional, but we recommend it. For example, lots of downloading will happen automatically to get the software up to date. The first time it's done, this update process can take several hours even with a good data connection; we like to get it over with in one session so that it won't interfere with use of the machine. And in case you are using expensive data (such as with a portable hotspot for Wi-Fi, allowing Internet access anywhere),  you want to set that connection to "metered" so that it will not be used for this or other big updates. We plan to add more on initial setup later.