Readers often contact me asking for recommendations for technology items at a low cost. They have a use in mind and they just want the item that will fulfill that use at the lowest price without any serious negative drawbacks.
Four of these requests tend to repeat themselves quite often, so I thought I’d just combine them all into one post. Here are my low-cost recommendations for each of these items as of early 2014. I am assuming you’ve already decided to purchase the item and have already considered alternative options in your life.
A low-cost laptop for email, Facebook, and/or Netflix
I would buy a Chromebook. A Chromebook is a smaller laptop that runs ChromeOS, not Windows. ChromeOS is designed pretty much exclusively for the experience that’s described here – just email, Facebook and other web surfing, Netflix, and basic applications like word processing.
All of those tools come right on board with a Chromebook – you don’t have to buy any additional software. Unless you’re wanting to play high-end computer games or high-end photo editing or computer programming or something like that, a Chromebook is perfect.
You can pick up the very nice Acer C720 11″ model for $199 or the excellent HP 14″ Chromebook for $299. They’re both excellent devices that run very quickly (for the uses described above) and have a long battery life (6 to 10 hours).
The Acer might be too small for some people’s hands – you might want to look at the 11″ netbooks at a technology store before buying to make sure the size is appropriate. I have giant hands and the 14″ Chromebook linked above worked fine for me.
A smartphone that can take pictures and share them easily
This really depends on your usage, so a precise answer for everyone is going to vary a little.
Having said that, the absolute best plan I’ve found from a reliable carrier is T-Mobile’s offer of a $30 per month unlimited web and text with 100 minutes of talk plan. This plan doesn’t require a contract – you just pay $30 each month and you get a month’s worth of usage. You can add additional talk minutes to this if you need to.
The problem with going this route is that you have to pay for the phone. The “best” option here is going to change constantly, but T-Mobile offers a number of phones that work with their $30 per month plan. If you plan on consistently taking pictures, I’d avoid phones that take anything smaller than 3 megapixels.
You may know of a local or regional provider that beats this plan, but in terms of a nationally available package, I haven’t found anything that truly beats what T-Mobile has to offer here.
An ebook reader
I have tried several different standalone ebook readers in the past, but I’ve got to point toward the Kindle as the best option. It’s got the best book support that I’ve found, plus there’s a ton of discount books on there, including lots of free stuff. (My local library also allows me to “check out” ebooks, but they can be read on any ereader.)
Which one, then? I’ve used a basic Kindle for years and even though I have a tablet computer, I still use the Kindle in many situations (particularly outdoors reading). The basic Kindle costs $69 but has a banner ad on the main screen (not when you’re reading, but when you’re selecting a book or starting it up). Avoiding that ad costs $20 more.
I have never had a problem with the basic Kindle screen in the outdoors or indoors (with adequate lighting) so I don’t think paying extra for the Paperwhite version is worthwhile. The screen does look better, but, again, I’ve never had any reading difficulty with my basic Kindle. If you have wi-fi at home, you don’t need the 3G, either. The basic $69 (or $89) Kindle works really well.
A tablet computer
I received an iPad Mini (first generation) as a gift and I absolutely love the thing. Having said that, I do find that there are many lower-cost tablets that do 98% of the things I want to do on my iPad Mini just as well.
My choice for the best “bang for the buck” tablet at this point is a Kindle Fire HD with 8 GB of memory and wi-fi. It sells for $139 with “special offers” (meaning ads on the home screen and menu screen) or $154 without those ads. In terms of responsiveness when you’re using it, app support, screen quality, and battery life, nothing in that price range comes close to the Kindle Fire HD. There are better tablets, but you’re going to be paying significantly more for them.
What about a comparison between this and a Chromebook, mentioned above? It really depends on how much you type. If you mostly just browse and watch videos and rarely type things, this would be better. If you type regularly by sending emails to friends and so on, a Chromebook would be better. You can get a wireless keyboard that works for a Kindle Fire, but they tend to gobble down the batteries and you’ll also need a case that allows your Kindle Fire to stand up like a screen.
With so many electronic devices and plans out there (and with marketing companies looking to push those products), it can be rather difficult to figure out what’s actually a bargain. The challenge is made even worse by the fact that new items come on the market all the time and older items are often re-priced to sell off old stock, so recommendations change constantly.
Still, if I were buying these items right now, I would make the above choices in terms of “bang for the buck.”