Can’t Find a Laptop? Here’s What to Use for Work or School

A row of laptops at the computer store.
ECLIPSE PRODUCTION/Shutterstock

Remote learning and working from home has made it impossible to find affordable laptops. But don’t fret, you can still find a solid laptop alternative without blowing your savings. These laptop alternatives are perfect for remote work or online schooling, and unlike used laptops, they actually come with manufacturer’s warranties.

None of these products are a 1:1 replacement for your laptop. You’re going to lose something here, whether it’s portability, screen size, or ease of use. But you won’t go over your budget, you won’t miss out on any Zoom meetings, and you may come out with a machine that’s faster and more reliable than any laptop you’ve ever used.

More Bang for Your Buck: Don’t Fear the Desktop PC!

The affordable Acer Aspire TC-885-UA91 desktop computer.
The affordable Acer Aspire TC-885-UA91 desktop computer. Acer

Shopping for a desktop computer is a bit intimidating, especially if you’ve only ever owned a laptop. But don’t worry, you aren’t going to end up with “the wrong computer” or “a slow computer” or anything like that. Desktop computers offer better performance than laptops at a much lower price, and they’re easier to set up at a desk than you might expect.

Still, you can’t just buy a desktop tower and call it a day. You need to put together a bunch of products, including a computer monitor, a keyboard, and a webcam. Here’s everything you’ll need to enjoy the desktop experience (along with some money-saving tips):

  • Specs: Buy a computer with an Intel Core or AMD Ryzen processor and at least 8 GB of RAM. (An Intel Pentium processor is acceptable if you’re strapped for cash.) Internal storage is a personal preference, although your computer will feel a bit snappier if it has an SSD—just make sure it has enough space to handle everything you need. We recommend 256 GB at a minimum for SSDs.
  • Monitor: You can use any computer monitor or TV with a desktop PC. If you aren’t comfortable dropping $100 on a new computer monitor, then pop into your local Goodwill and buy one for $10 or $15. You can also find a used monitor for around $50 on eBay.
  • Webcam: Need a webcam for Zoom or Google Meet? You can still find cheap webcams at Best Buy and Amazon. You can also use a digital camera, smartphone, tablet, or anything with a built-in camera in place of a webcam.
  • Keyboard & Mouse: Desktop PCs usually come with a keyboard and mouse. If yours doesn’t, you can buy a cheap pair on Amazon or splurge on a wireless keyboard and mouse. You could also pop into Goodwill for a cheap keyboard and mouse.

You shouldn’t have much trouble finding a new Intel Core or AMD Ryzen PC with 8GB RAM in the $300 to $400 price range. If you need something cheaper than that, you could always buy a computer with a slower Intel Pentium or Intel Celeron processor for around $200. You could also buy a pre-owned, refurbished, or open-box PC from Best Buy (Refurbished Dell Optiplex PCs are a popular choice and come with a 90-day warranty).

Some people may suggest buying an all-in-one PC instead of a standalone desktop tower. And while all-in-one PCs include all the accessories you need to play Roblox or start a Zoom meeting, they can be a bit overpriced. What they lack in bang-for-your-buck, they make up in simplicity because everything is included. That also makes them a decent choice if you don’t have a lot of space—the most affordable all-in-one PCs that fit our hardware suggestions start at $650.

An Affordable, Modern Desktop PC

Acer Aspire TC-885-UA91 Desktop, 9th Gen Intel Core i3-9100, 8GB DDR4, 512GB SSD, 8X DVD, 802.11AC Wifi, USB 3.1 Type C, Windows 10 Home,Black

The Acer Aspire TC-885-UA91 packs an Intel Core CPU, 8GB RAM, a speedy SSD, and even a USB-C port! It's a solid, modern desktop computer for under $500.

Use a Raspberry Pi 4 as a Cheap Desktop Computer

A PI 4 set up at a desktop with two monitors.
Raspberry Pi Foundation

If you’re ambitious, tech-savvy, or outrageously frugal, then you should try using a Raspberry Pi as a desktop computer. The new Raspberry Pi 4 starts at just $35 but packs a two Micro HDMI ports for dual-4K monitor setups, a gigabit Ethernet port for speedy internet, four USB ports, and a desktop-ready CPU.

The Pi 4’s Broadcom BCM2711 SoC can’t run Windows, but it’s perfect for Raspbian—a lightweight port of the popular Debian desktop environment. The average person shouldn’t have any trouble using a Raspberry Pi for everyday tasks, like homework, Minecraft, or Zoom calls, though you may need to watch some tutorials to get things set up. You also need to own a computer monitor, a keyboard, a mouse, and a MicroSD card in order to use the Pi 4. (Again, you can buy most of these things from Goodwill for cheap if you’re having a hard time finding any of them).

The Pi 4 is available with 1GB, 2GB, 4GB, or 8GB of RAM. The more affordable 2 and 4GB variants are fine for regular desktop use, while the 8GB option may prove best for people who like to multitask, edit photos, or open 100 browser tabs at a time. You can buy Raspberry Pi as just the board, but we recommend going for a full kit. It will include everything you need, including a case and SD card.

A Frugal Computer

CanaKit Raspberry Pi 4 8GB Extreme Kit - 128GB Edition (8GB RAM)

The Raspberry Pi 4 can stand in for a desktop computer with the Chrome browser and Zoom capabilities. It requires some tech know-how, but hey, it's frugal!

Try Using a Tablet or Smartphone

An illustration of the Samsung DeX desktop enviornment.
An illustration of the Samsung DeX desktop enviornment. Samsung

We spend most of our computer time in the browser. So it’s no surprise that tablets, and especially newer iPads and Samsung Tab devices, make for decent laptop stand-ins. Just fire up the browser, connect a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and get to work.

Any iPad running the latest version of iPadOS can stand in for your laptop. I suggest buying the new $330 iPad, although a cheap 2014 iPad Air 2 could get the job done just fine. As for Galaxy Tab devices, anything made after 2017, including the $280 Galaxy Tab A, should work well enough. That said, Android tablets lack the stability, app selection, and battery life of iPads—just something to keep in mind!

You could also use a smartphone as a laptop stand-in, although you probably won’t have much fun doing it. Most websites, including school pages like Canvas and Blackboard, work fine on a phone browser that’s set to “desktop only.” Newer Samsung devices have the upper hand here, as you can plug your phone into a computer monitor to take advantage of the desktop-like DeX mode (which is much more comfortable than your phone’s tiny screen).

A Reliable Laptop Replacement

Apple iPad (10.2-inch, Wi-Fi, 128GB) - Gold (Previous Model)?

When paired with a wireless mouse and keyboard, the iPad is a solid laptop replacement with a 10-hour battery.

Use Chrome OS or Linux to Revive an Old PC

A screenshot of the Ubuntu desktop.
A screenshot of the Ubuntu desktop. Canonical

Do you have a crappy old computer floating around your attic? Maybe it’s time to breathe life into that thing, at least until you can find a new laptop. Reinstalling Windows or freeing up a hard drive is usually enough to get an old PC back in shape, although it may still feel a bit sluggish if its hardware is out of date. In that case, you may want to replace the old computer’s operating system with something lightweight, like Chrome OS or a Linux distro.

If you’re familiar with Chrome OS (or you’re trying to set up a computer for your kid), then you should try installing Chromium OS on your old computer through CloudReady. Chromium OS is the open-source version of Google’s Chrome OS, and while it lacks the ability to run Android apps, it’s perfect for school or work.

An entry-level Linux distro like Ubuntu, Mint, or Fedora should also serve your needs, so long as you’re willing to type stuff in the terminal every now and then. Don’t worry, you don’t need to know how to “code” to use Linux, you may just need to look up tutorials on YouTube every once and awhile.

Bear in mind that these are free solutions to the “I can’t find a laptop” problem. Using Linux may sound like a nightmare (don’t knock it til you try it), but it’s better than going over-budget on a laptop for remote schooling.

Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew is a writer for Review Geek and its sister site, How-To Geek. Like a jack-of-all-trades, he handles the writing and image editing for a mess of tech news articles, daily deals, product reviews, and complicated explainers. Read Full Bio »

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