It might seem impossible to find a good computer under $100, but you actually have more options than you probably realize. Between a Raspberry Pi, Chromebook, or used laptop, you can probably find something that you like and that suits your needs! Let’s take a look at some options.
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Currently priced at exactly $100 at Micro Center, the Raspberry Pi 400 might be exactly what you’re looking for! Of course, that Pi 400 does not include a monitor (though it does include a power cable, HDMI cable, and mouse), so you’d have to find a monitor for free or cheap for this to be a viable option. You could, of course, get a Pi 4 (just the board) instead of a Pi 400 (with keyboard, etc), but if you get a complete Pi 4 kit (like the one from CanaKit) with cables and an SD card, and maybe a keyboard an mouse, the price difference isn’t much. You could also buy an older Pi (like the 3B+ perhaps) to have more money for a monitor and peripherals. In any case, the Pi 400 is a very reasonable option for a $100 computer (assuming you have a monitor).
What can you do with a Pi 400 (or most other Pis)? It will run Pi OS, which is based on Debian – the same Linux distribution Ubuntu is based on. You won’t be able to run macOS or Windows, but this is much less of a problem in 2022 than it was ten years ago. Most of the tasks you need to do are probably online anyway (Google Docs, email, YouTube, etc). The Pi would work fine for web browsing, email, and programming, and should even be able to play video, so it will be the thing to beat when we consider some other options.
Chromebooks are another good option for a sub-$100 computer. For example, you can get this refurbished Samsung Chromebook for $99 from Walmart, or a refurbished Lenovo N23 Chromebook for $77 from Newegg (as of May 2022). With 4GB memory, the Lenovo chromebook seems roughly comparable to the Pi 400 as far as what the hardware should be capable of. And of course, Chromebooks have the monitor built into the laptop so you don’t need to worry about purchasing a monitor separately. With these Chromebooks, you’re somewhat limited to using ChromeOS. Which is totally fine if all you need is internet, email, Google Docs, and other simple apps. While it’s possible to get a Linux environment installed on a Chromebook like this, it’s a little tricky and some things might not work quite right. So the Pi is probably more versatile with software (because it runs Linux natively), and while any Chromebook limits you to ChromeOS, it does come with a monitor and provides great portability.
Updated August 2023: If you're interested in using Linux (or any other OS) on a chromebook, check out the Chrultrabook Docs.
eBay is another place you might be able to find a sub-$100 computer, and a used computer (like from eBay) is probably the only way to find real computers for under $100 instead of Pis and Chromebooks. Of course, ordering from eBay is a little more risky than ordering a brand-new Raspberry Pi, so read the descriptions carefully and check the seller’s rating before you buy anything. But if you find a good deal, you might find something better than the Pi 400 and more capable than a Chromebook. To start the search, I’d search for “laptop” on eBay and look for “buy it now” items. You might look for a desktop if you already have a monitor, but let’s assume we want a laptop for now (which will include all peripherals in our cost). You’ll probably find a lot of chromebooks, but we already knew you could find some chromebooks in this price range. I’d also limit my search to “Not included”, “Linux”, or any version of “Windows” in the OS filter. Now we’re getting some good results!
Right off the bat, you’ll notice a couple older Dell Latitudes and ThinkPads for about $100. I like Dell Latitudes and ThinkPads because they’re well-built business laptops that are very common, so it should be easy to find parts for them and they should last. In this price range, cosmetic damage is your friend. It’s great if you can buy a faster laptop cheaper because it has some scratches and cracks in the plastic.
Comparing performance of computers like this can be tricky. CPU Ghz is basically meaningless, so it’s hard to know if one option is actually faster than another. But with some other easy-to-find stats, you can still get a pretty good rough comparison.
Start with the memory (RAM). More RAM does make the computer feel faster (it can do more at once and needs to read/write from disk less often), but it’s also a useful indicator of overall system performance. Nobody puts 8GB RAM in a laptop with a crap CPU, and nobody limits the performance of a great CPU with only 1 or 2 GB RAM. For $100, I wouldn’t buy anything with less than 4GB RAM and I’d look for 6GB or 8GB if I could find it in my price range.
After memory, look at the hard disk. You want an SSD, not an HDD. SSDs were a huge breakthrough in making systems feel faster because a system with an SSD spends significantly less time loading the OS and software from the disk. Assuming you don’t need tons of storage space, I’d prefer even a 64GB SSD over a 500GB HDD when I’m on a budget.
Finally, after comparing RAM and disk, look at the CPUs. (We’re treating the CPU as more of a tie-breaker here). As I said, you can’t necessarily compare CPU speed in Ghz from one CPU to another. Instead, you need to look for CPU benchmark scores. Simply google, for example, “i5-5200U vs Atom N455”, or whatever CPUs you want to compare. It shouldn’t be hard to find some benchmarking sites that compare the two you’re interested in, and this will give you a rough idea how much faster one might be than the other.
In addition to or in lieu of CPU comparison, you might also look at the monitor specs and the year the systems were build. Newer systems will generally use less power, have faster components, and be lighter weight. A system with 4GB RAM built in 2016 is probably better than a similar-looking system with 4GB RAM built in 2012.
If you’re really lucky, maybe you can find a cheap computer that is only a few years old and runs Windows 10 well, and you’re happy with that. On the other hand, it’s more likely that you got a computer with a wiped hard disk – no Operating System (OS) and no license for Windows. And even if you have a license, the computer might not be fast enough to run Windows well anyway. For an old/slow computer, installing a lightweight version of Linux or ChromeOS would probably be best, and you might be surprised how fast this can make the old computer feel! So if you can’t use Windows, or if Windows is very slow, here are some alternative operating systems that you might want to try.
Ubuntu - The first thing I’d recommend trying is Ubuntu Desktop. There are plenty of tutorials online for how to install it. Ubuntu Desktop is a very popular Linux distribution, which means it should work well and it should be easy to find help online if you need it. But it isn’t particularly lightweight - at least 4GB memory (RAM) is recommended. If your computer isn’t fast enough to run Ubuntu, fear not! There are other options you can try below.
Lubuntu - If your computer feels slow running Ubuntu (which recommends 4GB RAM), Lubuntu (which recommends only 1GB RAM) will probably work much better! Lubuntu is based on Ubuntu – so you have the same foundation and access to applications – but it uses the LXDE desktop environment, which uses fewer resources. I’d expect Lubuntu to run on nearly anything, but if even Lubuntu seems too slow you could try LXLE or Damn Small Linux, both of which are even more optimized for old machines than Lubuntu is.
Chromebook OS - CloudReady is a distribution of Chrome OS that you can install on older computer hardware to turn it into a Chromebook. Like Ubuntu Linux, CloudReady would replace the original Windows operating system. New Chromebooks are sold and marketed as lightweight, low-cost computers that are great for doing things on the web. Because even new Chromebooks don’t generally have the fastest hardware, and because the OS is lightweight, CloudReady can usually run pretty well even on older computer hardware. Because of this, it might be a really good option to bring new life to an old computer if you don’t like Ubuntu, or if you just like ChromeOS better or if it runs better on your hardware.
If you can find cheap hardware and install a lightweight OS, you can bring life back into a computer that someone else wanted to get rid of. And while this computer probably won’t run the latest computer games with amazing graphics, it’s almost certainly good enough to do some web browsing, word processing, email, and maybe even some programming. So hopefully it can meet your basic computer needs and be a stepping stone to something better!
Of course, it depends on your needs. I’d get a refurbished Chromebook only if lightweight portability is your highest priority and your needs are very basic (so you can use ChromeOS). Otherwise, I think the Pi or an eBay laptop would be a better deal. If it’s important to you to buy something brand new and you don’t need the portability of a laptop, the Pi is a very good option. Personally though, I think an eBay laptop is the best deal. Rather than running an ARM processor on an SD card, you get a complete, portable system with a monitor based on a normal x64 processor, and this is the most flexible and most powerful option. It’s also the only option that stands a chance at running Windows, if that’s important to you.
In my view, the best system you can buy for under $100 is a used Dell Latitude or Lenovo ThinkPad. From the eBay search results, it looks like you can find something with at least 4GB RAM and an SSD, and an i3 or i5 processor from about 2013. You can probably even find one that comes with Windows 10 and is fast enough to be usable with that OS. My personal pick in this price range would be a Dell Latitude, and I’d put Ubuntu on it as described above.
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