Could there be an effective computer for students that are REALLY on a budget?

At some point during my last high school years, I caught the computer bug, and I couldn’t stay away from programmable devices. 

Late-afternoon bus rides back to the city, followed by 20-minute walks to the local university, finding an unlocked door, sneaking in, trying to look a little older, and finally finding an unattended terminal or even a Tektronix graphical workstation. Professors, being a little behind the technology curve, were still requesting students to turn in their homework on punchcards, leaving the newer tech unused and available to me 😉

Today programmable devices are ubiquitous, affordable, and easily accessible no bus rides are needed. Our classrooms at Embry Riddle are equipped with decent PCs, running Windows and/or Linux, with all the necessary software pre-installed. Still, I have a suspicion, students bringing their own devices to class, generally, do better and earn better grades.

Most students do bring a computer to class but the devices that I have encountered differ greatly. Everything you can imagine, from advanced gaming laptops and MacBooks to Chromebooks and years-old iPads. Maybe I’m out of line, but I believe that some students with seemingly insufficient devices just could not afford a more suitable computer.

So here is the quest: is there a computer that is as nimble as it is affordable, just enough for students that are REALLY on a budget?

In spring 2023, the Lenovo IdeaPad 1-15IJL7 Laptop 82LX0050US costs as little as $149, here are the hardware specifications:

  • Display diagonal: 15.6, 1920 x 1080 pixels (not a touchscreen)
  • Processor: Intel Pentium Silver N6000 1.1 GHz (Jasper Lake) .. CPU Benchmarks
  • Internal memory: 4 GB DDR4-SDRAM 2933 MHz
  • Storage: Toshiba 128 GB eMMC
  • Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax)
  • Ports: USB-A 3.2, USB-A 2.0, USB-C (data transfer only, not for charging), Headphone, HDMI, SDCard Reader
  • WebCam resolution: 1280 x 720 pixels, two microphones
  • Full-size Keyboard (incl num pad but is not backlit)
  • Battery: 11 hrs 
  • Weight: 1.45 kg

Talking about a budget laptop, those specs don’t look bad at all. But to be very clear, while this is a Lenovo device, nothing feels premium but rather plasticky. Still, after removing all the stickers the dark blue device looks nice.  

Out of the box, however, the Laptop is insufficient for almost any task. It runs Windows 11 in S-Mode, the display lacks contrast, 4 GB internal memory is simply not enough to open more than two or three browser tabs, and the worst part is the extremely slow and limited, eMMC hard drive.

Besides running software in ‘dark mode’, there is nothing that can be done to improve the display, but the memory issues can be addressed, by adding an 8 GB DDR4 Ram module ($30) and a fast 500GB Solid State Drive ($40). 

Let me show you how this now $229 laptop comes to life.

Preparing for the Upgrade

The Laptop comes with Windows 11 preinstalled, but enventually, you will perform a clean install of Windows. Double-check that the activated Windows 11 digital license is associated with your Microsoft account. 

The Activation page in Settings needs to show that the “copy is activated with a digital license and associated with a Microsoft account.” 

Temporarily, you will need a USB drive with at least 8GB of memory, a USB mouse, a small Phillips-head screwdriver, and a guitar pick or putty knife. Borrowing this stuff from a friend is okay. You will need it only briefly.

To switch Windows 11 out of S mode, follow these steps.

To create a bootable USB drive to install Windows 11 from, follow the “Create Windows 11 Installation Media” instructions. 

Hardware Upgrade

Before installing the additional memory modules, turn off the computer, and then press Fn and the power button to open the “Novo Menu.” Open the BIOS menu and locate “Disable Building-in Battery.” Unplug the powercord before selecting this item.

Remove the ten screws in the back (notice the location of the four shorter screws). Carefully use a pick or putty knife to open the taps (try not to insert any deeper than about 3 mm.)

Locate the free DRAM slot, slide the module in at a 45 degrees angle, and push it down. If you have never installed a memory module before, watch this short video.

Now locate the slot for SSD, insert it, and secure it with the provided screw. Here is a related video.

Put the lid back on, press it down, and make sure you hear all the tabs snapping back into place again. Finally, put the ten screws back into place. Insert the power cable and start the device. (Don’t worry if the SSD doesn’t show up.) 

Crucial 500GB NVMe SSD vs Toshiba 128 eMMC

Installing Windows Cleanly

Turn off the computer, insert the USB Drive, and press Fn and the power button to open the “novo menu.” Open the Boot Menu and select booting from the USB Drive.

Follow the installation steps and select the 500GB drive as the destination. You can leave the 128GB eMMC drive as is for now. However, I removed all partitions on that drive. Btw, I tried to protect my privacy as much as possible, disabling almost anything during the installation process. Still, you will find many apps installed (Instagram, Spotify, Xbox, etc.), most of which can easily be removed later. Whenever you have the chance .. with Windows, less is more here.

During the installation and setup, the laptop’s touchpad won’t work, and you will need the USB mouse to navigate.
When Windows 11 is finally installed and updated, install Lenovo Vantage, which will re-map all the function keys, like screen brightness, volume, etc.
If you feel a little uncertain about installing a clean copy of Windows 11 on your device, read some words of comfort on the Lenovo Forum.

After that, I installed Python and PyCharm and removed unneeded apps. I installed Chrome, made it the default browser, and switched the default search engine from “bing” to google.

The laptop works nicely now, and I’m starting to enjoy the keyboard. But let’s be honest, it may be a sufficient device but cannot keep up with a MacBook Air with an M2 chip. The Mac has less memory and storage but costs more than 5 times $229.
Here is a short Python program that computes the 1st 100,000 Prime numbers. The MacBook gets the job done in 1.4 seconds the upgraded IdeaPad 1 takes 2.3 seconds.

""" Let's see how the IdeaPad 1 is performing """
from time import process_time as time

num_of_primes = 100_000
print(f"Finding {num_of_primes:,} Primes ...")

t0 = time()
primes = [2]
t = 1

while len(primes) < num_of_primes:
    t += 2
    for p in primes:
        if t % p == 0:
            break  # is not prime
        elif p*p > t:
dt = time() - t0
print(f"Found {num_of_primes:,} prime numbers in {dt} secs.")

Installing Linux

Installing Linux was more involved than I had originally anticipated. I reused the USB drive to create a bootable Ubuntu USB drive.
Once that was done, I booted into the “novo menu” to select to boot from the USB drive.
I skipped the wifi setup and selected the minimal installation.

Next, I selected the slow 128GB Toshiba drive /dev/mcblk0 and created a new Partition Table.
I create two partitions: EFI (300MB) and EXT4 mounting to “/” with the remaining memory. It took a while, but Ubuntu can now be booted from the original hard drive (using the “novo menu”.)


I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I started this project. Sure there was a good chance that I was just wasting (149+30+40=) $219 and some of you may still say that this is exactly what I did.

I have not owned a Windows computer in twenty years and I have to acknowledge that it’s workable and I admit, it’s much better than I thought. So I have learned a lot about Windows and Laptops built for that Eco-System. I have also learned about M.2 and mSATA, SATA and NVMe, when selecting the storage module. Most of all, I know now that even for students that are truly on a budget, $220 would buy them a computer, sufficient to get at least through my classes.

Btw, after removing all the stickers this very dark blue laptop, in dark mode, looks kind of cool …

3 Replies to “Could there be an effective computer for students that are REALLY on a budget?”

  1. This is a great write up! Considering buying one of these myself and want to immediately forget the Windows partition and use Linux from the get go.

    Is there any reason you put Linux on. the original drive rather than the new Crucial drive?

    1. I would put the OS that will be used the most on the faster SSD. If Linux and Windows are both used a lot, I’d create partitions for both on the faster drive.
      I put Windows on the Crucial drive since I guess I will be using mostly Windows 11 on the laptop. Moreover there is WSL now, Windows Subsystem for Linux, which is not bad, if all you need is a Linux Terminal.

  2. Thanks for the quick reply. If I end up buying it, I will let you know how it goes!

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