“Cheap” is no longer a dirty word when it comes to laptops. These days, manufacturers are inventing new ways to outsell each other, including aggressive price cutting. Now we’re seeing full-size and ultraportable notebooks that run processors powerful enough for use at home, school, or work, as well as full-featured chromebooks and hybrid systems that give you both laptop and tablet functionality in one device.
Components and Features
You have to accept fewer compromises with the budget laptops of today than you did in the past. Intel’s Atom and Celeron processors have evolved to the point that they can support most of your Web browsing and basic productivity needs without being overly slow. The newest integrated GPUs can hold their own in browser-based Flash games and even some online games like World of Warcraft, but the higher demands of AAA titles still demand a discrete GPU, which you won’t find in this price range.
Memory (or RAM) is relatively inexpensive now, so you’ll find that most budget laptops will come with 4GB of DDR3 memory, and you shouldn’t settle for anything less. In terms of batteries, an ideal budget laptop has one with six cells or more. The battery life for a cheap laptop is at least 3 or 4 hours.
When it comes to storage, many inexpensive systems offer up to 500GB of hard drive space. Others, particularly chromebooks and Windows-based chromebook competitors like the Lenovo IdeaPad 100S, will only have a small allotment (16 or 32GB) of Flash storage, but compensate for it with generous offers of additional free cloud storage. But, as with anything cloud-based, you’ll need to be online to access it.
In terms of features, budget laptops will come with USB 2.0 ports, and possibly USB 3.0. There may also be an SD slot and 802.11n wireless connectivity, and an HDMI port is a definite plus. You shouldn’t always expect a touch-screen display, however.
Chromebooks used to be glorified netbooks running Google’s Chrome OS. While these Chrome OS–based laptops are still Web-centric, they now have a relatively full feature set. If you spend most of your working hours in the cloud, a chromebook will offer you just as much functionality as a regular laptop, and have longer battery life. It will also likely cost you a lot less than other types of notebooks, as chromebook prices typically run between $200 and $300. Just be sure you have easy, constant Wi-Fi access, as there is scant local storage on these systems.
In recent years, a new category of laptop/tablet hybrid has emerged. These convertible-hybrid laptop designs let you flip between a traditional clamshell-style laptop and a tablet. Some of these systems sport a folding design that flips the keyboard out of the way, while others allow you to dock a detachable tablet PC with an accessory keyboard for laptop-like functionality. You should consider a hybrid system if you want laptop functionality with the convenience of a tablet.
If you’re on a strict budget, don’t lose heart. There are laptops under $500 that will offer you enough performance to tackle your day-to-day tasks without a stutter. Check out 10 of the best below. For more budget picks, take a look at our roundup of the best laptops for college students. For more general factors to consider when choosing a laptop, check out our overall top picks, as well as our favorites for work and play.
FEATURED IN THIS ROUNDUP
Asus Chromebook Flip (C100PA-DB02)
The Asus Chromebook Flip (C100PA-DB02) blends the best elements from other designs into a single Chrome-based laptop with a slick, convertible form factor, fast performance, all-day battery life, and an affordable price. Read the full review ››
Acer Chromebook R 11 (CB5-132T-C1LK)
With solid build quality, a versatile convertible design, an IPS touch screen, full-size media ports, and strong performance, the Acer Chromebook R 11 still manages a very affordable price. Read the full review ››
Dell Inspiron 17 5000 Series Non-Touch
The Dell Inspiron 17 5000 is a nice-looking desktop-replacement laptop that offers good productivity performance and decent battery life for a very affordable price. Read the full review ››
HP Stream 13 (13-c020nr)
The HP Stream 13 is a very inexpensive full Windows 8.1 ultraportable laptop, but its long battery life, looks, and speed resemble that of a much pricier system. Read the full review ››
Lenovo IdeaPad 100S-11 (80R2003XUS)
The Lenovo IdeaPad 100S-11 is a well-built ultraportable laptop that features a lightweight design, competent performance, and more than 11 hours of battery life, at a very low price. Read the full review ››
CTL Chromebook J2
The $200 CTL Chromebook J2 is a very good laptop for classrooms, and if the performance offered by this Rockchip-based model is any indication, it’s the first of an affordable yet capable breed. Read the full review ››
Dell Chromebook 11 Non-Touch
The Dell Chromebook 11 is an affordable 11-inch Chrome OS laptop that offers excellent battery life, good overall performance, and a durable construction. Read the full review ››
Acer Aspire One Cloudbook 14 (A01-431-C1FZ)
The Acer Aspire One Cloudbook 14 is an inexpensive laptop that leverages cloud services like a chromebook. And since it runs Windows 10, all of your legacy apps and plug-ins will still work. Read the full review ››
Asus Transformer Book Flip TP200SA
The Asus Transformer Book Flip TP200SA is a versatile convertible-hybrid laptop with a sturdy design and solid port options. Read the full review ››
Lenovo 100S Chromebook
The Lenovo 100S Chromebook offers a sleek design along with solid performance and battery life in our tests at a price that’s low, even for a Chrome-OS-based laptop.