How to Get the Best Laptop for the Lowest Price
Gone are the days when a decent laptop would cost you north of $1,000. In this market, manufacturers are inventing new ways to outsell each other, including aggressive price cutting. It’s now possible to pick up a full-size or ultraportable Windows 10 notebook with a processor powerful enough for use at home, school, or work, for around $500 to $600. It’s also easy to find full-featured chromebooks and hybrid systems that give you both laptop and tablet functionality in one device for as little as $300.
You should be prepared to compromise, however. While it’s certainly possible to find a powerful laptop with a 15-inch screen, you might have to make do with a flimsy keyboard and touchpad. Likewise, you could buy an impeccably made ultraportable that uses an underpowered CPU and a tiny hard drive to achieve its low price.
Components and Features
The good news is that you’ll have to accept fewer compromises with the budget laptops of today than you did in the past. Intel’s Atom, Celeron, and Pentium processors (which power most of the under-$400 laptop set) have evolved to the point that they can support most of your Web browsing and basic productivity needs without feeling sluggish. The newest integrated GPUs can hold their own in browser-based Flash games and even some online games like World of Warcraft. The higher demands of AAA titles, though, still require a discrete GPU, which you won’t find in this price range. (If money is no object, check out our top-rated gaming laptops and ultraportables.)
In years past, many of the barest-budget Windows laptops would come with just 2GB of main system memory, but most nowadays come with 4GB. In terms of batteries, an ideal budget laptop has one with six cells or more. The battery life for a cheap laptop should come in at a minimum of five hours, and these days, many will last quite a bit longer. (A lower-resolution screen, which is a feature of some of these machines, can consume less power, all else being equal, and end up being a benefit of sorts.)
When it comes to storage, many inexpensive systems offer up to 500GB of hard drive space. Others, particularly chromebooks, will have only a small allotment (16GB or 32GB) of local storage, but compensate for it with generous offers of additional free cloud storage. Of course, as with anything cloud-based, you’ll need to be online to access it. Also, know that some budget machines, including many chromebooks, use what is called “eMMC memory” as their main storage. This is not the same as the flash memory used in a true solid-state drive (SSD), and it will feel a tad sluggish if you’re used to an SSD.
In terms of features, budget laptops will come with (almost always) at least one USB 3.0 port, and possibly a USB 2.0 port or two. You also may get an SD card slot. A Wi-Fi radio that uses the speedy 802.11ac protocol is also a possibility, although the older 802.11n is more common in machines in this price range. An HDMI output and a USB-C port are a definite plus, and you can find these on even some of the very cheapest models. You shouldn’t always expect a touch-screen display, however. (See our picks for the best touch-screen laptops.)
Chromebooks used to be little more than glorified netbooks running Google’s Chrome OS. While these Chrome OS–based laptops are still Web-centric, they now have fuller feature sets. If you spend most of your working hours in the cloud, a chromebook will offer you much of the functionality as a regular laptop, and it may well deliver longer battery life, depending on the model.
It will also likely cost you a lot less than other types of notebooks, as many chromebooks come in at less than $300. Just be sure you have easy access to stable Wi-Fi wherever you’ll use one, as chromebooks have limited offline functionality and scant local storage.
Tablets and Hybrids
Throughout the ’10s, tablets have risen in popularity, and though we have plenty of reviews of those—take a look at our overall roundup of the best tablets, as well as our favorites running the Windows and Android operating systems—they are sufficiently different enough from traditional clamshell-style laptops that they don’t make good substitutes.
If you’re deciding between a laptop and a Windows tablet, however, there is an alternative you’ll want to examine closely: the laptop/tablet hybrid. These machines let you flip between a laptop and a tablet, either by folding the keyboard out of the way or by docking the tablet portion on a keyboard accessory to get laptop-like functionality. You should consider a hybrid system if you want both the typing capability of a laptop and the convenience of a tablet. See our guide to the best 2-in-1 convertible and hybrid laptops for more information about this popular segment of the market. A few models cost $500 or below. A few vendors have begun shipping inexpensive chromebook hybrids, as well.
The Right Balance
If you’re on a strict budget, don’t lose heart. You can definitely find PCs that will offer you enough performance to tackle your day-to-day tasks without a stutter. The best ones are listed below, and we update this list frequently, so you’re always seeing our top recommendations for the highest-performing affordable laptops.
For more budget picks, take a look at our roundups of the best laptops for college students, the best laptops for kids, and the best chromebooks. For more general factors to consider when choosing a laptop, take a look at our buying guide with top laptop picks overall.
Pros: Convertible hinge design. Lots of storage and RAM. Full HD screen. Metal body construction. Two USB-C ports. Warranty includes damage protection. Bright and clear display. Backlit keyboard.
Cons: Legacy connections require adapters. Pricier than other chromebooks.
Bottom Line: The Asus Chromebook Flip (C302CA-DHM4) might be more expensive than the average chromebook, but its rich selection of features makes it well worth the extra money.
Pros: Rugged enough for school use. Wacom stylus included. Two USB-C and two USB 3.0 ports. Two cameras. Snappy keyboard.
Cons: Small, low-res screen. Easy-to-lose stylus. Imperfect Android compatibility.
Bottom Line: The Acer Chromebook Spin 11 is an 11.6-inch convertible that offers keyboard, touch, and stylus input, runs Chrome OS and Android apps, and shrugs off knocks, drops, and water spills. It’s the best chromebook we’ve seen for kids.
Pros: Excellent value. Comfortable keyboard. Bright 15-inch full HD display. Nvidia graphics card. DVD burner. Very long battery life.
Cons: Lacks fingerprint reader and touch screen. Flimsy touchpad. Heavy on the bloatware.
Bottom Line: Thanks to its full HD 15-inch display, discrete graphics, SSD, and low price, the Acer Aspire E 15 is one of today’s best-value desktop-replacement laptops for budget-minded shoppers.
Pros: Great 1080p touch display. Long battery life. Nice fit and finish. Very usable keyboard and touchpad. Plenty of ports. Active stylus included.
Cons: Heavy for its size. Ho-hum VGA webcam. Scanty storage. Performance can be sluggish.
Bottom Line: With its wealth of features and super-budget price, the 11.6-inch Acer Spin 1 is an excellent-value 2-in-1 convertible.
Pros: Compact and light. Comes with keyboard cover and stylus. USB 3.0 port. Fingerprint reader works with Windows Hello. Highly adjustable kickstand.
Cons: No USB-C port. Quirky keyboard. Occasionally finicky touchpad.
Bottom Line: The Asus Transformer Mini T102HA is an excellent, though modest, small tablet that’s handy to have around when you really need Windows rather than Android or iOS.
Pros: Low price. Sleek design. Large FHD display. Both types of USB ports. Competitive performance.
Cons: Short battery life. No SSD in test model. Lacks touch support. Keyboard not backlit.
Bottom Line: The 15.6-inch Asus VivoBook F510UA is an affordable, capable desktop replacement, but its short battery life makes it less compelling as an oversized thin-and-light portable.
Pros: More than 11 hours of battery life. Rugged, spill-proof exterior. 2-in-1 convertible form factor. Support for Google for Education administration and features.
Cons: Low-resolution screen. No USB-C ports.
Bottom Line: The Dell Chromebook 3189 is a durable convertible laptop, with a long-lasting battery, a multimode hinge, and enough processing juice to help power online and classroom learning.
Pros: Sturdy enough for grade-schoolers. Two USB-C and two USB 3.0 ports. Stylus included. Impressive battery life.
Cons: Low native screen resolution. No HDMI port. Ho-hum audio. Two cameras don’t add up to one decent one.
Bottom Line: If you can live with its low-res screen, Lenovo’s semi-rugged, fully flexible 500e Chromebook convertible is a winning choice for classrooms and consumers alike.
Pros: Sleek aluminum looks. Excellent battery life. Operates in fanless silence. Surprisingly good audio.
Cons: Next-to-nil storage space. Limited performance. No keyboard backlighting. Lid flexes some.
Bottom Line: It doesn’t pack much local storage in our test configuration, but the Asus VivoBook Flip 14 is a long-running, sleek-looking, and sweet-sounding 14-inch convertible laptop.
Pros: Aggressive price. Sleek, modern look. Comfortable keyboard. Generous port mix, including USB Type-C. Fanless operation.
Cons: 1,366 by 768 native display resolution. Plastic chassis. Tricky-to-open lid. Sluggish for anything more than basic tasks.
Bottom Line: Forgive the low-resolution display and ho-hum build, and the Lenovo Flex 6 11 makes for an otherwise well-rounded budget 2-in-1 laptop.