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Cheap Laptops Buying Guide

The best budget laptops have evolved considerably over the past few years. Many models are a lot smaller, supplanting less powerful netbooks.

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Among these, we like the 11.6-inch Asus K200MA (starting at $294), which still has a full-size keyboard. One of our picks for best cheap laptop, the Asus Transformer Book T100 (starting at $349), is a hybrid combination of tablet and laptop, with a touchscreen and a detachable keyboard. Other "convertibles" can flip open to different orientations. Folding them tent-style, for instance, makes it easier to use the touchscreen or watch video. We researched two such models, the HP Pavilion x360 (starting at $400) and the Lenovo Yoga 2 11 (starting at $480), but they leave much to be desired. Then there are Chromebooks, which have hardware similar to a typical budget laptop but run Google's Chrome OS rather than Microsoft's Windows operating system. Chromebooks are designed to be used largely within the Google ecosystem while connected to the Internet. Our favorite this year is the Toshiba CB35-A3120 Chromebook (starting at $278). Despite this abundance of choice, plenty of consumers just want a traditional, full-size notebook. For those users, the best cheap laptop we found is the Acer Aspire E1-510P-2671 (starting at $448).

With the notable exception of the Chromebook, "cheap laptop" tends to translate to "Windows laptop." Microsoft's Windows 8.1 is by far the most widely used OS in new low-cost laptops, just as previous versions of Windows have been over the years. Although Windows 8 earned positive reviews from many experts when it launched in 2012, plenty of users prefer earlier incarnations. The Gateway NE56R52u (starting at $358) is one of the few available Windows 7 laptops we found.

Apple computers with Mac OS X lie well beyond the budget realm. These and other laptops that cost more than our $500 limit tend to be faster, thinner, and lighter than budget models and have more powerful processors. Expensive laptops often have aluminum cases to make them sleeker and tougher. Many also have larger displays that can handle 1080p high definition, whereas a majority of cheap laptops have 1366 x 768 resolution, or 720p HD. Having said all that, the best affordable laptops are more than powerful enough for the usual daily tasks such as working on office documents, web surfing, playing videos, and checking email.

What We Looked for in the Specs

At Least 4GB of RAM.

The amount of random-access memory in a laptop affects how well it performs. Higher-end laptops typically have more RAM, as well as video cards with their own memory built in, so they can process graphics separately and deliver faster multimedia performance. By contrast, the integrated video processors in low-cost laptops draw on the larger system's memory to process graphics. This should be fine for most users who aren't trying to run powerful games or do video editing, so long as they have enough RAM to handle the extra demand when running heavier graphics loads.

For a typical laptop, experts recommend at least 4 gigabytes of memory. The Acer Aspire E1-510P-2671, one of the best cheap laptops, comes with double that amount. The Toshiba Chromebook has only 2GB, but Chrome OS is less demanding than Windows 8. The Asus Transformer Book T100 likewise thrives with 2GB of memory, according to reviews, thanks to a snappy SSD in place of a mechanical hard drive (more on that below) and a processor designed especially for smaller machines.

Large Hard Drive or Speedy SSD.

Hard drives are relatively inexpensive, so most manufacturers are willing to outfit laptops with pretty sizeable drives ranging from 320GB to 750GB. Unless you have a vast library of videos, photos, and music that you want to store on your laptop, you can afford to go with a 320GB hard drive. However, if you need more built-in storage, it's easy to find on a budget. The Acer Aspire E1-510P-2671 and Asus K200MA both have 500GB hard drives.

Smaller laptops, convertibles, and hybrids often have solid-state drives, which are far faster than mechanical hard drives. They're also more expensive, so don't expect a budget laptop to have even a 100GB SSD. The 64GB SSD in the Asus Transformer Book T100 is about as large as you'll find in a sub-$500 laptop. The Toshiba Chromebook has only 16GB, but Chromebook users store most of their files in the cloud instead of on the laptop itself. Both these models come with free online storage for a limited time.

Convenient Ports and Connectivity Options.

When shopping for a budget laptop, be sure not to overlook the array of ports and connection options it has. All of our top picks have at least one USB 3.0 port, if not two, and often a pair of USB 2.0 ports. USB 3.0 transfers data several times faster than USB 2.0, so it's ideal for tasks such as backing up data to an external hard drive. The best budget laptops also have an HDMI port so you can connect to a larger monitor or TV.

Any laptop you buy today will have a built-in wireless card that supports 802.11n Wi-Fi connections, and most of the best inexpensive laptops support Bluetooth 4.0 (the Asus K200MA does not). You'll find that fewer and fewer laptops have Ethernet connections anymore. Ethernet ports are hard to fit into super-slim laptops, so more models are relying solely on wireless. Finally, each one of our picks has a built-in memory card reader -- a useful feature for extra storage, as well as for shutterbugs who want to view photos straight from a camera card.

What We Ignored in the Specs

Optical Drive.

It's becoming more common for laptops to forgo optical drives as they strive to get thinner. Models less than 1 inch thick may not have room for a DVD drive, but that's not really a big issue as more users buy downloaded software and cloud storage. Optical drives just aren't as important as they used to be. Besides, you can always connect to an external drive. If you do want a built-in optical drive, look at a larger laptop such as the Acer Aspire E1-510P-2671 or the Gateway NE56R52u.

by Michael Sweet (Google+ Profile)

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