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Cheap Laptop Buying Guide

The best budget laptops have evolved considerably over the past few years. Many models are a lot smaller. 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).

Laptop Reviews

Screen Size vs. Portability and Price.

Laptops have grown ever smaller in recent years, supplanting netbooks with 10- to 13-inch screens. Laptops with 15.6-inch displays, such as the Acer Aspire E1-510P-2671, are also pretty common in the budget market. Usually the tradeoff for a larger screen is a heavier, bulkier, less portable laptop. Today's shoppers are moving in the other direction, gravitating instead toward smaller, thinner, and lighter laptops. We found many models well under 5 pounds and a couple right around 3 pounds. The Asus Transformer Book T100 weighs just 2.4 pounds and may attract consumers who don't want to carry around a full-size laptop, but the 10.1-inch display is a deal breaker for others. If you want a laptop that has a 15- or 17-inch display but is still lightweight, you'll have to step up to an ultraportable model, and that's gonna cost you a pretty penny.

Operating Systems.

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 by 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

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

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.

Laptop Reviews

Laptop reviews tend to focus on higher-end systems, but smaller budget laptops, including hybrid and convertible models, are getting more attention from reviewers as they become more popular. We relied on expert reviews for most of our information about the budget models we picked, although in a couple of cases we looked at shopper reviews, as well.

Most expert reviewers seem to have modest expectations for budget notebooks. These systems aren't designed for high-end 3D graphics or fast-paced PC gaming, but experts look for snappy performance in areas such as web surfing, email, and office work. Reviewers also value responsive keyboards, touchscreens and touchpads, and long battery life.

Nimble Performance.

Nothing influences the performance of a laptop more than the processor, commonly known as a central processing unit, or CPU. Most cheap laptops use some kind of Intel processor, although you'll come across a handful of budget models with AMD processors. In general, the more powerful the processor, the faster the laptop runs -- and, naturally, the more it's apt to cost. Some computer makers manage to incorporate Intel Core i3 CPUs into laptops that cost less than $500, but the least expensive models tend to have Intel Pentium or Celeron processors.

Laptop reviews provide a real-world sense of processing power. Experts and users don't expect budget laptops to break any speed records, but they should excel at common computing tasks such as going online, working on documents, organizing photos, and streaming video. The Asus Transformer Book T100 (starting at $349) uses a relatively modest Intel Atom Z3740 CPU designed specifically for smaller machines such as tablets. Yet this hybrid still runs office programs with ease and even handles casual games and video very well, according to an expert from Notebook Review. The Lenovo Yoga 2 11 (starting at $480), a convertible laptop, is held back performance-wise because of its mechanical hard drive, experts say. Smaller laptops and convertibles often use much faster solid-state drives, or SSDs, to improve performance.

Although the CPUs in budget laptops are quite capable, serious gaming, media editing, and other demanding tasks call for a more powerful system. A pricier laptop with an Intel Core i5 or i7 CPU will provide the extra power some users crave, especially if paired with an SSD and 6GB or 8GB of memory. The Asus Vivobook V451LA (starting at $640) draws on a powerful yet efficient fourth-generation Intel Core i5 CPU and 6GB of RAM.

Responsive Keyboard and Touchpad.

Reviewers expect even a budget laptop to have a keyboard that's comfortable and lively and a touchpad that's responsive and large enough to use easily. In this regard, budget laptops are hit and miss. Some small laptops have scaled-down keyboards that feel cramped, at least initially. A CNET expert points out that the Toshiba Chromebook has a larger keyboard than other Chromebooks, which makes for more comfortable typing. The touchpad on the Asus K200MA (starting at $294) works particularly well, responding accurately and immediately to taps, says a reviewer for Laptop Mag. Other models aren't quite as impressive. Keyboard keys may feel a bit mushy and may not easily register every keystroke. Touchpads aren't as responsive as one would like, and either lag behind when responding to swipes or don't register them at all. These are weaknesses of the Acer Aspire E1-510P-2671 (starting at $448), according to Computer Shopper. If possible, it's best to check out a laptop you like in person so you can get a feel for the keyboard and touchpad and see how well they work for you.

Easy-to-Use Touchscreen.

With so many convertibles and hybrids on the market and most new laptops using Windows 8.1, an operating system designed with touchscreens in mind, even cheap models now have touchscreens. You can find a regular laptop without a touchscreen, and those tend to have lower prices, more powerful processors, more memory, or larger hard drives. Yet laptop reviews favor Windows 8 laptops with touchscreens. Dealnews points out that this is the way the market is moving.

A touchscreen should be responsive to swipes and taps, but it's also important to make sure the display is sturdy so it doesn't bounce or wobble when you touch it, a problem Laptop Mag encountered with the HP Pavilion x360 (starting at $400). Convertible laptops can be set up in a variety of "modes," such as tent mode, where the hinge between the screen and the keyboard is at the top. This tent-like shape tends to be sturdier than the usual "clamshell" or laptop mode, making it easier to use the touchscreen. A PC Mag reviewer found the screen on the Lenovo Yoga 2 11 to be quite stable when using touch controls.

Long Battery Life.

Battery life is key for anyone who frequently uses a laptop computer away from home and away from an outlet. In general, thrifty consumers can expect battery life of at least four to six hours. Many experts clearly consider any less than six a disappointment. Laptops that can power on for more than six hours usually earn a thumbs-up from reviewers.

Generally, the more cells a battery has, the longer it can power a laptop before losing its charge. That's not always the case, though: The svelte Asus Transformer Book T100 has only a two-cell battery, but in testing by PC Mag, the hybrid lasted for more than 11 hours on a single charge. That's nearly twice as long as any other model we looked at. The hardware simply doesn't demand as much power as a typical laptop, so the Asus Transformer Book T100 runs longer on a smaller charge.



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