Best Cheap Laptops
$100 - $500Cheapism
$500 - $800Mid-Range
$800 and upHigh End
- Published on
- By Michael Sweet
The best cheap laptops have evolved considerably over the past few years. Chromebooks are shoving traditional laptops out of the budget price range, and some cloud-based Windows laptops have also hit the market. New features cropping up in cheap laptops include flash storage, faster USB ports, and faster wireless connections. Manufacturers are also starting to use metal or textured plastic finishes to give even their most basic models a more upscale feel. We researched models under $500 that have caught the attention of reviewers, poring over long lists of specifications and reading the assessments of numerous experts. Our goal was to find affordable choices that go beyond the basics to provide solid performance, the best available features for the price, and some fairly sleek styling.
Cheap Laptops Buying Guide
The top manufacturers of budget laptops include a host of familiar names, including Dell, Lenovo, Hewlett-Packard, Asus, and Acer. These companies offer a variety of cheap models designed to balance performance and cost. With seemingly endless configurations, consumers should have no problem finding the right set of features to suit their needs and budget. The choices include convertible laptop/tablet hybrids with touchscreens and increasingly popular cloud-based computers.
For years now, most cheap laptops have been Microsoft Windows machines. Our No. 1 choice for 2016 is the 14-inch Asus VivoBook E403SA (starting at $369), a well-equipped laptop at a very reasonable price. Our runner-up for best cheap Windows laptop is the Dell Inspiron 11 3000 2-in-1 (starting at $250; available on Amazon), a convertible laptop with an 11.6-inch touchscreen. It's rare to find a hybrid at such a low price, although the rest of the components are pretty modest. Both of these laptops ship with Microsoft's latest Windows 10 operating system.
These days, plenty of frugal consumers are happy to forgo Windows in favor of Google's simpler Chrome operating system. The Chrome OS can't run Windows software, but there are web-based Chrome apps for just about every task you can imagine, from creating office documents to editing photos, and plenty of Chrome substitutes for Microsoft programs.
Our pick for best cheap Chromebook is the HP Chromebook 13 (starting at $499), a great-looking machine with a gorgeous 13.3-inch display that puts many in mind of a Mac. The slightly larger Acer Chromebook 14 (starting at $299) isn't quite as fancy as the HP model, but it still looks pretty sharp. Its performance and price are closer to what reviewers expect from a typical Chromebook.
Both operating systems are capable of getting the job done. It's just a matter of how loyal you are to Microsoft's ecosystem. We found a couple of laptops that try to emulate the low-cost, cloud-based spirit of the Chromebook while still running Windows 10: the Acer Aspire One Cloudbook 14 (starting at $200) and the 11.6-inch Lenovo Ideapad 100S (starting at $200). These models are about as cheap as they come, but buyers should set their expectations accordingly. While these laptops have the benefit of Windows' latest operating system -- which has been out for a full year and is very popular with consumers, supplanting earlier Windows 8.1 and Windows 7 laptops -- these machines are for light duty, as they're simply not very powerful.
For those willing to pay just a tad more, there's also the Lenovo ThinkPad 13 (starting at $591.75). It's just outside the Cheapism price range, but it has more features and better components than most of the laptops in our lineup. It's also a very tough PC, which is good for consumers who want or need a laptop that will withstand the bumps and bruises of travel.
Apple MacBooks 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. Many also have larger displays with higher resolution. That said, the best affordable laptops are powerful enough for the usual daily tasks such as working on office documents, web surfing, playing videos, and checking email.
What We Looked For
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. The integrated video processors in low-cost laptops should be fine for most users who aren't trying to run powerful games or do video editing, as long as they have enough RAM to handle the extra demand of heavier graphics loads.
For a typical laptop, experts recommend at least 4 gigabytes of memory. Three of our four top picks have 4GB of RAM installed. The base configuration of the Dell Inspiron 11 3000 2-in-1 has only 2GB of RAM. Some laptop models are customizable, and users can upgrade the Dell Inspiron 11 from 2GB to 4GB (plus a faster processor and a bigger hard drive) for $70 more, bringing the total price to $320. The Acer Aspire One Cloudbook 14 and Lenovo Ideapad 100S also have only 2GB of memory.
Storage.Until recently, most laptops were loaded with old, slow, and cheap mechanical hard drives, but the drives were massive, with many storing as much as 1 terabyte of data. That's changed considerably. With more and more users storing files in the cloud, today's cheap laptops often have little on-board storage. The laptops we recommend have from 32GB to 128GB of storage.
Some laptops higher up the price scale use fast solid state drives that store about 128GB to 256GB of data; the Lenovo ThinkPad 13 boasts a 256GB SSD. Budget laptops often use a similar type of drive called an eMMC. It's much faster than a mechanical hard drive but not quite as fast or as expensive as an SSD. Although the need for a massive hard drive is diminishing, it's nice to have extra room -- a one-time added cost, as opposed to an ongoing fee for cloud storage -- if you can get it for a reasonable price.
Display.Cheap laptops typically have displays from 11.6 inches to 14 inches. You're not likely to find a 17-inch laptop in the $400 to $500 range. A majority of cheap laptops have 1,366 x 768 resolution, or 720p high definition, but most of our top picks have 1080p or "full" HD screens. A reviewer from the U.K. technology site Ars Technica declares the display on the HP Chromebook 13 the best he's seen on a Chromebook at any price, and other experts are impressed with the accurate color. The Asus VivoBook's 1,920 x 1,080 resolution is uncommonly high among Windows-based laptops in this price range. Text looks very sharp on this display, according to a Computer Shopper editor's review, and it has vivid colors and wide viewing angles.
Portability.Laptop makers have gone to great lengths to make their machines thinner and lighter, regardless of size, and that design aesthetic applies to budget laptops, as well. The 13.3-inch HP Chromebook 13 weighs only 2.86 pounds. At the same time, experts comment that its aluminum frame makes it seem fairly substantial. The Lenovo Ideapad 100S is especially svelte at just 2.2 pounds. None of the systems we reviewed weighs more than 4 pounds.
Ports and Connectivity. When shopping for a budget laptop, be sure not to overlook the array of ports and connection options it has. Most of our top picks have at least one USB 3.0 port, if not two, and sometimes also an older USB 2.0 port. 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.
Some budget laptops now include one or two USB-C connections. USB-C is said to be twice as fast as USB 3.0, and the port is smaller, as well, which allows manufacturers to make thinner laptops. The HP Chromebook 13 has two USB-C ports, and the Asus VivoBook E403SA and Lenovo ThinkPad 13 each have one. The Lenovo Ideapad 100S lags behind with just two USB 2.0 ports. Budget laptops now almost always have an HDMI port for connecting 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. Support for a newer Wi-Fi connection, 802.11ac, is also present in a handful of budget laptops, including all our top picks, with the exception of the Dell Inspiron 11 3000 2-in-1. 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. Most inexpensive laptops support Bluetooth 4.0.
Finally, some of our picks have 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. Given how little storage most budget laptops include, a memory card reader is definitely a selling point. The Dell Inspiron 11 3000 2-in-1 and HP Chromebook 13 both incorporate a card reader.
Laptop Features 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 a big issue as more consumers use 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.
Laptop reviews tend to focus on higher-end systems, but smaller budget laptops, including Chromebooks and convertible models, are getting more attention from industry insiders as they become more popular. We relied on expert reviews for most of our information about the budget models we picked, consulting outlets such as PCMag, PC World, Laptop Mag, and Wired and technology sites including CNET, Digital Trends, Engadget, and The Verge, as well as Notebook Review, which specializes in laptops. Most expert reviewers seem to have modest expectations for budget notebooks. These systems aren't designed for high-end graphics, video editing, 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, as well as long battery life.
Speed and 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. Almost every model we looked at uses an Intel Pentium or Celeron processor. The Lenovo ThinkPad 13 uses a more powerful Intel Core i3 CPU and the Lenovo Ideapad 100S uses a very efficient, but not very powerful, Intel Atom CPU.
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 web surfing, word processing, organizing photos, and streaming video. The Asus VivoBook E403SA, with its Intel Pentium N3700 quad-core processor, was one of the better performers in our lineup (although that's not necessarily saying a lot). An expert from Reviewed.com says the VivoBook has plenty of power for most everyday tasks. The hybrid Dell Inspiron 11 is solid enough for a budget machine, but don't expect consistently smooth performance when multitasking, a Laptop Mag reviewer says. Opting for more RAM might help somewhat.
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 processor will provide the extra power some users crave, especially if paired with an SSD and 8GB of memory.
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. Today manufacturers often find a way to wedge a full-size keyboard into a small laptop, and for the most part, reviewers are satisfied with the keyboards on the budget models we researched. In fact, the keyboard is one of the best features on the otherwise lackluster Acer Aspire One Cloudbook 14, reviewers say. A PC Mag expert considers it excellent for fast typing, and its wide touchpad is appreciated.
The touchpad on the Lenovo Ideapad 100S draws the ire of a CNET expert, who says the outdated design with separate right and left click buttons could be a deal breaker. The keyboard, however, works very well, and Lenovo laptops have an excellent reputation overall for this aspect of their design. The keyboard on the Lenovo ThinkPad 13 impresses reviewers from Digital Trends and Computer Shopper for its excellent feel and feedback.
Battery Life.Battery life is crucial 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 five to seven hours. Laptops that can power on for more than six hours usually earn a thumbs-up from reviewers. Note that different reviewers use different kinds of tests when assessing battery life, so while one expert may find a particular model can run for nine hours on a single charge, another may test the same battery at seven hours.
The Asus VivoBook proves to be one of the top performers in terms of battery life, lasting about 10.5 hours in a Computer Shopper test. Battery life is one high point of the Acer Aspire One Cloudbook. A Laptop Mag reviewer managed to squeeze almost 15 hours of use out of a single charge.
Although HP promises up to 11.5 hours of battery life from the Chromebook 13, one of the higher-end models hit only six to eight hours of projected battery life in PCWorld tests. The Dell Inspiron 11 definitely falls short, lasting only about 5.5 hours in a Laptop Mag test. But some would say that's par for the course with touchscreen technology.