Budget Laptops & Chromebooks Under $500
Published on By Michael Sweet
Asus VivoBook E403SA Review
(From $369.00 Best)
This is a solid 14-inch Windows laptop with better-than-average style, performance, and features. Its 128GB drive stands out among cheap systems equipped with 32GB drives.
In some ways, the Asus VivoBook E403SA (starting at $369, Amazon) is a fairly typical example of a budget laptop, however some say the options it offers are more in-line with mid-range models rather than a machine at this price.
Unlike most cheap laptops, the VivoBook E403SA has an aluminum shell, yet it's particularly light and thin coming in at .7 inches wide and weighing about 3.3 pounds. Its internal configurations are also pretty solid considering how affordable it is. It comes equipped with an Intel Pentium CPU, and its 4GB of RAM and 128GB eMMC drive are more than many others offer. Its 14-inch screen sporting full HD 1080p display powered by an Intel graphics chip is not entirely common, either. This model is also packed with ports, including a USB-C port alongside a USB 3.0 port, a USB 2.0 port, a combo mic/headphone jack, and an HDMI connector. The addition of an SD card slot is a nice extra, as is the ability to support 802.11ac Wi-Fi. An expert from Reviewed also praises the system for its lack of bloatware. There's no extra, useless software that you have to delete, just a clean Windows 10 OS. The keyboard is reported to be comfortable to use, and the touchpad is considered better than average, offering high responsiveness to finger gestures.
There are some drawbacks, however. While the screen displays sharp text and colors, it's best for wide side-to-side views, there can be some color shift at other angles. Also, as a reviewer at Computer Shopper points out, the built-in webcam has a pretty low resolution, which leads to grainy images and poor color and detail. Also, the CPU isn't especially powerful. The expert says the VivoBook will get you through typical daily operations, but you won't be impressed with its raw power. On the other hand, the lighter CPU does allow for a long battery life – more than 10 hours in Computer Shopper's testing.
The VivoBook has a nice look and feel, and a display that's easily better than most competitors despite its downsides. It has more on-board storage than most, and more RAM as well. The USB-C port will help future-proof the system. Its performance is hardly sensational, it's definitely not ideal for heavy gamers, but it will power through your usual laptop-oriented tasks for hours on the go. The bottom line: you'll be hard-pressed to find a better bargain in this category.
HP Chromebook 13 Review
(From $499.00 Best)
HP upped the style of its Chromebook, giving it a richer look and feel than the competition. It also has an outstanding 13.3-inch display, with vibrant colors and a high resolution.
Many people looking for an inexpensive portable computer will opt for a Chromebook, which typically are cheaper than similarly equipped laptops. The HP Chromebook 13 (starting at $499, Amazon) is a little pricier than other Chromebook competitors, but they don't have all of this model's specs and are hard pressed to rival its higher-end style.
HP's Chromebook 13 is not your typical web-based laptop. It's incredibly thin at just half an inch, with a sleekly-designed brushed aluminum casing (anodized for extra durability), and its 13.3-inch display is capable of an impressive 3200 x 1800 resolution which can be stretched across two externally connected screens via a special docking station ($29). A Tech Radar expert admits that such robust resolution is overkill for a Chromebook, but also says the system's native display has dead-accurate colors and wide viewing angles. These sentiments are echoed by a reviewer from Ars Technica who says the HP Chromebook 13's display is flatly the best he's ever seen on a Chromebook. It may not be a touchscreen, but it looks amazing.
Aside from the widely praised display, the HP Chromebook 13 has several other features that will appeal. It runs on Google's Chrome OS 64, and the base model has a slightly stepped up Intel Pentium 4405Y CPU along with integrated Intel HD graphics. The system has 4GB of RAM and a 32GB eMMC. It also has a memory card reader that buyers can use for extra storage. In addition to the two USB-C ports (yes, two!) are a USB 3.1 port, a headphone/mic jack, and an HD webcam. The HP Chromebook 13 supports 802.11ac connections as well as the usual a/b/g/n and Bluetooth 4 options. And all of this is bundled into a frame that weighs just 2.86 pounds.
The keyboard is backlit, which is uncommon in budget laptops and a touch that many like. Although reviewers say there's enough room there and its comfortable, the keyboard might still have a better feel; there are gripes that typing seems just a little mushy and the shallow keys don't provide a lot of feedback. The trackpad, however, is smooth and responsive and easily supports two-finger gestures. A soundbar centered just above the keyboard houses two Bang & Olufsen speakers.
Shoppers who want a Chromebook that looks and feels like something more than the typical fare will be impressed with this HP model's design, metal construction, and stellar display. The HP Chromebook 13 was geared to make a breakthrough in offices, but reviews suggest it should be a hit with people from all walks of life, even longtime Mac lovers.
Dell Inspiron 11 3000 (3168) Review
(From $250.00 Good)
There aren't many convertible, touchscreen laptops for less than $250. Dell's Inspiron 11 3000 Series 2-in-1 (3168) is a rare find in that regard, but many consider its battery life lackluster.
It's rare to find a budget laptop with a touchscreen for less than $300, but Dell managed to make it happen with its Inspiron 11 3000 2-in-1 convertible (starting at $250, Amazon). To get the price that low, however, the manufacturer had to cut some corners.
The base model of the Inspiron 11 3000 Series has an Intel Celeron CPU with a fairly scant 2GB of RAM and a 32GB eMMC hard drive. It runs Windows 10 64-bit. Its 11.6-inch LED screen doesn't manage the 1080p clarity some other cheap models proffer, and settles instead on a resolution of 1366 x 768 powered by an integrated Intel graphics chip. Its inputs include an HDMI port, a USB 3.0 port, two USB 2.0 ports (you won't find a newer USB-C port here), a mic input, and an SD card reader. It supports 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi connections (no 802.11ac available) as well as Bluetooth 4. The system weighs just over 3 pounds.
A Laptop Mag reviewer liked several aspects of the Dell Inspiron 11 3000. First, of course, it's affordable, and comes in a variety of fun colors, including sassily-named Tango Red and Bali Blue models. Also, despite its plastic framing, it feels sturdy, not cheap. Its keyboard has a nice feel, as well, although critics say it could be a little more responsive. The touchpad was praised for its accuracy and its ability to follow along with a range of finger gestures smoothly. The audio system also earned praise for surprisingly loud sound and nice bass.
On the downside, the Dell Inspiron 11 3000's display was judged decidedly lacking, not surprising giving its somewhat modest resolution ratings. The Laptop Mag reviewer points out that this latest version's display didn't look as impressive as previous models, with a dim screen and colors that weren't as accurate as would be desired. Also, images from the laptop's webcam appear fuzzy.
An expert from CNET recommends upgrading the base model from 2GB of RAM to 4GB, which will help to improve its performance although it won't up the display quality. The expert also recommends choosing a faster processor. Upgrading these two components raises the price to at least $319, but it's almost certainly worth it. But note that a faster CPU will drain the battery a little faster -- Laptop Mag's testing was conducted using a model with the most powerful configuration and the battery lasted only five hours and 30 minutes.
This budget computer's performance is just passable for the price -- it's respectable, but not without its weak points. But what the manufacturer is really selling here is the convenience of convertibility. If you're looking for a Windows-based laptop that doubles as a tablet with touchscreen on the cheap, you won't find a lot of choices. Dell's Inspiron 11 3000 is one of a very few you'll uncover for this low cost.
Acer Chromebook 14 Review
(From $299.00 Good)
This model has all the features and performance reviewers expect from a good Chromebook, with a more upscale design. Its crisp, 14-inch, full-HD display also impresses experts.
The Acer Chromebook 14 (starting at $299, Amazon) is another budget model that's eschewed the drab plastic exteriors of yesteryear for a stylish brushed aluminum shell which ups the aesthetic appeal while giving this laptop a more durable feel.
Another nice feature of this Chromebook is its 14-inch display, which a PC World reviewer says looks crisp and bright, and has wide viewing angles. The audio is also reported to be better than average in the affordable range, with good sound and respectable bass. The battery is solid, too, lasting almost 9 hours in PC World's tests (although Acer claims the 3 cell battery can run for a maximum of 12 hours).
The Acer Chromebook 14 runs on the Google Chrome OS 64, uses an Intel Celeron CPU, and comes equipped with 4GB of RAM. It has a 32GB eMMC hard drive, which is rather small considering there's no media card slot for extra storage. On the other hand, Chromebooks are intended to rely on online storage. The IPS display has a resolution of 1920 x 1080, powered by an integrated Intel graphics chip. The laptop has a built-in 720p webcam. The connection options for the Acer Chromebook 14 include 802.11ac, the fastest Wi-Fi standard, as well as Bluetooth 4. It also has a headphone jack, an HDMI port and two USB 3.0 ports, but you won't find any of the latest USB-C ports here.
The PC World expert was less than impressed with the Acer Chromebook 14's keyboard and its hard, plastic keys, but said the touchpad worked well enough. A Digital Trends reviewer, however, found the keyboard to be comfortable and liked the large keys, adding that the roomy touchpad makes for easy multi-touch gestures. As for the Chromebook 14's performance, it's reported to handle typical Chromebook tasks just fine, which makes it good enough for day-to-day web surfing, email, documents, and the like, but don't expect it to excel at graphics- or video-intensive tasks. That's not what it's designed to do.
The Acer Chromebook 14 is a step above run-of-the-mill competitors in terms of its design and construction, but its performance is pretty typical for a budget model. The small hard drive is a drawback given the lack of a media card reader, so users of this Chromebook will rely heavily on cloud-options, such as Google Drive, to shoulder storage loads.
Where to buy
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.
Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
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.
Audio Quality.Laptops are notorious for having tinny speakers and weak bass, and that's still the case more often than not. Although a handful of reviewers were somewhat impressed by the clean audio from the laptops on our list, that praise was often followed by the caveat "good for a budget laptop" or something similar. Bottom line: If you want great audio from a budget laptop, plug in a nice pair of headphones.
Additional Products We Considered
Lenovo ThinkPad 13 Review
(From $591.75 )
The Lenovo ThinkPad 13 runs an Intel Core i3 CPU, which is just a bit faster than the CPUs in most budget systems. The laptop also has an integrated Intel graphics chip and Windows 10 Home OS. It comes with 4GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD hard drive. The black base model's 13.3-inch display has a resolution of 1366 x 768, but buyers can upgrade that to a 1080p IPS display for $55, or simply go with the silver model where higher resolution is standard (there are several other customization options available, as well). It also has a memory card reader, three USB 3.0 ports, a USB-C port, and an HDMI port. It supports 802.11ac wireless connections and Bluetooth 4.1. The unit has a 3-cell battery and weighs 3.2lbs.
A Digital Trends expert likes the ThinkPad's tough build -- not surprising given it meets several military standards (MIL-SPECs) for ruggedness. The keyboard is excellent, providing just the right tactile feedback. The touchpad is a bit small, but quick and responsive. A reviewer from Computer Shopper reports that the audio sounds clear and loud, but lacks bass, which isn't surprising in a small, modestly-priced laptop.
These reviewers diverge slightly on their assessment of the ThinkPad 13's display, however. The Digital Trends expert says even with the higher resolution its colors are a little dull, the contrast isn't that great, and it rates less well than many others on several basic visual scales. The Computer Shopper reviewer had a better personal experience with the ThinkPad's 1080p display, saying its colors are rich and the screen is sufficiently bright.
The Intel Core i3 CPU gives this laptop a little more kick than most budget competitors, though it's still not quite powerful enough for intensive graphics or video games. The SSD hard drive is pretty fast when reading files, but a little slow when writing them -- though that shouldn't be an issue unless several large files are being written to the hard drive. The battery performed respectably in testing, managing 9 hours and 13 minutes in Laptop Mag's battery test which focuses on continuous web browsing, and 9.5 hours in Digital Trend testing when playing movies nonstop.
The Lenovo ThinkPad 13 offers users just a little bit more of just about everything you'd find in a cheap laptop -- a little more power, a little more storage, a slightly better display than some, and a few more connectivity options. But these extras come at a slightly increased cost. At almost $600, it's a little outside of the Cheapism price range, but if a bare-bones model just isn't enough, the ThinkPad 13 may satisfy without being way too spendy.