Samsung Chromebook Plus (XE513C24-K01US) Review

From $400 Best

Pros:
  • Attractive design, with full-aluminum case.
  • Lightweight and very thin at just 0.51 inches.
  • Bright, vivid touchscreen display bests the competition with resolution that's four times sharper than standard high definition.
  • Convertible, and comes with a built-in stylus to draw and tap on screen.
  • Android-app support out of the box means greater Google Play access.
  • Chrome OS-optimized processor delivers quick, competent performance, according to reviewers.
  • Users can expect about 9 hours of battery life.
Cons:
  • More expensive than most Chromebooks.
  • Limited ports, no HDMI or standard USB ports (USB-C only); adapters needed for some external connectors.
  • So-so keyboard; according to experts, it's shallow and doesn't have the best feel.

Takeaway: Samsung's Chromebook Plus stands out from the pack. Its display resolution is much higher than average, and it's currently one of the few Chromebooks on the market that's specially-built for Android-app support. Users also rave about the included stylus, saying it's a great study tool that makes it easy to take lecture notes or add comments to documents. While it's a bit pricier than some others, and its keyboard might disappoint, in terms of overall performance and perks consumers get quite a lot for their money.

Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA Review

From $469 Best

Pros:
  • Sleek, light-weight aluminum build puts many in mind of a MacBook Air.
  • 360-degree hinge allows for multiple positioning options, from tablet to stand mode.
  • Full-HD display has better-than-average sharpness, and backlit keyboard is a nice extra feature.
  • Intel Core M processor is more robust than the CPUs powering many competitors' machines; 64GB of on-board storage is very generous for a Chromebook.
  • Can access Android apps (in beta mode).
  • Two USB-C ports support the latest connectors and provide faster data transfers.
  • Good battery life: averaged around 10 hours in expert tests.
Cons:
  • A little pricey for a Chromebook.
  • Limited ports mean users will need adapters for some types of connections (HDMI, USB-A, etc.).
  • Display could be even brighter and speakers are kind of weak, according to one expert.

Takeaway: The Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA has a lot of high-end features not found on other cheap laptops and also has zippy performance. Users who like the looks and light weight of MacBooks might be quite pleased with this much-cheaper alternative. An even less expensive, student-oriented version, the Flip C213SA, has recently been released and earned lots of expert interest. It may be worth a look for those willing to sacrifice a little of the C302CA's power.

Where to buy

Acer Swift 3 (SF314-51-39NE) Review

From $500 Best

Pros:
  • All-aluminum body gives quality look and feel.
  • Display is nice and sharp, with good contrast.
  • Provides truly solid performance thanks to more powerful Intel i3 CPU.
  • Has an SSD flash drive and more on-board storage than many other cheap laptops.
  • Offers full array of USB ports, from USB 2.0 to USB-C.
  • Fingerprint reader adds extra level of security.
  • Responsive trackpad works better than those found on many other budget systems, according to reviewers.
Cons:
  • Battery life is just average.
  • The display could be brighter.
  • Webcam images can be a bit grainy, according to one reviewer.
  • Some users say fingerprint reader doesn't always work.

Takeaway: The Acer Swift 3 is a well-designed laptop that delivers strong performance and has a colorful display, though it's not especially bright. Battery life is below average, but it's faster and has a few more perks than many systems in this price range, especially Windows models.

Dell Chromebook 3189 2-in-1 Review

From $320 Good

Pros:
  • Tough design, with solid, durable build; specialized Gorilla Glass helps protect screen.
  • Can be converted into tablet.
  • Keyboard, touchpad, and touchscreen are responsive and perform well, according to reviewers.
  • Very capable speakers for a budget laptop.
  • SSD drive is faster than cheaper eMMC drives found on many Chromebooks.
  • Battery provides all-day power.
Cons:
  • Said to be slow at multitasking.
  • Dim, low-resolution screen.
  • Very little onboard storage.
  • No USB-C ports; may require adapters to connect to many newer external devices.

Takeaway: Dell's Chromebook 3189 is typical of many Chromebooks on the market today. It's made with students in mind and offers affordability and basic functionality -- but it won't wow you with speed or display quality. It's a reliable budget laptop, with convertibility and solid construction to boot. Just don't expect any truly stand-out features for the price.

Where to buy

Acer Chromebook R13 (CB5-312T-K5X4) Review

From $360 Good

Pros:
  • Convertible with touchscreen; 360-degree hinge allows for even more positions.
  • Full-HD display provides a crisp, clear picture from every angle.
  • Handles most web-oriented tasks well, and ability to access Android apps (at least in beta) expands functionality.
  • Aluminum lid adds a more expensive look.
  • Excellent battery life of up to 13 hours in expert tests.
Cons:
  • Heavy for a Chromebook of its size.
  • Plastic base means it may not be as sturdy as cover suggests.
  • Performance isn't necessarily inspiring for the price.

Takeaway: Perhaps the best feature of the Acer Chromebook R13 is its extraordinary battery life -- users can go all day without a power-up. It's a bit harder to get charged up about its overall performance, though -- it's certainly adequate, but it just won't blow you away. At its list price of $400, there are better options; but on sale (as it is now), this sharp-screened, fairly versatile machine is definitely worth a second look.

Lenovo ThinkPad 13 (2nd Generation) Review

From $549 Good

Pros:
  • Excellent, full-size keyboard earns raves from experts and users.
  • Designed to meet military-grade durability standards.
  • According to experts, delivers performance on par with some more powerful machines.
  • Wide range of ports, including USB-C port, HDMI port, and a special port to connect to proprietary docking station.
  • Has an SSD flash drive and ample storage.
  • Long battery life; it's safe to expect as many as 12 hours on a single charge.
  • Speakers are surprisingly good for a cheap laptop.
Cons:
  • Expensive for an entry-level model.
  • Low-resolution display lacks brightness.

Takeaway: There's a lot to like about Lenovo's ThinkPad 13. Its keyboard is outstanding, performance is better than many systems in its class, and battery life exceeds the average. It's on the pricier end of the Cheapism spectrum, especially when not on sale, but is a reliable workhorse that's made for business use and built to last.

Where to buy

Lenovo IdeaPad 110s (80WG0001US) Review

From $148 Think Twice

Pros:
  • Incredibly cheap for a Windows laptop.
  • According to reviewers the keyboard is responsive and the touchpad works well, although it could be bigger.
  • It's small and lightweight, so it's good for travel and general portability.
Cons:
  • Relatively short battery life, according to expert tests and user reviews.
  • Has only 2GB of RAM (we recommend at least 4GB of RAM for Windows-based laptops).
  • On-board storage is low for a Windows-based system; eMMC flash drive not as fast as an SSD flash drive.
  • No USB-C ports; adapters needed for some external connectors.
  • Dim, low-resolution screen could stand to be much brighter.
  • Experts say the speakers are weak and webcam is also of poor quality.

Takeaway: Experts agree the Lenovo ThinkPad 110s is by no means meant to serve as a primary machine -- it's a back-up laptop or a model for the kids, at best. It simply doesn't have the have the on-board power to manage more than the most basic of tasks, and these it'll have to take one at a time. For this older version's super-low price, that may be just fine for some, but we'd definitely be hard-pressed to justify the expense of the latest model. It costs nearly $100 more, and seems to have improved only in looks -- base specs remain virtually the same.

Where to buy

Lenovo Flex 11 Chromebook (ZA270025US) Review

From $270 Think Twice

Pros:
  • Very inexpensive, even by Chromebook standards.
  • Features a durable design that can take some punishment.
  • 360-degree hinge allows for multiple positioning options.
  • Can access Android apps (in beta mode).
  • The touchscreen works quite well, and the speakers are surprisingly loud, according to reviewers.
  • Has a USB-C port to support latest connector types.
Cons:
  • Below average battery life, according to expert tests and user reviews.
  • Keyboard is "shallow" and overly sensitive, making inputting text on this laptop a far from optimal experience.
  • Dim, low-resolution screen could stand to be much brighter.
  • All-plastic casing is rather clunky and unattractive.

Takeaway: The Lenovo Flex 11 Chromebook, which is geared toward educational use, is just powerful enough for basic multitasking and classroom activities, but don't ask much more from it than that. You'd expect this laptop to be light on specs given its price, and it does performs well enough, but its low-quality display and uncomfortable keyboard might prove to be deal breakers for many potential buyers.

Where to buy

Buying Guide

Choosing a Laptop

The best cheap laptops have evolved considerably over the past few years. Chromebooks are shoving traditional laptops out of the budget price range, and we're now seeing 2-in-1 or "convertible" laptops enter under Cheapism's $500 price ceiling. 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 budget models that have caught the attention of reviewers and earned praise from purchasers to determine the best affordable choices that provide solid performance and sought-after features for the price.

Laptop Brands.

The top manufacturers of budget laptops include a host of familiar names, such as Dell, Lenovo, Hewlett-Packard, Asus, and Acer. These companies offer a variety of cheap models designed to balance performance and cost. And while Apple MacBooks lie well beyond the budget realm, we're now seeing companies typically known for more expensive products entering the budget arena, with Samsung even vying for position as a player in the entry-level laptop market. This is all good news for consumers, because with seemingly endless brands and configurations now available, potential buyers should have no problem finding the right set of features to suit their individual needs and spending limits.

Laptop Configurations.

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, and checking email. Most cheap laptops can also handle light multimedia, such as video streaming. They're not especially speedy, typically, but most models are functional enough.

Choices have expanded beyond the basic Windows operating systems and setups that dominated the segment in the past to include convertible laptop/tablet hybrids with touchscreen capabilities, also called 2-in-1 laptops, and increasingly popular cloud-based computers, better known as Chromebooks.

Chromebooks.

These days, when it comes to deciding between a Windows laptop vs. a Chromebook, plenty of frugal consumers have chosen to forgo the Microsoft platform 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 documents to editing photos, and plenty of Chrome substitutes for Microsoft programs. Also, with interest in Chromebooks growing, these models are becoming more sophisticated, with better quality displays, touchscreens, and more on-board storage than models in the past.

For those allured by the cheaper prices and ease of use of these laptop alternatives, two of our top three picks are Chromebooks: the Samsung Chromebook Plus (starting at $400) and the Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA (starting at $469). Both models perform well and have superior features as compared to the competition.

Among our second tier picks is the Dell Chromebook 3189 (starting at $320). Typical of Chromebooks these days, it's affordable and serviceable but doesn't pack any surprises. The Acer Chromebook R13 (starting at $360), another good pick, comes with a bigger price tag and a better screen. Its performance, like that of the Dell Chromebook, is modest, but certainly good enough for most daily tasks. All of our Chromebook picks are touchscreen 2-in-1 units.

One Chromebook option we weren't quite as inspired by is the Lenovo Flex 11 Chromebook (starting at $270). Mediocre specs and low-grade components paired with poor battery life make this a model that might be better suited for small children, as opposed to older students with more serious workloads or anyone with more demanding expectations. While it does have its low price and durability in its favor, we'd still choose the Acer Chromebook R13 or Dell 3189 over this model -- especially if looks alone were the determining factor.

Windows Laptops.

For frugal users who are loyal to Microsoft's ecosystem, or who want more onboard storage than the typical Chromebook can provide, a cheap Windows laptop is the way to go. Cheap Windows laptops usually have larger hard drives, and SSD drives have become increasingly common, which is a plus because they're faster than older magnetic hard drives. Nevertheless, budget Windows-based systems usually have to sacrifice powerful components and some other amenities in exchange for the ability to run Windows programs on a machine that costs less than $500 -- so don't expect a lot of bells and whistles on this front. The models we recommend can't double as tablets and you won't find touchscreens here unless you're willing to pay extra.

Our favorite cheap Windows-based system is the Acer Swift 3 (starting at $500). For a budget laptop, this little PC comes on strong with the power, and its Intel Core i3 processor is the most capable CPU driving any of our picks. It's also got a fairly sleek design and a full-HD display.

Our runner-up choice is the Lenovo ThinkPad 13 (starting at $549). It's got solid components and an equally solid build -- which is good for consumers who want or need a laptop that will withstand the bumps and bruises of travel. While it's currently just a tad over our $500 threshold, we've often seen prices drop below this mark.

Although it's not among our official picks, those looking for a Windows laptop under $300 might consider the HP Stream 14 (starting at $220). As to be expected with a machine this inexpensive, the Stream 14's specs and performance aren't exactly awe-inspiring. It's got a lower-grade hard drive and more limited storage, but if you need a 'decent enough' Windows system and you're on a tight budget, this laptop may fill the bill.

A bare-bones model that we wouldn't necessarily recommend is the Lenovo IdeaPad 110s (starting at $148). This laptop is incredibly cheap for a Windows machine, but it seems a bit too many corners have been cut where it counts to get it to this price range. While Lenovo has just recently released a newer version of the 110s (starting at $230), its specifications are nearly identical to the model we review, so we don't expect significant performance improvements.

Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table

(from $500.00)
2-in-1 No
Operating System Windows 10
Processor Intel Core i3-7100U
Memory 4GB
Storage Drive 128GB SSD
Display 14 inches 1,920 x 1080
Connectivity & Ports 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0, USB-C, USB 3.0, USB 2.0
Weight 3.31 lbs.
(from $400.00)
2-in-1 Yes
Operating System Chrome OS
Processor OP1 (ARM-based)
Memory 4GB
Storage Drive 32GB eMMC
Display 12.3-inch touchscreen 2,400 x 1,600
Connectivity & Ports 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0, two USB-C
Weight 2.38 lbs.
(from $469.00)
2-in-1 Yes
Operating System Chrome OS
Processor Intel Core m3-6Y30
Memory 4GB
Storage Drive 64GB eMMC
Display 12.5 -inch touchscreen 1,920 x 1,080
Connectivity & Ports 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0, two USB-C
Weight 2.65 lbs.
(from $549.00)
2-in-1 No
Operating System Windows 10
Processor Intel Celeron 3865U
Memory 4GB
Storage Drive 128GB SSD
Display 13.3 inches 1,366 x 768
Connectivity & Ports 802.11ac, Bluetooth, 4.1, USB-C, three USB 3.0, OneLink+ dock port, HDMI
Weight 3.17 lbs.
(from $320.00)
2-in-1 Yes
Operating System Chrome OS
Processor Intel Celeron N3060
Memory 4GB
Storage Drive 16GB SSD
Display 11.6-inch touchscreen 1,366 x 768
Connectivity & Ports 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2, two USB 3.1, HDMI
Weight 3.16 lbs.
(from $360.00)
2-in-1 Yes
Operating System Chrome OS
Processor MTK M8173C (ARM-based)
Memory 4GB
Storage Drive 32GB eMMC
Display 13.3-inch touchscreen 1,920 x 1,080 inches
Connectivity & Ports 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0, USB-C, USB 3.0, HDMI
Weight 3.28 lbs.
(from $270.00)
2-in-1 Yes
Operating System Chrome OS
Processor MTK M8173C (ARM-based)
Memory 4GB
Storage Drive 32GB eMMC
Display 11.6 -inch touchscreen 1,366 x 768es
Connectivity & Ports 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0, USB-C, USB 3.0, HDMI
Weight 2.9 lbs.
(from $148.00)
2-in-1 No
Operating System Windows 10
Processor Intel Celeron N3060
Memory 2GB
Storage Drive 32GB eMMC
Display 11.6 inches 1,366 x 768
Connectivity & Ports 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0, USB 3.0, two USB 2.0, HDMI
Weight 2.53 lbs.
(from $600.00)
2-in-1 No
Operating System Windows 10
Processor AMD A9-9400
Memory 8GB
Storage Drive 1TB HDD (5400 rpm)
Display 15.6 inches 1,366 x 768
Connectivity & Ports 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, two USB 3.0, USB 2.0, Ethernet port, HDMI & DVD drive
Weight 5.2 lbs.
(from $220.00)
2-in-1 No
Operating System Windows 10
Processor Intel Celeron N3060
Memory 4GB
Storage Drive 32GB eMMC
Display 14 inches 1,366 x 768
Connectivity & Ports 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0, two USB 3.1, two USB 3.0, USB 2.0, HDMI
Weight 3.17 lbs.

Laptop Reviews: What We Considered

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, Laptop Mag, and ComputerShopper.com and technology sites including CNET, Digital Trends, TechRadar, 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, like end users, 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. In general, the more powerful the processor, the faster the laptop runs -- and, naturally, the more it's apt to cost. Most cheap Windows laptops, including all of our top picks, use an Intel processor, typically a Celeron or Pentium model, with Pentiums being a little more powerful. The Acer Swift 3 is one of the few budget models you'll find that uses an Intel Core i3 CPU, which is a step up from a Pentium.

You'll also occasionally come across a handful of budget models with AMD processors. AMD CPUs (sometimes called APUs) tend to be a little cheaper, whereas Intel processors tend to have slightly better performance. But this is a general comparison: The exact value and performance difference between AMD and Intel CPUs will vary depending on the specific generations and versions of the CPUs being compared. Budget shoppers, and your average computer user who's not a serious gamer, will likely see little difference in performance between comparably-priced Intel and AMD systems, all other specs being equal.

Chromebooks will often use CPUs from other manufacturers that are designed for lightweight, mobile systems. These CPUs typically aren't as powerful as Intel or AMD CPUs, but Chromebooks are also less demanding of their processors. Still, the performance for these other brands of CPUs can differ quite a bit. For example, the Acer R13, Lenovo Flex 11, and the Samsung Chromebook Plus all rely on ARM-based processors, like those used in many phones and tablets. But whereas the R13 and Flex 11 use chips from manufacturer MediaTek, a company whose MTK processors are commonly found in ultra-budget devices, the Samsung Chromebook Plus runs on an OP1 chip that has been trademarked by Google and is purported to be optimized for Chromebooks.

The biggest boon of this OP1 processor is it's designed to be Android-app compatible (the Acer R13 and Flex 11 can currently run Android apps in the Google Play store only in beta mode), but there have supposedly been other enhancements made that have paid off in what experts, including a reviewer from PCMag, say is a machine that provides speedy performance during both startup and surfing and can handle streaming and multitasking quite well. Some say the Samsung Chromebook Plus just might make converts of MacBook users.

PC Mag's reviewer suggests the Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA, with its Intel Core M processor, should be another favorite with those looking for a quicker computer or one that can stream 4K content with limited stuttering. This chip isn't quite as powerful as the one driving the Acer Swift 3's CPU, but it outshines Celeron, Pentium and ARM-based processors. The Flip C302CA is also able to run Android apps in beta, but for those who want greater access on this front, Asus has just launched a new model designed with students in mind: the Asus Chromebook Flip C213SA, which comes fully Android-app ready. It's similar to the Flip C302CA we highlight here, but it's based on an Intel Celeron CPU. Though it may be a bit slower -- and it also has a smaller, lower resolution screen -- other improvements, including front and rear cameras, as well as a lower price tag, definitely make it worth a second look. You won't find it at the Asus store online or on Amazon, but it can be purchased at a handful of sites, including Jet.com (starting at $355). A version with a stylus is set to release in September.

RAM.

The amount of random-access memory in a laptop also 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. All of our systems have 4GB, except for our "think twice" pick, the Lenovo 110s. With only 2GB of RAM, the Windows-based Lenovo 110s can struggle to keep up when performing even light tasks. Many users, like this one on Amazon, say it's so slow to work it simply wouldn't suit the average student or business person.

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, usually in the form of speedier eMMC or SSD flash drives (i.e., no moving parts). SSDs, or solid state drives, are the fastest of the two, and will often be found on cheap Windows laptops, whereas as eMMC drives, which work with embedded memory cards, are more popularly used with Chromebooks and mobile devices. Chromebooks typically have smaller hard drives, but most of the models we recommend have at least 32GB of storage. The Dell Chromebook 3189 has a little less, at 16GB.

Since the Windows 10 Home 64-bit operating system itself takes up quite a bit of real estate -- it requires 20GB of free space on a drive -- you'll want a bit more storage on laptops running Windows. The Acer Swift 3 and Lenovo ThinkPad 13 both have 128GB SSD hard drives. Here, again, the Lenovo IdeaPad 110s lags in its specs with its 32GB of eMMC storage. The HP Stream 14, the other incredibly cheap Windows-based option we mentioned, is similarly light on built-in storage, but it comes with a free year of 25GB Dropbox storage as well as a free one-year subscription to Office 365 Personal, which includes 1TB of cloud storage.

Those who prefer to store their data the old-school way -- and save on the ongoing costs of cloud storage -- might look to the Dell Inspiron 15 5000 (5565) (starting at $600). It's just outside our Cheapism range, but it's a powerful machine that's faster than most of the laptops you'll find on our list, and it ships with a large 1TB drive. It also has a built-in DVD player -- a rarity these days, particularly in the budget segment -- that both plays and writes disks (upgradeable to Blu-Ray), should users wish to save additional files that way. There are several versions of the Dell 15 5000, including both Intel- and AMD-based systems, as well as touchscreen and 2-in-1 versions. We picked the least expensive, non-touch AMD base model, though the other options are also compelling.

Convertibility.

2-in-1 laptops are becoming increasingly popular, even among budget systems. 2-in-1 users can flip the lid back on their laptops to use them as tablets or fold them into "tent mode," which makes it easy to watch videos. 2-in-1s also incorporate touchscreens by necessity, as it's difficult to use a tablet without one. For those interested in purchasing a Chromebook, there are plenty of budget 2-in-1 options -- all of our Chromebook picks are convertible models. Windows users, however, will have to spend more to access this sort of versatility, or settle on less powerful specs. Dell's Inspiron 15 5000 2-in1 (starting at $480), for example, has half the memory and half the storage space of its non-convertible counterparts. (We would also warn any potential buyer considering this 2-in-1 to be a bit wary, as data stored on mechanical hard drives is prone to damage due to accidental drops.)

Display.

Cheap laptops typically have displays from 11.6 inches to 15.6 inches. You're not likely to find a 17-inch laptop in the $400 to $500 range. The ideal screen size comes down to individual taste. A smaller, 11.6-inch to 13-inch, display makes for greater portability, and the screens on all of our 2-in-1 picks fall within this range, with most erring towards 11.6-inch displays. Those who want more screen real estate when watching movies or playing games might prefer a model like the Acer Swift 3, which augments its greater processing power with a 14-inch display. The Swift 3's screen can run a little dim, however, and colors may seem a bit less vibrant, according to an expert at Trusted Reviews.

A majority of cheap laptops have 1,366 x 768 resolution, or 720p high definition, but some, like the Acer Swift 3, the Acer R13, and the Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA boast 1080p, or "full" HD, screens. The Flip earned praise from a CNET reviewer for a display that bests most of its budget competitors with its sharpness and extra wide viewing angles. The Samsung Chromebook Plus has an even higher-resolution display than these others, 2,400 x 1,600, and a writer at Notebook Review calls the screen simply "gorgeous."

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. Newer USB 3.1 ports can be up to twice as fast as those featuring USB 3.0.

Some budget laptops now include one or two USB-C connections. USB-C ports are smaller, which allows manufacturers to make thinner laptops. They often support the 3.1 standard, so they tend to be be faster, as well. While USB-C ports are becoming more prevalent, if your laptop has USB-C ports and not much else -- as is the case with the Samsung Chromebook Plus -- you may need adapters for some of your existing external devices such as printers, monitors, or external hard drives.

Any laptop you buy today will have a built-in wireless card that supports 802.11n Wi-Fi connections. Support for a newer, more robust Wi-Fi connection, 802.11ac, is also showing up in many budget laptops, including all of our top picks. 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, all of our picks have some form of 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.

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. 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.

Lenovo generally has a reputation for making laptops with very good keyboards, and its ThinkPad 13 is a prime example, according to a reviewer from Computer Shopper. It even has a pointing stick for those who don't want to use the touchpad to control the cursor. The company seems to have missed the mark with the Flex 11's keyboard, however; a Laptop Mag reviewer suggests its keys are too shallow and have a slippery feel. The budget-basic HP Stream 14's keyboard is pretty mediocre, as well, according to a CNET expert, and it's touchpad won't earn raves either.

Some users also favor backlit keyboards, which are helpful when working in the dark, but these are still rare among budget laptops and often come at an added cost. The Asus Flip C302CA, which comes standard with a full-size illuminated keyboard, is an exception.

Portability.

Laptop manufacturers 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 12.3-inch Samsung Chromebook Plus weighs only 2.38 pounds and is only .51-inches thick. Experts praise its slim profile, and at the same time point out that its aluminum frame gives it a more substantial, high-quality feel. Even among the bulkier or plastic-framed models on our pick list, none weighs more than 3.5 pounds. Expect much more heft from the Dell Inspiron 15 5000, however. With a sizeable hard drive and a DVD tray built-in, this laptop tips the scales at 5.2 pounds and is nearly an inch thick.

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 seven hours, but eight hours or more is preferable. Laptops that can power on for more than eight 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.

At PC Mag, the ThinkPad 13 model they tested, which was powered by an Intel Core i3-7100 processor, proved to be an all-day machine; it's battery held out for more than 12 hours, and one would expect even greater battery life with the less-powerful base model we list here. The Acer Chromebook R13 topped even that lofty mark with a battery that lasted 13 hours in a CNET test. Despite base specs that are fairly similar to the Acer R13's, the Lenovo Flex 11 only managed about 8 hours in Laptop Mag's tests. This placed the Flex 11 below average as compared to other models, including Dell's Chromebook 3189. According to Laptop Mag's tests of the Dell 3189, users can expect that laptop to deliver about 9 hours of battery life.

A final note to those considering the other Dell laptop we mention, the Inspiron 15 5000: Laptop Mag tests suggest users should always have a charger on hand with this machine. The battery on the version they reviewed, lasted a mere 4 hours and 30 minutes.

Additional Products We Considered

Dell Inspiron 15 5000 (5565) Review

From $600

Pros:
  • No steep learning curve; users say it's easy to set up and operate, with familiar features.
  • 1-terabyte hard drive should provide more than enough on-board storage for most users.
  • Built-in DVD drive with the ability to burn CDs and DVDs also offers additional back-up storage options.
  • Ports include standard USB 2.0 and 3.0, an HDMI port, and an Ethernet port for those who require wired internet connections.
Cons:
  • Cheaper AMD processor may not be quite as powerful as those on Intel versions.
  • Expect short battery life; some models in the series managed less than 5 hours in tests.
  • Keyboard is functional, but keys are a bit stiff, according to reviews.
  • Heavier than many laptops; additional components add bulk.
  • No USB-C ports; adapters needed for some external connectors.
  • Does not support faster 802.11ac internet connections.

Takeaway: While many newer laptop models have become totally dependent on wireless connections, streaming media, and external storage options, this modern but practical machine offers many conveniences users miss, like an included Ethernet port, plentiful onboard storage, and a built-in CD/DVD player. For those whose heads aren't quite so wrapped up in the clouds of today's computing landscape, Dell's Inspiron 15 5000 (5565) is a relatively affordable, reliable choice that packs just enough punch.

Where to buy

HP Stream 14 (ax010nr) Review

From $220

Pros:
  • Very cheap for a Windows laptop.
  • Provides larger-than-average display for the price.
  • Battery life is good; managed 8 hours in expert tests.
  • Wide selection of ports, including two USB 3.1 (up to twice as fast as USB 3.0).
  • Blue color gives it a stand-out style.
Cons:
  • Small amount of storage for a Windows system, though cloud storage options come free for first year.
  • Poor overall screen quality.
  • Mediocre keyboard and touchpad.

Takeaway: Consumers would be hard pressed to find a cheaper laptop that's worthy of consideration, especially one that runs Windows software. This inexpensive model has its share of shortcomings, but some could be fixed with the purchase of a few cheap accessories. And while it's not necessarily a powerhouse when it comes to processing skills, it can certainly get basic jobs done -- which is saying a lot, given the sub-$250 price.

Where to buy