Finest laptop computer below $500 for 2021 – CNET

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Looking for a laptop deal to avoid dropping a big chunk of change on new hardware? There’s no need for coupon-clipping or deal hunting, because there are already great budget laptop options out there — if you know where to look. 

Now, if you’re trying to find something for less than $500, that becomes a bit more challenging. Issues that originated during the pandemic have led to continued high demand for Windows or Chrome OS laptops (also known as Chromebooks). While we’re finally past the coronavirus-induced WFH rush, when PC and accessory sales spiked, there’s still a parts-supply shortage and strong demand for budget laptops and other ultracheap hardware.

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And though demand is high, we urge you not to make rash decisions. There are a lot of cheap laptops that are just not worth it. But of the ones that are worth it, we’re highlighting our picks for the best laptops under $500 to help you sort through the competition and find the one with the features and hardware specifications that are right for you.

Think long-term

As a rule of thumb, resist buying out of desperation — don’t spend $500 on a laptop because there are no cheaper ones available, for example. Buying a need-it-now laptop can be like shopping for food while hungry. Even for a laptop, $500 can be a lot of money, and you’ll likely be holding onto it for at least three years, if the statistics Intel and PC manufacturers hurl at us are correct.

You can also try to make your current laptop last a little longer. If you need something to tide you over for a few months, dig into possible places to buy refurbished machines and explore nonprofit or educational discounts if you’re eligible. Also, if there’s something you really want in a laptop, like a touchscreen, backlit keyboard or HDMI port, check the manufacturer’s specs closely to make sure it has it. You’ll regret it if you don’t.

If you suspect you’ll be holding onto your new laptop for a while, see if you can stretch your budget to buy a slightly more expensive laptop to accommodate a little more memory or a processor with more cores than you were otherwise considering. If you haven’t thought about it, look at AMD Ryzen processors as alternatives to Intel Core for Windows laptops or alternatives to Intel Celeron and Pentium for Chromebooks.

Even better, if you’re comfortable with it, think about an affordable laptop with a replaceable battery (if you can find one), upgradable memory, graphics card and storage, or all of the above. Furthermore, it may not feel like it now, but you won’t be stuck at home forever. Remember to consider whether having a lighter-weight laptop with good battery life will be important to you in the future. 

Read more: Best monitors under $200 you can get right now

You can always add an external drive or two (or five, if you’re me) at some point down the road. But if your internal storage is the type of slow-spinning hard drive that comes in a lot of cheap laptop models, fast external storage is unlikely to help speed up loading Windows or applications. You can frequently set a system to boot from an external solid-state drive if necessary.

You may see references to “Intel Optane” in conjunction with slow (5,400rpm) spinning hard drives; Optane is fast solid-state memory that acts as a temporary storage space for frequently accessed files on the hard drive to speed things up. It helps, but not as much as an SSD drive. 

And finally, if you’re replacing an old Windows laptop that’s not up to running Windows anymore, consider turning it into a Chromebook.


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Trade-offs

As long as you manage your expectations when it comes to options and specs, you can still get quite a bit from a budget laptop model, including good battery life and a reasonably lightweight laptop body. 

A bright spot is you don’t have to settle for a traditional clamshell laptop with a fixed display and keyboard. You can also get a convertible laptop (aka a two-in-one), which has a screen that flips around to turn the screen into a tablet, to position it for comfortable streaming or to do a presentation. Keep in mind that all convertibles have a touchscreen, which is a prerequisite for tablet operation, and many support styluses (aka “pens”) for handwritten and sketched input. Don’t assume a stylus is included, though.

One thing you won’t find at these prices: a MacBook or any other Apple laptop. An iPad will run you more than $500 once you buy the optional keyboard (though it might work out to less if you look for sales on the tablet or keyboard), which is above our budget here. A base-model iPad with an inexpensive Bluetooth keyboard and cheap stand for the iPad might suffice.

Read more: Laptop vs. Chromebook: Which portable computer is best in 2021 

You’ll see a lot of cheap laptops listed as coming with Windows 10 S, a stripped-down and locked-down version of the operating system intended for use by schools — it only allows you to install applications from the Windows Store, forces you to use Microsoft’s Edge browser and includes a subset of the administrative tools in Windows 10 Pro. You can upgrade to the full version for free, though.

It doesn’t feel like there’s much to make the upcoming Windows 11 a must-have upgrade, but if it’s going to be important to you for some reason, be careful about checking that the laptop will meet the requirements. These inexpensive models can be especially at risk of not making the cut. 

It’s easier to find inexpensive Chromebooks than Windows laptops, making them one of the most popular budget laptops on the market, though we’re also seeing a lot more Chromebooks in the $500-to-$1,000 range. That’s because Google’s Chrome OS isn’t nearly as power-hungry as Windows (check the specs), so you can get by with a lower-end processor, slower storage and less screen resolution or memory — just a few of the components that make a laptop expensive. 

But the flip side is that while Chrome OS isn’t as power-hungry as Windows, Chrome and Google apps are more of a memory hog than you’d expect, and if you go too low with the processor or skimp on memory, the system will still feel slow. Chrome OS is also a much different experience than Windows; make sure the applications you need have a Chrome app before making the leap.

Lenovo’s Duet Chromebook is part laptop, part Android tablet

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Since they’re cloud-first devices, however, you don’t need a lot of storage built in. That also means if you spend most of your time roaming the web, writing, streaming video or playing Android games, they’re a good fit. If you hope to play Android games, make sure you get a touchscreen laptop model.

Read more: Are Chromebooks worth it? Why I recommended them for most laptop buyers

For a cheap gaming laptop, though, you’ll still have to break the $500 ceiling to support most games. The least expensive budget laptops suitable for a solid gaming performance experience — those with moderately powerful discrete graphics processors — will run you closer to $700. Here are our recommendations if you’re looking for the best gaming laptop under $1,000. 

Although, if you like to live on the bleeding edge, cloud gaming services such as Google Stadia and Microsoft Xbox Game Pass Ultimate‘s Game Streaming will let you play games on laptops with specs that hit the under-$500 mark. 


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Specs to keep in mind

While Chromebooks can run Chrome OS-specific and Android apps, some people need the full Windows OS to run heftier applications, such as video editing suites. With that comes a need for a faster processor with more cores, more memory — 8GB is the bare minimum — and more storage for applications and the operating system itself. A lot of these have 4GB or 6GB, which in conjunction with a spinning hard disk can make for a frustratingly slow Windows experience. But demands on Chromebooks are growing, so if your Chrome needs run beyond the basics you should think about paying more for more memory and a faster processor.

  • A lot of Windows laptops in this range use AMD Athlon and lower-end A series or Intel Celeron and Pentium processors to hit the lower price. I don’t really recommend going with an Athlon instead of a Ryzen or a Celeron/Pentium instead of a Core: Windows is too heavy for them, and in conjunction with the 4GB memory a lot of them have, you may find them abysmally slow at best.
  • Because of their low prices, 11-inch Chromebooks are attractive. But we don’t recommend that size for any but the youngest students. And if you’re both going to be looking at the screen frequently for remote learning, 11 inches can get really cramped.
  • SSDs can make a big difference in how fast Windows performance feels compared with a spinning hard disk, but they also push the price up. So if your budget can stretch a little and you want more storage, you may want to consider stepping up from base storage options to a 128GB SSD. 
  • In the budget price range you have to watch out for screen terminology when it comes to specs: An “HD” screen may not always be a truly high-definition screen. HD, which has a resolution of 1,920×1,080 pixels, is called “Full HD” so marketers can refer to lesser-resolution displays (1,280×720 pixels) as HD. In Chromebooks, HD usually refers to a screen with a resolution of 1,366×768 pixels. On the upside, the boom in 14-inch laptops trickles down to this price range, which allows for more FHD options in the size. 
  • A frequent complaint I see is about “washed-out” looking displays with poor viewing angles. Unfortunately, that’s one of the trade-offs: A lot of these use TN (twisted nematic) screen technology, which is cheap but meh.
  • Pay attention to networking. Inexpensive models with older chipsets may only support Wi-Fi 3 (or 802.11b/g/n). Wi-Fi 3 is limited to 2.4GHz channels; those are slower than more recent chipsets with Wi-Fi 4 (aka 802.11ac) that add a 5GHz channel as well. I haven’t seen any laptops in this price range with Wi-Fi 6, the newest version; chances are you won’t have any Wi-Fi 6 access points to connect to, though, so you likely won’t miss it now. The specifications aren’t always correct on the shopping sites, so if you see a model that doesn’t seem to have Wi-Fi 4, double-check on the manufacturer’s site before ruling it out. Remember, Chromebooks are designed to work predominantly over the internet, so Wi-Fi speed and stability are crucial. 

Considering all specs and options — battery life, storage space, screen resolution, screen size, core processor performance, general machine and battery performance — these are a few of our top picks for 2021’s best Windows laptops and Chromebooks under the $500 budget, along with their pros and cons.

Sarah Tew/CNET

This Lenovo IdeaPad is essentially a Chrome version of the first Microsoft Surface Go. Like the Go, the Lenovo Chromebook Duet is a 10-inch tablet with a detachable keyboard and touchpad. Unlike Microsoft, though, Lenovo includes the keyboard. This Lenovo laptop also costs much less than the Microsoft Surface Go (including the Microsoft Surface Go 2), starting at $249 list for a 64GB version or $299 for one with 128GB of storage. The Lenovo IdeaPad is essentially a smaller, albeit less powerful, Pixel Slate that makes more sense for more people with a price that’s more in line with what people expect a Chromebook to cost.

The screen is small, however, so if you’re regularly using it at a desk, we recommend attaching an external monitor to its USB-C port. You’ll probably want to connect a wireless keyboard and mouse, too. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

The 2019 Acer Aspire 5 15-inch clamshell includes an AMD Ryzen 3 3200U, with its Vega graphics processing. It also features a USB 3.1 Gen 1 port, two 2.0 USB port options and HDMI port. The 4GB RAM and 128GB solid-state drive storage don’t allow you to have many programs or lots of browser tabs open simultaneously, but this Acer Aspire 15-inch model does weigh less than 4 pounds. Subsequent models have replaced it over the past few years, but this one keeps hanging in there.

Read our Acer Aspire 5 (2019) review.

 

Josh Goldman/CNET

If you’d rather have a wider screen instead of the taller one of a 13-inch model, this HP is the way to go. It’s a bit wider than a premium 13.3-inch model, but that extra width makes it easier to work in two windows side by side. The two-in-one design means you can use it as a tablet (though it’s a bit heavy to use handheld) or tent it and connect an external keyboard and mouse and use it as a small all-in-one computer. 

In our testing, the Core i3 processor and 8GB of memory kept it running smoothly even with a couple dozen tabs open and streaming video in the background. And it has a long battery life to boot, lasting 10 hours, 40 minutes in our tests.

Josh Goldman/CNET

This Lenovo laptop is somewhat small, with a 13-inch, full HD display, but the Flex 5 delivers convertible laptop convenience as well as excellent performance and battery life for the money, thanks to an Intel Core i3-10110U processor, 4GB of memory and 64GB of SSD storage. The Lenovo Flex is not a great choice for outdoor use, since the display is pretty dim. There’s also an 8GB model with a 128GB SSD that comes in at just under $500.

Read our Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5 review.

 

Lenovo

The Windows version of the Flex two-in-one has the beefed up specs (at least over a Chromebook) necessary to run Windows, though probably not very fast — the dual-core Intel Core i3 processor and 8GB of RAM are the reasons the price is low. But it has a bigger full HD screen than the Chromebook model.

Samsung

This is a pretty straightforward 15-inch Samsung Chromebook equipped with a Celeron N4000, 4GB or 6GB RAM and 32GB or 64GB storage. Don’t expect terrific performance for the money, though. You can find less expensive laptop versions of the Samsung Chromebook, but they’re all 11-inch models, so I’d hesitate unless it’s for a very young student or a small space.

Asus

Amazon currently offers an older Core i3 8GB model for about $435, a reasonable price for a Windows laptop with an Intel Core processor. You’ll also see listings with 4GB RAM, but that’s way too little memory for Windows, which barely gets by on 8GB. Don’t confuse it with the thinner, lighter, more expensive Asus VivoBook S15.

Newer models are on their way — not quite in stock yet — and there’s a 2020 Asus VivoBook model that just squeaks in under $500, but it’s got a higher-end Ryzen 5 processor and more storage. You can check the stock at B&H if you’re interested.

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