Looking for the best laptop under $500? You and a billion other bargain hunters. You can get quite a bit in a budget model, including a reasonably lightweight body and good battery life, as long as you manage your expectations when it comes to specs and options.
The good news is you don’t need to settle for a traditional clamshell laptop with a fixed display and keyboard. You can get a convertible (aka a two-in-one) — a laptop with a screen that flips around to turn the screen into a tablet, to position it for comfortable streaming or to do a presentation — at a pretty reasonable price, for Windows or Chrome OS. And keep in mind that all convertibles have touchscreens, as that’s a prerequisite for tablet operation.
One thing you won’t find: a MacBook or any other Apple laptops. Even an iPad Air will run you more than $500 once you buy the optional keyboard (though if you look for sales on the tablet or keyboard it might work out to less), which is above the budget.
It’s easier to find inexpensive Chromebooks than Windows laptops, making it one of the most popular categories of 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 itself is unfortunately more of a memory hog than you’d expect, and if you go too low with the processor, the system will still feel slow.
Since they’re cloud-first devices, 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. (To play Android games, make sure you get a model with a touchscreen display.)
Read more: Best Chromebooks for 2019
For gaming on the cheap, though, you’ll still have to break the $500 budget for performance. The least expensive budget laptops suitable for a solid gaming performance experience — those with even moderately powerful discrete graphics processors, will run you closer to $700. Here are our recommendations if you’re looking for the most inexpensive and the best gaming laptops — the best laptop under $500.
On the other hand, if you like to live on the bleeding edge, cloud gaming services like Google Stadia will let you play games on laptops with specs that hit the under $500 mark.
Things to keep in mind:While Chromebooks can run Chrome OS-specific and Android apps, some people need a full Windows operating system 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. Solid-state drives (SSD) can make a big difference in how fast Windows performance feels compared with a spinning hard disk (HDD), 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 solid-state drive. In this budget price range you have to watch out for screen terminology when it comes to specs: This is why an “HD” screen may not always mean a truly high definition screen. HD, which is 1,920×1,080 pixels to a screen, was retronymmed “Full HD” so that marketers could keep selling you lesser-resolution screens (1,280×720 pixels per screen) as “HD.” In Chromebooks, “HD” usually refers to a 1,366×768-pixel screen.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 2.4 GHz channels, which are slower and have a shorter range than more recent chipsets with Wi-Fi 4 (aka 802.11ac) 5 GHz support. The specifications aren’t always correct on the shopping sites, so if you see a model which doesn’t seem to have WiFi 4, double check on the manufacturer’s site before ruling it out. Remember, Chromebooks are designed work predominantly over the internet, so Wi-Fi speed and stability is very important.
Considering all specs and options from battery life to storage space, screen resolution, screen size, core processor performance and general machine and battery performance, these are a few of our top picks for 2020’s best Windows laptops and Chromebooks under the $500 budget, along with their pros and cons.
Read more: Best laptops, desktops and tablets for designers and creatives in 2019Sarah Tew/CNET
The Aspire 5 15-inch clamshell can be $349 or lower with the latest generation AMD Ryzen 3 processor, the 3200U, with its modern Vega graphics processing. Its 4 GB RAM and 128GB solid-state drive storage don’t allow for using a lot of programs or lots of browser tabs open simultaneously, but this 15-inch screen model weighs less than 4 pounds. If you spend closer to $500, you can get a more powerful Intel i5-8265U processor with 8GB DDR4 Memory and 256GB SSD. Read our Acer Aspire 5 (2019) review.
Read more: Best 2-in-1 PCs in 2019 for when you need a laptop and tablet in oneSarah Tew/CNET
For less than $400, though higher-end configurations can break the $500 price ceiling, this Chromebook is practically a steal. It’s thin and light, but sturdy, and has great battery life, plus a fingerprint reader and Citrix certification for IT-minded organizations.
Read more: Best college laptops for 2019Sarah Tew/CNET
It’s not the prettiest system, but the Aspire is a solid budget laptop and includes a good 1,920×1,080 15.6-inch screen, a ton of ports — new and old — and even a DVD-RW drive for those still working in the world of physical media. What’s more, you can open it up and add more memory and storage space. Cons include that it’s heavy at 5.3 pounds, but it’s a great option as a desktop replacement or as a system you just want to tote around the house. The price of this configuration — a dual core Intel Core i3-8130U, 6GB of RAM and a 1TB storage hard drive — varies, but it’s consistently under $400. In mid-March, though, the newer model will become available, still for less than $500. It’s less heavy and more attractive, but it does punt the DVD drive. Read our Acer Aspire E 15 review.