How Low Can You Go?
“Cheap” is no longer a dirty word when it comes to laptops. These days, manufacturers are inventing new ways to outsell each other, including aggressive price cutting. Now we’re seeing full-size and ultraportable Windows 10 notebooks with processors powerful enough for use at home, school, or work, as well as full-featured chromebooks and hybrid systems that give you both laptop and tablet functionality in one device.
Components and Features
You have to accept fewer compromises with the budget laptops of today than you did in the past. Intel’s Atom and Celeron processors have evolved to the point that they can support most of your Web browsing and basic productivity needs without being overly slow. The newest integrated GPUs can hold their own in browser-based Flash games and even some online games like World of Warcraft, but meeting the higher demands of AAA titles still requires a discrete GPU, which you won’t find in this price range. If money is no object, check out our top-rated gaming laptops.
Memory (or RAM) is relatively inexpensive now, so you’ll find that many budget laptops will come with 4GB of DDR3 memory (though you may be able to make do with less). In terms of batteries, an ideal budget laptop has one with six cells or more. The battery life for a cheap laptop is at least 3 or 4 hours, and these days many can last quite a bit longer.
When it comes to storage, many inexpensive systems offer up to 500GB of hard drive space. Others, particularly chromebooks and Windows-based chromebook competitors like the Lenovo IdeaPad 100S, will only have a small allotment (16 or 32GB) of flash storage, but compensate for it with generous offers of additional free cloud storage. But, as with anything cloud-based, you’ll need to be online to access it.
In terms of features, budget laptops will come with USB 2.0 ports, and possibly USB 3.0. There may also be an SD slot and 802.11n wireless connectivity, and an HDMI port is a definite plus. You shouldn’t always expect a touch-screen display, however.
Chromebooks used to be glorified netbooks running Google’s Chrome OS. While these Chrome OS–based laptops are still Web-centric, they now have a relatively full feature set. If you spend most of your working hours in the cloud, a chromebook will offer you just as much functionality as a regular laptop, and have longer battery life. It will also likely cost you a lot less than other types of notebooks, as chromebook prices typically run between $200 and $300. Just be sure you have easy, constant Wi-Fi access, as there is scant local storage on these systems.
Tablets and Hybrids
In recent years, tablets have exploded in popularity, and though we have plenty of reviews of those—take a look at our overall roundup of the best tablets overall, as well as our favorites running the Windows and Android operating systems—those are sufficiently different enough from traditional clamshell-style laptops that we’re not covering them here.
They are, however, an important part of a new category that has also emerged: the laptop/tablet hybrid. These machines let you flip between a laptop and a tablet, either by folding the keyboard out of the way or docking a tablet on a keyboard accessory to get laptop-like functionality. You should consider a hybrid system if you want both the typing capability of a laptop and the convenience of a tablet.
The Best on a Budget
If you’re on a strict budget, don’t lose heart. There are laptops will offer you enough performance to tackle your day-to-day tasks without a stutter, and without breaking the bank. We update this list frequently, so you’re always seeing our top recommendations of some of the most affordable systems on the market.
Read the full reviews of our 10 top-rated models below. For more budget picks, take a look at our roundups of the best laptops for college students and the best low-cost desktops. For more general factors to consider when choosing a laptop, take a look at our buying guide with our overall top laptop picks.