• Acer Aspire 5 (A515-54-51DJ)

  • How We Tested

  • What You Should Know About Budget Laptops

  • Other Budget Laptops We Tested

  • More Articles You Might Enjoy

Acer Aspire Best Overall
Credit: Reviewed / Jackson Ruckar

For most people, the Aspire 5 is the budget laptop to buy.

Best Overall
Acer Aspire 5 (A515-54-51DJ)

The Acer Aspire 5 was the most powerful Windows laptop we tested, thanks to its Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB of SSD storage. That’s enough to handle most everyday workloads—opening lots of browser tabs, dealing with Word processing documents, and running multiple apps at once. For a laptop at this price point, its speed is impressive.

The external hardware is surprisingly high quality, too. The aluminum top cover is more durable and premium-feeling than previous plastic generations, and the 1080p IPS display ensures you get a colorful, sharp display that won’t look “off” at an angle. It even has a fingerprint scanner for quick logins—again, not always a given on affordable laptops—plus a springy keyboard and precise trackpad.

In the sub-$500 space, it often feels like you have to make a compromise somewhere. Maybe you can get a laptop with top-tier performance, but the build quality suffers. Or maybe you have a luxurious-feeling machine, but it’s a little hindered by its low-end processor. Even as a power user, though, I felt like the Acer Aspire 5 gave me the most important stuff I needed to get work done. Its larger 15-inch body may not appeal to everybody, though, since it’s not as portable as smaller models—if you’re lugging this around in your backpack, it’s going to feel a bit bulky. Its battery life was also good-not-great, coming in around seven hours. For most people, though, the Aspire 5 is the budget laptop to buy. Just don’t expect too many fancy bells and whistles.

Pros

  • High quality hardware

  • Powerful enough for everyday workloads

Cons

  • Not very portable

How We Tested

Testing Photo 3
Credit: Reviewed / Jackson Ruckar

We test laptops for their processing capability, graphics, battery life, and screen brightness.

The Tester

I’m Whitson Gordon, and I’m a freelance tech writer charged with testing laptops here at Reviewed. I’ve been writing about tech professionally for almost 10 years, from building computers to setting up smart homes, and served as the editor-in-chief of Lifehacker and How-To Geek before freelancing for publications like the New York Times, PCMag, and Reviewed. This isn’t just my day job—it’s my calling. I’m obsessed with researching, testing, and finding the best possible gadget in a given category, so much so that my brother made it a central joke in his best man speech at my wedding.

I’m particularly picky about laptops, which need to achieve a delicate balance of processing power, battery life, portability, and build quality. If a keyboard, trackpad, and hinge aren’t going to stand the test of time, then the laptop isn’t worth buying. Thankfully, manufacturers have innovated a lot in recent years, finding new ways to stand out from the pack.

The Tests

Here at Reviewed, we test laptops for their processing capability, graphics, battery life, and screen brightness. We use popular benchmarks like Geekbench and 3DMark to gauge how well the laptop multitasks, runs games, and more. We also test multiple platforms, from Windows laptops to Macs and Chromebooks alike.

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To test battery life, we set up our laptops to continuously cycle through various websites at a brightness of 200 nits—just a little under 100% for many of these budget models—until they run out of power, estimating how much work you can get done on a single charge. We also use each laptop for an extended period of time, rating each on factors like build quality, price, portability, and design.

What You Should Know About Budget Laptops

When it comes to laptops, $500 is considered the low end. I wouldn’t spend much less than that, or you get into models that are too slow to be useful, or won’t last you long enough into the future. If you have a really tight budget, you should seriously consider buying a refurbished laptop instead, which can get you a like-new version of last year’s model at a sizable discount. Or consider a desktop PC, which can get you more power for your money.

Even if your budget tops out at $500, though, you have to make some choices about what’s most important to you. You’ll need to consider:

  • Performance: The CPU, graphics chip, RAM, and storage inside your PC determine how well your computer can multitask, handle intensive tasks like gaming, and store all your files. The better the specs, the snappier the laptop will feel as you work.

  • Build Quality: Not only do you want a laptop that can take a beating (since you’ll probably be lugging it around with you), but you want one with a well-built keyboard and trackpad since they’re your primary form of interaction with the machine. A poor trackpad or finicky keyboard can really kill the experience.

  • Portability and Features: The more you try to cram into a small space, the higher the cost—that’s why a lot of budget laptops tend to be bigger than their $1000, ultra-portable counterparts. Similarly, features like fingerprint scanners cost money to include, so they aren’t as common at this price point—and it’s really exciting when you do see them.

When spending $500, it’s hard to get everything in one package—you usually have to sacrifice somewhere. It’s all about finding a balance that fits your needs, even if that means a few drawbacks.

In addition, consider which operating system you need. Windows is still the dominant OS these days, and if you’re going to play games, edit photos and videos, or need certain software for work, you’ll probably stick with Microsoft’s offering. Many budget laptops come with Windows 10 in “S Mode,” which only allows apps from the Microsoft Store—but you can take it out of S mode for free, and we recommend almost everyone do so. Windows laptops at this price point almost always have pre-installed “bloatware,” too, which you can remove from Windows’ uninstall menu.

If you spend all your time on the web, a Chromebook may serve you better than you’d think at this price point. Between Netflix, Gmail, Google Docs, and even online photo editors like Pixlr, you can do almost anything in a browser, and many of those web apps even work offline for those rare occasions you don’t have Wi-Fi.

Chromebooks have the advantage of being cheaper (since they don’t need as much processing power) and virtually virus- and bloatware-free (since they run Linux under the hood). My main laptop is actually a Chromebook, and as a companion to my Windows desktop at home, it serves me very well—I can even access my Windows PC from my Chromebook through Chrome Remote Desktop.

Display Size

From there, you’ll need to look a bit deeper at the form factor. You’ll usually find laptops in one of three main sizes, measured by the diagonal length of the display:

  • 13 inches and under: These smaller laptops are great for carrying around, and more than suitable for light work like writing papers and browsing the web.

  • 15 inches: Mid-sized laptops are a bit less portable, and won’t necessarily work in space-constrained spaces like airplane seats. But the larger display is useful for photo editing and watching videos, and are more common at lower price points.

  • 17 inches: This is very large, and only recommended if you are doing video editing or other intensive work that requires a lot of screen real estate—and you don’t mind lugging it around.

There can still be varying sizes within those categories—for example, the XPS 13’s smaller bezels make it much smaller than most 13-inch laptops—and sizes in between, like the 14-inch Lenovo Yoga C940. But in general, picking a size range you’re comfortable with can help narrow down the field.

You’ll also want to consider how many USB ports the laptop has, whether you need HDMI and Ethernet, and how comfortable the keyboard and trackpad are to use—this can vary quite a bit from model to model, and it’s important to get something responsive and durable.

Under the Hood

Finally, you’ll need to consider the guts: the processor, graphics chip, RAM, and storage that determine your laptop’s capabilities. For browsing the web and using office software, lower-power chips (like the Intel Core i3 processor) are adequate, though midrange chips like the i5 are ideal if you can get them. 4GB of RAM is usable in a Chromebook, though even web browsing can eat up RAM these days, so 8GB is recommended if you tend to open lots of tabs, use lots of browser extensions, and want a laptop that’ll last you well into the future—I wouldn’t advise 4GB for most Windows users these days.

If, on the other hand, you run more intense workloads—whether that means heavy photo and video editing or running the latest PC games—you’ll want something with a bit more “oomph.” Intel’s higher-end i7 processors will make those video encodes run noticeably faster, and a dedicated graphics card will ensure your games run smooth as butter (instead of choppy like a bad flipbook). You don’t tend to see these features at the $500 price point, though, so if you want them, you may need to step up your budget—or, again, look at refurbished laptops and desktop machines for the most possible bang for your buck.

No matter who you are, I recommend erring on the side of more storage rather than less—people often underestimate how much space they’ll fill up with all their music, photos, and videos over time, and it’s a hassle to lug an external drive around. Storage can be expensive, though, so if you can’t afford a 256GB solid-state drive, consider buying a laptop with an SD card slot and using a high-capacity card for cheap, expandable storage.

Keep in mind internal upgradeability, too: many modern laptops solder their components onto the motherboard, meaning you can’t swap in more RAM or a bigger storage drive down the line. So either buy a laptop that keeps its components separate or spend a bit more to buy the specs you’ll need in a couple years—not just what you need right now.


Other Budget Laptops We Tested

Asus VivoBook 15 (F512DA-EB51)

The Asus VivoBook 15 is a great laptop for the price. With a large 15-inch display, a springy keyboard with relatively deep travel, and a smooth trackpad with a fingerprint scanner, it’s hard to believe how affordable it is. The screen is also one of the brightest we tested at 252 nits. Its performance doesn’t quite measure up to the Aspire 5 in terms of everyday workloads, though, and battery life was pretty low at only four and a half hours.

That said, the VivoBook has its place: since it uses a Ryzen 5 processor with AMD’s integrated graphics chip, its gaming performance is better than any laptop we tested at this price point. That doesn’t mean it's a high-end gaming machine, by any means—you’d still want a dedicated graphics card rather than one integrated into the processor—but it could handle some slightly older titles or indie games without too much trouble, and it’d do it better than any other machine on this list. If you want a little bit of light gaming alongside your work, and you’re okay charging up often, this is the laptop I’d pick.

Pros

  • Large display

  • Can run older games

Cons

  • Mediocre battery life

Asus Chromebook C425 (C425TA-DH384)

If you spend most of your time on the web—as many of us do—you’ll get the best bang for your buck from a Chromebook thanks to Chrome OS’ lower system requirements. Asus’ Chromebook 14 is a terrific option: it may have a lower-end Core m3 processor, but it still feels plenty fast for regular browsing and document writing. The keyboard has deeper travel than most thin and light laptops you’ll find today, which means it’ll be more comfortable to type on for long sessions. The keys are even backlit, which isn’t always common at $500, and it’s bright, the 14-inch display is better than a lot of its budget competitors.

Asus has packed this model with 8GB of RAM, which is great for opening lots of tabs and multitasking. Its 64GB of storage may seem paltry, but if you’re doing most of your music listening, movie watching, and document writing on the web, you shouldn’t need too much—though the microSD card slot lets you add more storage cheaply if you want. Battery life is fantastic at almost eight and a half hours, which was the second-best we saw among all the $500 laptops we tested. Plus, with Chrome OS, you’re basically free from viruses and bloatware, which is a nice perk if you’re tired of maintaining Windows.

Pros

  • Plenty fast for browsing

  • Great battery life

Cons

  • Only runs Chrome OS

Lenovo Flex 15 (81SR000XUS)

Laptops with built-in touch screens inevitably add to the cost of your machine, which means it’s hard to find a decent 2-in-1 under $500. The Lenovo IdeaPad Flex manages to squeeze one in, though it only has 1080p resolution and 255 nits of brightness, which won’t get you very far outdoors. Still, it gets the job done if you want to fold back the display and do some drawing or watch a movie in tablet mode. The Flex 15 comes equipped with an Intel Core i3 processor and 4GB of RAM, which means a bit less performance than you can find in other similarly-priced laptops. But if you absolutely need that touch screen, you’ll have to sacrifice somewhere. The 8GB version is about $50 more and will feel noticeably faster when multitasking or opening lots of browser tabs. You can also add more RAM and storage down the line since it is user-upgradeable.

Otherwise, the hardware is pretty nice for a budget machine: the keyboard is a bit shallow but feels very responsive, the trackpad is smooth and accurate, and the 2-in-1 hinge feels strong. You even get a fingerprint reader for quick login and a privacy shutter on the webcam. You’ll need to upgrade Windows 10 S from the Microsoft Store app and the 15-inch screen size may be a bit large for some, but otherwise, it’s a decent machine—you can just get better performance for your money if you’re willing to forego the touchscreen.

Pros

  • Affordable

  • Responsive trackpad

Cons

  • Performance is lacking

Acer Swift 3 (SF314-54-39BH)

Acer’s Swift series of laptops is designed to be a thin and sleek alternative to the tougher, everyday Aspire line. But in the sub-$500 category, the Swift line is a bit lacking. The Swift 3 is thinner than the Aspire 5 and the 13-inch screen makes it more portable. That said, the clicky trackpad is loud and feels a little cheap and its performance is on the weaker end. It has an Intel Core i3 processor and 4GB of RAM, which is the bare minimum I’d recommend on a Windows machine. However, it’s user upgradeable with a screwdriver—so you could add some extra RAM to the 4GB model yourself and stay within your budget.

Still, it has its perks for the price. A few premium touches help boost its street cred, like a 1080p IPS display and a fingerprint reader, though its battery life was just over six and a half hours—not amazing, but hardly bottom of the pack either. Really, the Swift 3 is best if you absolutely need a 13-inch laptop and can’t get by with a Chromebook, since most of the others on this list are 15-inches. Just make sure to switch it out of Windows 10 S mode in the Microsoft Store app or you’ll be stuck with a really limited app selection.

Pros

  • Thin body

  • User upgradable

Cons

  • Mediocre battery life

HP Chromebook X360 (12b-ca0010nr)

The HP Chromebook x360 12b comes with an Intel Celeron N4000 processor, which is the slowest of all the laptops we tested. But thanks to Chrome OS, it actually feels pretty snappy—much better than Windows laptops with the same CPU. Its metal chassis and matte-white lid feel remarkably high-end for the price, and while its keyboard is a little shallow and squeaky, the trackpad is smooth and accurate. The display also uses a more “square” 3:2 aspect ratio compared to other laptops, which is great for browsing the web (since most web pages leave a lot of white space on the sides of traditional 16:9 screens). HP’s Chromebook also had the best battery life in the pack, lasting almost nine hours on a single charge.

It’s not perfect, of course—a faster processor will still do better under heavy loads, as will something with 8GB of RAM (HP’s Chromebook x360 only seems to come in a 4GB configuration). I’d rather see my money go toward better internals than a 2-in-1 touch screen, though if you’re hoping to use the occasional Android app tablet-style, you may find it a nice addition.

Pros

  • Snappy performance

  • Great battery life

Cons

  • Shallow keyboard

Meet the tester

Whitson Gordon

Whitson Gordon

Freelance Writer

Whitson Gordon is a valued contributor to the Reviewed.com family of sites.

See all of Whitson Gordon's reviews

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