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  • Dell Inspiron 3501 (2021)

  • How We Tested Laptops Under $500

  • What You Should Know About Budget Laptops

  • Other Budget Laptops We Tested

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Credit: Reviewed / Adrien Ramirez

The Dell Inspiron 3501 is an excellent budget laptop that maximizes performance and usability.

Best Overall
Dell Inspiron 3501 (2021)
Editor's Note: November 2, 2021

While this laptop currently retails for about $580 to $600 due to supply chain issues, it's commonly on sale for $500 or less. Get it right now at Dell for $449.

Finding a good budget laptop that can keep pace with the premium ultrabooks is no small feat. The Dell Inspiron accepts it with grace: it’s thin, lightweight, and powerful enough to run any productivity task without issue.

While the Inspiron won’t win any beauty awards, the body feels rugged and does a great job of warding off fingerprints. The full-sized keyboard offers responsive keys that perfectly tow the line between soft and bouncy. Meanwhile, the decently large trackpad is smooth and has no issue picking up your finger’s movements. Unlike many of its budget peers, the Inspiron also manages to offer power without sacrificing battery life—it can go for almost eight hours before needing a recharge.

Our Intel Core i5 model was a workhorse, performing the same (or better!) as laptops that cost hundreds of more dollars. Whether you need dozens of Chrome tabs at the ready or find yourself working with Photoshop several times a week, this laptop will perform reliably. The only issue we had with the Inspiron was its dim screen, which may not be bright enough for those who work outside traditional office spaces. It’s not the fanciest, but boy does it get the basics right, offering a comfortable experience that won’t cost a fortune.

Pros

  • Good performance

  • Comfortable keyboard and body

  • Sturdy and rugged

Cons

  • Dim screen

  • No outstanding features

  • Grainy webcam

How We Tested Laptops Under $500

These are the best laptops under $500.
Credit: Reviewed / Jackson Ruckar

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

The Tester

Hey there, I’m Adrien Ramirez, laptop staff writer here at Reviewed. I’ve been working professionally with tech and PCs for six years, from game development to reviewing and everything in between. Before I came to Reviewed, I had worked with Lifewire and the MIT Game Lab. I’m passionate about all things tech, although I especially enjoy working with PCs. When I’m not testing and evaluating laptops, I’m planning new keyboard and small form factor desktop builds, playing games in virtual reality, or nerding out about graphics cards.

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.

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 on Wi-Fi 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. We wouldn’t recommend spending much less than that, since the models may be too slow to be useful, or may not 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. You can also completely wipe all bloatware by installing a clean copy of Windows to override the pre-installed, bloated version that comes out of the box.

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.h

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). Thanks to Chrome Remote Desktop, which gives users the freedom to remotely access a Windows PC, Chromebooks can even serve as a reliable companion to a powerful Windows 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—we 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). However, it’s rare to see that amount of performance in the sub-$500 price range.

No matter who you are, we 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

Product image of Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5 13” 2 in 1 (82B80006UX)
Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5 13” 2 in 1 (82B80006UX)

The Chromebook Flex 5 is a perfect mix of power, sophistication, and value. This 13-inch 2-in-1 laptop, usually found for under $400, uses quality mid-range components and has a stellar build quality that can rival laptops twice its price.

The Flex 5 we tested packs a 10th generation Intel Core i3 processor that makes ChromeOS run quickly, with no hesitation; You can open several apps and dozens of Chrome tabs before its performance takes a hit.

The gunmetal grey chassis is nothing short of stunning. The hinges are firm, and the body feels like it can take some roughhousing. The 1080p touch display is vibrant and bright and is also stylus compatible, although you have to find your own stylus. The keyboard and trackpad both feel comfortable and enjoyable to use for long periods of time.

The Flex 5’s biggest drawback is its middling battery life, which falls well below most Chromebooks’ eight-plus hour battery life. The audio is tinny and thin, making voices sound distant and muffled. Even though its webcam is only 720p resolution, its image is reasonably clear in low lighting, and the color stays neutral. However, none of these flaws are deal breakers, and the laptop offers incredible value for the money.

Pros

  • Elegant design

  • Great trackpad and keyboard

  • Fast performance

Cons

  • Middling battery life

Product image of Acer Aspire 5 (A515-55-56VK)
Acer Aspire 5 (A515-55-56VK)
Editor's Note: November 2, 2021

Due to the ongoing global supply chain issues, the Aspire 5 now retails for around $600.

The Acer Aspire 5 is a legend in the cheap laptop arena. For years, you could get an Acer Aspire and get an extremely fast laptop, with a ton of memory and storage for a low price. It was plastic, the screen was bad, and it was bulky (including a CD burner), but it was great for the price.

The updated Aspire 5 has an all-new design that sheds some of the thickness—and the CD burner, RIP—for a design that feels like a more conventional, affordable machine. It has chiclet style keys, a mostly plastic body, and a raft of ports including a full-size HDMI, USB-C, three USB ports, and an honest-to-goodness Ethernet port. It also sports some updated design cues that lend it an air of class that the previous Aspire sorely lacked.

In our tests, the updated Aspire proved it’s still a great machine if you need a lot of power and ports on a budget. The machine was more than fast enough for basic tasks, though the battery lasted less than seven hours in our browsing test and the screen was fine, at best. Still, it is one of the most versatile laptops for anyone that needs something at this price point.

Pros

  • Great port selection

  • Elegant looks

Cons

  • Battery life could be better

Product image of Asus Chromebook Flip C434TA-DSM4T
Asus Chromebook Flip C434TA-DSM4T

If you’re a young professional, you should definitely check out the Asus Chromebook Flip. Its performance is good enough for everyday tasks like surfing the web and checking email, its 2-in-1 form factor lends itself well for reading and movies, and its bezels are practically nonexistent (this means you’re getting a ton of screen). However, its sophisticated design elevates it past similar Chromebooks. With its aluminum finish and chrome trim, the C434T looks and feels like a premium product (minus the premium price tag). It’s one of the most elegant-looking Chromebooks we’ve seen in a while.

Sadly, its trackpad isn't on par with the rest of the Flip's excellent design. It’s not as responsive as a MacBook touchpad, and it could take some time to get used to. It's not a deal-breaker, per se, but it’s something to be aware of.

Pros

  • Excellent battery life

  • A beautiful display and keyboard

  • Affordable price point

Cons

  • Disappointing trackpad

Product image of HP Chromebook X360 (12b-ca0010nr)
HP Chromebook X360 (12b-ca0010nr)

It may not be mighty, but it sure is lovely. The HP Chromebook x360 is a 2-in-1 convertible Chromebook that feels sturdy and looks pretty in white. It comes with an optional stylus that really elevates the experience to something more organic, the pen gliding on the 4,096 levels of pressure like a pencil glides on photo paper.

This is a great tablet for students, as it allows them to take notes by writing them out or by typing them as they please. The Chromebook x360’s keyboard is surprisingly springy and stable for the price, and its touchpad is just as satisfactory. When you open your favorite video apps and sites, you’ll be treated to a bright, colorful display that looks much better than the price would suggest.

If you need a Chromebook that can handle a lot of tabs and programs simultaneously, this one may be a bit underpowered for you. However, if you’re looking for something a little more casual, maybe to check your email and read some ebooks, this little 2-in-1 has the perfect mix of features and functionality.

Pros

  • Snappy performance

  • Great battery life

Cons

  • Shallow keyboard

Product image of Lenovo Ideapad 3 (81W0003QUS)
Lenovo Ideapad 3 (81W0003QUS)

If you’re on a barebones budget, the 15.6-inch Gateway may catch your eye in the aisles of Walmart. The 4GB of RAM and build quality on our test model were big setbacks, but its useful selection of ports and extra storage solutions make up for it. Its Core i3 processor and 4GB of RAM have just enough power to run Windows 10 and do some light web browsing, but it will chug if you run too many tabs at once.

You can’t expect too much from a sub-$400 laptop, but the Gateway does have some surprises. If you quickly find yourself running out of storage, you can either get a microSD card for the slot on the left, or you can install a second SSD stick in a hideaway compartment on the bottom. Other ports include a USB-C port, an HDMI port, two USB-A ports, and a headphone jack. There’s even a fingerprint reader at the top left on the trackpad, a rare feature for this price range.

Sadly, the build quality is not up to par. The chassis itself is all plastic, and flexing it behind the display distorts the laptop’s screen. While the screen is full HD, it’s also dim and muted even at its brightest setting. The audio, keyboard, and trackpad are about the same: serviceable, but disappointing. The sound is tinny, the keyboard is stiff, and the trackpad is rough.

If you just need a laptop that works for checking your email or writing up some documents, this Gateway laptop will meet your needs. This is a good starter laptop for many, and the fun color choices (sky blue, forest green, hot pink) make it a particularly good choice for kids.

But before you add it to your cart, other Gateway laptops offer a much better value. The 15.6-inch Gateway with an Intel Core i3-115G4 processor and 8GB of RAM costs the same but offers a much snappier experience. For a hundred more dollars ($499), the 15.6-inch Gateway with a mid-range Core i5-1135G7 processor, 512 GB of storage, and a whopping 16GB of RAM is a steal.

Pros

  • Good performance for the price

  • Comfortable keyboard

Cons

  • Terrible touchpad

  • Poor battery life

  • Flimsy plastic body

Product image of HP Stream 14 (14-DS0013DX)
HP Stream 14 (14-DS0013DX)

If you’re looking for something under $300, you should take a look at our top pick in this category, the HP Stream 14. We’ve been testing $200 and $300 laptops for years, and while it’s a challenge to find worthwhile machines, we’re always excited to share the gems we dig up.

The HP Stream 14 won’t blow anyone away with its performance, but it works. Its 1366 x 768P display is washed out, but comfortable enough to read on and watch an occasional video. Similarly, the trackpad and keyboard will get you through any reports or emails you may need to type, but it may not be the best for your next big novel.

While our top laptops pack a punch with super-fast processors, the Stream 14 offers something closer to a gentle nudge with its performance. We run Cinebench to test most Windows 10 laptops, but the Stream only rendered about half the image after an hour of chugging (an entry-level, $400 Lenovo Ideapad 3 finished rendering the image in less than 15 minutes).

In real world applications, even the most basic web pages took a couple of seconds to load, and anything beefier than a single Chrome tab was just a nightmare. The Stream 14’s measly 4GB of RAM and 32GB of storage mean that it can barely chug through the basic Windows processes, and adding anything else on top will notably reduce performance.

If you don’t need to buy a new laptop right now, I’d advise you to save a little more money and buy a more capable laptop. Even if you don’t mind the slow performance, the storage isn’t upgradeable and a 32GB drive will fill itself up with Windows patches alone. However, if you do need a new Windows laptop ASAP, this is one of the best laptops we’ve tested at this price range.

Pros

  • Good battery life

  • Passable keyboard

  • Looks decent

Cons

  • Extremely slow

  • Small storage drive

  • Runs bulky Windows 10

Product image of Lenovo Chromebook Duet (2020, 10.1
Lenovo Chromebook Duet (2020, 10.1") 2 in 1

The Lenovo Chromebook Duet is a detachable Chromebook; in other words, is it a Chromebook or is it an Android tablet? At just under $300, it’s priced like a Chromebook, but it unfortunately runs like a slow budget tablet.

Whether you’re streaming Netflix or writing an email, the Duet just constantly chugs along. Its MediaTek brain feels no pressure to outcompete other, more powerful Chromebooks (and tablets!) in the same price range. That said, when videos and ebooks finally load, the Duet treats you to a bright, vivid, 1920x1200P screen that’s crisper than what you get on most mid-range laptops.

You’ll also be hard-pressed to find a lighter Chromebook than this one-pound wonder. When you add the beautiful denim-ish keyboard case that’s included with the Duet, it still only weighs a little under 2 pounds, and this 10-inch detachable hits 10 hours of battery life on our browser-based test (one of the best scores we’ve seen for Chromebooks). It doesn’t get much more portable than this.

But, is the detachable form factor worth the portability? It depends on what you value. Because of limited onboard space, the Duet has a single USB-C port for both charging and accessories. Its cover, while elegant, is not all that practical, as its cardboard fold-back rear is prone to flopping over and causing repeated frustration when in “laptop” mode. When you manage to stabilize it, you will at least not be let down by its decent trackpad and keyboard.

We would skip this Chromebook for now, but we are excited to see what the next iteration of the Duet will look like. If it has more oomph and a sturdier case, it will make an awesome Chromebook and a worthy iPad rival.

Pros

  • Keyboard is detachable

  • Excellent battery life

  • Sharp screen

Cons

  • Very slow performance

  • Keyboard not very sturdy

Product image of Microsoft Surface Go 3
Microsoft Surface Go 3

Nobody can deny that the Surface Go 3 is a beautifully designed laptop-tablet hybrid. The all-metal body, kick-out stand, and beautiful display help it feel like a premium experience despite its price tag. However, the premium sheen hides a sluggish bottom-shelf experience and a surprisingly high price tag if you buy the keyboard and Surface pen.

We tested the $629 model with a budget low-power Intel Core i3 processor, 128GB of storage, and 8GB of memory. If the keyboard and stylus didn’t tack on an extra $200 to that price, then the highest-end Surface Go 3 would be a decent value. As it stands, even the cheapest Surface Go 3 comes in over $500 when you factor in the accessories—and you will not get $500 of performance.

If you can forego a keyboard and stylus, the cheapest model is $400, and it comes with an entry-level Intel Pentium processor, 4GB of memory, and 64GB of storage. You will be lucky to run more than a couple browser tabs in Windows 10 with this hardware. For the money, you can do better. The 15.6-inch Gateway with an 11th gen Core i3 processor and 8GB of memory will feel like a racing horse by comparison, and it costs the same as the Surface Go 3. If you can stretch your budget to $600, you can get great midrange laptops like the HP Pavilion 15.

Pros

  • Vivid 1080p touch display

  • Beautiful solid magnesium body

  • Windows 11 pre-installed

Cons

  • Slow

  • Dismal battery life

  • Accessories sold separately

Meet the testers

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
Adrien Ramirez

Adrien Ramirez

Staff Writer

@itsaramkat

Adrien is a staff writer for Reviewed, mainly focused on reviewing laptops and other consumer tech. During his free time, he's usually wandering around Hyrule.

See all of Adrien Ramirez's reviews

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