Buying a laptop on a budget is tricky. You want something fast enough for daily tasks, without sacrificing too much in build quality and battery life. Not all budget laptops can strike that balance gracefully, but if you’re a student writing the occasional paper or someone who only needs a computer for the occasional email and Facebook message, $500 can often get you everything you need. At that price, we think the Acer Aspire 5(available at Amazon for $549.99) gets you the best bang for your buck.
Every laptop under a certain price range has to cut corners somewhere. Maybe they aren’t as portable, or maybe they use a cheap screen that can’t get as bright as the more expensive competition. But as long as you prioritize the features that matter most to you, a great laptop doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. We’ve gone hands-on with a number of sub-$500 laptops to help you narrow down the field.
These are the best laptops under $500 we tested, ranked in order:
Acer Aspire 5
HP Chromebook x360
Lenovo Ideapad 3
HP Stream 14
Lenovo Chromebook Duet
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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 around $550—with an upgraded model around $700. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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, bloaty 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.
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
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.
This $400 laptop is just average for its price. While its Ryzen 5-3500U is from last generation of processors, it’s still plenty powerful and a good find in the category. Similarly, its 8GB of RAM and 256GB solid state storage drive will allow you to get reasonable performance out of this machine if you plan to use it for web browsing, entertainment, and light productivity.
However, that’s about all there is to say of its accomplishments. When we tested the Ideapad 3’s battery life in our labs, the laptop only lasted four hours. Meanwhile, its screen is disappointingly dim, its plastic chassis is bulky and flimsy, and the laptop comes loaded with bloatware out of the box.
If you don’t mind switching from Windows to ChromeOS, the Lenovo Flex 5 Chromebook is a great laptop that addresses a lot of the Ideapad 3’s shortcomings. It’s an awesome 2-in-1 with amazing build quality for the price and solid performance that won’t leave you waiting for pages to load.
If you’re looking for something under $300, you should take a look at our top pick, 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 is barely over $200, and it 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.
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.
We use standardized and scientific testing methods to scrutinize every product and provide you with objectively accurate results. If you’ve found different results in your own research, email us and we’ll compare notes. If it looks substantial, we’ll gladly re-test a product to try and reproduce these results. After all, peer reviews are a critical part of any scientific process.