• HP Envy x360 (13z-ay000 touch)

  • How We Tested

  • What You Should Know About Budget Laptops

  • Other Budget Laptops We Tested

  • More Articles You Might Enjoy

HP Envy x360 2020 Hero
Credit: Reviewed / TJ Donegan
Best Overall
HP Envy x360 (13z-ay000 touch)

If you need a day’s worth of battery, a powerful processor, and a laptop that can handle occasional gaming, you may think you need to spend top dollar. Not so thanks to the HP Envy x360, which has an 8-hour battery life and impressive performance for well under $1,000.

It absolutely crushes the much pricier Macbook Air in performance, looks just as beautiful, packs a pleasantly springy keyboard, and turns into a 2-in-1 tablet. Usually, in laptops this affordable and powerful, the screen isn't as great. Not so with the Envy x360, whose screen is bright and colorful.

HP really nailed it with this one, and you can't go wrong with any configuration. To get the best bang for your buck, we recommend getting an Envy x360 configured with an AMD Ryzen 5, 8GB RAM, and 256GB SSD storage. You can always upgrade storage later with a new drive or a microSD card if you need to.

Pros

  • Great battery life

  • Impressive performance

  • Powerful processor

Cons

  • Nothing we could find

How We Tested

Testing
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—which is around 60% for many of these mid-range 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

$1,000 is a lot of money, but it’s actually more midrange when it comes to laptops. At this price point, you’re getting good performance for most everyday tasks that won’t feel sluggish after a year or two of use, plus solid build quality and a few nice bells and whistles like facial recognition. Still, you’ll likely 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.

  • Touch Screens, Portability, and Features: 2-in-1s have gained in popularity, but that touch screen and pen cost money to include. Similarly, cramming all those powerful components into a small, easy-to-carry package can often cost more than a larger laptop with fewer design constraints.

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. If you spend all your time on the web and want to save some money, though, a Chromebook may serve you well.

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.
  • 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 C740. 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).

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 of years—not just what you need right now.


Other Budget Laptops We Tested

Microsoft Surface 3 (VGY-00001)

Microsoft’s latest Surface Laptop packs just about everything you could need in a slim, portable machine. It has a beautiful high-resolution display with a 3:2 aspect ratio perfect for web browsing, a smooth and accurate trackpad, and a quiet backlit keyboard with 1.3mm of key travel—not quite as deep as we’d like, but good enough for typing longer documents. Plus, seven and a half hours of battery life assures us that you can get through just about the whole workday on a single charge.

You also get face recognition for near-instantaneous login, a touchscreen, a USB-C, and USB-A port—which is awfully nice during this transition period between the two standards. Plus, you geta Windows installation free of manufacturer bloatware. It does still have Windows 10’s usual pre-installed games like Candy Crush and Farm Heroes, but at least those aren’t bothering me with notifications all the time (like the antivirus trials that come on oh-so-many laptops these days).

I have quibbles with the Surface Laptop, but they’re small. The keyboard has just a bit of flex to it and Microsoft’s proprietary charger is more annoying to use than a standard USB-C charger would be. The charger does, however, have an extra USB port in the power brick, so you can charge your phone at the same time—a very nice touch. I also worry about the fabric keyboard discoloring over time—but these are minor nitpicks and, to their credit, Microsoft claims the fabric keyboard can be cleaned with soap and water once every month or two. Battery life clocks in at seven hours and thirteen minutes in our test, which is good, but not as high as we’ve seen in other models.

Those nitpicks are overshadowed by the Surface Laptop’s fantastic design and performance. The base model was actually the most powerful laptop we tested under a grand. With a Core i5 processor and 8GB of RAM, it can handle most everyday workloads without skipping a beat. The default 128GB of storage is a bit less than we usually recommend, but you can replace the SSD yourself thanks to the Surface Laptop’s easy-to-open design. You can’t upgrade the RAM, though, so make sure to buy as much as you think you’ll need for the life of the machine.

From snappy performance to a compact form factor, the Dell XPS 13 has a lot to offer. The screen’s bezels are so thin that you essentially get a 13-inch display in a laptop that’s more similar in size to 11-inch models. And at a little over two pounds, it’s super easy to toss in your bag and take anywhere. And even with such a small package, it still boasts stellar performance, with a Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD. Its battery life was also the best of the pack, at close to eight and a half hours. The 1920x1200 display is bright and beautiful, too, and you get both facial recognition and a fingerprint scanner for fast logins.

This year’s model comes with a few downgrades compared to previous generations, however. It has a shallower keyboard than previous iterations, which is less comfortable during long typing sessions. It also offers two USB-C ports without any USB-A ports for your older devices, which is a bummer—while USB-C adoption is moving fast, I still prefer at least one legacy port for some of the older devices I use. Our model came with some bloatware (pre-installed software that isn’t part of the stock Windows experience), but you can always uninstall this yourself. It's also a little over the $1,000 mark (though it does occasionally go on sale close to one grand), so it's not the most budget-friendly option. Between all of these drawbacks, I found myself going back to the Surface Laptop 3 more often than not.

If portability is most important to you and you're working with a flexible budget, the XPS 13 is still a phenomenal laptop that will serve you well.

Pros

  • Slim

  • Portable

  • Accurate trackpad

Cons

  • Mediocre battery life

Microsoft Surface Pro 7 (QWU-00001)

The well-loved Microsoft Surface Pro isn’t really a laptop, but a Windows tablet that can do double duty when paired with the Microsoft Type Cover—so we’d be remiss not to include it. We tested the 7th generation model with an i7 processor and 16GB of RAM, which costs well over $1000—though you can grab the i5 version with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage for only $900.

The Surface Pro’s display also stands out from the pack, with a whopping 2736x1824 resolution and a respectable 375 nits of brightness, for a super-sharp image with bright, vibrant colors. The Type Cover’s keyboard is quite decent despite its slim profile, but the trackpad is a bit small, and the kickstand is a bit more awkward to use than a standard laptop hinge. That said, some people love the half-tablet-half-laptop form factor of the Surface Pro line, and for well under a grand, it’s a great price for the performance you get.

Pros

  • Compact body

  • Bright display

Cons

  • Surface Pen and Type Cover cost extra

HP Spectre x360 13t Touch (13-aw0013dx)

HP’s Spectre line merges performance with a premium design, featuring an all-aluminum build, a convertible touch screen, and great performance in an incredibly small package. Like the Dell XPS 13, the Spectre x360’s bezels are super thin, so you pack a 13-inch screen into a much smaller chassis. But despite that, the keyboard is big, backlit, and surprisingly deep for the laptop’s size. Two USB-C ports and one USB-A port make for a versatile port selection, battery life hits a clean seven hours and forty-five minutes, and you can log in quickly with facial recognition or a fingerprint scanner.

Unfortunately, the Spectre had one big downside compared to its competitors: its trackpad is awfully small, making it hard to use comfortably. It’s a super sleek laptop, and it checks most of the right boxes, but its usability suffered enough that it doesn’t quite stack up to the other great models we tested.

Pros

  • Great design

  • Beautiful display

  • The keyboard is a dream

Cons

  • Starting price a little high

Acer Aspire 5 (A515-54-51DJ)

The Acer Aspire 5 was the most powerful budget Windows laptop we tested thanks to its 10th-gen 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 large 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-$600 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, we felt like the Acer Aspire 5 gave us the most important stuff we 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

Asus Zenbook 13 (UX333FA-AB77)

Asus has pulled off some impressive design with the ZenBook 13. Its 13-inch screen is packed into a chassis that’s even smaller than the XPS 13, with more ports to boot. The ZenBook can also chug for almost eight hours and can overlay a light-up number pad on the touchpad, which is a pretty clever use of space. Its i5 configuration with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of upgradeable storage comes in at a little over $800, and even though the processor is a couple of years old, that’s still some pretty good bang for your buck.

I do wish the ZenBook charged over USB-C like other models on this list since it allows you to charge your phone with the same cable as your laptop, or charge your laptop with a USB battery bank. In addition, the ZenBook’s trackpad is rather jumpy, which knocked it down a few notches. The trackpad and keyboard felt a little cramped as well—not surprising for such a small laptop, but the XPS 13 seemed to make it work. Still, while it isn’t perfect, the ZenBook delivers a powerful, super-portable laptop with flexible ports for well under a grand, which is nothing to sneeze at.

Apple MacBook Air (8 GB RAM, 256 GB, 2020)

After a few years of laptops plagued by keyboard and display issues, Apple has finally started to turn it around, bringing back the more reliable scissor-switch keyboard to its latest MacBook Air. If you prefer macOS to Windows, the $999 MacBook Air is one of Apple’s most affordable laptops, though its internal specs don’t quite match up with comparable Windows machines. At that price, you only get a Core i3 processor, which should be fine for basic tasks like writing documents and light browsing, but is slower than every other laptop we tested for this guide.

Apple’s laptops aren’t just expensive for no reason, though. What you lose in processing power, you make up for with one of the best trackpads on the market and an absolutely gorgeous high-resolution “Retina” display. You also get 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, though, which hits our recommended specs in that arena, and battery life was a respectable seven and a half hours. The keyboard is still shallower than I’d like, though, so I wouldn’t recommend it if you do a whole lot of writing, but at least they’ve addressed the issues with previous models. Time will tell whether the new MacBook Air is more reliable than its predecessors in other areas, like the display, but it does seem like Apple’s starting to take longevity seriously again, which gives us a bit more confidence.

Pros

  • The keyboard is not terrible

  • Superb design

  • Great battery life

Cons

  • Upgrades are expensive

  • Keyboard is still a bit shallow

Lenovo Yoga C740 (81TD0003US)

If you want a slightly larger screen, Lenovo’s Yoga C740 stretches the display to a comfortable, but still-portable 14 inches, with a thin body and a 2-in-1 convertible touch screen to boot. It also has a fantastic trackpad, a fingerprint scanner, and a decent keyboard, though the keys feel slightly plasticky compared to the just-over-$1,000 C940.

Its port selection is decent, with two USB-C ports and one USB-A for your older devices, though it does come with a bit of pre-installed bloatware (like a McAffee Antivirus trial that nags you for money quite a bit). And, despite its i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB of storage, its performance was the lowest of all the Windows laptops we tested—though it costs just over $800, so it’s a bit more affordable too, especially considering its 2-in-1 design. Plus, its battery life was just under eight hours, so you can be confident that it’ll last you through the day.

Pros

  • Thin body

  • Convertible touchscreen

Cons

  • Bloatware

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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