Best cheap laptops: We rate the best-sellers on Amazon and Best Buy

Here's what we'd tell our non-nerdy friends if they asked which laptops are really the best deals on Amazon and Best Buy.

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Ever get that text message out of the blue? You know: “Hey, I’m at Best Buy right now. What do you think of this Acer laptop versus this Dell laptop? One says it has four cores, while the other has 8GB of RAM. Help!”

Yes, it’s that time of the year when friends and family hit you up for computer-buying advice. Their kids are going off to college, and they need your all-knowing tech help right now. Because with great computer knowledge comes great responsibility, I always wade into the specs, and provide quick-take buying recommendations based on what I can discern from the configurations and prices.

So, in the spirit of offering you the same expert advice I’d give to my nearest and dearest, I’ve combed through the best-selling budget laptop lists from both Amazon and Best Buy, and weighed the pros and cons. Both lists change quite rapidly, so I’m basing this on a snapshot in time—namely, the best-selling laptops on the morning of July 21, 2017.

This year’s Amazon top five is dominated by Intel, with three out of five running its processors and the remaining two running AMD. At Best Buy, where people spend a little more, Intel dominated the top five even more decisively, with just a lone AMD entry.

Are these reviews? Absolutely not. But I still think there’s a lot of value in helping out those who can’t tell an Atom from a Core i7.

Amazon’s Top Five

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Amazon’s best-selling laptops change rankings often, but some remain at the top for long stretches of time.

Acer Aspire E 15

Amazon Best-Seller Rank: No. 1

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While last year’s buyers preferred a beefed up version of the Acer Aspire E 15 (which is No. 5 this year), consumers have voted for lower cost with this year’s $349 Aspire. This year’s top seller gives you a dual-core, 7th-generation Intel Core i3-7100; 4GB of DDR4 RAM; a 1TB 5,400rpm hard drive; and a DVD burner. Other notable specs include the screen, which is pretty good for the price, with a 15.6-inch 1920x1080, or “full HD,” panel.

A Core i3 might not sound as impressive as a Core i5, but the actual performance difference to the average consumer will likely be negligible. The Core i5 boasts a 700MHz advantage, or roughly 30 percent. In practical terms, the Core i3 might exhibit a step or two slower performance, but for general computing use, the average person usually can’t tell the difference.

That’s because a system’s hard drive is usually the bottleneck to performance. And at this price, you’re almost always going to get a hard drive (No. 4 on this list being the exception). Relatively ancient hard-drive technology is about as slow and cumbersome as using a record player over an MP3. Fortunately, the Aspire E 15 is easy to service, so if you can afford to upgrade to a solid-state drive (SSD), do it.

Graphics performance, which mostly impacts gaming, is also sacrificed in this budget Aspire. Rather than a dedicated graphics chip in the laptop with its own memory pool, the Aspire E 15 uses Intel’s integrated HD 620 graphics. It results in nearly half the graphics performance of the beefier Aspire E 15 (No. 5 this year) but it’s really not a deal breaker. It will still handle most light-duty gaming such as Minecraft—just don’t expect miracles.

One final thing to note is that of the 10 laptops in this story, the Aspire E 15 is among the heaviest at 5.3 pounds. The only other laptop to weigh this much is the No. 5 Acer Aspire E 15. Still, overall this is a fine notebook and we give it a Thumbs Up, but we gotta say, the No. 2 is also pretty appealing for budget shoppers on Amazon—this is the real fight.

HP Notebook 15

Amazon Best-Seller Rank: No. 2

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The theme here is cheap and HP’s Notebook 15 pushes the price for a 15.6-inch laptop down to $252. Dayum. Costing $100 less than the Acer takes some effort, which meant passing over Intel’s pricier CPUs for an AMD A6-7310 quad-core chip. Although a quad-core may sound better than a dual-core, the underlying design matters too.

Performance data for the A6-7310 is limited, but it’s based on AMD’s Puma architecture. For the most part, the A6-7310 is sandwiched between the performance of an Intel Atom or “N” series Celeron and a Core i3. So, not bad, but not great.

And despite the Radeon R4 name, graphics performance of the APU looks to be about two-thirds of a comparable Intel GPU, based on reports. That means, for the most part, gaming will be limited to lower resolutions and lower game settings.

On the storage front, you get a 500GB 5,400rpm hard drive, a DVD burner, and a screen resolution of 1366x768.

The upshot is that this a serviceable laptop, but one that will generally have lower performance and perhaps slightly less battery life than the Acer Aspire E 15.

At the same time, you save $100, which can go toward rent, or a couple of weeks’ worth of lunches.

Asus Chromebook C202SA-YS02

Amazon Best-Seller Rank: No. 3

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Asus’s Chromebook C202SA is one of those laptops that reminds you why Chromebooks rule the budget-laptop category (see our full review for details). Besides their popularity in education, Chromebooks just offer a lot of value.

The Chromebook C202SA, for instance, is intended for schools, which means its semi-ruggedized, or at least made to take more of a beating with its rubber-covered corners and “spill-proof” keyboard.

Inside the C202SA is an Intel Celeron N3060 CPU, which can be thought of as an Atom CPU on steroids. It’s the primary CPU running most Chromebooks today and is fine for most tasks. The C202SA has 4GB of RAM, which is preferable to the 2GB of RAM you typically see in low-end Chromebooks.

Storage is handled by 16GB of eMMC—chip-based storage technology that’s similar to an SSD but slower. As slow as eMMC can be, it’s still way better than a hard disk drive and a key reason for budget Chromebooks’ responsiveness.

If you’re new to Chromebooks and worry about 16GB vs. 32GB or more, don’t be. ChromeOS is a very lightweight OS with deep ties to the cloud. It’s why you can have a 16GB Chromebook and use it for years without running out of space.

The only real negative of the C202SA is its bulk, but if the user is a child (or klutz), the trade-off for semi-rugged features may well be worth it.

In the end, this one is easy: thumbs up.

HP 14-inch Laptop

Amazon Best-Seller Rank: No. 4

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The No. 4 seller on Amazon, HP’s 14-inch Laptop, is a complicated laptop story. The first thing that grabs you is the price: It’s a Windows 10 Home laptop for $219. The second thing is the screen: It’s a higher-resolution 1920x1080 panel that makes the 1366x768 screens you get in this price range seem janky. Even better, it uses superior IPS technology. IPS gives you excellent off-axis viewing, and rarely, if ever, provides a bad experience, whereas so-called “IPS-like” or “wide-viewing angle” panels run the gamut from bad to good.

Even the AMD E2-7110 CPU isn’t half bad. Like the AMD A6-7310, it’s slower than Core i3, but generally slightly faster than a Celeron “N” CPU. So what’s the catch? Storage. HP outfits the creatively named 14-inch Laptop with a 32GB eMMC drive. While eMMC can yield a more responsive feel than a hard drive, the limited space is problematic on a Windows-based laptop.

This laptop will basically give you a great screen to look at and reasonable responsiveness from its eMMC drive, but the minute you fill up the drive (which won’t take long), the experience is going to take a dive.

It’s really a shame, because with just a little more storage space or a hard drive option (along with the eMMC), this could be an incredible bargain laptop. As it is, you need to really consider this laptop’s limitations before you buy one. Our verdict: thumbs down.

Acer Aspire E 15

Amazon Best-Seller Rank: No. 5

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Take last year’s best-selling Acer Aspire E 15, update the CPU, add a USB Type C port, and you pretty much have the No. 5 Amazon laptop.

Yes, it looks the same as the No. 1 selling Acer Aspire E 15 above, but there’s a world of difference here. The main one is the graphics. With a GeForce 940MX, you’re getting reasonable graphics performance from a budget laptop. The second difference is storage. This particular Acer Aspire E 15 dumps the hard drive for a 256GB M.2 SSD. That means this laptop will likely feel and act a lot more responsive than dog-slow hard disk drive-based laptops in most use cases. Although we haven’t confirmed it, Amazon customers have reported that a hard drive upgrade is a snap on this model.

Acer also doubles the RAM from the base model to 8GB. The CPU is Intel’s latest 7th-generation Core i5-7200U, which is the same chip used in laptops that cost twice as much as the Aspire E 15.

If there were two things to ding about this laptop, it would be the weight and the price. At 5.3 pounds, it’s not as light as the competition. And at $579, it stretches the definition of budget laptop.

Still, if you want snappier performance at a good price and don’t care about the weight, the Acer Aspire E 15 is a thumbs up.

Best Buy’s Top Five

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Best Buy’s best-selling laptops mix it up far more than Amazon’s, but this list will still create confusion for non-nerds.

At Best Buy, the list of best-selling laptops offers a far more interesting mix. It runs the gamut from Apple to AMD, pits an Intel Celeron CPU against a Core i3, and extends beyond the “budget” realm. It’s enough to leave less-tech-savvy folk confused as hell.

Fortunately, though, I can help.

Lenovo IdeaPad 110

Best Buy Best-Seller Rank: No. 1

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Lenovo’s IdeaPad 110 is more or less the equal of the HP Notebook 15 that’s the No. 2 best seller on Amazon. It has the same CPU, an AMD A6-7310; the same amount of RAM, 4GB; and the same size hard drive, 500GB. With the same size and same resolution panel, the main difference is the price.

On the date we locked this down, this laptop was going for an amazing $199. That’s a steal. When it isn’t on sale though, it’s typically $279, which makes it a little less palatable.

Sure, among the top five at Best Buy, it’s the cheapest of the Windows laptops, but $279 is pretty close to Amazon’s top seller, the Acer Aspire E 15, which gives you a higher-resolution screen, and slightly more performance. So when not on sale, we’d say the IdeaPad 110 is a wobbler for us.

When on sale for $199, however, it’s an impressive amount of hardware for the price and an easy thumbs up.

Apple MacBook Air 13

Best Buy Best-Seller Rank: No. 2

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Apple has a reputation for overcharging for its hardware and that rep is normally well deserved. The MacBook Air 13 you see here though (and at the price we stumbled upon) is almost reasonably priced.

Inside you get an Intel 5th-generation, dual-core Core i5-5250U, 8GB of LPDDR3 RAM, and a 128GB PCIe SSD. The construction of the laptop is top-notch, too, with an aluminum shell and outstanding trackpad and keyboard. For the most part, this is a slightly sped-up version of the MacBook Air 13 that Apple first introduced in 2015.

Overall, the MacBook Air 13 yields zippy performance for general computing, with only heavier chores such as gaming and photo-editing being issues. Battery life is also legendary thanks to a giant battery and a compromised screen. The screen, in fact, is probably the main negative of the hardware (well, that and the fact that you’re buying hardware introduced two years ago).

Even though it’s only 13 inches diagonally, the display is an unimpressive 1440x900 in resolution using TN technology. Although TN is unsuitable for critical photo-editing (IPS panels are preferred for that), the one Apple uses isn’t that bad.

The important factor is the price, though. Last year Apple was hawking this same basic laptop for $1,000, but on the day we froze our pricing, it was on sale for $699, which actually makes it a competitive laptop.

If you’re looking at Apple’s full asking price of $1,000, we’d point you to Dell’s XPS 13 or HP’s Spectre X360 13T, or No. 5 on this list as much better value. But for $699, the MacBook Air 13 earns a thumbs up.

Samsung Chromebook 3 

Best Buy Best-Seller Rank: No. 3

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While Samsung’s Chromebook 3 isn’t as rugged as the Asus Chromebook C202 on Amazon’s list, it can be had for 25 percent less. Internally, it’s basically the same and should yield the same performance with its Intel Celeron N3060 and 4GB of RAM. The Samsung even gives you twice the amount of storage with its 32GB of eMMC, although that’s a minor win since you really don’t need local storage on a Chromebook.

Performance of both the Samsung and Asus Chromebooks is fine and more than enough for basic browsing tasks. The 4GB of RAM helps out those who like to have a ton of pages open, as well. We generally prefer Intel’s Celeron N series (basically Atom) over the ARM chips we’ve seen in many Chromebooks.

The Chromebook 3’s screen is “just” 1366x768, but at only 11.6-inches diagonal, you won’t notice its low resolution that much.

If you’re picking between the Chromebook 3 and the Asus C202, it mostly comes down to aesthetics and features like a spill-proof keyboard (Asus). The Samsung Chromebook 3 is a little thinner but, interestingly, slightly heavier.

Either way, this is a decent Chromebook that gives you more than a typical budget Chromebook from just a year ago. Thumbs up.

HP 15.6-inch Laptop

Best Buy Best-Seller Rank: No. 4

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HP’s 15.6-inch Laptop (if you ignore its boring name) is actually quite a decent laptop when on sale, but when it isn’t, it’s punching out of its weight.

The 15.6-inch HP gives you a Core i5-7200U, 8GB of RAM, and 2TB of storage. The Core i5 is indeed faster than a Core i3, but it’s still just a dual-core CPU and most people just won’t notice the difference in common browsing and Office chores.

The screen is a bit subpar with its 1366x768 pixels stretched out over a 15.6-inch expanse but it’s not a deal breaker. In fact, this is a decent performance laptop at the price we found on Best Buy ($449).

It’s main problem is when it’s not on sale. The non-sale price is $549, which puts it squarely in the territory of the No. 5 best seller on Amazon: Acer’s Aspire E 15. For $29 more, the Acer gives you a GeForce 940MX graphics card, a higher-resolution 1920x1080 screen, and a 256GB SSD.

So consider this laptop a thumbs up on sale, and a wobbler when not.

Lenovo Yoga 720

Best Buy Best-Seller Rank: No. 5

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Like the No. 2 on the Best Buy best-selling list, the MacBook Air 13, Lenovo’s Yoga 720 is hardly a budget laptop at $759 on sale, but it also shows you just how much more value there is in PCs.

Unlike the MacBook Air 13 that still rolls a 5th-gen CPU, the Yoga 720 features Intel’s latest 7th-gen dual-core Core i7-7500U. You also get 8GB of RAM (the same as the MacBook Air 13) and twice the amount of storage at 256GB using an ultra-fast SSD. In practical, everyday use, performance between the Yoga 720 and MacBook Air 13 won’t be noticeably different, but in more difficult tasks, the Yoga 720 will be faster.

The Yoga 720 also gives you the latest Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C unlike the MacBook Air 13, which uses the now-dying Thunderbolt 2 standard.

The screen on the Yoga 720 is higher resolution at 1920x1080 and features IPS technology, which is preferable to the TN technology in the MacBook Air 13.

The Yoga 720 also folds backward for use as a tablet and features 10-point touch and pen support. That’s just way more versatility than the MacBook Air 13 offers.

If the MacBook Air 13 were priced at its typical $1,000, there would be no comparison between the two in performance, storage, and versatility. The only time it gets close between the Yoga 720 and the MacBook Air 13 is when you can find the MacBook Air 13 on sale at $749, and the Yoga 720 is off sale at $849. Even then, you’re still getting double the storage, Thundebolt 3, a touchscreen, pen support, and a higher-resolution IPS panel for just $100 more.

The Yoga 720 is a thumbs up, on sale or not.

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