As much as we all might want to buy the most powerful laptop around, it’s not always feasible on a budget. When it comes to sub-$500 laptops, it’s especially important to be smart about your choices. Realistically, you’ll need to make some compromises, but it’s entirely possible to get a great laptop with reliable performance on a budget.
Within this budget range, it’s best to stick with Windows machines containing Intel Core i3 or i5 processors or less-expensive Chromebooks. Having tested numerous inexpensive laptops, we know the pros and cons of each, and our favorites are included in this list. Not all budget laptops need to be a standard clamshell design either, we’ve included our favorite inexpensive tablets and convertibles in this list as well. (See our buyer’s guide at the bottom of this article for a breakdown of the features to care about.)
Given that it’s back-to-school time, you should check out our roundup of best back to school deals. And if you can manage to stretch your budget a little bit further, check out our best laptops roundup for even more suggestions.
Updated 9/6/2023: Check out our latest review of the Lenovo IdeaPad Slim 3 Chromebook. It might be a bit basic, but it’s still a solid, low-cost option for both students and professionals alike.
Acer Aspire 3 – Best sub-$500 laptop overall
Spacious keyboard with number pad
Solid video playback performance
Decent business app performance
Workday-long battery life
Poor gaming graphics performance
Basic 1080p display
Small 128GB storage drive
Price When Reviewed:
With its affordable price point, robust design, and decent performance, the Acer Aspire 3 is an excellent sub-$500 option. The Ryzen 3 7320U processor keeps things relatively zippy, and performance is plenty fast enough for general-use tasks like writing emails and browsing the web.
The 15.8-inch 1080p LCD display is reasonably sharp and vibrant, which is perfect for working on documents or streaming video. The Aspire 3 also comes with 8GB of RAM, which is enough to run multiple applications without lag. And the full-size keyboard is a rather nice addition, too.
In our review, we were pleasantly surprised by the overall durability of the laptop itself—it feels much more sturdy than other sub-$500 laptops. It also comes with solid battery life as well. In our tests we found that the laptops battery lasted on average about eight hours which means you shouldn’t need to charge it for a full day of work.
If you’re shopping around for a solid everyday laptop that won’t break the bank, the Aspire 3 is definitely worth a look.
Read our full
Acer Aspire 3 (2022) review
Asus Chromebook CM34 Flip – Best battery life
Spectacular battery life
Heavier than expected
Display is too reflective in outside environments
Price When Reviewed:
The Asus Chromebook CM34 Flip has a fantastic battery that just doesn’t seem stop. In fact, in our testing it lasted an unbelievable 19 hours on a single charge—we even had to run the benchmark twice just to make sure. That’s ridiculous considering if a laptop battery can eek out 10 hours on a single charge it’s considered long-lasting—the CM34 Flip almost doubles that number.
This 2-in-1 Chromebook is no slouch when it comes to performance either, featuring an AMD Ryzen 3 7320C CPU and 16GB of RAM. It also comes with a colorful touchscreen display, comfortable touchpad, and high-quality 1080p webcam. It’s biggest downside is that it’s not the most portable though, weighing in at just over 4 pounds. But if you’re on the hunt for a long-lasting everyday machine that won’t break the bank, you can’t get much better than the CM34 Flip.
Read our full
Asus Chromebook CM34 Flip review
HP Chromebook x2 11 da0023dx – Best folio-style Chromebook
Gorgeous 2K touchscreen
Excellent battery life
Trackpad is too sensitive at times
Light on ports
Price When Reviewed:
Yes, another Chromebook—but the HP Chromebook x2 11 is one of the best 2-in-1 machines you can buy, considering its cheap price. While some may find the detachable-keyboard design a pain to deal with, our reviewer really liked this one. The tablet’s aluminum chassis feels rugged and like it’ll last quite a while. The detachable keyboard took some getting used to, but ended up being fine for long typing sessions.
The rear plate, which transforms into a kickstand that holds up the tablet for hands-free use, connects to the back of the tablet via magnets. The reviewer found the connection to be both clean and strong. As for the performance, it’s about what you’d expect out of a Chromebook: zippy enough for everyday tasks like browsing the web and so on.
The x2 11 is powered by a Snapdragon 7c processor, which is better than the MediaTek chips you’ll find in most Chromebooks. That said, the Intel Core i3 in Windows machines is simply more powerful by default. This HP also packs 8GB of RAM, which helps with web browser performance, among other tasks.
The 11-inch 1440p touchscreen is on the smaller side, but that just means it’s lighter and more portable than bigger display options. Plus, the 1440p resolution is truly beautiful. According to the tester, colors were rich and shadows were quite dark.
Read our full
HP Chromebook x2 11 review
Lenovo IdeaPad Chromebook Duet 5 – Best sub-$500 Chromebook for OLED fans
Amazing battery life
Awkward aspect ratio
No fingerprint or face scanning
Price When Reviewed:
The Lenovo IdeaPad Chromebook Duet 5, a Chrome OS tablet that doubles as a laptop, has a solid keyboard and drop-dead gorgeous 1080p OLED display that produces colorful images. Although the screen’s 16:9 aspect ratio might feel awkward for some, it would be perfect for watching movies.
Lenovo’s keys have a decent travel distance of 1.3mm and the detachable keyboard as a whole doesn’t feel too cramped. There’s also a kickstand that can be adjusted up to 135 degrees. The one tradeoff is that the USI-compatible pen costs extra.
Let’s take a peek under the hood. For starters, this Chromebook is armed with a Snapdragon SC7180 processor. Again, it’s more powerful than the MediaTek chips. When it comes to opening up applications and web pages, the 8GB of memory offers a nice boost in speed.
There’s 128GB of storage, but that’s not majorly important, as you’ll store most things in the cloud. But the star of the show here is the 1080p OLED panel, which makes every little pixel really pop. If you’re after a gorgeous OLED screen with amazing contrast and color, the Duet 5 will hit the spot.
Read our full
Lenovo IdeaPad Chromebook Duet 5 review
How we tested
The PCWorld team puts each and every Windows laptop through a series of benchmarks that test GPU and CPU performance, battery life, and so on. The idea is to push the laptop to its limits and then compare it against others we’ve tested.
Chromebooks, on the other hand, go through a series of web-based tests. It wouldn’t be fair or possible to run the same kinds of tests on a Chromebook, as they’re Chrome OS-based machines. Below, you’ll find a breakdown of each test and the reasons why we run them.
- PCMark 10: PCMark 10 is how we determine how well the laptop handles lighter tasks like web browsing, word processing, spreadsheets, and so on.
- HandBrake: HandBrake is more intensive than PCMark 10. It basically measures how long a laptop’s CPU takes to encode a beefy 30GB file.
- Cinebench: Cinebench is a brief stress test of the CPU cores. It does this by rendering a 2D scene over a short period of time.
- 3DMark: 3DMark checks if 3D performance remains consistent over time by running graphic-intensive clips.
- Video rundown test: To gauge battery life, we loop a 4K video using Windows 10’s Movies & TV app until the laptop dies.
- CrXPRT 2: The CrXPRT 2 benchmark tests a Chromebook’s battery life.
- Speedometer 2.0: This test determines a Chromebook’s web browser performance. It simulates this by adding, completing, and removing a to-do list.
- Basemark Web 3.0: This benchmark gauges how well a Chromebook can handle web-based applications.
What kind of laptop should you get?
Ah, here we are at the billion dollar question. Do you spring for a basic Chromebook or go for a Windows laptop with more features? Well, it really depends on your lifestyle and your expectations of a sub-$500 machine. At this price point, you’re not going to find a powerful workhorse. However, there are plenty of affordable laptops out there for those who need the basics.
Chromebooks, for example, are a great low-cost option and offer phenomenal battery life. I use a Chromebook as my primary work laptop, as it has everything I need for both editing and writing. If you travel for work, it’s probably a good idea to invest in a laptop that weighs less than three pounds. If you’re still unsure, don’t sweat it. I’ve put together a list of quick buying tips below.
- Laptop type: There are many different laptop types that fall in the sub-$500 category: clamshells, 2-in-1’s, Chromebooks, and much more. The displays on convertible laptops (aka 2-in-1’s), for example, can swing around 360 degrees. This allows you to use the laptop like a tablet. They can also be propped up like a tent for viewing movies or participating in video calls. Chromebooks come in various shapes and sizes, and exclusively run Google’s web-focused Chrome OS. With a Chromebook, all you need is a Gmail account and, boom, you’re in.
- CPU: When it comes to the sub-$500 Windows laptops, you can expect to find Intel Core i3 or i5 processors. An i5 processor obviously provides a little more oomph. That said, basic office and web work does just fine on a Core i3. As for AMD options, the Ryzen 3 is good for basic productivity and web browsing, while Ryzen 5 chips rival Intel’s Core i5 as solid all-arounders. For Chromebooks, Snapdragon and Pentium processors are more powerful than MediaTek chips.
- Graphics: At this price range, you probably won’t find a laptop with a powerful discrete graphics card. Instead, you’ll encounter laptops with integrated graphics, which are integrated with the CPU and use less power as a result. This is perfectly fine for everyday tasks, especially if you’re not doing anything that’s graphics-intensive—like 3D gaming.
- RAM: Always go for 8GB of RAM. That’s plenty enough for firing up applications and loading web pages. Most Chromebooks are equipped with 4GB of RAM, which is the bare minimum. You need a decent amount of memory on these machines, as they’re primarily web-based. If there’s an 8GB RAM option, I’d recommend springing for that.
- Display size: If you’re a video editor or someone who does a lot of multimedia work, you’ll want a display that’s anywhere from 15- to 17-inches (but these machines usually cost far more than $500). The sweet spot for budget laptops is really anywhere from 13- to 14-inches. The bigger the display, the heavier your laptop is going to be. A 13- or 14-inch display is the best in terms of portability and value.
- Resolution: I wouldn’t go for anything less than 1080p, as there’s nothing more annoying than a slightly fuzzy image. 1080p produces a picture that’s sharp enough for watching Netflix or working in Excel. At this price range, you won’t really find many (if any) laptops with 1440p resolution or higher.
- Battery life: If you plan on taking your laptop anywhere with you, aim for something that can last 10 to 12 hours on a single charge. That’s more than a full work day, so it should theoretically get you through long flights or a day of classes. Obviously, more is always better. Just know that the bigger the battery, the heavier the laptop.
- Price: The price really depends on your budget. If you’re strapped for cash (been there, trust me), go for a Chromebook or an entry-level business laptop. These laptops are a good choice for students or young professionals. If you shop smart, you can even find 2-in-1’s in the $500 range.
- Ports: A wide array of ports is always a plus, as it eliminates the need for an adapter. I’d recommend a laptop that has both USB-C and USB-A. An HDMI port is good, too. This is especially useful for hooking up to an external monitor.
What is the difference between a regular laptop and a Chromebook?
When people talk about regular laptops they usually mean a PC or Mac. A Chromebook is still a laptop, but it differentiates itself from either of those two by using a unique operating system called ChromeOS, which was created by Google. Think of it like this: All Chromebooks are laptops, but not all laptops are Chromebooks.
Unlike other operating systems such as Windows or macOS, ChromeOS are optimized to run Google apps such as Google Drive, Google Docs, YouTube, and other Google services. Because most Google apps are online, Chromebooks generally require an internet connection to use most of their important features.
Finally, Chromebooks have historically been designed with portability, ease of use, and affordability in mind rather than top performance. They typically forego the faster high-end hardware that PCs or Macs use for a more minimalist, lightweight approach to computing.
Can you use integrated graphics for gaming?
Yes, some of the latest processors with integrated graphics can run modern PC games at decent enough settings. For example, we found that in our tests, Intel’s latest Iris Xe line of processors with integrated graphics can run some of the latest games at 1080p and 30fps. Unfortunately this is not the case for all integrated graphics and your mileage may vary drastically with older tech.
Intel and AMD’s integrated graphics have made huge leaps in recent years with regard to gaming performance. If you’re on a budget or looking for an ultra-thin laptop with integrated graphics you need not worry, you can still game on. We recommend checking out Intel’s Core 12th-gen Iris Xe or AMD’s brand new Ryzen 6000 RDNA 2.
What’s the difference between a budget laptop and a tablet?
More and more the line between what is a laptop and what is a tablet blurs as companies integrate the features of both into their latest devices. But there are still a few key distinctions between the two. Laptops generally are larger, come with more storage, have better performance and productivity features, and may or may not feature a touch display. Tablets on the other hand are smaller and more portable, have longer battery life, feature a touch display, and are usually a bit more affordable.
When choosing between a budget laptop and a tablet you should first ask yourself what the primary use of the device will be. Do you need something for productivity with lots of storage? Then a laptop—even a budget model—will probably be the way to go. Or do you need something that is small, travels well, and has a long battery life? Then you might consider a tablet.
Do Chromebooks make good gaming laptops?
Unfortunately, if gaming is your main concern, you may want to look elsewhere. Chromebooks can handle web games and Android games without any issues. But in their current state they simply aren’t designed to handle high-powered 3D games. This mainly comes down to the fact that they don’t run Windows and most Chromebooks don’t have sufficient graphics power.
With that said, cloud gaming services allow a remote PC or console to play games streamed from a remote server using more powerful hardware. But these are early days still, and the true viability of this option will depend on the health and survival of cloud gaming services, as well as Chromebook makers offering more options expressly designed with gaming in mind, like this Asus Chromebook Vibe CX43 Flip.