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The great $500 laptop challenge

With a $500 budget and a list of rules, we sent some CNET editors out to find the perfect budget laptop.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Can you get a good-to-great full-time portable PC for less than an iPad or Xbox One? We occasionally see retail store circulars or online specials promising laptops for $500 or less, but you're usually locked into bottom-of-the-barrell leftovers that are likely to frustrate and send you right back to the store to spend even more money.

To answer this question, a handful of expert CNET editors have been given a virtual budget of $500 and told to buy the best portable PC they can. Of course, it wouldn't be any fun if we didn't have some ground rules, and a few curveballs.

The ground rules:
Here are the basic rules our laptop shoppers need to follow. Mobile OS devices such as the iPad and iPad Mini, or the new Nexus 7, are rightfully the default choice for many in this price range, but for this budget PC scavenger hunt, we're assuming you may have to run Microsoft Office, Photoshop, or another PC-based app at some point.

  • The $500 budget can exclude tax and shipping.
  • The hardware selected must work for everyday mobile computing, and include a battery and screen.
  • Desktop PC operating systems only, which can include Windows 8, OS X (good luck!), Chrome OS, or, at a stretch, Linux. Windows RT, Android, iOS, and other mobile operating systems are excluded.
  • Traditional clamshell laptops, hybrids, convertibles, and Windows 8 tablets are all eligible.

The curveballs:
It would be no fun if everyone ran out and picked the same device, so we're adding some specific qualifiers for our editors, each of which will appeal to a different type of shopper.

  • Retail only: The specific system configuration must be available in a brick-and-mortar retail store
  • Built-to-order: Using the online configurator from Dell, HP, or another PC manufacturer, the system must be configured from currently available options.
  • The Commuter: Lugging even a 13-inch laptop around every day in a shoulder bag can get old pretty fast, especially as budget models are bigger and heavier than sleek, expensive ultrabooks. For your daily commute, find the smallest possible laptop that's still suitable for full office productivity.
  • Movie night: You're using your budget laptop as a replacement TV in your sad little studio apartment. Get the largest screen possible for under $500.
  • The disc man: You're the one guy who still uses optical discs. Who knows, maybe you've got a big DVD collection, we're not judging. In any event, you need a system with an optical drive.

If you're ready to see what our expert editors selected with their virtual $500, click through to the next page. And, if you've found a $500-or-less laptop or Windows 8 tablet that beats all our selections, please post it in the comments section below for everyone to see.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Retail only: HP Envy 4-1105dx, $499
Selected by: Scott Stein

This HP Envy 14 ultrabook is compact and has a touch screen. It's only got a Core i3 processor, but it has a 500GB hard drive and 4GB of RAM. The presence of touch and a thin design matters more to me for productivity. PCs are in transition now anyhow, but I actually prefer touch over a faster PC that lacks it when you're using Windows 8. (We reviewed a similar modellast year, when it cost $679.)

CNET/Dan Ackerman

Built to order: HP Pavilion TouchSmart 11z-e000, $499
Selected by: Joshua Goldman

Maybe I'm an oddity these days, but when I'm at home, I work on a desktop. That means I don't need a ton of power and performance from a laptop, just something small and reasonably light for a daily commute or moving around the house. The HP Pavilion 11z is perfect: Since it starts at $399.99, I was able to move up from the dual-core AMD CPU to a quad-core version with improved integrated graphics and double the RAM to 8GB and still come in at $499.99. It has a touch screen, too, which I find more useful on smaller laptops since you're closer to the screen, and rearranging windows and moving files can just be done with your fingertip.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The commuter: Asus VivoBook X202E-DH31T, $469
Selected by: John Falcone

While the battery life won't last you a full transcontinental flight, the 11.6-inch screen and 3.1-pound weight of the Asus VivoBook X202E are perfect for the confines of an economy class tray table. This model also boasts a full touch screen, so your Windows 8 experience won't be compromised. Just make sure you seek out the X202E-DH31T model, which boasts a Core i3 processor -- not the BD21T version, which is powered by a mere Pentium chip. (We reviewed this exact configuration earlier in 2013, when it cost $549.)

Best Buy

Movie night: Asus X75 X75A-DS31, $487
Selected by: Ty Pendlebury

If you're watching a lot of Netflix and HBO Go, the bigger the screen the better. The 17.3-inch screen of the Asus X75 desktop replacement laptop offers a high-definition resolution (1,600x900 pixels), which is great for streaming, and the onboard Altec Lansing speakers should be loud enough for most movies. The downside is an older second-gen Core i3 processor, but that's an acceptable trade-off, considering the low-res 1,366x768-pixel screens found on most other budget 17-inch laptops.

Dell

The disc man: Dell Inspiron 15R (I15RV-10000BLK), $429
Selected by: Joseph Kaminski

For my optical disc needs, both DVDs and storage, I found a Dell Inspiron 15R ($429) at Best Buy. A lot of the options I looked at before this one lacked an optical drive or were stuck with an ancient processor -- either a second-gen Core i3 or Pentium-class chip. My Dell has a 15.6-inch display, 4GB RAM, a 500GB hard drive, and HDMI for playing content on my TV. The bonus was a third-generation Intel Core i5 (versus the more common i3 in budget laptops), which gives my new pick a slightly longer shelf life, although I had to give up a touch screen.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What didn't make the cut
Everyone involved chose a different laptop, showing that there's a lot of variety out there, even for under $500. But, it was also surprising that a few obvious choices didn't make the list, including:

  • Chromebooks: We already stipulated that an iPad or Nexus tablet is a great laptop substitute if you don't need a full Windows experience, and you won't find a MacBook for less than a grand. But if you still want a Windows alternative in a laptop form factor, the $249 Samsung Chromebook may be your best bet -- assuming you're always in a Wi-Fi bubble and everything you need is "in the cloud." For a larger screen, try the $329 HP Chromebook 14.
  • Windows 8 tablets: A handful of tablets with full Windows 8 (not RT) fit the price range, including the $329 Acer Iconia W3 and the Dell Latitude 10 (the former squeaks in with a keyboard add-on, the latter would be slate-only).