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.

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