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Windows and Chromebooks for under $500

Budget-friendly portables for home, school or office.

Looking for the best laptop under $500? You and a billion other bargain hunters. You can get quite a bit in a budget model, including a lightweight body and good battery life (battery life is very important, so we'll be mentioning battery life a lot -- after all, you want hours of enjoyment at a time), as long as you manage your expectations when it comes to specs and options. The good news is you don't need to settle for a traditional clamshell laptop with a relatively fixed display and keyboard. You can get a convertible (aka a two-in-one) -- a laptop with a screen that flips around to turn the screen into a tablet, to position it for comfortable streaming or to do a presentation -- at a pretty reasonable price, for Windows or Chrome OS. All convertibles have touchscreens, as that's a prerequisite for tablet operation. One thing you won't find: a MacBook or any other Apple laptops. Even an iPad Air will run you more than $500 once you buy the optional keyboard (though if you look for sales on the tablet or keyboard it might work out to less), which is above the budget.

It's easier to find inexpensive Chromebooks than Windows laptops, making it one of the most popular categories of budget laptops on the market. Google's Chrome OS isn't nearly as power-hungry as Windows (check the specs), so you can get by with a lower-end processor, slower storage and less screen resolution or memory -- just a few of the components that make a laptop expensive. 

Read more: Best Chromebooks for 2019

And since they're cloud-first devices, you don't need a lot of storage built in. They're great if you spend most of your time roaming the web, writing, streaming video or playing Android games. (For games, make sure you get a model with a touch-screen display.)

If you're looking for gaming on the cheap, you'll still have to break the $500 budget for performance. The least expensive budget laptops suitable for a solid gaming performance experience -- those with even moderately powerful discrete graphics processors, will run you closer to $700. Here are our recommendations if you're looking for the most inexpensive and the best gaming laptops -- the best laptop under $500.

Things to keep in mind:

  • While Chromebooks can run Chrome OS-specific and Android apps, some people need a full Windows operating system to run heftier applications, like video editing suites. With that comes a need for a faster processor with more cores, more memory -- 8GB is the bare minimum -- and more storage for applications and the operating system itself. 
  • Solid-state drives (SSD) can make a big difference in how fast Windows performance feels compared with a spinning hard disk (HDD), but they also push the price up. So if your budget can stretch a little and you want more storage, you may want to consider stepping up from base storage options to a 128GB solid-state drive. 
  • In this budget price range you have to watch out for screen terminology when it comes to specs: This is why an "HD" screen may not always mean a truly high definition screen. HD, which is 1,920x1,080 pixels to a screen, was retronymmed "Full HD" so that marketers could keep selling you lesser-resolution screens (1,280x720 pixels per screen) as "HD." In laptops, "HD" usually refers to a 1,366x768-pixel screen.
  • Pay attention to networking. Inexpensive models with older chipsets may only support Wi-Fi 3 (or 802.11b/g/n). Wi-Fi 3 is limited to 2.4 GHz channels, which are slower and have a shorter range than more recent chipsets with Wi-Fi 4 (aka 802.11ac) 5 GHz support. The specifications aren't always correct on the shopping sites, so if you see a model which doesn't seem to have WiFi 4, double check on the manufacturer's site before ruling it out.

Considering all specs and options from battery life to storage space, screen resolution, screen size, core processor performance and general machine and battery performance, these are a few of our top picks for 2020's best Windows laptops and Chromebooks under the $500 budget, along with their pros and cons.

Read more: Best laptops, desktops and tablets for designers and creatives in 2019

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Aspire 5 15-inch clamshell includes the latest generation AMD Ryzen 3 processor, the 3200U, with its modern Vega graphics processing. Its 4 GB RAM and 128GB solid-state drive storage don't allow for using a lot of programs or lots of browser tabs open simultaneously, but this 15-inch screen model weighs less than 4 pounds. The price may bounce back to its normal $349, but that's still a good price for the performance you get. Read our Acer Aspire 5 (2019) review.

Read more: Best 2-in-1 PCs in 2019 for when you need a laptop and tablet in one

Sarah Tew/CNET

For less than $400, though higher-end configurations can break the $500 price ceiling, this Chromebook is practically a steal. It's thin and light, but sturdy, and has great battery life, plus a fingerprint reader and Citrix certification for IT-minded organizations.

Read more: Best college laptops for 2019

Sarah Tew/CNET

It's not the prettiest system, but the Aspire is a solid budget laptop and includes a good 1,920x1,080 15.6-inch screen, a ton of ports -- new and old -- and even a DVD-RW drive for those still working in the world of physical media. What's more, you can open it up and add more memory and storage space. Cons include that it's heavy at 5.3 pounds, but it's a great option as a desktop replacement or as a system you just want to tote around the house. The price of this configuration -- a dual core Intel Core i3-8130U, 6GB of RAM and a 1TB storage hard drive -- varies, but it's consistently under $400. Read our Acer Aspire E 15 review.

Read more: Best gaming keyboards under $200 for 2019

Acer

This slim and light 13-inch laptop packs in a lot of good components, such as an Intel Core i5-8250U CPU, full HD display, Type-A and Type-C USB ports and a 256GB storage solid-state drive. It's on sale for $499, but if it goes back to its normal price of $749 it's not just out of budget, it becomes a meh deal.

Read more: Best 15-inch laptops for 2019

dell

For $300, you get a classy 15-inch screen laptop with a minimal configuration -- an Intel Core i processor, 4GB RAM and 128GB storage solid-state drive -- but it does have a real HD display. 

Originally published last year.