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Best laptop under $500 for 2021

Here are some recommendations and buying advice to help you find the best budget-friendly laptop from Lenovo, Acer and others.

Finding a great laptop for less than $500 isn't as easy as it once was, thanks to parts-supply shortages and high demand for cheap Windows and Chrome OS laptops (better known as Chromebooks) spurred on by the pandemic. However, it is holiday shopping season and if you weren't able to snag a Black Friday or Cyber Monday laptop deal, you can still find models under that threshold.

Below, you'll find some of our top picks below $500. However, if you're not entirely sure what to look for in a good budget laptop, jump to our straightforward buying advice below our recommendations. It's based on our years of testing and review experience to help you understand just what to expect from a laptop priced under $500. It'll also let you know what to look for if you want to continue your budget laptop hunt on your own. 

Use these picks to sort through the competition and don't make rash decisions when you're shopping, because there are a lot of cheap laptops that are just not worth it. 

Josh Goldman/CNET

Gateway was best known for low-cost desktops and laptops back in the '90s. Last year, the brand was revived for a new lineup of laptops and tablets sold exclusively through Walmart. Those models were recently updated with 11th-gen Intel processors and we tested both 15.6- and 14.1-inch models. The latter gets our vote as an inexpensive option for getting school work done while still being light enough to carry around campus for the day. 

The attention-grabber is the Intel Core i5 processor that provides reliable performance, despite being paired with cheaper components. The keyboard is comfortable, but not backlit, and the touchpad isn't the most precise. Also, the built-in fingerprint reader is hit-or-miss. Still, it has lots of ports so connecting a mouse or an external display isn't an issue and the full-HD display is decent too, all things considered. Plus, the battery lasted a couple minutes shy of 10 hours on our streaming video test.

Sarah Tew/CNET

This Lenovo Chromebook Duet (now called the Duet 3) is essentially a Chrome version of the first Microsoft Surface Go. Like the Go, the Lenovo Chromebook Duet is a 10-inch tablet with a detachable keyboard and touchpad-- making it a compact touch screen laptop. Unlike Microsoft, though, Lenovo includes the keyboard. This Lenovo laptop also costs much less than the Microsoft Surface Go (including the Microsoft Surface Go 2), starting at $249 list for a 64GB version or $299 for one with 128GB of storage. The Lenovo IdeaPad is essentially a smaller, albeit less powerful, Pixel Slate that makes more sense for more people with a cheap laptop price that's more in line with what people expect a Chromebook to cost.

The Chromebook Duet screen is small, however, so if you're regularly using it at a desk, we recommend attaching an external monitor to its USB-C port. You'll probably want to connect a wireless keyboard and mouse, too. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Acer Aspire 5 15-inch clamshell continues to be one of the best laptop deals available. This sub-4-pound Windows laptop includes an AMD Ryzen 3 3350U processor, 4GB of memory and a speedy 128GB SSD. This budget laptop also features a USB 3.2 Gen 1 USB-C port, two USB-A 3.2 Gen 1 ports, Ethernet and an HDMI port. 

The Acer Aspire even has a backlit keyboard and fingerprint reader for quick sign-ins -- rarities at this price. The 4GB RAM and 128GB solid-state drive storage don't allow you to have many programs or lots of browser tabs open simultaneously but you can add more of both down the road. 

Josh Goldman/CNET

This Lenovo laptop is somewhat small, with a 13-inch, full HD display, but this Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5 delivers convertible laptop convenience as well as excellent performance and battery life for the money, thanks to an Intel Core i3-10110U processor, 4GB of memory and 64GB of SSD storage. The Lenovo Flex is not a great choice for outdoor use, since the display is pretty dim. There's also an 8GB model with a 128GB SSD that comes in at just under $500.

Read our Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5 review.

 

Asus

Amazon currently offers an older Core i3 8GB model for about $400, a reasonable price for a Windows laptop with an Intel Core processor. You'll also see listings with 4GB RAM, but that's way too little memory for Windows, which barely gets by on 8GB. Don't confuse it with the thinner, lighter, more expensive Asus VivoBook S15.

Lenovo

The Windows version of the Flex two-in-one has the beefed up specs (at least over a Chromebook) necessary to run Windows, though probably not very fast -- the dual-core Intel Core i3 processor and 4GB of RAM are the reasons the price is low. But it has a bigger full HD screen than the Chromebook model.

Are laptops under $500 any good?

As a rule of thumb, resist buying out of desperation -- don't spend $500 because you can't find a cheaper laptop deal available, for example. Buying a need-it-now laptop can be like shopping for food while hungry. Even for a laptop, $500 can be a lot of money, and you'll likely be holding onto it for at least three years, if the statistics Intel and PC manufacturers hurl at us are correct.

You can also try to make your current laptop last a little longer. If you need something to tide you over for a few months, dig into possible places to buy refurbished machines and explore nonprofit or educational discounts if you're eligible. Also, if there's something you really want in a laptop, like a touchscreen, a backlit keyboard, DDR4 RAM, an HD webcam, Intel UHD Graphics, AMD Radeon Vega Graphics or an HDMI port, check the manufacturer's specs closely to make sure it has it. You'll regret it if you don't.

If you suspect you'll be holding onto your new laptop for a while, see if you can stretch your budget to buy a slightly more expensive laptop to accommodate more than 8GB of RAM or a processor with more cores than you were otherwise considering. If you haven't thought about it, look at AMD Ryzen processors as alternatives to Intel Core for Windows laptops or alternatives to Intel Celeron and Pentium for Chromebooks.

Even better, if you're comfortable with it, think about an affordable laptop with a replaceable battery (if you can find one), upgradable memory, graphics card and storage, or all of the above. Furthermore, while you might be working remotely now, you won't be stuck at home forever. Remember to consider whether having a lighter, thinner laptop or a touchscreen laptop with a good battery life will be important to you in the future. 

Read more: Best monitors under $200 you can get right now

You can always add an external drive or two (or five, if you're me) at some point down the road. But if your internal storage is the type of slow-spinning hard drive that comes in a lot of cheap laptop models, fast external storage is unlikely to help speed up loading Windows or applications. You can frequently set a system to boot from an external solid-state drive if necessary.

You may see references to Intel Optane in conjunction with slow (5,400rpm) spinning hard drives; Optane is fast solid-state memory that acts as a temporary storage space for frequently accessed files on the hard drive to speed things up. It helps, but not as much as an SSD drive. 

And finally, if you're replacing an old Windows laptop that's not up to running Windows anymore, consider turning it into a Chromebook.

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What are the trade-offs on laptops under $500?

As long as you manage your expectations when it comes to options and specs, you can still get quite a bit from a budget laptop model, including good battery life and a reasonably lightweight laptop body. 

A bright spot is you don't have to settle for a traditional clamshell laptop with a fixed display and keyboard. You can also get a convertible laptop (aka a two-in-one), which has a screen that flips around to turn the screen into a tablet, to position it for comfortable streaming or to do a presentation. Keep in mind that all convertibles work as both laptops and tablets. A touchscreen is a prerequisite for tablet operation, and many support styluses (aka pens) for handwritten and sketched input. Don't assume a stylus is included, though.

One thing you won't find at these cheap laptop prices: a MacBook or any other Apple laptop. An iPad will run you more than $500 once you buy the optional keyboard (though it might work out to less if you look for sales on the tablet or keyboard), which is above our budget here. A base-model iPad with an inexpensive Bluetooth keyboard and cheap stand for the iPad might suffice.

You'll see a lot of cheap laptops listed as coming with Windows 10 S, a stripped-down and locked-down version of the operating system intended for use by schools -- it only allows you to install applications from the Windows Store, forces you to use Microsoft's Edge browser and includes a subset of the administrative tools in Windows 10 Pro. You can upgrade to the full version for free, though.

It doesn't feel like there's much to make the new Windows 11 a must-have upgrade, but if it's going to be important to you for some reason, be careful about checking that the laptop will meet the requirements. These inexpensive models can be especially at risk of not making the cut.

It's easier to find inexpensive Chromebooks than Windows laptops, making them one of the most popular budget laptops on the market, though we're also seeing a lot more Chromebooks in the $500-to-$1,000 range. That's because 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 RAM -- just a few of the components that make a laptop expensive. 

But the flip side is Chrome and Google apps are more of a memory hog than you'd expect, and if you go too low with the processor or skimp on memory, the system will still feel slow. Chrome OS is also a much different experience than Windows; make sure the applications you need have a Chrome app, Android app or Linux app before making the leap.

Since Chromebooks are cloud-first devices, however, you don't need a lot of storage built-in. That also means if you spend most of your time roaming the web, writing, streaming video or playing Android games, they're a good fit. If you hope to play Android games, make sure you get a touchscreen Chromebook.

For a cheap gaming laptop, though, you'll still have to break the $500 ceiling to support most games. The least expensive budget laptops suitable for a solid gaming performance experience -- those with moderately powerful discrete graphics processors -- will run you closer to $700. Here are our recommendations if you're looking for the best gaming laptop under $1,000

Although, if you like to live on the bleeding edge, cloud gaming services such as Google Stadia and Microsoft Xbox Game Pass Ultimate's Game Streaming will let you play games on laptops with specs that hit the under-$500 mark. 

What to look for in laptops under $500

While Chromebooks can run Chrome OS-specific and Android apps, some people need the full Windows OS to run heftier applications, such as video-editing suites. If you want a good video editing laptop, the HP Chromebook with Intel Celeron processors provides 5.4 times high-resolution video editing than the basic HP laptop. With that comes a need for a faster processor with more cores, more memory -- 8GB RAM is the bare minimum -- and more storage for applications and the operating system itself. A lot of these have 4GB or 6GB, which, in conjunction with a spinning hard disk, can make for a frustratingly slow Windows laptop experience. But demands on Chromebooks are growing, so if your Chrome needs to run beyond the basics you should think about paying more for more memory and a faster processor.

  • A lot of Windows laptops in this range use AMD Athlon and lower-end A series or Intel Celeron and Pentium processors to hit the lower price. I don't really recommend going with an Athlon instead of a Ryzen or a Celeron/Pentium instead of a Core: Windows is too heavy for them, and in conjunction with the 4GB memory a lot of them have, you may find them abysmally slow at best.
  • Because of their low prices, 11.6-inch Chromebooks are attractive. Samsung Chromebook has a fantastic screen and nearly 10 hours of battery life. But we don't recommend that size for any but the youngest students. And if you're both going to be looking at the screen frequently for remote learning, 11 inches can get really cramped.
  • SSDs can make a big difference in how fast Windows performance feels compared with a spinning hard disk, 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 SSD. 
  • In the budget price range, you have to watch out for screen terminology when it comes to specs: An "HD" screen may not always be a truly high-definition screen. HD, which has a resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels, is called "Full HD" so marketers can refer to lesser-resolution displays (1,280x720 pixels) as HD. In Chromebooks, HD usually refers to a screen with a resolution of 1,366x768 pixels. On the upside, the boom in 14-inch laptops trickles down to this price range, which allows for more FHD options in the size. 
  • A frequent complaint I see is about "washed-out" looking displays with poor viewing angles. Unfortunately, that's one of the trade-offs: A lot of these use TN (twisted nematic) screen technology, which is cheap but meh.
  • 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 2.4GHz channels; those are slower than more recent chipsets with Wi-Fi 4 (aka 802.11ac) that add a 5GHz channel as well. I haven't seen any laptops in this price range with Wi-Fi 6, the newest version; chances are you won't have any Wi-Fi 6 access points to connect to, though, so you likely won't miss it now. The specifications aren't always correct on the shopping sites, so if you see a model that doesn't seem to have Wi-Fi 4, double-check on the manufacturer's site before ruling it out. Remember, Chromebooks are designed to work predominantly over the internet, so Wi-Fi speed and stability are crucial. 

Considering all specs and options -- battery life, storage space, screen resolution, screen size, core processor performance, general machine and battery performance -- you'll find some of our top picks for 2021's best Windows laptops and Chromebooks under the $500 budget in the list above, along with their pros and cons.

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