The Chromebook question
Now, you may be inclined to recommend a Chromebook or a tablet to all of the people listed above. Those instincts aren’t wrong, but Chromebooks and tablets aren’t for everyone. Tablets will only work for the most mobile-competent users like kids who have been grabbing smartphones out of their parents’ hands since they’ve been dexterous enough to do so. Tablets can also be just as expensive as some of the cheapest Windows laptops, and that’s without any accompanying accessories like keyboards and mice.
Chromebooks are a good alternative for those that basically live in a browser. However, there are some who just don’t want to give up the “traditional desktop.” And Chrome OS is more limited than Windows when it comes to the programs you can install and run.
What Windows laptops do well
So what can you realistically accomplish on a cheap Windows laptop? Quite a bit, especially if you’re doing one thing (or a limited number of things) at a time. They’re great for web browsing, checking email, video streaming and more — but, yes, all of those things can be done on Chromebooks as well. Windows laptops have a big advantage, though, in Microsoft Office. While yes, there is a browser based version, the native, desktop apps are considered a must have for many and will run smoothly on even the most bare-bones laptops. The only caveat is that you may run into some slowdown on low-powered devices if you’re working with large data sets in Excel or large photos and graphics in Powerpoint.
When it comes to specs, a bright spot for Windows laptops is storage. Even the most affordable devices tend to have 128GB SSDs, and some combine those SSDs with larger HDDs for even more space. In contrast, Chromebooks have very little storage because they rely on the assumption that you’ll save all of your documents in the cloud. Not only is that less convenient when you need to work offline, but it also limits the size of programs and files that you can download. So, not great for hoarding Netflix shows before a long trip.
Windows also has thousands of apps that you can download from its dedicated app store. Chromebooks have some Chrome apps, numerous browser extensions and the ability to download Android apps, but quality control is… inconsistent. Android apps, in particular, often haven’t been optimized for Chrome OS, which makes for a wonky user experience on laptops. Windows may not have as many apps as Android, but at least the experience is fairly standard across the board.
Windows also gives you the ability to download and use programs from other sources, like direct from the developer. You can run things like Adobe Creative Suite, certain VPNs and programs like GIMP, Audacity and ClipMate on a Windows device, which just isn’t possible on Chrome OS. Chromebooks limit you to the apps and programs in The Play Store and the Chrome Extensions store, reducing any others to unusable, space-sucking icons in your Downloads folder.
What to look for in a cheap Windows laptop
While you can do a lot even when spending little on a Windows laptop, you must set your expectations accordingly. The biggest downside when purchasing a budget laptop (of any kind, really) is limited power. Most Windows laptops under $500 run on Intel Celeron or Pentium processors, with a few Core i3/i5 and AMD Ryzen 3/5 options thrown in at the higher end of the price spectrum.
Specs to look for in a sub-$500 Windows laptop
Intel Core i or AMD Ryzen 3 processors
4GB – 8GB of RAM
At least 128GB SSD, or at least 512GB HDD
Mostly metal designs
We recommend getting the most powerful CPU you can afford because it will dictate how fast the computer will feel overall. RAM is also important because, the more RAM you have, the easier it will be for the laptop to manage things like a dozen browser tabs while you edit a Microsoft Word document and stream music in the background. However, with sub-$500 laptops, you’re better off getting the best CPU you can afford rather than a laptop with a ton of RAM because the CPU will have enough power to handle most tasks that cheap laptops are designed for (If you’re editing RAW images or 4K video, you’ll want to invest in more RAM… and a laptop well above $500).
When it comes to storage, try to get a machine with an SSD instead of an HDD — SSDs are more expensive but also faster and more efficient than HDDs. The only time to settle for an HDD-only laptop is if you need the most storage possible at the cheapest price.
You also don’t have to settle for an entirely plastic notebook either. There are options in the sub-$500 price range that are made, at least in part, with metals like aluminum — those will not only be more attractive but also more durable. As for screens, there’s a healthy mix of HD and FHD options in this price range and we recommend springing for a notebook with a 1080p display if you can. Touchscreens aren’t common in the under-$500 space, and you’ll only really miss one if you get a 2-in-1 laptop.
Keeping that advice in mind, we tested out a bunch of sub-$500 Windows laptops that we thought would fit the bill for most people. Two of them stood out: the Acer Aspire 5 and the Lenovo IdeaPad S340. The TL;DR version is that the IdeaPad S340 performed a bit better than the Aspire 5, but Acer’s machine gives you better hardware for your money.
(Editor’s note: Just before publishing this article, the Lenovo IdeaPad S340 went up in price to $599. Although it doesn’t fall under our $500 threshold, we still think it’s a solid affordable Windows laptop option.)
The Aspire 5 runs on a Ryzen 3 3200U processor, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, and it has a 15.6-inch 1080p display. That’s already really compelling, but Acer added more into the mix. Its aluminum top cover and silver chassis feel substantial without being too heavy (both the Aspire 5 and the IdeaPad S340 weigh roughly four pounds) and its backlit keyboard with number pad is comfortable to type on.
I also appreciate the ports on this machine: three USB-A ports, an HDMI port, a headphone jack, a power jack and — the kicker — a (drop-jaw) Ethernet port. I wish the Aspire 5 had a USB-C port like the IdeaPad S340, but most people will get immediate use out of an Ethernet port because it ensures that you can connect to the Internet even if your WiFi network is acting up.
Another key advantage of the Aspire 5 is its 1080p display. It provides a much better video experience than the IdeaPad S340’s 15.6-inch 768p screen. Your eyes are probably used to FHD quality at this point since it’s basically the base level on most laptops, not to mention TVs and phones. If video streaming is one of the primary things you’ll do, the Aspire 5 is the one to get out of these two.
It also provides a similar experience to the IdeaPad S340 when it comes to performance. It scored slightly lower on our benchmark tests, but it handled most of the work I threw at it including streaming content via Prime Video and working with at least 10 browser tabs open. So while the Aspire 5 demands a few sacrifices, it’s well worth its $350-$400 price tag.
Buy Acer Aspire 5 at Amazon – $350
Buy Lenovo IdeaPad S340 at Walmart – $599
Lenovo’s IdeaPad S340 is a good alternative if you want an Intel processor, a USB-C port and a superb typing experience. This notebook runs on an 8th-gen Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, and it’s accompanied by a 15-inch 768p non-touch display and an array of ports that includes one USB-C port.
If you care about future-proofing, that USB-C port will be critical. You may not have a lot of USB-C accessories right now, but you’ll at least be able to use the IdeaPad S340 more easily when that time comes. This machine’s 8GB of RAM is also preferred because it helps make multitasking smoother. It’s also a big reason the IdeaPad S340 produced slightly higher scores than the Aspire 5 on our benchmark tests.
The typing experience is also top-notch: it has a full-sized keyboard with a number pad and the keys have that rounded-bottom shape that’s similar to keys on Lenovo’s ThinkPad machines. They make a satisfying clicking sound while you’re typing, but they’re not loud enough to bother those around you.
This almost makes up for the fact that the IdeaPad S340 is an all-plastic machine. But thankfully (and somewhat surprisingly) it doesn’t feel flimsy: the palm rests don’t flex much and I could pick up the chassis with one hand while the laptop was open and tote the notebook from room to room without it feeling too wobbly. I also appreciate that, like many other Lenovo laptops, this one has a physical shutter that you can slide closed to cover the webcam.
The IdeaPad S340 also has the upper-hand over the Aspire 5 when it comes to battery life: the former lasted about 8.5 hours in our testing while the latter lasted just under six hours. Neither of those are exciting numbers, but most affordable laptops are not going to get the 12+ hours of battery life that flagship machines do. However, the Aspire 5 is on the low side, so you’ll probably need to bring its power cable with you whenever you leave the house.
One more laptop that’s worth mentioning is the HP Pavilion 11 x360, and that’s mostly for its size, design and battery life. Its specs aren’t anything to write home about — it runs on an Intel Pentium Silver processor, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, so already you know it won’t be as much of a workhorse as Lenovo or Acer’s machines (it was noticeably slower to load programs and download files than the other two laptops). Those specs are in line with many Chromebooks at similar prices, though.
In testing the $400 Pavilion 11, what stuck out to me immediately was its design. HP has been trickling down design elements from its high-end Spectre series to more affordable lineups, and the Pavilion 11 benefits from that. It feels much more luxurious than a $400 device has any right to. It has a mostly metal construction with a slate-black keyboard area and shiny hinges that allow the screen to flip back 360 degrees. Its 768p touchscreen may not be as high-res as we’d like, but it makes for a great convertible experience — especially on a laptop as compact as the Pavilion 11. It also blew the Lenovo and Acer laptops out of the water with its over 12-hour battery life. That combined with its compact design make it a great budget-friendly choice if you’re constantly on-the-go.
Buy HP Pavilion 11 x360 at Best Buy – $400