5 Best Budget Laptops – Mar. 2021
Shopping for a budget laptop can be a tricky thing — because there are a ton of available options and it’s tough to find a good value in a sea of disposable tech. To complicate matters, everyone has a different idea of what “budget” means. To us, budget laptops are around $500, but your mileage may vary.
Whether you’re looking for a new laptop for work, school, or casual use, there are plenty of reliable options for a few hundred dollars. You’ll need to make some smart compromises — for example, most budget laptops include graphics hardware that’s capable but not fast enough to keep up with video games that require a powerful video card. That’s OK with us; gaming laptops are great, too, but a good budget laptop will still deliver when it comes to working with office apps, streaming video, and any work that relies on a web browser.
Here’s everything you need to know to find the right budget laptop: the specs to compare, the must-have features, and the most reliable brands.
Budget laptop operating systems
Each of the major operating systems – Windows, macOS, and Chrome OS – is available on a budget laptop, but there are a few nuances and pitfalls to be aware of.
If you’re looking for a budget Mac OS X laptop, investigate the MacBook Air. Apple’s MacBook Air is consistently their most affordable portable machine and is usually the only one sold for less than $1,000. If macOS is a must but the MacBook Air isn’t the right machine for you, consider other MacBooks. Usually, the next models up are only slightly more expensive.
- If you live your life in the cloud, consider a Chrome-OS-based laptop. Chrome OS is a relatively new operating system from Google based on their popular web browser, Google Chrome. For laptops running Chrome OS, the browser is the entire interface, and instead of running local software, everything is in the cloud. (For example, while you can’t install Microsoft Office on Chrome OS, you can use Microsoft’s “Office Online” suite of web-based equivalents.) Surprisingly, there isn’t much of a learning curve for Chrome OS if you’re migrating from Windows or Mac – especially for those who spend most of their computer time in a browser anyway.
Limitations you can live with
Naturally, a “budget” laptop is one that’s more affordable than cutting-edge machines, and in the majority of cases, a lower price means less-powerful internal hardware. That’s not a bad thing. For example, if you spend most of your computer time browsing the web or watching movies, chances are you don’t need the latest-generation processor or an ultra-powerful video card. You can save a lot of money by finding a budget laptop that makes reasonable compromises.
As you’re shopping for budget laptops, consider the most common hardware compromises you’ll encounter.
- Video hardware: Most budget laptops either use underpowered graphics processing units (GPUs), or they power their video by sharing resources with the main processor (the CPU). In these cases, video on the laptop will be adequate, but that’s about it. Watching Netflix will be fine, but your laptop will struggle with more intense video tasks such as playing video games and editing videos.
“If you’re thinking about buying a budget laptop with an 11-inch screen, make sure the diminutive size isn’t too small for your hands. Some users complain that there isn’t enough room to comfortably type on the corresponding keyboard. “
- Screen resolution: Because many budget laptops come with reduced graphics resources, it’s not uncommon to see screen resolution capped at a middle-of-the-road resolution like 1080p. If you absolutely need a laptop with a higher screen resolution (like 1440p or even 4K), you may need to consider looking at more traditionally priced laptops.
- Processors (CPUs): This is a big one. The CPU determines the overall speed of the machine and can’t be upgraded after purchase. The CPU is one of the most expensive components of any computer, so when you see an inexpensive laptop, that generally means that CPU power may be questionable. To make things even more confusing, different classes of CPUs are hard to compare. In general, the fastest CPUs you’ll see in the budget laptop category are Intel’s i3 or i5 lines. Celeron processors typically offer the next step down in terms of both power and price.
Every laptop needs some extra gear—here are the peripherals you’ll want to start with. We’ve picked the best budget-friendly options.
Backpack: KOPACK Slim Laptop Backpack
KOPACK’s laptop backpack is one of our go-to favourites because it doesn’t cut any corners but still manages to have a minimalist appearance (that’s available in several different colours). It’s soft and cushy, so it’ll keep your laptop safe and scratch-free; it’s got a built-in organiser with enough room for a tablet, a notebook, pens, and your laptop’s plug; best of all, it’s got a slot to slide a USB cable through so you can charge your phone while you’re out on the go (although you’ll have to buy a separate power bank to do that). At this price point, it’s hard to find a better value in laptop backpacks.
Mouse: Microsoft Arc Touch Mouse
Microsoft doesn’t get enough credit for their hardware—ever since they launched the Surface brand, they’ve been churning out high quality gear and accessories. One of our favourites from them is the Arc Touch Mouse, which looks more like a surrealist sculpture than it does a mouse, but is one of the most comfortable models we’ve ever used. The shape of the Arc Touch Mouse helps maintain proper wrist positioning and makes precision pointing easy, and when you need to travel it flattens so you can put it in any pocket. It’s definitely funny looking, but once you get used to the comfort and portability of the Arc Touch Mouse, other models will feel outdated.
Webcam cover: Trobing Webcam Cover
Keep yourself safe from prying eyes and always use a webcam cover with any laptop you own. We like Trobing’s camera covers, because they’re thin, easy to apply, and they can last the entire lifespan of a laptop. Thankfully, basic safety is affordable, making this an easy decision.
Budget laptop prices
The best budget laptops cost between $250 and $600. On the low end of the range, you’ll find smaller machines with modest specs that are good for working in a browser or streaming video.
On the high end are the models that run faster, have more built-in memory and storage, and in some cases, have improved screen resolutions. If you find a budget laptop that costs less than $250, it’s likely underpowered and worth avoiding. If you’re open to spending more than $600, look at laptops or MacBooks.
When shopping for a budget laptop, consider these tips.
Pay attention to the types of processors found in different budget laptops. Comparing processor power across brands can be tricky because speed ratings are rarely consistent from manufacturer to manufacturer. If you encounter an unfamiliar processor, search for comparisons to known brands online. If a budget laptop is marketed with a processor that either doesn’t list its speed or doesn’t provide any comparison data, don’t buy it.
Buy a model that has as much RAM as you can afford. Random-access memory, better known as RAM, affects how many tasks a computer can take on simultaneously. While having more RAM doesn’t actually make a computer faster, computers with more RAM generally feel faster because background tasks aren’t slowing them down. Many budget laptops come with 4GB RAM on board, which really isn’t enough to provide a satisfactory experience. We recommend getting one with at least 8GB of RAM, if not 16GB.
- Count your peripherals to determine how many ports you’ll need. Make a list of all of the things you may need to connect to your machine at the same time, including your monitor, mouse, keyboard, speakers, printer, and phone. Note the different ports you’ll need and how many of each. If you have trouble finding a budget laptop that meets all of your port requirements, consider buying a compatible dock or port replicator to add more.
Q. Do budget laptops have touchscreens?
A. Laptops that feature touchscreens, sometimes referred to as two-in-ones, cost more to make, so it’s rare to see a laptop with a touchscreen in the budget category. If you need a laptop that also functions as a tablet, a two-in-one laptop may be a better choice for you.
Q. What is an SSD? Should I buy a budget laptop that has one?
Q.How long can I expect a budget laptop to last?
A. It will depend on the model you go with, but in most cases, you can expect a budget laptop to last between three and five years. Tech advances quickly, and even web browsers require more resources each day, so like all machines, a budget laptop eventually won’t be able to keep up with your work.