The Best Budget Laptops for 2021
Gone are the days when a decent laptop would cost you north of $1,000. It’s now possible to pick up a full-size or ultraportable Windows 10 notebook with a processor powerful enough for use at home, school, or work, for around $400 to $700. It’s also easy to find full-featured Chromebooks and hybrid systems that give you both laptop and tablet functionality in one device for as little as $300.
You should be prepared to compromise in one aspect or other, however. While it’s certainly possible to find a powerful laptop with a 15-inch screen, you might have to make do with a flimsy keyboard and touchpad. Likewise, you could buy an impeccably made ultraportable that uses a modest CPU and a small storage drive to achieve its low price. Understanding those trade-offs, and matching up a budget laptop’s strengths and weaknesses with what you will do with it, is the key to making a happy purchase. Here’s help.
Components and Connectivity: What to Know
The good news is that you’ll have to accept fewer compromises with the budget laptops of today than you did in the past. Intel’s Celeron and Pentium processors (which power most of the under-$400 laptop set) have evolved to the point that they can support most of your web browsing and basic productivity needs without feeling sluggish. (That’s especially true with Chromebooks; more on them later.) That said, the $400-to-$700 Windows laptop market is mostly populated by systems based on the much peppier Core i3, Core i5, Ryzen 3, and Ryzen 5 families of processors. Opt for these CPU lines if you need more than just the basics.
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All of these CPUs also host the silicon that runs the laptop’s graphics. The newest integrated graphics solutions can hold their own in browser-based games and even some online games like World of Warcraft. The higher demands of AAA titles, though, still require a discrete GPU, which you won’t find in this price range. (If money is no object, check out our top-rated gaming laptops and ultraportables, as well as our favorite cheap gaming laptops.)
In years past, many of the barest-budget Windows laptops would come with just 2GB or 4GB of main system memory, but nowadays, at least in the Windows sphere, most come with 8GB. (The lower amounts remain more common in Chromebooks.) In terms of batteries, an ideal budget laptop has one with six cells or more. The battery life for a cheap laptop should come in at a minimum of seven or eight hours, and these days, many will last quite a bit longer. (A lower-resolution screen, which is a feature of some of these machines, can consume less power, all else being equal, and end up being a benefit of sorts.)
When it comes to storage, some inexpensive systems still use spinning hard drives, with capacities often at 500GB, but increasingly, inexpensive Windows machines opt for small-capacity solid-state drives (SSDs) of 128GB or 256GB capacity. If you can get by with the capacity of a small SSD, we strongly favor opting for one, even over a roomier platter-based hard drive, for their durability.
Other budget systems, particularly Chromebooks, will have only a small allotment (32GB or 64GB) of local storage, but compensate for it with generous offers of additional free cloud storage. Of course, as with anything cloud-based, you’ll need to be online to access it. Also, know that some budget machines, including many Chromebooks, use what is called “eMMC memory” as their main storage. This is not the same as the flash memory used in a true solid-state drive (SSD), and it will feel a tad sluggish if you’re used to an SSD.
In terms of features, budget laptops will come with (almost always) at least one USB 3.0 port, and possibly a USB 2.0 port or two. You also may get an SD card slot. A Wi-Fi radio that uses the speedy 802.11ac protocol is also the norm now. (The newer 802.11ax, a.k.a. Wi-Fi 6, hasn’t made it down to the budget brigade just yet in widespread fashion, though you will see it in a few models.)
An HDMI output and a USB-C port are definite pluses, and you can find these on even some of the very cheapest models. You shouldn’t always expect a touch-screen display, however. (See our picks for the best touch-screen laptops.) Any 2-in-1 convertible machine, though, will by definition have a touch screen, as having one is necessary for using the machine as a tablet or in other orientations where the keyboard is covered up.
Chromebooks: The Crème de la Cheap?
Chromebooks used to be little more than glorified netbooks running Google’s Chrome OS. While these Chrome OS–based laptops are still resolutely web-centric, they now have fuller feature sets. If you spend most of your working hours in the cloud, a Chromebook will offer you much of the functionality of a regular Windows 10 or macOS laptop, and it may well deliver longer battery life, depending on the model.
It will also likely cost you a lot less than other types of notebooks, as many Chromebooks come in at less than $300. Just be sure you have easy access to stable Wi-Fi wherever you’ll use one, as Chromebooks have limited offline functionality and scant local storage.
Note that a Pentium or Celeron processor is adequate for a light-usage, budget-minded Chromebook. Intel Core processors tend to be found in the more premium class of Chromebooks.
The Best Cheap Tablets and Hybrids: 2-in-1s on a Budget
Tablets rose in popularity throughout the 2010s, and though we have plenty of reviews of those—take a look at our overall roundup of the best tablets, as well as our favorites running the Windows 10 and Android operating systems—they are sufficiently different from traditional clamshell-style laptops that they don’t always make good substitutes. Some come with detachable keyboards, but even these are far less comfortable for typing on your lap than a conventional laptop.
Convertible 2-in-1s, however, do make a good substitute for traditional clamshells. These machines let you flip between a laptop and a tablet, by folding the keyboard out of the way. You should consider one of these convertible systems if you primarily want the typing capability of a laptop, but occasionally would appreciate the lie-back, passive-consumption convenience of a tablet.
See our guide to the best 2-in-1 convertible and hybrid laptops for more information about this popular segment of the market. In part because of their added complexity compared with traditional clamshell designs, you won’t find many affordable ones, but there are a few Windows 10 and Chrome OS-based models that cost $500 or below. They come in both permanently attached (generally 360-degree-rotating-hinge) designs, and in detachable-keyboard designs.
Make sure, though, when looking at one of the detachables that you know what comes in the box. In some cases, like with Microsoft’s spiffy Surface Go 2, you need to buy the keyboard base separately, and the total cost may not be as low as it first appears.
So, Which Budget Laptop Should I Buy?
If you’re on a strict budget, don’t lose heart. You can definitely find PCs that will offer you enough performance to tackle your day-to-day tasks without a stutter. The best ones are listed below, and we update this guide constantly, so you’re always seeing our top recommendations for the highest-performing affordable laptops.
For further in-depth breakdowns of our budget picks, take a look at our roundups of the best laptops for college students, the best laptops for kids, and the best Chromebooks.
For more general factors to consider when choosing a laptop, on the other hand, take a look at our buying guide with our top laptop picks overall.