Not everyone needs or can afford the latest, most powerful laptop out there. For simple tasks, such as running web-based apps such as Google docs, browsing the Internet, or sending an email, a low-powered, low-priced laptop fits the bill. That’s where budget laptops come in..
In most cases though, you get what you pay for. Budget laptops often come with barebone specs: minimal drive space, memory, and slow processors. You won’t be able to use them to run the latest graphics-heavy computer games, but for giving your kids access to the web, sending a teen off to college with a computer for their studies or for you to stay up to date with Facebook, a budget laptop could be an ideal purchase.
But everyone has a different budget, so we’ve selected some of the best laptops you can get in any price range under $1,000. Our top pick is the MacBook Air M1 (available at Amazon for $899.99), which we love for its near-thirteen hours of battery life, speedy processor, and thin and lightweight chassis. (It holds the top spot in most of our other laptop guides, too.)
While many of the budget laptops we tested weren’t very fast, most were more than capable of handling everyday tasks like web browsing and text editing with ease. We tested a mix of Windows laptops, MacBooks, and Chromebooks to find the best laptops for every given price point.
These are the best budget laptops we tested, ranked in order:
- MacBook Air M1
- Dell Inspiron 3501
- HP Envy x360 15
- Acer Aspire 5
- Microsoft Surface Laptop 4
- Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5
- Asus Zenbook 14 (2020)
- Asus Chromebook Flip
- Gateway 15.6 (2021)
- HP Stream 14
Other Budget Laptops We Tested
How We Tested Budget Laptops
I’m Joanna Nelius, Senior Editor of Electronics at Reviewed. I’ve been reviewing gaming products and laptops for the last several years, having written for PC Gamer, Maximum PC, and Gizmodo in the past. In addition to gaming desktops and laptops, I also specialize in CPU and GPU reviews.
Hey there, I’m Adrien Ramirez, tech staff writer here at Reviewed. I’ve been working professionally with tech and PCs for six years, from game development to reviewing and everything in between. Before I came to Reviewed, I had worked with Lifewire and the MIT Game Lab. I’m passionate about all things tech, although I especially enjoy working with PCs. It takes a lot to make a great PC, and it takes a lot to know what a great PC looks like. It’s not just power—it’s build quality, touchpad sensitivity, keyboard ergonomics, display accuracy, aesthetics, and more. We all want our laptops and desktops to last as long as possible while giving us all the performance and comfort we asked for. When I’m not testing and evaluating laptops, I’m planning new keyboard and small form factor desktop builds.
Our tests for these devices aren’t based purely on processing power. Instead, we look at the overall usability of the laptop, which also depends on the quality of the screen, the keyboard, what interfaces it offers, and many other factors. We test all of these factors and assign a score for each. Then, we rate the overall usability of the laptop as a combination of all of these factors by creating an overall weighted score.
First, we look at how well each laptop performs. Because the laptops in this guide are mostly designed for running web applications like Google Docs, we utilize the web-based benchmarks Basemark and Speedometer in the most popular web browser (Google Chrome). We also test with Geekbench 5 and Cinebench R23 in order to compare its potential processing power across any app.
Most laptop displays do well in a dark room, but what about outdoors? Is a glossy screen better than a matte one? To figure out this information, we test the brightness of the display. We do this with a colorimeter like the SpyderX or X-Rite i1Display Studio, small, plug-and-play USB devices that measures luminance and color accuracy. We measure the white levels and black levels at max brightness and then again at 50% brightness.
Next, we tested the battery life of each laptop to see how long you can use them between charges. With their displays adjusted to a brightness of 200 nits, we set them to continuously cycle through popular websites, simulating the way you would use the laptop when idly browsing the web.
What You Should Know About Budget Laptops
When you purchase a cheap laptop, you’re investing in a series of compromises. They are usually equipped with low-end processors, memory, storage, displays, and keyboards—all in the name of providing consumers with the lowest-priced laptop possible. That’s not to say that these laptops are bad: Laptops that sell in the price range covered by this guide are still more than adequate for completing many tasks.
Their processors are fast enough to provide a smooth web browsing experience, allowing you to use many web apps and browser plugins, run uncomplicated software or play simple games. Using Google Docs or creating simple documents in Microsoft Word or Excel are reasonable tasks to ask of a sub-$500 laptop. Every one of the computers in this guide could handle writing essays for homework, researching schoolwork online, or making a presentation to show in class.
If you have a bit more space in your budget, many of the laptops we tested offer upgrade models that have faster processors and more drive space, which can make them more flexible for more demanding tasks. While you may not be able to run recently released major studio games on a budget laptop, you may be surprised to know how much more powerful these laptops have become in recent years.
If you want to be able to play complex computer games or plan on using your computer to run power-hungry applications like Photoshop CC, we recommend spending more money on a laptop. You don’t need to own the best computer out there for these tasks (our best under $1,000 pick, the MacBook Air M1, can handle it), but spending a little more on a midrange gaming laptop or ultrabook can land you a Windows 10 computer that you’ll be happy with for years to come.
Chromebooks versus Windows/Mac Laptops
As you compare Windows and Mac laptops to Chromebooks, you’ll notice that the budget laptops running ChromeOS are snappier than their full operating system counterparts, even though the Chromebooks tend to have lower-end processors or less RAM. This is because ChromeOS was built from a lightweight framework that takes a minuscule amount of processing power to run in comparison to Windows or macOS.
However, this does not mean that ChromeOS isn’t as capable as a Windows or Mac machine. ChromeOS’s seamless integration with the Google cloud services allows it to take advantage of Google’s powerful suite of productivity tools and platforms, such as Docs, Sheets, YouTube, Stadia, and the Play Store. There is very little you can’t accomplish without a simple web browser these days, but if you feel somewhat limited by ChromeOS’s default settings, you can develop or install custom Unix programs by putting your Chromebook into Developer mode.
What Windows and macOS offer over ChromeOS is compatibility with many legacy apps. You can download Microsoft Office on ChromeOS these days, but if you want to use something like Scrivener, you’d have to have Windows or macOS. Additionally, finding new Windows and Mac apps is easier, since you can download apps directly from developers’ websites instead of having to scrounge the Play Store or App Store in search of an app that meets Google or Apple’s criteria for approval.
- 11-inch laptops: These tiny laptops are perfect for tossing in your bag and whipping out whenever. They’ve become less popular than they used to be, but they’re still a great choice for people who are constantly moving around.
- 13- and 14-inch laptops: These smaller laptops are also great for carrying around, and more than suitable for light work like writing papers and browsing the web. Their slightly larger size makes them easier to use for longer periods of time than 11-inch laptops.
- 15- and 16-inch laptops: Mid-sized laptops are a bit less portable, and won’t necessarily work in space-constrained spaces like airplane seats. But the larger display is useful for photo editing and watching videos.
- 17-inch laptops: This is very large, and only recommended if you are doing video editing or other intensive work that requires a lot of screen real estate—and you don’t mind lugging it around.
There can still be varying sizes within those categories—for example, the XPS 13’s smaller bezels make it much smaller than most 13-inch laptops—and sizes in between, like the 14-inch Lenovo Yoga C930. But in general, picking a size range you’re comfortable with can help narrow down the field.
Under the Hood
Finally, we need to discuss a computer’s base specifications: the hardware that determines how powerful your computer can be. For budget laptops, the most important hardware is the central processor (CPU), the working memory (RAM), and the storage drive.
The central processing unit is kind of like the brain of the computer. Nearly every operation the computer makes runs through the CPU. A good CPU excels at multitasking so that it can run several operations at once. This is why you’ll see CPU makers constantly trying to add more cores, or “brain parts” with each new model. Generally, more cores are better, but it’s also important to keep in mind that core speed will be more important if you’re not running anything super complex like a video game.
At this price, you’ll usually see the CPU take charge of the graphics processing; many higher-end laptops and PCs have their own dedicated graphics processor (GPU) on top of the CPU’s integrated graphics processor. For browsing the web and using office software, lower-power mobile chips like Intel’s Pentium line or AMD’s A6 chips are adequately powerful, although you’ll get the snappiest performance out of entry-level mainline processors, like the Intel Core i3 and Core i5 chips or the AMD Ryzen 3 and Ryzen 5 chips.
If, on the other hand, you run more intense workloads—whether that means heavy photo and video editing or running the latest PC games—you’ll want something with a bit more “oomph.” The high-end Intel Core i7 and Core i9 chips and the AMD Ryzen 7 and Ryzen 9 chips will make video encodes run noticeably faster, and a dedicated graphics card, like the Nvidia Geforce RTX 2060, will ensure your games run smooth as butter (instead of choppy like a bad flipbook). You may want to check out our guides for the best gaming laptops, best laptops under $1,000 or best laptops overall right now.
Meanwhile, the RAM is the information that the computer needs fast access to (your open web browser, the file you’re currently using, etc.). If the storage drive is your computer’s file cabinet, think of RAM as the files sprawled on your desk. 8GB is the sweet spot for RAM since this gives the computer enough space to breathe without adding needless costs. 4GB can work on ChromeOS laptops but expect to only run a couple of browser tabs at a time.
Finally, the storage drive contains all of your data—applications, documents, caches, the operating system, everything. While you want a lot of storage space, you also need to remember that a faster storage drive means a faster computer, and you can usually expand your storage space with micro SD cards and external storage drives. There are two main kinds of storage drives: hard disk drives (HDD) and solid-state drives (SSD). An SSD runs several times faster than an HDD, so it can make booting up programs much quicker and add to a laptop’s snappiness. They’ve gotten cheap enough that it’s more common to find an SSD than an HDD in laptops these days, but you may still find an HDD useful as secondary storage for files you don’t regularly access (old photos and videos, for instance). You’ll want at least 128GB of storage space on a Chromebook and 256GB of storage space on a Windows laptop for optimal performance.
Decoding the Naming Schemes
For CPU manufacturers, their naming scheme shows what kind of power is in the CPU. For Intel’s Core series, a Core i3 is the entry CPU, and a Core i9 is the flagship. In the sub-$500 market, it’s rare to see anything more powerful than an Intel Core i5. Their budget CPUs are called Celeron, and like with the Core CPUs, a higher number at the end means it’s newer or more powerful. We’re currently on the 10th generation of Intel CPUs, and the latest Celerons all start with 4000 (N4000, N4020, etc). Getting an older Core CPU (like an 8th gen Core i5) is usually fine for budget laptops, but you will notice worse performance from an older Celeron CPU.
AMD is much the same as Intel: A higher number in the name means a newer or more powerful CPU. AMD’s CPU lineups include the main Ryzen series and the budget A series. AMD processors are just as powerful as Intel processors. For AMD’s A-series, you may see A6, A8, and A10 processors. For AMD’s Ryzen series, you’ll likely see Ryzen 3, Ryzen 5, and occasionally Ryzen 7 processors in the sub-$500 range, but never a Ryzen 9. A Ryzen 3 is about as powerful as an Intel Core i3, and so on.
Meanwhile, RAM is usually named by its data transfer rate. Most modern laptops have DDR4 DRAM, which stands for “double data rate fourth-generation synchronous dynamic random-access memory.” But DDR5 is the latest standard becoming more prevalent as more laptops with Intel 12th-gen and AMD Ryzen 6000-series chips hit the market. However, there is still not much benefit from going with DDR5 over DDR4, currently. For most people, RAM speed doesn’t make a big difference, but if you need something to run blazing fast, you’ll want to consider RAM that’s 3600MHz or faster, and try to get at least 16GB of RAM if you plan to do any gaming or heavy multitasking.