Buying a laptop on a tight budget is tricky. You want something fast enough for daily tasks, without sacrificing too much in build quality and battery life. Not all budget laptops can strike that balance gracefully, but if you’re a student writing the occasional paper or someone who only needs a computer for the occasional email and Facebook message, $500 can often get you everything you need. At that price, we think the Dell Inspiron 3501 (available at Amazon) gets you the best bang for your buck.
Every laptop under a certain price range has to cut corners somewhere. Maybe they aren’t as portable, or maybe they use a cheap screen that can’t get as bright as the more expensive competition. But as long as you prioritize the features that matter most to you, a great laptop doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. We’ve gone hands-on with a number of sub-$500 laptops to help you narrow down the field.
These are the best laptops under $500 we tested, ranked in order:
- Dell Inspiron 3501
- Acer Aspire 5
- Lenovo Chromebook Flex 5
- Asus Chromebook Flip C434
- HP Chromebook x360
- Gateway 15.6-inch
- HP Stream 14
- Lenovo Chromebook Duet
- Microsoft Surface Go 3
Other Budget Laptops We Tested
How We Tested Laptops Under $500
Hey there, I’m Adrien Ramirez, laptop 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. When I’m not testing and evaluating laptops, I’m planning new keyboard and small form factor desktop builds, playing games in virtual reality, or nerding out about graphics cards.
I’m Whitson Gordon, and I’m a freelance tech writer charged with testing laptops here at Reviewed. I’ve been writing about tech professionally for almost 10 years, from building computers to setting up smart homes, and served as the editor-in-chief of Lifehacker and How-To Geek before freelancing for publications like the New York Times, PCMag, and Reviewed. This isn’t just my day job—it’s my calling. I’m obsessed with researching, testing, and finding the best possible gadget in a given category, so much so that my brother made it a central joke in his best man speech at my wedding.
Here at Reviewed, we test laptops for their processing capability, graphics, battery life, and screen brightness. We use popular benchmarks like Geekbench and 3DMark to gauge how well the laptop multitasks, runs games, and more. We also test multiple platforms, from Windows laptops to Macs and Chromebooks alike.
To test battery life, we set up our laptops to continuously cycle through various websites on Wi-Fi at a brightness of 200 nits—just a little under 100% for many of these budget models—until they run out of power, estimating how much work you can get done on a single charge. We also use each laptop for an extended period of time, rating each on factors like build quality, price, portability, and design.
What You Should Know About Budget Laptops
When it comes to laptops, $500 is considered the low end. We wouldn’t recommend spending much less than that, since the models may be too slow to be useful, or may not last you long enough into the future. If you have a really tight budget, you should seriously consider buying a refurbished laptop instead, which can get you a like-new version of last year’s model at a sizable discount. Or consider a desktop PC, which can get you more power for your money.
Even if your budget tops out at $500, though, you have to make some choices about what’s most important to you. You’ll need to consider:
Performance: The CPU, graphics chip, RAM, and storage inside your PC determine how well your computer can multitask, handle intensive tasks like gaming, and store all your files. The better the specs, the snappier the laptop will feel as you work.
Build Quality: Not only do you want a laptop that can take a beating (since you’ll probably be lugging it around with you), but you want one with a well-built keyboard and trackpad since they’re your primary form of interaction with the machine. A poor trackpad or finicky keyboard can really kill the experience.
Portability and Features: The more you try to cram into a small space, the higher the cost—that’s why a lot of budget laptops tend to be bigger than their $1000, ultra-portable counterparts. Similarly, features like fingerprint scanners cost money to include, so they aren’t as common at this price point—and it’s really exciting when you do see them.
When spending $500, it’s hard to get everything in one package—you usually have to sacrifice somewhere. It’s all about finding a balance that fits your needs, even if that means a few drawbacks.
In addition, consider which operating system you need. Windows is still the dominant OS these days, and if you’re going to play games, edit photos and videos, or need certain software for work, you’ll probably stick with Microsoft’s offering. Many budget laptops come with Windows 10 in “S Mode,” which only allows apps from the Microsoft Store—but you can take it out of S mode for free, and we recommend almost everyone do so.
Windows laptops at this price point almost always have pre-installed “bloatware,” too, which you can remove from Windows’ uninstall menu. You can also completely wipe all bloatware by installing a clean copy of Windows to override the pre-installed, bloated version that comes out of the box.
If you spend all your time on the web, a Chromebook may serve you better than you’d think at this price point. Between Netflix, Gmail, Google Docs, and even online photo editors like Pixlr, you can do almost anything in a browser, and many of those web apps even work offline for those rare occasions you don’t have Wi-Fi.h
Chromebooks have the advantage of being cheaper (since they don’t need as much processing power) and virtually virus- and bloatware-free (since they run Linux under the hood). Thanks to Chrome Remote Desktop, which gives users the freedom to remotely access a Windows PC, Chromebooks can even serve as a reliable companion to a powerful Windows desktop.
From there, you’ll need to look a bit deeper at the form factor. You’ll usually find laptops in one of three main sizes, measured by the diagonal length of the display:
13 inches and under: These smaller laptops are great for carrying around, and more than suitable for light work like writing papers and browsing the web.
15 inches: 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, and are more common at lower price points.
17 inches: 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 C940. But in general, picking a size range you’re comfortable with can help narrow down the field.
You’ll also want to consider how many USB ports the laptop has, whether you need HDMI and Ethernet, and how comfortable the keyboard and trackpad are to use—this can vary quite a bit from model to model, and it’s important to get something responsive and durable.
Under the Hood
Finally, you’ll need to consider the guts: the processor, graphics chip, RAM, and storage that determine your laptop’s capabilities. For browsing the web and using office software, lower-power chips (like the Intel Core i3 processor) are adequate, though midrange chips like the i5 are ideal if you can get them.
4GB of RAM is usable in a Chromebook, though even web browsing can eat up RAM these days, so 8GB is recommended if you tend to open lots of tabs, use lots of browser extensions, and want a laptop that’ll last you well into the future—we wouldn’t advise 4GB for most Windows users these days.
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.” Intel’s higher-end i7 processors will make those video encodes run noticeably faster, and a dedicated graphics card will ensure your games run smooth as butter (instead of choppy like a bad flipbook). However, it’s rare to see that amount of performance in the sub-$500 price range.
No matter who you are, we recommend erring on the side of more storage rather than less—people often underestimate how much space they’ll fill up with all their music, photos, and videos over time, and it’s a hassle to lug an external drive around. Storage can be expensive, though, so if you can’t afford a 256GB solid-state drive, consider buying a laptop with an SD card slot and using a high-capacity card for cheap, expandable storage.
Keep in mind internal upgradeability, too: many modern laptops solder their components onto the motherboard, meaning you can’t swap in more RAM or a bigger storage drive down the line. So either buy a laptop that keeps its components separate or spend a bit more to buy the specs you’ll need in a couple years—not just what you need right now.