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The Best Budget Laptop Today

By Nathan Edwards, The Wirecutter

If I had to buy a Windows laptop for $600 or less, I'd get the ~$550 configuration of the Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 14 or something very similar. But first I'd think long and hard about whether I needed a full-sized Windows laptop at all.

If I had to buy a Windows laptop for $600 or less, I'd get the ~$550 configuration of the Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 14 or something very similar. But first I'd think long and hard about whether I needed a full-sized Windows laptop at all.

Who Should(n’t) Buy This?

If you have regular access to a full Windows or Mac computer and want a secondary machine for web browsing, email, and basic document editing (i.e. something more than a tablet but less than a full-sized Windows computer), don’t buy a $600 Windows laptop as your secondary machine. Consider a $250 Chromebook or a $400 Windows convertible tablet instead. Neither can do quite as much as a full Windows laptop, but they often give a better experience in the things they do than a more expensive general-use machine.

But if you do need a real computer—if this is your primary, do-everything computer—and you need the best all-around thing you can get for under $600, you should get something like the Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 14.

Our Pick

We like the $550 configuration of the Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 14 (listed on Lenovo’s site as the “Flex14-59393810“). It’s not perfect, but for its price it hits “pretty good” levels in a lot of important areas while managing to avoid deal-breaking flaws. It is powerful enough for day-to-day tasks, portable enough to bring with you without breaking your back, and has enough battery power to last all day. It also has a hinge that bends back around 300 degrees, just in case you wanted to use it like that.

Unlike many expensive ultrabooks, the Flex 14 has a removable battery and upgradable RAM and drives.

For your $550 you get a dual-core Haswell Intel Core i3 processor, 4 GB of DDR3 RAM, and a 500 GB hard drive, which is enough for most tasks that don’t involve heavy photo or video editing or gaming. The Flex 14 also has a 14-inch multitouch panel with a resolution of 1366×768, 7.5 hours of battery life, a decent keyboard and trackpad, and a full array of ports: HDMI, Ethernet, USB 3.0, two USB 2.0 ports, a card reader, and an audio jack. At 0.8 inches thick and 4.4 pounds, it’s lighter and slimmer than most laptops in its price range. Its matte-black plastic exterior and fake-brushed-aluminum palmrest aren’t gonna win many beauty contests (especially compared to most ultrabooks) but it’s not something you’ll be ashamed to break out at a coffee shop. (Unless you don’t buy anything. Then you’re a freeloader and you should feel bad.)

Unlike many expensive ultrabooks, the Flex 14 has a removable battery and upgradable RAM and drives. This means you can buy the configuration you can afford now and later squeeze more life out by swapping in a higher-capacity RAM stick and trading the hard drive for a solid-state drive.

The Flex 14 in “stand” mode.

Reviews for the Flex 14 stay mostly in the range of 3 to 3.5 stars, but this is because the original review units Lenovo sent out came with a Core i5-4200U processor, 8 GB of RAM, an 128 GB SSD, and a suggested price of $1,000, which is madness. At that price, you can get an ultrabook that’s half the thickness and weight with triple the screen resolution and double the SSD space, so it’s no wonder the Flex 14 didn’t review well at $1000. The $550 version, though, is much more sanely priced, which is why we’ve chosen it for our pick.

CNET’s Dan Ackerman gave it 3.5 stars out of five under the premise that, if you keep the configuration under $800, it’s a good laptop. Once you get above $800 there are lots of better options, particularly when it comes to the display and build quality, echoing what we wrote above.

Laptop Mag’s Sherri Smith said, “If you’re looking for a solid midrange touch-screen notebook that can handle most computing and multimedia tasks, the Flex 14′s $569 Core i3 or $669 Core i5 configurations with standard hard drives are pretty good choices.”

We called in the Flex 14 alongside a $580 Acer Aspire E1 and $650 Dell Inspiron 14R, using each as a daily machine for a few days. Of the three, I like the Flex 14 best, but it’s not stealing my heart in the way that, say, our favorite Ultrabook does. Then again, it’s cheaper than half the price and has more than half the power of that machine.

Flaws But Not Dealbreakers

The Flex 14 isn’t perfect. Obviously. It has no optical drive (eh) and like most budget laptop panels, the screen is washed out and suffers from bad viewing angles. And it’d be nice to have a solid-state caching drive. But the two biggest problems with the Flex 14 are the same ones that plague many of the IdeaPads that Lenovo sells on their site: Wi-Fi and price.

The Flex 14 uses a single-band wireless-n radio. Unlike the dual-band Wi-Fi radios common in more expensive laptops, it only uses the slower and more crowded 2.4 GHz frequency band, not the 5 GHz band. And Lenovo restricts which Wi-Fi cards can be used in their laptops via BIOS whitelisting, so improving wireless performance is not as easy as installing a new Wi-Fi card.

Pricing is another problem. Lenovo sells most of its laptops directly through its web store, usually at what looks like a discount—the $550 price on this Flex 14 is presented as an “eCoupon” lowering the price from an MSRP of $799. This is basically just marketing fluff that gives Lenovo the freedom to mess with pricing as they see fit. So it’s possible that our recommended configuration doesn’t exist anymore or is priced over $600. If either of those is the case, consider one of our alternative picks below before opting for a more expensive Flex 14.

Also, the Haswell Core i3-4010U processor in the Flex 14 is decent, but unlike Core i5 processors it lacks Turbo Mode, so it can’t boost its speed automatically when under heavy load. You can get a Flex 14 with a Core i5-4200U CPU for $650 and get access to that handy Turbo boost, but you shouldn’t; at $650 you’re in spitting range of a much better laptop.

The Step Up

The same guts as the Flex 14 but lighter (at 4.2 pounds) and thinner (0.8 inches) with a higher-res screen (1600x900). It also has 16 GB of solid-state cache, a backlit keyboard, and better build quality.

If your budget extends to $700, get the Lenovo IdeaPad U430 Touch from Best Buy, which is currently $680. It has the same Core i5-4200U, 4 GB of RAM, and 500 GB hard drive as the $650 Flex 14, but it’s lighter (at 4.2 pounds), slimmer (at .8 inches), and has a higher-res screen—1600×900 instead of 1366×768. Its 500 GB drive also includes 16 GB of solid-state cache, and its keyboard is backlit. It has a touchscreen and an all-day battery (like the Flex) but better build quality. It’s our unequivocal step-up model.

The U430 Touch has four-star reviews from PCWorld’s Mike Brown, Laptop’s Joe Osborne, and PCMag’s Joel Santo Domingo, who awarded it their Editors’ Choice award for budget ultrabooks. It’s not perfect—like most budget laptops (including the Flex 14 and the other sub-$600 computers we tested), it uses a 2.4 GHz-only Intel networking card. And unlike our Best Laptop and Best Ultrabook picks, it uses a mechanical drive with a small caching SSD rather than all-solid-state storage. But for $700 it’s a lot of machine. It’s the laptop I’d get if I had a $700 budget.

The Runner Up

Only get this Acer if the $550 Flex 14 isn’t available.

If our pick is sold out or is selling for more than $600, we recommend you get the $580 Acer Aspire E1-572-6780 instead. We tested the $580 configuration of the Aspire E1, which has an i5-4200U processor, 4GB RAM, and 500GB HDD, with a 15-inch 1366×768 screen and battery life in the 4-5 hour range. It’s a decent machine for the money, but I’d only recommend it over the Flex 14 if the $550 Flex 14 isn’t available, and you’d rather have a slightly faster processor than a touchscreen and all-day battery life.

Mike Brown at PCWorld took a look at five laptops in the sub-$650 range in August of this year and chose the Acer Aspire E1 as his pick. It does a lot of things very well for its price range, and is certainly better than the other laptops he looked at, which were a mix of one-to-two generation-old machines and AMD cheapos.

Sometimes this configuration is an even better deal: right now, for example, it’s just $480 on Amazon and NewEgg. Those prices may not last, but it’s the best sub-$500 deal we’ve seen.

What about Chromebooks?

Since I have a desktop computer that I use for intensive work, I’d take a C720 over any of our budget laptop picks for use as a secondary machine.

If you already have a computer in your house that can run full x86 apps and are just looking for a cheap second computer for web browsing, email, and office work, you may not need a full Windows computer at all. If I didn’t need access to a full operating system, I’d skip Windows, save a few hundred dollars, and pick up a Chromebook.

Chromebooks run a stripped-down Linux variant called ChromeOS, but essentially it’s a computer that does everything Google’s Chrome browser can do and pretty much nothing else. HP, Samsung, Acer, and Toshiba all make Chromebooks under $300, and the best one I’ve used is the $250 Acer C720 (see: The Verge, Ars Technica, Laptop,PCMag). Since I have a desktop computer that I use for intensive work, I’d take a C720 over any of our budget laptop picks for use as a secondary machine.

What about those Windows tablets/convertibles like the Asus Transformer T100?

We did consider the Asus Transformer T100 for this article. It’s small, sleek, well-built, has a long battery life, runs real Windows, and is popular both with reviewers (AnandTech, PCMag, Laptop, CNET) and real people. Our own Geoff Morrison brought one to CES this year as his only computer and couldn’t stop talking about it. It costs $400 (though third parties jack up the price if Amazon is out of stock) and for that you get a quad-core Atom processor, 2 GB of RAM, 64GB of a slowish eMMC SSD, full Windows 8.1, a detachable keyboard, and all-day battery life.

It’s a good choice for a lot of people who need a highly portable secondary computer that runs Windows. But since this piece is mostly focused on people with under $600 to spend on their only computer, we’re focusing on more powerful laptops with bigger screens and keyboards, better processors, and more RAM and storage space. We saw a lot of cool tablets and convertibles at CES this year, and if any of them turn out to be good we’ll do a guide.

The Competition

There’s no shortage of reputable sites that review laptops, but they don’t always review the same models, and they tend to skip over cheap laptops in favor of flashier, more expensive ones.

We looked at “best budget laptop” stories from PCMag, AnandTech, PCWorld,TechRadar, and CNET. We eliminated anything not running full Windows 7 or 8, anything with an Ivy Bridge or earlier processor, and anything less powerful than a current-gen Core i3. We prioritized configurations with i5 processors and good battery life. Touchscreens are basically a wash—nice to have but not necessary.

AnandTech’s Jarred Walton’s holiday 2013 budget laptop guide starts low, with a Chromebook, mentions the E1 and the Aspire V5, then goes into laptops that are either unreviewed or out of our price range, though it’s a good place to look if your budget is around $750.

PCMag’s “Ten Best Budget Laptops” is a good overview and manages to include nine Editors’ Choice laptops. However, two of the ten are Chromebooks, one runs Windows RT, three are running last-gen processors, and one is the Asus T100. That leaves three contenders: an Acer Aspire V5 and two Dell Inspirons, one 15-incher and one 17-incher. The Inspiron 17 is tempting, but a 1600×900 screen on a 17-inch laptop is…not good. Also, 17 inches is just too big for most people. Ideally we’d get something more portable. The Inspiron 15 they reviewed is very inexpensive, and might suit you if you only have $350 to spend, but there’s another Inspiron, not on their budget laptop list, that I think is the sleeper hit here. It’s the Inspiron 14R Touch, which is their current Editors’ Choice award for budget desktop replacement computers (the U430 Touch is their Editors’ Choice for entry-level ultrabooks).

When I called in the Dell Inspiron 14R Touch, I expected it to be the best of the finalists. On paper it meets all of our criteria for a budget laptop: its $650 configuration has a Core i3-4010U, 4GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive, its battery lasts all day, and it even has an optical drive. But in real life it’s thick and heavy, and its trackpad consistently freezes during two-finger scrolling. The optical drive isn’t worth the $100 premium over the Flex 14, and the trackpad is a dealbreaker. PCWorld wasn’t wild about it either, with a 3.5 star review.

The Asus X550LB-NH52 gets praise from AnandTech’s Jarrod Walton, and if you can spend $660 you’ll get a Core i5-4200U, 8 GB of RAM and a 750 GB hard drive, plus Nvidia GT 740M integrated graphics. It looks great on paper, with 4 stars out of 7 reviews on NewEgg (the only place this configuration is available). But with no critical reviews and no solid information on the battery life, it’s too much of an unknown quantity. Still, if you don’t mind taking a risk it could be a good alternative to our step-up model.

Laptop Mag’s December “Top Ten Laptops Now” article favors the HP Pavilion 11z, which is an $400 11-inch budget laptop with an AMD A4 APU. The 3.5-star review, though, uses phrases like “don’t expect to multitask much,” and for the price and form factor we’d prefer something better-reviewed like the Asus Transformer T100.

PCMag likes the Toshiba Satellite E45T-A4300, but not enough to dethrone the similarly-priced but higher-res Lenovo U430 Touch.

The $700 Acer Aspire M5 got good reviews from Laptop Mag, but it’s above our price range.

There are dozens of other laptops in this price range, but those are the ones worth calling out specifically.

What makes a good budget laptop anyway?

The top three budget laptops.

Let’s back up and talk about how we settled on our cheap laptop criteria. Basically we’re looking for a laptop with as much all-around functionality as possible for under $600. Not the absolute cheapest computer-like object you can get, but something you can use every day and be reasonably happy with for a few years.

We’re assuming this is your main or only computer, whether you’re a student on a budget, a one-computer household, or someone looking for a primary machine of their own. Because we’re assuming this is a primary machine, it has to be able to do as much as possible for the money. A tablet or Chromebook can cover 80 percent of your computing needs and is great as a secondary device (or a primary device for someone with pretty simple needs), but this guide is written for people who need one device that can do everything. That means we’re looking for a Windows computer. Macbooks start around $1,000, and Linux isn’t user-friendly enough for most people. Plus, Windows has more compatible software.

Because most of the attention goes to flashy Macbooks and sleek ultrabooks, it’s easy to forget that the average price people pay for a new laptop is south of $500. A lot of computers under $500 are janky in build quality, underpowered, and unpleasant to use. Remember netbooks? Paul Thurrott is one of the folks who blame a glut of underpowered netbooks in 2008-2010 era for getting people used to buying inexpensive, underpowered crap. “You get what you pay for” is as true on the low end as it is on the high end, and most laptops under $500 make a lot of compromises to get to that price: they skimp on RAM or drive space and have low-resolution screens and entry-level processors.

It’s hard to find a decent laptop under $500 at all. When you get up to the $750 and $800 range you start getting into really good stuff, often with the same under-the-hood specs as pricier ultrabooks, albeit without all the bells and whistles. After hours of research and specs comparisons, I settled on a price range of $650 or below as a sweet spot of sorts.

…when you buy a laptop, you’re buying time—time until you have to upgrade again. You want your computer to be usable for as long as possible, not frustrating right out of the box.

Laptops in this range are powerful enough for most people, with a solid step-up in build quality and performance from the sub-$500 crowd, but not a whole lot more than people are used to paying for a crappy laptop. I know that every dollar counts, but the better laptop you get now, the less frustration you’ll have, now and in the future. Really, when you buy a laptop, you’re buying time—time until you have to upgrade again. You want your computer to be usable for as long as possible, not frustrating right out of the box.

Here’s what I’m looking for in a laptop in this price range: A dual-core Haswell processor, at least a Core i3 but ideally an i5. At least 4 GB of RAM and 500 GB of storage. An SSD would be really nice, because they make a computer feel a whole lot faster, but it’s not really doable at this price range, and if this is your only computer you’ll want the extra storage space a hard drive gives you. At best we can get a small caching SSD to help with the most frequent tasks. If you get the right laptop, you can also swap the hard drive for an SSD (like our pick) later when you can afford it.

Any laptop by now should have USB 3.0 ports, onboard 802.11n WiFi (preferably dual-band) and Bluetooth 4.0, an SD card reader, and a way to connect an external monitor. Any non-Ultrabook should have an Ethernet port, too. The keyboard and trackpad should be usable enough that you don’t need to plug in an external mouse or keyboard unless you want to, and battery life should be above average, especially if you’re a student taking your laptop to class. A touchscreen isn’t a must-have. It’s useful for the modern UI Microsoft introduced with Windows 8, but that interface has very few apps worth using. If you’re spending most of your time on the traditional desktop, skipping a touchscreen is a good way to save weight and cut costs. An optical drive is a bonus.

The more portable, the better; you’re not gonna get ultrabook specs and portability at this price point, but you should be able to throw your laptop in a bag and go. It’s also good to have the RAM and drive slots easily accessible. Upgrading your RAM andadding an SSD can put new life into an older machine, and it’s nice to be able to start out with the basics and add more as funds permit.

Care and Feeding

Most budget laptops come with plenty of extra software preinstalled. This stuff usually isn’t included because it’s useful; it’s included because the company that made it paid the laptop manufacturer to put it there. Use Decrap to clean away the bloatware andNinite to install the useful apps you actually want to use.

Last Year’s Model

Last year’s pick for budget laptops, the HP g6t, is discontinued, and because of the huge leaps in battery life offered by current-gen Haswell processors, we don’t think it’s worth looking back.

What To Look Forward To

New budget laptops are coming out all the time, and convertible/tablets are getting better all the time. We’ll keep this up-to-date as they do. No more yearlong waits, we promise.

Wrapping It Up

There’s no such thing as a great budget laptop, but we think that the Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 14 is pretty good in all the right area, which is as close to great as you can get in this price range. If you want one computer for all your computing needs, it’s the one to get. But the number of people who really need a fully-functional computer in this price range is shrinking rapidly. Again, if you don’t actually need all the capabilities provided by a full-on laptop, you can save a lot of money by going for a Chromebook or Windows convertible tablet.

This guide originally appeared on The Wirecutter on 1/23/14 and is republished here with permission.