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The best cheap Windows laptops and Chromebooks under $500 you can get now – CNET

Looking for the best laptop for Windows or Chrome OS (aka a Chromebook) under $500? It looks like the supply of cheap portables has finally regained some stability. There still isn’t a surplus of terrific deals, but they don’t seem to be going out of stock as rapidly as they did at the height of the initial coronavirus outbreak-induced work-from-home rush when PC and accessory sales spiked, making it nearly impossible to find a cheap laptop or Chromebook that’s even in stock. The grim reality of unprecedented job losses keeps the demand for ultracheap hardware strong.

Here’s my list of models that are still available for under $500 and that should ship within at least 10 days. I’ll try to keep this list current, but please don’t hate me if it gets out of date. Some online shopping sites make it impossible to figure out what’s in stock and what’s not — not just for tech, but for everything — as well as what can be shipped to you in a reasonable amount of time. Keep in mind, though, that shipping times may depend on where you live. I live in New York, so my recommendations may be based on a best-case scenario. 

Try to resist buying out of desperation — don’t spend $500 on a laptop because there are no cheaper ones available, for example. Buying a need-it-now laptop can be like food shopping while you’re hungry. $500 is a lot of money, and you’ll likely be holding onto it for at least three year, if the statistics Intel and PC manufacturers hurl at us are correct. You can also try to make your current laptop last a little longer. If you just need something to tide you over for a few months, dig into possible places to buy refurbished, and explore nonprofit or educational discounts if you’re eligible.

If you suspect you’ll be holding onto your new laptop a while, though, see if you can stretch your budget to accommodate a little more memory or a processor with more cores than you were otherwise considering. Even better, if you’re comfortable with it, consider one with a replaceable battery, upgradable memory and storage or both. Furthermore, you (hopefully) won’t be stuck at home forever. Remember to consider whether you’ll want something more portable, with decent battery life in the future. 

Read more: Useful work-from-home gear for the quarantined creative

You’ll be able to add external storage at some point down the road. But if your internal storage is the slow-spinning hard disks that come in a lot of cheap laptops, even fast external storage is unlikely to help speed up loading Windows or applications. (You can frequently set a system to boot from a fast external solid-state drive.)

And finally, if you’re replacing an old laptop that’s just not up to running Windows anymore, consider turning it into a Chromebook.

Trade-offs

As long as you manage your expectations when it comes to options and specs, you can still get quite a bit with a budget model, including good battery life and a reasonably lightweight body. 

One bright spot is that you don’t have to settle for a traditional clamshell laptop with a fixed display and keyboard. You can get a convertible (otherwise known as a two-in-one) — a laptop with a screen that flips around to turn the screen into a tablet, to position it for comfortable streaming or to do a presentation. Keep in mind that all convertibles have touchscreens, which are a prerequisite for tablet operation.

One thing you won’t find: a MacBook or any other Apple laptop. Even an iPad Air will run you more than $500 once you buy the optional keyboard (though if you look for sales on the tablet or keyboard it might work out to less), which is above our budget here. A base-model iPad with an inexpensive Bluetooth keyboard and cheap stand for the iPad might suffice, though.

Read more: This is the gear you need to work from home (and it’s in stock now)

You’ll see a lot of cheap laptops listed as coming with Windows 10 S, a stripped-down and locked-down version of the operating system intended for use by schools — it only allows you to install applications from the Windows Store, forces you to use Microsoft’s Edge browser and includes a subset of the administrative tools in Windows 10 Pro. You can upgrade to the full version for free, though.  

It’s easier to find inexpensive Chromebooks than Windows laptops, making it one of the most popular categories of budget laptops on the market, though we’re also seeing a lot more Chromebooks in the $500 to $1,000 range. That’s because Google’s Chrome OS isn’t nearly as power-hungry as Windows (check the specs), so you can get by with a lower-end processor, slower storage and less screen resolution or memory — just a few of the components that make a laptop expensive. 

But the flip side is that while Chrome OS isn’t as power hungry as Windows, Chrome and Google apps are unfortunately more of a memory hog than you’d expect, and if you go too low with the processor or skimp on memory, the system will still feel slow. And Chrome OS is a much different experience than Windows; make sure the applications you need have a Chrome app before making the leap.

Since they’re cloud-first devices, however, you don’t need a lot of storage built in. That also means if you spend most of your time roaming the web, writing, streaming video or playing Android games, they’re a good fit. (To play Android games, make sure you get a model with a touchscreen.) 

Read more: Best Chromebooks for 2020

For a cheap gaming laptop, though, you’ll still have to break the $500 budget for performance. The least expensive budget laptops suitable for a solid gaming performance experience — those with even moderately powerful discrete graphics processors, will run you closer to $700. Here are our recommendations if you’re looking for the best gaming laptop

Though if you like to live on the bleeding edge, cloud gaming services such as Google Stadia will let you play games on laptops with specs that hit the under-$500 mark.

Things to keep in mind:

  • While Chromebooks can run Chrome OS-specific and Android apps, some people need a full Windows operating system to run heftier applications, such as video editing suites. With that comes a need for a faster processor with more cores, more memory — 8GB is the bare minimum — and more storage for applications and the operating system itself. A lot of these have 4GB or 6GB, which in conjunction with a spinning hard disk can make for a really slow Windows experience as well.
  • Solid-state drives can make a big difference in how fast Windows performance feels compared with a spinning hard disk, but they also push the price up. So if your budget can stretch a little and you want more storage, you may want to consider stepping up from base storage options to a 128GB SSD. 
  • In this budget price range you have to watch out for screen terminology when it comes to specs: This is why an “HD” screen may not always mean a truly high-definition screen. HD, which is 1,920×1,080 pixels to a screen, was retronymmed “Full HD” so marketers could keep selling you lesser-resolution displays (1,280×720 pixels per screen) as “HD.” In Chromebooks, “HD” usually refers to a 1,366×768-pixel screen. Another frequent complaint I see is about “washed out” looking displays with poor viewing angles. Unfortunately, that’s one of the trade-offs you’ve got to live with; a lot of these use TN (twisted nematic) screen technology, which is cheap but meh.
  • Pay attention to networking. Inexpensive models with older chipsets may only support Wi-Fi 3 (or 802.11b/g/n). Wi-Fi 3 is limited to 2.4GHz channels, which are slower and have a shorter range than more recent chipsets with Wi-Fi 4 (aka 802.11ac) 5GHz support. The specifications aren’t always correct on the shopping sites, so if you see a model which doesn’t seem to have Wi-Fi 4, double check on the manufacturer’s site before ruling it out. Remember, Chromebooks are designed to work predominantly over the internet, so Wi-Fi speed and stability is crucial.

Considering all specs and options — from battery life to storage space, screen resolution, screen size, core processor performance and general machine and battery performance — these are a few of our top picks for 2020’s best Windows laptops and Chromebooks under the $500 budget, along with their pros and cons.

Read more: Best laptops, desktops and tablets for designers and creatives in 2020

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The 2019 Aspire 5 15-inch clamshell includes the latest generation AMD Ryzen 3 processor, the 3200U, with its modern Vega graphics processing. Its 4 GB RAM and 128GB solid-state drive storage don’t allow for using a lot of programs or lots of browser tabs open simultaneously, but this 15-inch screen model weighs less than 4 pounds. And $350 is a good price for the performance you get. It’s a really popular model, so it tends to play now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t when it comes to availability. Read our Acer Aspire 5 (2019) review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

For its price, HP’s 15-inch Chromebook offers good components and features — a Core i3-8130U with 4GB RAM and 128GB storage — plus a comfortable keyboard with a number pad and fantastic battery life. Note that this only has Wi-Fi 3 (2.4GHz), but if it becomes a problem you can buy a USB adapter to add better networking. Read our HP Chromebook 15 (2019) review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

For $400 (though higher-end configurations can break the $500 price ceiling), this Acer Chromebook is practically a steal. It’s a thin and lightweight laptop, but it’s sturdy, and has great battery life. Plus, it has a fingerprint reader and Citrix certification for IT-minded organizations.

Acer

With 4GB memory, a quad-core Core i3-8130, real HD display and 128GB SSD, this 14-inch two-in-one is a reasonable price for a two-in-one that may last you a little longer than the rest of the cheap models — as long as you don’t need something that can do any heavy lifting. It’s a decent Windows option for web browsing and streaming video.

Asus

This one goes in and out of stock rapidly. The cheaper Core i3 configuration sold out, then the slightly more expensive AMD Ryzen 5 model went. Now it’s down to a Ryzen 3 3200U, 128GB SSD and 4GB memory, but it still has the real HD screen — and the latest price is really good. Don’t confuse it with the thinner, lighter, more expensive Vivobook S15.

Asus

You get the basics with this attractive, functional Chromebook — a Celeron N3350 processor, 4GB memory and 32GB storage — for about $300. It doesn’t have a real HD screen, just 1,366×768 pixels, but text should still look pretty sharp as it’s only 14 inches across. Read our Asus Chromebook C423 preview.


Dell

For around $460, you get a classy 15-inch screen laptop with a reasonable configuration — an Intel Core i3 processor, 8GB RAM, 128GB SSD storage and a real HD display. 

HP

The Windows analog of HP’s 15-inch Chromebook, the HP 15 lacks a real HD display — it’s only 1,366 x 768, not 1,920 x 1,080 — but the rest of the specs are decent  for under $500. They include a 10th-gen Core i3-1005G1, 4GB RAM and 128GB SSD storage.

Samsung

While you probably wouldn’t want a work system of your own as small as 11.6 inches, it’s a good size for smaller kids and has Wi-Fi 5 with 2×2 antennas for a more stable signal — and that’s key for a Chromebook. Other specs include  an Intel Celeron N4000, 4GB RAM, and 64GB storage. Plus, it has a microSD card reader if you need to augment the storage space.

Lenovo

Usually, sleek Chromebooks come at cheap Windows-laptop prices, which are high prices for Chromebooks. The 14-inch S340 offers basic Chromebook specs — a Celeron N4000, 4GB RAM, 64GB storage — but in a modern design, for less than $300. It also has a real HD screen, though it uses a TN (twisted nematic) panel. TN doesn’t have a great viewing angle or colors, but it’s fast and high contrast.


Acer

With a real 1,920×1,080 HD display and Wi-Fi 5, this 15-inch two-in-one Chromebook should last you a few years, or at least make a good hand-me-down for the kids. Other specs include an Intel Celeron N4200, 4GB of RAM and 32GB storage.

Lenovo

Slim, stylish and with a decent configuration for $350, the IdeaPad 330’s 8GB RAM, dual-core but current-generation AMD processor and 256GB of storage is good for this class.

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