If you’re a regular Engadget reader, you probably don’t think of cheap Windows laptops when you think of daily drivers. But it would be a big mistake to ignore these devices — if not for yourself, for others you may know. There’s a reason why companies like Acer, ASUS, Dell and the like make Windows devices under $500 — lots of people have strict budgets to adhere to and others just don’t need the power that comes with a flagship laptop.
Affordable Windows notebooks are great options for people that only use a computer to check email, shop online or post on Facebook. (Hello, mom and dad?) They’re also good for kids who have no business putting their sticky little hands on a $2,000 gaming rig. And, despite popular belief, these devices can be decent daily drivers.
The Chromebook question
Now, you may be inclined to recommend a Chromebook or a tablet to all of the people listed above. Those instincts aren’t wrong, but Chromebooks and tablets aren’t for everyone. Tablets will only work for the most mobile-competent users like kids who have been grabbing smartphones out of their parents’ hands since they’ve been dexterous enough to do so. Tablets can also be just as expensive as some of the cheapest Windows laptops, and that’s without a mouse or keyboard.
Chromebooks are a good alternative for those that basically live in a browser. However, there are some who just don’t want to give up the “traditional desktop.” And Chrome OS is more limited than Windows when it comes to the programs you can install and run.
What Windows laptops do well
So what can you realistically accomplish on a cheap Windows laptop? Quite a bit, especially if you’re doing one thing (or a limited number of things) at a time. They’re great for web browsing, checking email, video streaming and more — but, yes, all of those things can be done on Chromebooks as well. Windows laptops have a big advantage, though, in Microsoft Office. While yes, there is a browser based version, the native, desktop apps are considered a must have for many and will run smoothly on even the most bare-bones laptops. The only caveat is that you may run into some slowdown on low-powered devices if you’re working with large data sets in Excel or a lot of photos and graphics in Powerpoint.
When it comes to specs, a bright spot for Windows laptops is storage. Even the most affordable devices tend to have 128GB SSDs, and some combine those SSDs with larger HDDs for even more space. In contrast, Chromebooks have very little storage because they rely on the assumption that you’ll save all of your documents in the cloud. Not only is that less convenient when you need to work offline, but it also limits the size of programs and files that you can download. So, not great for hoarding Netflix shows before a long trip.
Windows also has thousands of apps that you can download from its dedicated app store. Chromebooks have some Chrome apps, numerous browser extensions and the ability to download Android apps, but quality control is… inconsistent. Android apps, in particular, often haven’t been optimized for Chrome OS, which makes for a wonky user experience. Windows may not have as many apps as Android, but at least the experience is fairly standard across the board.
Windows also gives you the ability to download and use programs from other sources, like direct from the developer. You can run things like Adobe Creative Suite, certain VPNs and programs like GIMP, Audacity and ClipMate on a Windows device, which just isn’t possible on Chrome OS. Chromebooks limit you to the apps and programs in The Play Store and the Chrome Extensions store, reducing any others to unusable, space-sucking icons in your Downloads folder.
What to look for in a cheap Windows laptop
While you can do a lot even when spending little on a Windows laptop, you must set your expectations accordingly. The biggest downside when purchasing a budget laptop (of any kind, really) is limited power. Most Windows laptops under $500 run on Intel Celeron or Pentium processors, with a few Core i3/i5 and AMD Ryzen 3/5 options thrown in at the higher end of the price spectrum.
Specs to look for in a sub-$500 Windows laptop
Intel Core i or AMD Ryzen 3 processors
4GB - 8GB of RAM
At least 128GB SSD, or at least 512GB HDD
Mostly metal designs
We recommend getting the most powerful CPU you can afford because it will dictate how fast the computer will feel overall. RAM is also important because, the more RAM you have, the easier it will be for the laptop to manage things like a dozen browser tabs while you edit a Microsoft Word document and stream music in the background. However, with sub-$500 laptops, you’re better off getting the best CPU you can afford rather than a laptop with a ton of RAM because the CPU will have enough power to handle most tasks that cheap laptops are designed for (If you’re editing RAW images or 4K video, you’ll want to invest in more RAM… and a laptop well above $500).
When it comes to storage, try to get a machine with an SSD instead of an HDD — SSDs are more expensive but also faster and more efficient than HDDs. The only time to settle for an HDD-only laptop is if you need the most storage possible at the cheapest price.
You also don’t have to settle for an entirely plastic notebook either. There are options in the sub-$500 price range that are made, at least in part, with metals like aluminum — those will not only be more attractive but also more durable. As for screens, there’s a healthy mix of HD and FHD options in this price range and we recommend springing for a notebook with a 1080p display if you can. Touchscreens aren’t common in the under-$500 space, and you’ll only really miss one if you get a 2-in-1 laptop.
The Aspire 5 runs on a Ryzen 3 3200U processor, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, and it has a 15.6-inch 1080p display. That’s already compelling, but Acer added more into the mix. Its aluminum top cover and silver-colored chassis feel substantial without being too heavy, and its backlit keyboard with number pad is comfortable to type on.
You’ll also appreciate the ports on this machine: three USB-A ports, an HDMI port, a headphone jack, and — the kicker — a Ethernet port. I wish the Aspire 5 had a USB-C port like the Flex 5 14, but most people will get more immediate use out of an Ethernet port because it ensures that you can connect to the Internet even if your WiFi network is acting up. On the flip side, the Flex 5 14 has a full-sized SD card slot, which will be useful to some folk.
It also provides a similar experience to the Flex 5 14 when it comes to performance. It scored slightly lower on our benchmark tests, but it handled most of the work I threw at it including streaming content via Prime Video and working with at least 10 browser tabs open. So while the Aspire 5 demands a few sacrifices, it’s well worth its $400-$450 price tag.
It’s worth noting that there’s a new version of the Aspire 5 that has even better performance than our original pick and runs on Intel processors. The model of the Aspire 5 A515-56-34A3 that I tested ran on a Intel Core i3-1115G4 processor, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage and outperformed both the AMD-powered Aspire 5 as well as the Lenovo Flex 5 14. It also has a nice 15.6-inch FHD display, a comfortable keyboard with a skinny number pad, an Ethernet port and a USB-C port. Unfortunately, while Acer’s website has this model listed for $480, it typically runs around $600 at retailers like Walmart. It may not fit into our sub-$500 price range for this guide, but it remains a solid option if you’re willing to spend a bit more.
Lenovo’s Flex 5 14 is a good alternative if you want a more portable laptop with a battery life that will keep you going all day long. It runs on an AMD Ryzen 3 4300 processor, with 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, and it’s accompanied by a 14-inch 1080p IPS display and an array of ports that includes one USB-C connection. If you care about future-proofing, that USB-C port will be critical. You may not have a lot of USB-C accessories right now, but that will most certainly change in the coming years.
The typing experience is also top-notch: while it doesn’t have a number pad, its keys have that rounded-bottom shape that’s similar to keys on Lenovo’s ThinkPad machines. They make a satisfying clicking sound while you’re typing, but they’re not loud enough to bother those around you.
And despite being a budget machine, the Flex 5 14 isn’t flimsy. The palm rests don’t creak under pressure and it’s easy to carry this laptop one-handed around a room. I also appreciate its convertible design, which gives you more flexibility. And like most Lenovo machines, the Flex 5 14 has a webcam that you can cover with a physical shutter.
The Flex 5 14 also has the upper-hand over the Aspire 5 when it comes to battery life: the former lasted about 16.5 hours in our testing while the latter lasted just under six hours. If you opt for the newer Aspire 5 model, you’ll get roughly 10 hours of battery life, but Lenovo’s machine is the clear winner if you’re looking for a laptop that can last all day and then some.
One more laptop that’s worth mentioning is the HP Pavilion 11 x360, and that’s mostly for its size, design and battery life. Its specs aren’t anything to write home about — it runs on an Intel Pentium Silver processor, with 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, so already you know it won’t be as much of a workhorse as Lenovo or Acer’s machines (it was noticeably slower to load programs and download files than the other two laptops). Those specs are in line with many Chromebooks at similar prices, though.
In testing the $400 Pavilion 11, what stuck out to me immediately was its design. HP has been trickling down design elements from its high-end Spectre series to more affordable lineups, and the Pavilion 11 benefits from that. It feels much more luxurious than a $400 device has any right to. It has a mostly metal construction with a slate-black keyboard and shiny hinges that allow the screen to flip back 360 degrees. Its 768p touchscreen may not be as high-res as we’d like, but it makes for a great convertible experience — especially on a laptop as compact as the Pavilion 11. It also held its own against the Lenovo and Acer laptops when it came to battery life, clocking in at over 12 hours before it died. That combined with its compact design make it a great budget-friendly choice if you’re constantly on-the-go.