Even the best cheap Windows laptops don’t often make headlines. You won’t find OLED screens on these humble machines, they won’t have high-powered graphics cards and they won’t be nearly as thin and light as pricer flagship laptops. But they have their place and can work well for some as daily drivers. Lots of people have financial restrictions to adhere to and others just don’t need all the power of a pro laptop — they just need the best budget machine they can get.
Companies like Acer, Dell, ASUS and others make many cheap Windows laptops that will work just fine for anyone that primarily uses their computer to check email, shop online or browse Facebook. (Hello, mom and dad?) They can also be great for kids who have no business using their parents’ machine. We’ve tested a number of notebooks like this and have solidified our top picks for the best cheap Windows laptops below, plus buying advice that should help you choose the best machine for your needs.
Acer Aspire 5 A515-56-347N Slim Laptop
Best budget Windows laptop
Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 5 14
Runner up for best budget Windows laptop
Microsoft Surface Laptop Go 3
An upgrade pick
What about Chromebooks and tablets?
You may be inclined to recommend a Chromebook or a tablet to anyone considering a budget Windows laptop. Those instincts aren’t wrong, but Chromebooks and tablets aren’t the best buy for everyone. Tablets have the most portability, but they 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, the trade-off being you must give up the “traditional desktop.” And Chrome OS is a more limited operating system than Windows when it comes to the programs you can install and run.
What Windows laptops do well
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. All of those things can be done on Chromebooks as well, but Windows laptops have a big advantage 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 budget laptop. The only caveat is that you may run into some slowdown on low-powered devices if you’re multitasking or 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 at least 128GB SSDs. That will come in handy if you prefer to keep your most important files saved locally on your laptop. In contrast, cheaper Chromebooks often have less storage because they’re built 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, Chromebooks aren't the best for hoarding Netflix shows before a long trip or for use as a gaming laptop.
Windows also has thousands of apps that you can download from its 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 budget-friendly 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. Many Windows laptops under $500 run on Intel Celeron or Pentium processors, but you can find some with Core i3/i5 and AMD Ryzen 3/5 CPUs 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
At least 8GB of RAM
An SSD with at least 128GB of space
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 you have, the easier it will be for the laptop to manage things like a dozen browser tabs while you edit a 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 Windows 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, consider how much you want to save locally. If you primarily work in Google Docs or save most things in the cloud, you may not need a machine with a ton of onboard storage. Just remember that your digital space will also be taken up by apps, so it may be worth getting a little extra storage than you think you need if you know you’ll be downloading big programs. A final side note: SSDs are ubiquitous at this point, not to mention faster and more efficient than HDDs, so we recommend getting a laptop with that type of storage.
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 as common in the under-$500 space as standard panels, but you’ll only really miss one if you get a 2-in-1 laptop.
A final note before we get to our picks: The best cheap laptop models change all the time. Unlike more expensive, flagship machines, these notebooks can be updated a couple times each year. That can make it hard to track down a specific model at Amazon, Best Buy, Walmart or any other retailer. Also, we’ve seen prices vary widely depending on the configuration and retailer you’re looking at. We’ve listed some of our current favorite models below, but if you can’t find any of them available near you, just keep in mind our list of specs to look for in a cheap laptop – they’ll guide you to the best machines available at the moment.