Not everyone wants (or needs) to spend a boatload of money on a new laptop. Depending on how you use your notebook — if you’re a student, creative professional or just web browsing — it may not be necessary for you to drop thousands on the latest model with top-of-the-line specs for your everyday tasks. Budget laptops do exist, even if they don’t get as much attention as their flagship counterparts — and one could be the best buy for you. If you’re looking to spend only what you absolutely must on your next laptop, we’ve got a number of top picks for you to consider, plus some shopping advice that can help you choose the best budget laptop for you.
- Best overall
Apple 2020 MacBook Air M1
- Best budget Windows laptop
HP Pavilion Aero
- Best Chromebook
Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 5i
- Best under $500
Acer Aspire 5 A515-56-347N Slim Laptop
What to look for in a budget laptop
First, we at Engadget consider anything under $1,000 to be “budget” in the laptop space. The reason for this is twofold: even the most affordable flagship laptops typically start at $1,000 or more, and if you go dramatically lower than that (say, $500 or less), that’s where you’ll really start to see compromises in performance. You’ll typically find the best balance of power and price in the $500 to $1,000 range. But in this guide, we’ll cover top picks at a wide range of prices — there are a number of excellent options on the low and high end of the budget spectrum.
Arguably the biggest thing to look for in a cheap laptop is a decent spec sheet. You might be able to find configuration options with the latest generation CPU chipsets, or you may have to go for one that has a slightly older processor. We recommend trying to find a notebook with the most up-to-date internals as possible, but know that if you pick a machine with a CPU that’s one generation behind, it probably will not significantly affect performance.
Along with processors, you should also consider the amount of memory and storage you need in a daily driver. For the former, we recommend laptops with at least 8GB of RAM; anything with less than that will have a hard time multitasking and managing all those browser tabs. The latter is a bit more personal: how much onboard storage you need really depends on how many apps, files, photos, documents and more you will save locally. As a general rule of thumb, try to go for a laptop that has at least a 256GB SSD (this only goes for macOS and Windows machines, as Chromebooks are a bit different). That should give you enough space for programs and files, plus room for future operating system updates.
After determining the best performance you can get while sticking to your budget, it’s also worth examining a few different design aspects. We recommend picking a machine with a mostly metal body, a screen that has at least a 1080p resolution and a keyboard and trackpad area that’s relatively spacious. Any affordable laptop worth purchasing will have a built-in webcam, but most of them top out at 720p. A few of the latest models have 1080p webcams, but you may want to consider a standalone peripheral if you spend a ton of time on Zoom meetings.
Be sure to check out the port situation as well. Many laptops closer to $1,000 will have fewer ports than their more affordable counterparts (as counterintuitive as that may seem). You’ll find at least one or two USB-C ports on the newest machines, which means you may need a separate dongle if you frequently have to connect to SD cards.
A note about refurbished laptops
Refurbished laptops are another option to consider if you need a new machine and don’t want to spend a ton of money. Buying refurbished tech can be tricky if you’re unfamiliar with a brand’s or merchant’s policies surrounding what they classify as “refurbished.” But it’s not impossible — for laptops, we recommend going directly to the manufacturer for refurbished devices. Apple, Dell and Microsoft all have official refurbishment processes that their devices go through before they’re put back on the market that verifies the machines work properly and are in good condition. Third-party retailers like Amazon and Walmart also have their own refurbishment programs for laptops and other gadgets as well.
The best budget laptops
Best overall: MacBook Air M1
There’s a reason Apple kept the MacBook Air M1 in its lineup even after coming out with the 13-inch and 15-inch Air M2 laptops. The first machine with Apple’s custom system-on-a-chip, the Air M1 was released at the end of 2020 and proved that the company didn’t need Intel to power its notebooks anymore. The M1 processor gave the Air blazing fast performance, with a responsiveness akin to that of an iPad Pro. That hasn’t changed even after the launch of the M2 chipset and the latest Air powered by it. You’re still going to get impressive performance from the entry-level MacBook Air M1 that will be just right for most people as a daily driver.
The Air M1 has the classic wedge design we’ve seen in this family of notebooks for years, which some will appreciate. It may not be the refined profile that the M2 machine has, but it’s still thin and light, and since it lacks a fan, it’ll be super quiet as well. The 13.3-inch Retina display is lovely, and it’s accompanied by a comfortable keyboard (sans TouchBar) and a spacious trackpad. Battery life clocked in at nearly 16.5 hours in our testing, which will be more than enough for a full day’s work. It may be at the top end of our budget price range, starting at $999, but it will be money well spent. Also, we’ve frequently seen the MacBook Air M1 drop to $800 or $900 when it goes on sale at Amazon and other retailers.
Best budget Windows laptop: HP Pavilion Aero 13
If you like the general aesthetics of machines like Dell’s XPS 13 but don’t want to pay $1,000 or more, the HP Pavilion Aero is your best bet. We gave it a score of 87 in our review and compared it to Dell’s flagship laptop. It’s certainly not as sleek as that machine, but it comes pretty close with its angled profile, 2.2-pound weight and its anti-glare 13.3-inch display. Despite its keyboard being a little cramped, it’s a solid typing machine and we appreciate all of its connectivity options: one USB-C port, two USB-A ports, an HDMI connector and a headphone jack. You can currently pick an Aero 13 up for as low as $800, but they have gone on sale for even less. All of the prebuilt base models available from HP directly come with Ryzen 5 processors, and you can customize the laptop to have up to a Ryzen 7 CPU, 16GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD.
Best Chromebook: Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 5i
It’s been a couple of years since we named Lenovo’s IdeaPad Flex 5i our favorite Chromebook and it remains our top pick today. That’s because it still has the best mix of specs and features that will suit most Chrome OS lovers. It runs on an 11th-generation Intel Core i3 processor, has 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. Plus its bright 13.3-inch 1080p touchscreen is great for working in Google Docs and streaming on Netflix.
While not a standout in the design department, this convertible is relatively lightweight and we appreciate that it comes with a backlit keyboard — something you don’t often see in laptops at this price point. It should also last around eight hours on a single charge, or long enough to get you through a typical work day. You’re getting a solid port collection here, too: two USB-Cs, one USB-A, a microSD card slot and a headphone jack. All of that keeps the Flex 5i ahead of the Chromebook pack, and its affordable price tag makes it even better.
Best under $500: Acer Aspire 5
Acer’s Aspire 5 family is a solid Windows option if you have less than $500 to spend on a new laptop. The most recent models hit a good middle ground for most people, running on Intel 11th-gen CPUs and supporting up to 16GB of RAM and up to 512GB of storage. Of course, the higher specs you get, the more expensive the machine will be — not all Aspire 5 laptops come in at under $500. But you can currently pick up a model with a 15.6-inch 1080p display, Core i3 processor, 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage for about $380 (or less if it’s on sale). Design is pretty basic here, but you do get a handy number pad and a variety of ports, including one USB-C connector, three USB-A ports and an Ethernet port. We also appreciate that the latest Aspire 5s support WiFi 6, and Acer upped the estimated battery life to 10 hours.