Now may be the time to cash in on a cheap laptop
Laptop prices have plummeted in recent years. Even powerful laptops can now be found for $850 or less -- the price limit for this review -- with some very cheap laptops scraping the bottom at just $200. You can even get a touch screen and respectable graphics performance on a cheap laptop these days. Interested in a svelte Ultrabook? They're beginning to appear at prices that make them some of the best cheap laptops you can buy. Expect decent speed and excellent battery life from our top picks, especially those equipped with fourth-generation Intel Core Haswell processors, which are now available in many laptops in the sub-$850 category.
This report covers laptops that meet the needs of most users. However, if you regularly use your laptop for heavy-duty 3D gaming, graphics work or other demanding tasks, a separate report on laptops covers more powerful -- and more expensive -- laptops (both PC and Mac).
What about tablets? This report covers lower-priced tablets -- including hybrid tablets and convertible laptops -- that run the full Windows 8/8.1 operating system. As with laptops, more powerful Windows-based tablets, hybrids and convertible devices are covered in our laptops report. Tablets that run Windows RT, as well as either Google Android or Apple iOS (including the iPad Air), are discussed in a separate report on tablet computers.
Cheap laptops come in four types
Traditional laptops: These are usually fairly thick at 1 inch and up and heavy at 5 pounds or more, but the best ones pack ample power for even heavy-duty tasks such as 3D gaming -- as long as expectations are kept reasonable -- multitasking while streaming video and more. If you need maximum power at a minimum price, start here.
Ultrabooks: These thin and light laptops rely on swift processors and nimble solid-state drives (SSDs) to feel quick on their feet while web surfing, streaming video and performing other day-to-day tasks. They're designed to be ultra-portable at less than 1 inch thick and about 4 pounds. The best cheap Ultrabooks have touch screens to match Windows 8's touch-friendly interface. They're plenty powerful for most users and very portable. Those with the latest processors run fast and cool, with enough battery power to last for a whole day of work or fun.
Chromebooks: These ultra-cheap laptops cost as little as $200. Instead of Windows or Mac operating systems, Chromebooks run only Google Chrome. For basic tasks such as web browsing and streaming video, a cheap Chromebook could be all you need. However, they are not the best choice for more intensive use or if you need to run specific applications like Microsoft Office.
Windows tablets and hybrids: These include traditional slates -- what most people think of when they think of tablet computers -- but also convertible laptops/tablets. These devices have a full physical keyboard that either flips over or detaches when you want to use your laptop as a slate. All run the full version of either Windows 8 or Windows8.1.
To find the best cheap laptops, experts run benchmark tests to see how each computer measures up to the competition plus all kinds of real-life tests: web surfing, streaming from sites such as Netflix and Hulu, Photoshop, 3D gaming and more. They poll readers to determine which brands hold up best, and some go undercover with tech support questions to see which laptop manufacturers are most helpful. Cheap laptops that manage to look and feel expensive get points for that, too. Owner reviews are the final pieces of the puzzle, pointing out which laptops crash or break when subjected to the rigors of real-world use.
In naming our Best Reviewed picks, we sift through dozens of expert reviews and thousands of user posts. We look at the cheap laptops that provide great performance for their price class and examine other criteria like ergonomics: Does the keyboard flex? Is the touchpad a pain to use? Design and durability to withstand everyday usage are also considered, and we award extra points to laptops from manufacturers that stand behind their products with good customer and technical support. Finally, since a low price doesn't always translate into a good buy, we sort out the laptops that provide the best bang for the buck from those that are just plain cheap.