Laptop prices have plummeted in recent years. Even powerful laptops can now be found for $850 and less (the price limit for this review), with some cheapies scraping the bottom at just $200. Our separate report on laptops covers more powerful -- and expensive -- computers for heavy-duty 3D gaming, graphics work and other demanding tasks. For Apple fans, our report on Apple laptops and desktops covers the full line of MacBook notebooks. If you have your eye on a tablet instead of a cheap laptop, those are covered in our report on tablet computers.
Traditional laptops: These are usually fairly thick (1 inch or more) and heavy (5 pounds or more), but the best ones pack ample power for even heavy tasks -- 3D gaming (as long as expectations are kept reasonable), multitasking while streaming video, etc. If you need maximum power at a minimum price, start here.
Ultrabooks: These thin, light laptops rely on swift processors and nimble solid-state drives 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 -- less than an inch thick and usually 4 pounds or less. 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.
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 like web browsing and streaming video, a cheap Chromebook could be all you need.
To find the best cheap laptops, experts run benchmark tests (to see how each computer measures up against a gold standard) and all kinds of real-life tests -- web surfing, streaming from sites like Netflix and Hulu, Photoshop, 3D gaming and more. They poll readers to figure out which brands hold up best, and some go undercover with tech-support questions to see which laptop makers are most helpful. Cheap laptops that manage to look and feel expensive get points for that, too. Owner reviews fill in the final pieces of the puzzle, pointing out which laptops crash or break when subjected to the rigors of everyday use in the real world. We sift through dozens of expert reviews and thousands of user reviews to name the very best cheap laptops you can buy.