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.
You can even get a touch screen and respectable graphics performance on a cheap laptop these days. Expect decent speed and very good battery life from our top picks -- but you won't find the blazing-fast, ultra-battery-sipping new Intel 4th Generation Core (Haswell) processors in this price range -- at least not yet.
Our separate report on laptops covers more powerful -- and more expensive -- laptops (both PC and Mac) for heavy-duty 3D gaming, graphics work and other demanding tasks. 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-duty 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-and-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 weighing 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.
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. However, they are not the best choice for more intensive use, or if you need to run specific applications -- such as Microsoft Office.
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.
In naming our Best Reviewed picks, we sift through dozens of expert reviews and thousands of user reviews. We look at those cheap laptops that provide great performance for their price class, but also at things like ergonomics (does the keyboard flex, is the touch pad a pain to use, etc.). Design -- and how well a laptop is built to withstand the rigors of everyday use -- is also given consideration.
We award extra points to laptops from makers 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 cheap.