If you need a powerful laptop for work, school or serious fun (such as competitive gaming) you can find some well-regarded systems in our discussions of the best windows laptops and the best Apple laptops (for those that aren't fans of the Windows OS). But if the bottom line is more important than getting cutting edge performance, especially if your computing requirements are modest, the lighter duty, lower cost systems profiled on this page might be just what you are looking for. These laptops are perfect for homework assignments, writing and reading emails, browsing the web and more.
Among cheap Windows laptops, the Asus VivoBook E403SA (Est. $380) draws terrific respect from many reviewers. Most acknowledge that the Asus can't hold a candle performance-wise to powerful systems, but note that those cost at least twice as much, and often many times more. But if your budget is tight, needs are modest, and expectations are reasonable, the E403SA deserves serious consideration. That's why it's an Editors' Choice selection at Laptop Magazine, ComputerShopper.com and Reviewed.com. Laptop Magazine's Casey sums up the expert consensus when he concludes: "Overall, the VivoBook E403SA is one of the best laptop values on the market and a great choice for anyone who's on a budget."
From the outside, the Asus looks like a premium ultrabook, with its brushed aluminum finish "that looks like it belongs on a notebook that costs twice as much," says Laptop Magazine's Henry T. Casey, as well as its svelte dimensions (just .7 inches thick) and light weight (3.3 pounds). Under the hood, things aren't quite as impressive, but it's not all bad news there, either. "Its quad-core Intel Pentium chip won't change your life, but it brings enough muscle for browsing Facebook, watching Netflix, and of course for Microsoft Office," says Reviewed.com's Brendan Nystedt. He goes on to say that performance is roughly on a par with what you could have expected from an "entry-level ultrabook from a couple of years ago."
The laptop is equipped with an Intel Pentium Quad-Core N3700 processor, 4 GB of memory, and a 128 GB flash drive. With that line up, serious gaming is out of the question, of course, but it can handle casual games just fine, and the laptop does a good job displaying video on its full HD, 14-inch display -- with one caveat: The screen is bright and well saturated when looking at it straight on, but the type of panel used limits viewing angles and quality drops off quickly.
Connectivity is good, including a USB-C port and a memory card reader. The keyboard is full sized; some reviewers like the functionality more than others, but all agree it's better than average for a cheap laptop. "It's a good keyboard for a budget machine, without the flex and cheap feel we've encountered in many other low-cost models," says Jamie Bsales at ComputerShopper.com. Battery life is excellent, reviewers say, but some are disappointed that the battery is not user replaceable.
The only concern of note is some mixed user reviews. We saw some complaints at Amazon.com about a finicky space bar. Some users also share information regarding a quick and easy fix, while adding that needing to do that to a new laptop is a bit disappointing. The other complaint we spotted was an issue when waking from hibernation. However, there are also comments that say that updating the drivers to the latest versions will address the problem.
Chromebooks are simple, web-centric, cheap laptops that do basically everything in "the cloud" through Google's Chrome browser. Don't try it if you need Windows -- it's missing -- or want to run traditional software; there are lots of unhappy reviews from disappointed buyers who didn't understand that going in.
Instead, you'll need to rely on a growing number of apps accessible via a mobile-device-like Chrome App Store. Categories such as business, education, entertainment, games, productivity, social and more are well represented. What that means, experts say, is if your computing needs are light and you use a laptop mainly for activities such as browsing the web, reading and sending email, watching movies on services like Netflix, keeping up with your friends on Facebook and some casual gaming -- yes, Angry Birds is available -- a basic Chromebook could be all you need.
There are some other upsides to a Chrome-based operating system. When you sign in to the Chrome browser, you'll find all your bookmarks there if you use Chrome on other PCs. Gmail and Google Calendar sync up nicely, too. Google also offers 100 GB of free Google Drive cloud-based storage for two years to Chromebook buyers, which helps ease the pain of the scant built-in storage of some basic Chromebook models.
The big thing that's new for 2016 is that as of June, Google has begun adding Google Play Android app support to selected Chromebooks. The list is limited and, as noted by PC World, only three systems were part of the initial rollout with more promised down the road, but this development means lots of added functionality to those Chromebooks that are touch enabled.
There are several well-liked Chromebooks that could legitimately qualify for the title of Best Reviewed, but the addition of Google Play store access leads us to give that honor to the Asus Chromebook Flip (Est. $250). It's one of the first Chromebooks to get Android support, and it was a well-reviewed device prior to that. It earns an Editors' Choice award at PCMag.com, and it is named the best touch-enabled Chromebook at Laptop Magazine.
The Flip was one of the first Chromebooks to use a convertible design, sporting a hinge that lets the display rotate 360 degrees to convert to a slate tablet form factor. PCMag.com says that "the 10.6-inch display is one of the better ones we've seen on a Chrome-based system," and Brian Westover adds that, while the 1,280-by-800 pixel resolution is less than on most Chromebooks, it's not too big an issue on the Flip's smaller screen size.
Reviewers love the build quality and high grade materials on the Asus Flip. CNET says that it impresses right out of the box. "It has a slim, light body made from solid-feeling aluminum, versus the plastic bodies of most other Chromebooks," says Dan Ackerman. Others agree, with Denny Atkin at ComputerShopper.com saying "With solid and stylish construction, a great-looking touch screen, convertible functionality, and excellent battery life, this inexpensive model is the Chromebook value to beat."
Rather than an Intel chip the Flip is powered by a Rockchip Quad-Core RK3288C processor, and that seems to handle typical tasks better than it does standardized testing. At ComputerShopper.com, testers found that "Though the Chromebook Flip C100 didn't exactly blaze through our benchmark tests, it was very responsive overall." PCMag.com is even more impressed, and Westover says "But while the affordability aspect is a big draw for the processor, it also offers some surprisingly impressive performance, compared with the Intel Atom and Celeron processors we've seen used in so many Chrome-based laptops." CNET is disappointed in the slow formal testing results, but adds that it can still handle all tasks that most would use a Chromebook for with minimal issues. "Playing online games and running too many open browser windows at once is where you start to run into issues," Ackerman says.
The rest of the key hardware line up is typical for a Chromebook, and includes 2 GB of memory and a 16 GB solid state drive. This laptop is also light (1.96 pounds) and thin (.61 inches) so it's fun and easy to tote around.
What about the Android experience on the Flip. So far so good, it seems. At PC World, Chris Hoffman says that it works "almost perfectly." He adds: "Google's new Android support gives you unfettered access to the Google Play Store and lets you go crazy." He concedes that some apps do have issues, and the "feature needs some more polish," but on the whole, for a first release, it's unbelievably solid.
The Acer Chromebook R1 (Est. $280) is similar, and is another system that received early access to Google Play, though there are some key differences, This is a bigger, heavier Chromebook, with an 11.6-inch multi-touch screen, .8 inch thickness and 2.76 pound weight -- thought it's still plenty easy to tote around. It also uses a more typical Celeron processor. Versions with 2 GB and 4 GB of memory are available, but most experts test -- and recommend sticking with -- the 4 GB configurations. Depending on the vendor and model, you'll also find either 16 GB or 32 GB of solid state storage. Performance is on a par with the Flip, though it does edge the Flip in some tests at ComputerShopper.com, which provides benchmarks that include both machines. It's also a little more expensive, especially if you opt for the 4 GB configuration. Other expert reviews are also good, including Editors' Choice awards at PCMag.com and ComputerShopper.com.
However, if you don't care about touch functionality or a form factor that converts back and forth between a tablet and a laptop, the 13.3-inch Toshiba Chromebook 2 (Est. $300) draws some kudos, and it's named the best Chromebook by Laptop Magazine and TheWireCutter.com. You can find this Chromebook powered by either a Celeron processor or a more powerful Core i3, but while ComputerShopper.com gives kudos (and an Editors' Choice) to the Core i3 version, we actually saw better feedback for the Celeron version, largely based on value -- and it's important to keep that in mind in light of just how little a reasonably able, full Windows 10 laptop like the Asus VivoBook now costs.
In addition to the Celeron 3215U processor, you'll find 4 GB of memory and a 16 GB flash drive for storage. Connectivity includes one USB 2.0 port, one USB 3.0 port, an HDMI port and an SD card reader. Experts love the quality of the display, with Laptop Magazine calling it bright and highly accurate. Long battery life is another plus.
If you love the low cost of a Chromebook, and can live with one's performance limitations, but absolutely can't live without Windows in your life, Microsoft and its partners feel your pain. Capable laptops don't come any cheaper than the Lenovo Ideapad 100S (Est. $200).
Don't expect rip-roaring performance -- not with a hardware line-up that includes an Intel Atom Z3735F processor, 2 GB of memory, and a 32 GB hard drive. But, as CNET notes, "Spending less than $200 on a laptop is a surprisingly viable option right now, and for those who mainly use Gmail, Facebook, Netflix and Amazon (or your own list of mail, social media, streaming video and online shopping tools), a laptop with an Intel Atom processor, low-res screen and paltry 32GB of storage may very well be all you need." If you need to do more than that, the laptop comes with a free one-year subscription to Microsoft Office 365 Personal, a near $70 value, and the included one year of 1 TB of cloud storage softens the blow of the small solid state drive.
Design and build quality draw kudos. CNET notes that the chassis is a little larger than most 11-inch laptops, giving the system some protective bulk. The colorful matte finish -- red in the version sold exclusively at BestBuy.com, blue or white if purchased from Lenovo -- resists fingerprints, Ackerman adds, and is more upscale looking than the glossy black of typical cheap laptops. The keyboard gets good feedback, the touchpad a little less so, with Ackerman complaining that it lacks support for common gestures such as two-finger scrolling. Expert and user reviews are strong, and the Ideapad 100S is an Editors' Choice at both Laptop Magazine and PCMag.com.