After 10 hours of new research—on top of the 100 hours we’ve spent over the past two years researching and testing 16 laptops—we’ve found that the Acer Aspire E5-575-53EJ is the best cheap laptop right now. We looked at more than 150 models in 2017 alone, and no other Windows laptop met (let alone surpassed) our specs requirements at such a low price.
That said, it’s difficult to make one firm recommendation for a cheap Windows laptop because laptop makers introduce and discontinue these models without notice and prices can change overnight. We hope our picks are still in stock at the time you’re reading this, but if not, we’ve also collected some tips on what to look for when shopping.
The Acer Aspire E5-575-53EJ is the best budget laptop if you can afford to spend around $500. It has everything your main computer should have: a speedy processor, plenty of memory, a good keyboard and trackpad, and current-generation Wi-Fi. Plus, the 53EJ model we like has a couple rare bonuses—a solid-state drive and a 1080p screen—that make it stand out from other cheap Windows laptops like a unicorn in a field of donkeys. This specific configuration is a Newegg exclusive and should cost around $500 for a Core i5-7200U processor, 8 GB of RAM, and a 256 GB solid-state drive. It’s by far the best Windows laptop for the price.
If our top pick is unavailable, or if you play games once in a while, get the Acer Aspire E5-575G-57D4 for around $550. It’s the exact same laptop as the 53EJ—same screen, keyboard, processor, and so on—but it adds an Nvidia GeForce 940MX graphics card with 2 GB of dedicated memory, which makes the laptop about a third of a pound heavier. It won’t handle graphically demanding games well, but it should be able to play, say, Overwatch on medium settings. (If you have a particular game in mind, you can check this handy chart from Notebookcheck to see if it will run well.)
If our picks go out of stock or up in price, and you have to look on your own, we’ve prepared a list of the minimum requirements you should look for in a cheap laptop as well as some tips for when you start shopping—we know how hard it is to shop for a budget laptop, and we’re here to help.
Is a budget laptop right for you?
We’ve tested a lot of budget laptops over the past year to find a great recommendation.
Bargain-hunting is a smart practice when you’re shopping for a new computer, but please don’t try to get by with a $200 laptop that can barely do what you need it to do—it will frustrate you from the day you take it out of the box. Instead, spend a few hundred dollars more on a laptop that’s powerful enough to do almost everything well for at least a couple of years.
A decent $500-ish laptop is good for casual Web browsing and simple document and spreadsheet work, and a great one can even handle more-demanding tasks such as photo editing or light gaming.A cheap Windows laptop is the best option for anyone who can’t spend more, can’t get by with a Chromebook, and—because cheap laptops tend to be big and heavy—doesn’t often need to take their laptop out of the house.
A cheap laptop is also a great choice if you’re a student and you need a single system that can handle everything from multiple simultaneous Web apps to basic video-editing software reasonably well. It won’t be as pleasant to carry (or capable of lasting as long on a charge) as a more-expensive ultrabook, but you can still lug it to class when you need to.
We still recommend saving up for an ultrabook if you need a laptop that’s faster, much more portable, and blessed with better battery life. But a great budget laptop will give you strong performance and pretty good features for a couple hundred dollars less.
A cheap laptop is a good general-purpose device that covers many different needs, but you should take a few minutes to read our “What Laptop Should I Buy?” guide—even if you think a budget laptop is the best fit for you—to make sure you’re choosing the right device before you drop several hundred dollars.
What makes a good cheap laptop
You’ll never be able to find the perfect budget laptop; if it had the perfect specs, it wouldn’t be cheap. But a great budget laptop mixes the best benefits with the fewest drawbacks. Specifically, here are a few minimum requirements you absolutely should not compromise on when buying one. Go higher if you can, but no lower:
- Intel Broadwell, Skylake, or Kaby Lake Core i3 processor (but Core i5 is better)
- 6 GB of RAM (but 8 GB is better)
- 500 GB hard drive or 128 GB solid-state drive
- 1366×768 or better screen resolution
Barring rare exceptions and great deals, you should expect to pay at least $450 for a cheap Windows laptop with those specs. Any cheaper, and you get an underpowered processor and too little RAM, which will make your laptop feel sluggish today and unbearable in a couple of years. Specs worse than those are simply not good enough for a primary computer you’ll be using for an extended amount of time.
Laptops using Intel’s most-recent Kaby Lake processors—which offer the best performance and battery life—are now available for around $500. Plenty of laptops still use older Broadwell or Skylake processors, and although such models provide slightly worse performance and aren’t quite as energy-efficient, they’re absolutely fine and you’ll likely never notice the difference. In previous years, laptops with AMD processors have been a bit slower than their Intel counterparts without being much cheaper, but we plan to take a closer look at AMD’s latest A12-series processors during our next update.
Windows needs at least 4 GB of memory to run well. A laptop with 6 GB or 8 GB of RAM will feel more responsive and allow you to run multiple programs or keep several browser tabs open at once comfortably. As ExtremeTech’s Joel Hruska writes, “A lightweight system today can get by with 4GB of RAM. 8GB should be plenty for current and near-term future applications, 16GB gives you comfortable space for the future, and anything over 16GB is likely overkill.” You can’t find a laptop with more than 8 GB of RAM for around $500, so we focused on laptops with 6 GB to 8 GB of memory.
Almost all laptops priced around $500 with our minimum specs have a 15-inch screen and weigh about 5 pounds.A larger screen is easier to work with at your desk, but such a laptop is more of a hassle to carry around because it’s larger and heavier; it also sucks more battery power. A 15-inch screen looks much nicer with 1080p resolution than 1366×768, but a Full HD screen in a laptop that meets our other requirements and costs less than $500 is practically a unicorn. Settling for a lower-resolution screen is smarter than compromising on how well the computer works.
A great budget laptop should support 802.11ac Wi-Fi, but not all of them do. We think it’s worthwhile to pay a little extra—$30, okay, but maybe not $50—for a laptop with the current generation of Wi-Fi.The laptop should also have a keyboard and trackpad that aren’t miserable to use, and it should come with as little installed bloatware as possible.
Long battery life isn’t crucial for cheap laptops, because such machines are not terribly portable to begin with. We like to see at least five hours of use on a charge, but since it isn’t a dealbreaker if a laptop doesn’t achieve that—and it’s difficult to obtain exactly the right model to test—we don’t benchmark battery life for budget laptops.
Unless you run across a great sale, a laptop that meets our minimum specs and has five-plus-hour battery life or a high-resolution display is nearly impossible to find for under $500.
Budget-laptop shopping tips
The best budget laptop is a fast-moving target. Do a little research, and you may be able to find a laptop with better specs than some of our recommendations for a killer price.
But comparison shopping can be difficult. A single laptop model on Dell’s website can turn into a dozen laptops on Amazon with nearly identical obtuse names, depending on when they were released, what parts are inside, and even who’s selling them. Some retailers don’t even have a full list of what’s in the laptops they sell, and comparing prices for a specific laptop configuration across online and retail stores is especially challenging. And many stores, including Amazon, Best Buy, and Costco, carry exclusive models that differ—in minor or significant ways—from first-party models.
Just as challenging when you’re shopping for a budget laptop are disappearing inventory and inconsistent pricing. Laptop makers regularly discontinue laptops, replace models with near-identical versions, change model names, and launch new laptops without notice. Prices fluctuate wildly, especially when manufacturers try to entice shoppers by discounting a (seemingly) super-expensive laptop with instant savings, rebates, and other limited promotions. You never know when that $450 laptop is going to get a lot more expensive or when that $700 laptop will temporarily dive below $500.
This happens a lot. In fact, we ran into these problems with two laptops we wanted to recommend in a previous version of this guide: The Dell Inspiron 15 5000 we recommended disappeared with no warning as we were writing, and Toshiba’s L50-CBT2N22 jumped from $450 to $600 and then fell back to $450 right before we published that version of the guide. (Toshiba has since completely stopped selling non-business computers in the US.) It’s a frustrating experience, and it makes purchasing a great cheap laptop more of a “wait for the right moment” process than an impulse buy. But we have a few tips for savvy shopping.
Once you’ve picked a few models that look promising, head to your local Best Buy, Fry’s Electronics, Micro Center, or other store to get some hands-on time with those laptops. This part is critical: A laptop might have great specs but a lousy trackpad or keyboard, and that could ruin your entire experience. You should also pay attention to the screen quality. Most cheap laptops have low-quality screens, with poor color reproduction and bad viewing angles. Make sure the screen is something you can live with.
As soon as your laptop arrives, open the box carefully, keep all the parts and accessories, and give the computer a thorough test drive. If you spot anything you don’t like, return it to the manufacturer or store as soon as possible. Wait too long, and you’ll be stuck with it—some manufacturers give you only a two-week return window.
The best cheap laptop right now: Acer Aspire E5-575-53EJ
The Acer Aspire E5-575-53EJ is by far the best laptop you can get for the price. (Pictured: 2016 Acer Aspire E5.) Photo: Kimber Streams
The Acer Aspire E5-575-53EJ is the best budget laptop if you can afford to spend around $500. It has all the essentials most people need for everyday work, plus a couple rare bonuses that make it stand out from the pack of Windows crap tops. The E5-575-53EJ is an updated version of our previous favorite cheap laptop, and it has a speedy processor, plenty of memory, and a solid-state drive, all of which add up to much better performance than you’ll get from just about any other laptop in this price range. It also has a 1080p screen, a tolerable keyboard, a good trackpad, current-generation Wi-Fi, and a healthy array of ports. This model’s biggest fault is that, like most budget laptops, it comes with bloatware preinstalled, but you can remove those applications.
If you play games sometimes, get the Acer Aspire E5-575G-57D4, which typically costs about $550. It’s the same laptop, except that it has an Nvidia GeForce 940MX graphics card with 2 GB of dedicated memory. That makes it around a third of a pound heavier, and means it can play some less-demanding games like Overwatch on medium settings.
The Aspire E5’s keyboard and trackpad work well enough that you won’t hate them. Photo: Kimber Streams
Of course, a good laptop isn’t all about the specs. But the Acer Aspire E5 doesn’t make any compromises that make it miserable to use. The keyboard feels cheap and mushy, with shallow key travel, but it does its job: All the keys work reliably, and it’s nowhere near the worst keyboard we’ve used recently. The trackpad feels smooth and—we never thought we’d write this about the trackpad on a cheap Windows laptop—works flawlessly. During a few days of work, it functioned perfectly for navigation, tap-to-click, and two-finger scrolling. And it doesn’t sound hollow or rattle when we tap it, like the trackpads of many other budget machines (and even some laptops we’ve tested that cost several hundred dollars more).
Both models we recommend have a 15-inch screen with a 1920×1080 resolution, which gives you room for twice as much stuff on your desktop as a laptop with a 1366×768 screen; the higher resolution also makes videos look sharper. The Aspire E5 uses a TN panel (which offers poor viewing angles and color reproduction compared with the IPS panels in more-expensive laptops and some Chromebooks), so colors appear washed out, and everything has a cool, bluish tint. But at least it has an anti-glare matte finish to help reduce reflections in brighter environments.
Acer’s laptop has all the wireless and wired connectivity features you’d need today, and is prepared for the near future as well. It supports 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.1, and it has a plethora of ports: Gigabit Ethernet, one USB 3.1 Type-C, two USB 3.0, one USB 2.0, HDMI, VGA, and an SD slot. It also has a DVD drive, though you probably don’t need one anymore.
Measuring 15 inches wide, 10.2 inches deep, and 1.2 inches thick, with a weight of 4.9 pounds (5.3 pounds for the 57D4 model), the Aspire E5 is no pixie. But that’s typical of lower-priced laptops; it is still a couple of ounces lighter than its closest competition, the Dell Inspiron 15 5000.
When we tested the Windows 10 version of the E5-575G-53VG in 2016, it shipped with about a dozen apps that we had to remove to improve startup times, overall performance, and security. You can uninstall these apps or, if you’re more adventurous, perform a clean installation of Windows 10. You’ll probably have to reinstall some drivers with the latter option, but a clean install will give you a fresh start without the bloatware, meaning faster boot times and smoother everyday use.
Care and maintenance
The best thing you can do for your laptop is to keep it updated and free of bloatware. As soon as you open the box and power it on, download and install all the latest Windows updates.
If your laptop came with a bunch of crapware (it probably did), removing the junk will make your computer start up faster, feel speedier overall, and free up storage space. Use the Programs & Features menu in Windows to uninstall unwanted apps one at a time, or use a utility such as The PC Decrapifier or Should I Remove It to clean everything up at once. (If you use a separate utility, don’t forget to uninstall that program when you’re finished with it.) Power users can instead reinstall a clean version of Windows—which, of course, won’t include the bloatware.
Over the next few years of use, make sure to periodically check for and install the latest drivers for all of your laptop’s internal components. Some manufacturers preinstall update utilities that scan for new drivers automatically. If your laptop doesn’t have such a thing and starts acting up—the screen flickers, the speakers crackle, or other mysterious things happen—head to the support section of your laptop manufacturer’s website and look for the latest versions of your laptop’s drivers and utilities.
Windows’s built-in update system can sometimes update your drivers for you, as well. Your laptop manufacturer might provide the exact same version (and it’s okay to overwrite the driver, if you’re not sure), or it might have a newer driver available on its website. In almost all cases, you want the newer version.
If a Windows update or a new driver suddenly creates an issue—say, if you can no longer connect to your Wi-Fi network, or if your laptop won’t wake from sleep—you may want to hunt down drivers from the company that made the specific component causing problems.4 You should use the drivers that your laptop maker provides when possible, but going to the component manufacturer is a good troubleshooting technique if Plan A fails.
What to look forward to
Acer is releasing new, redesigned Aspires in June, and we plan to do another round of research and testing as soon as they’re available.
For our next update, we plan to test the Asus F556UA-AB54. It has all the same specs as the Acer Aspire E5-575-53EJ, but costs a little more. Even so, it’s usually available for less than $550, so we’ll see how its keyboard, trackpad, and build quality stack up against our current picks.
We also plan to test a couple convertible laptops with 360-degree hinges. The Acer Spin 5 and 13-inch HP Pavilion x360 look promising for the price.
In early May 2017, Microsoft introduced Windows 10 S, a streamlined version of the operating system that can run only Windows Store apps, similar to Google’s Chrome OS. New laptops—from Microsoft and other manufacturers, such as Acer, Dell, and HP—with Windows 10 S will begin to arrive this summer for as little as $190. We’ll explore these options for our next update.
The Acer Aspire E5 is available in a variety of other configurations. The Aspire E5-575G-53VG was our former top pick with a previous-generation Intel Core i5-6200U processor and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 940MX graphics card. If you can find it for less than $550 it’s still a good option, but it appears to be out of stock everywhere. The Aspire E5-575G-52RJ was our previous runner-up, with the same processor and graphics card as the 53VG. But it doesn’t have a solid-state drive, so we recommend our new picks over this model.
The Aspire E5-553G-1986 and Aspire E5-553G-14QY models have AMD A12-9700P processors instead of Intel ones. But we’d like to test the performance and battery life of this new generation of AMD processors before making a recommendation.
The Acer Aspire F5-573-55LV has the same specs as the Aspire E5-575-53EJ for a similar price, but it’s harder to buy. Right now it’s only available for in-store pick up from Micro Center.
The Dell Inspiron 15 5000 cost around $530 at the time of this writing when configured with an Intel Core i5-7200U processor, 8 GB of RAM, a 1366 x 768 screen, and a 1 TB hard drive. Our top picks have solid-state drives and 1080p screens, and the Aspire E E5-575-53EJ even costs less.
Dell’s Inspiron 15 3000 also lacks a 1080p screen and solid-state drive, and we recommend saving up for the Aspire E5 for those features.
The HP Notebook 15t is popular on Amazon, but costs around $70 more than the Acer Aspire E5 for similar specs. (The Notebook 15t also has a previous-generation Core i7-6500U compared to the E5’s Core i5-7200U.)
The HP Pavilion 15t costs around $100 more than the Acer Aspire E5, but lacks a solid-state drive.
The HP Pavilion x360 15 is a convertible laptop with a 360-degree hinge. Most people shouldn’t pay extra for this feature in a budget laptop, and if you want a convertible, we think you should get a smaller, 13-inch laptop instead because it’s more portable and easier to flip around. The Pavilion x360 15 also gets expensive when configured with our recommended specs, and it ends up being much pricier than the Acer Aspire E5 for worse specs.
Lenovo’s IdeaPad 110 and IdeaPad 310 sometimes go on sale for less than $400. Even so, we think it’s worth saving up for the 1080p screen, solid-state drive, and (though to a lesser extent) more powerful processor in our top pick.
2. According to NPD market research, 69 percent of people buying Windows laptops in the first half of 2014 (at any price) chose a 15-inch laptop. (We haven’t dug up any newer data in this regard.) Whether people buy such models because that’s what manufacturers make, or whether laptop makers build them because that’s what people buy, is a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario. Even the laptop makers we’ve spoken to informally didn’t have a good answer for us. Jump back.
3. A wireless-n budget laptop may support only the 2.4 GHz band, which is slower than the 5 GHz band and subject to more interference from neighboring networks and other devices. A laptop with 802.11ac will have access to the faster 5 GHz band, provided that your Wi-Fi router supports it. Jump back.
- Intel HD 5500 (Review) – Integrated Graphics of 5th Gen Core U-Series CPUs, Laptoping, April 2, 2015 ,
- How much RAM do you need, should you upgrade it, and will it speed up your PC?, ExtremeTech, February 5, 2016 ,
- Computer Games on Laptop Graphic Cards, Notebookcheck, July 26, 2016
- LCD Panel Types Explored, PC Monitors, August 2, 2015 ,
- How to do a Clean Install of Windows 10, the Easy Way, How-To Geek, January 13, 2016 ,