Got $500 to spend on a new laptop on Windows or a Chromebook working on Chrome OS? There was a run on cheap notebooks when parents figured their kids might not be heading back to the real-world classroom any time soon. Now that the supply issue has been gotten over, prices have settled as the people compelled to work- and study-from-home have all bought the computers they need. There is still a demand, driven by unfortunate circumstances as more and more people lose their jobs and try to make a living working online. 

Lori Grunin looked in the bet laptops $500 can buy for cnet, and we present that list here. Everything on this list should be with you in around 10 days or less, but you might need to put some work into figuring out what’s in stock – and it’s not just a computer issue. Availability and shipping can also be location-dependent – living in a metro area will usually get something to your door quicker than a rural town. 

Look ahead

As much as you can, avoid buying a computer when you’re desperate. Dropping $500 on a laptop just because there’s nothing else cheaper isn’t a great strategy. We all know what it’s like to go food shopping on an empty stomach, you can make the same unwise decisions when you really need a computer right now. $500 is a lot of money to spend and your computer will probably be with you for around three years according to what computer makers tell us. There are tricks you can employ to make your computer last longer, for at least a couple of months, whilst you’re waiting for the right deal for a new one to come along. You can also look into discounts if you work for a non-profit or are still studying. If there’s a feature that’s super important to you, don’t scrimp on it – backlit keyboard, HDMI port, touchscreen – you’ll spend years kicking yourself if you go a compromise too far.

If you’re hoping to get many years out of your laptop, do your best to stretch your budget so you can get more memory, more cores, and a better processor than you were first looking at. As an alternative to Intel processors, AMD Ryzen is a cheaper but very effective option to consider.

Another tip to get a better deal is to look at laptops that can be improved over time, such as with a replaceable battery and upgradeable graphics card, memory, and storage. It may not feel like it now, but the pandemic isn’t going to last forever and you’re going to want to take your laptop places at some point, so look at getting something lightweight with a long battery life.

External drives are easy to add, or two or three when you need them later on. If you buy a new laptop with the old-style, spinning hard drive that comes with the cheaper ones, you’ll struggle to make it much faster with external storage, meaning Word and other apps may never run super fast. It’s not, however, impossible to boot from a solid-state drive if you need to further into the future. 

You may see references to “Intel Optane” in conjunction with slow (5,400rpm) spinning hard drives; Optane is fast solid-state memory that acts as a temporary storage space for frequently accessed files on the hard drive to speed things up. It helps, but not as much as an SSD drive.

Lastly, if you’re currently running windows on your old laptop and you want a change, it’s worth looking at a Chromebook instead. 

Compromises

You need to moderate what you expect when looking at your choices and the specs you want, but there are still some very good budget models that have good battery life and are pretty lightweight, too.  

One good thing is that you’re no longer restricted to an old-school clamshell laptop with a fixed keyboard and display. A two-in-one, or convertible laptop is within your reach – you get a laptop with a screen that flips around and works as a tablet for streaming or making a presentation. You’ll always get a touchscreen with this type of laptop so that it’ll work as a tablet and they will usually work with a stylus. Don’t assume the stylus comes as part of the package – often you need to buy it separately.

You’re not going to pick up anything from Apple in this price range. An iPad Air even runs at over $500 once you throw in the keyboard add on – although if you really want this option it’s worth keeping an eye out on sales, otherwise it’s above the budget for this article. A base-model iPad with an inexpensive Bluetooth keyboard and cheap stand for the iPad might be enough, though.

Image credit: cnet.com

When you’re doing your research, you might see that the cheaper laptops come with Windows 10 S, which is a more basic version of the OS that’s designed for school use. You can only access apps through Windows Store, you have no choice but to use Microsoft Edge, and you only get some of the admin tools you’d find on full Windows 10 Pro. It’s possible to upgrade to the complete Windows 10 for free, although it’ll use up more memory and processing power.  

Cheap Chromebooks are easier to come by than Windows laptops, making it a really popular choice at the budget end of laptops. There are more and more Chromebooks coming in the $500 – $1,000 range, though. Chrome OS from Google uses a lot less power than Windows so the processor doesn’t need to be so fast, your storage can be slower, and you don’t need as high a screen resolution or memory –  some of the things that bulk out the price on Windows laptops.  

On the other hand, as much as Chrome OS doesn’t eat through power as much as Windows, Google apps do take up more memory than you might at first think. Going too low on the processor or memory will still give you a slow system. The working of Chrome OS are very different to Windows – be sure everything you need to use will work on a Chromebook before investing in one.

Chromebooks are designed to work on the cloud, primarily, meaning that built-in storage isn’t a huge necessity. You’ll spend most of your laptop time on the internet, writing, streaming videos, or playing Android games – a touchscreen will make this much easier. 

For a cheap gaming laptop, though, you’ll still have to pay more than $500 for performance. If you’re on the hunt for a gaming laptop on the budget end, something with decently powerful graphic processors, you need to be spending at least $700. Check out your options for good gaming laptops here.

If you’re a bit of an edge-lord when it comes to your gaming, cloud gaming from Google Stadia lets you game on laptops that’ll cost $500 or less. 

Check the specs

On a Chromebook, you get Chrome OS and Android apps to use, but this isn’t always enough and some folk still need the Windows OS to run bigger apps, for example, if you need to edit videos. To do this stuff you need a fast processor and lots of cores, bigger memory – at least 8GB – and more storage space to keep applications and the OS on your device. A lot of our options only have 4 or 6GB of memory and some have an old, spinning hard disk which would test the patience of a saint for heavy work. 

  • The market has more Windows laptops being powered by AMD Athlon, or low-end A series or Intel Celeron processors to keep prices down. It’s not a great idea to use Athlon, better to choose a Ryzen, or pick Core over a Celeron. Windows is just a bit too much for them and mixed with a 4GB memory, you’ll be going rather slowly indeed.
  • 11-inch Chromebooks have a very attractive price. The size isn’t great for anyone but young kids, and even then remote learning requires lots of screen space and 11 inches fills up really quickly. 
  • Having a solid-state drive will do wonders for how fast Window will run, but they do add a lot to the price. If you’re willing to invest a little more and you want more storage, you may want to consider stepping up from base storage options to a 128GB SSD. 
  • Screen specs are something to watch out for at the budget end of laptops, with lots of different language getting used. For example, “HD” doesn’t necessarily mean a true high-definition viewing experience. HD, which has a resolution of 1,920×1,080 pixels, is sometimes called “Full HD” so marketers could keep selling you lesser-resolution displays (1,280×720) as “HD.” In Chromebooks, “HD” usually refers to a screen with a resolution of 1,366×768 pixels. At this end of the market, screens can also feel washed out or have limited viewing angles. It’s just something you need to expect with these prices. Price tags are kept low with low-end twisted nematic (TN) screen tech.
  • Networking options are important to look at. Inexpensive models with older chipsets may only support Wi-Fi 3 (or 802.11b/g/n). Wi-Fi 3 is limited to 2.4GHz channels; those are slower than more recent chipsets with Wi-Fi 4 (aka 802.11ac) that add a 5GHz channel as well. When you’re cruising online it might be hard to discern the right specs available, if you come across something that doesn’t explicitly say it has Wi-Fi 4, check out the exact model on the manufacturer’s website, don’t assume either way. When it comes to Chromebooks, they’re designed for internet use, having good speeds is going to be crucial to getting a good experience.  

Once you’ve taken all of this into account – screen resolution and size, core processor performance, storage space, and overall performance – this list is what you’ll get for 2020’s best Windows laptops and Chromebooks for under $500, with some pros and cons thrown in.

Lenovo IdeaPad Duet Chromebook

Chrome OS

Image credit: 9to5google.com

At base, this is a Chrome version of the initial Surface Go that Microsoft launched. Just like the Go, this Duet is a 10-inch tablet that has a removable keyboard and touchpad. The price does include the keyboard, whereas the Go doesn’t. It also costs much less than the Go (including the new Go 2), starting at $290 for a 64GB version or $299 for one with 128GB of storage. Basically, it’s a smaller Pixel Slate, with less power, and it’ll be a good choice for people looking for typical Chromebook prices.    

The screen is small so if you want to be using it at a desk a lot, you might want to add an external monitor through the USB-C port. A wireless keyboard and mouse are also going to come in handy, considering its size.  

The stock of the Duet fluctuates; if you come across it for around $300, and it’s what you want, get it when you see it. Amazon last had it for $400 and nowhere else had it in stock, so it depends how much you really want it.

Acer Aspire 5

Windows

Image credit: itc.ua

Released in 2019, the Aspire 5 15-inch is a clamshell laptop that uses an AMD Ryzen 3 processor, the 3200U, and a modern Vega graphics processing. The RAM is 4GB and it comes with a 128GB solid-state drive. It’s not great to have lots of programs or browser tabs open at the same time on this one. On the plus side, it has a good size, 15-inch screen, and weighs less than 4 pounds.  

The 2020 models have replaced it, with AMD-equipped versions just squeaking in under our budget at $499 and Intel versions a little cheaper.  It’s a popular laptop so its availability isn’t stable, keep your eyes peeled for it and snap it up when you see it.

Samsung Chromebook 4

Chrome OS

Image credit: cdnews.ru

This no-frills 15-inch Chromebook comes with a Celeron N4000 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 32GB internal storage that can be jacked up to 64GB with an SD card. You can pick up cheaper versions of this one, too, but they’re only 11 inches which aren’t great for adults and only really work for young students.

Lenovo IdeaPad 3 laptop

Windows

Image credit: laptopmedia.com

You can get the IdeaPad 3 in 14- and 15-inch variants. With the 15-inch version, you get a Core i3-100G1 processor and storage of 256GB and costs less than $500. What we don’t like in both of them is their low-resolution screen, which is only 1,366×768 pixels.

HP 14

Windows

Image credit: androidpolice.com

At $480, the price is reasonable for an HP, pared-back, 14-inch laptop, but it’s not exceptional in the current climate. You do get an Intel Core i3-100G1 processor, 8GB of RAM, a Full HD screen, plus an SSD with 256GB of storage, setting it apart from other computers in this price range.  

Acer Chromebook 315

Chrome OS

Image credit: laptopmag.com

This 15-inch Chromebook has a full HD touchscreen, Celeron N3350, 4GB RAM, and 32GB storage (plus another 32GB via an SD card). Those specs are for the 2020 version and there’s a 2019 model that’s $459 and 32GB storage, which is worth considering since the extra 32GB of storage is only about $30 bought separately. It doesn’t come at the top of our list because the Wi-Fi specs are confusing – there’s no way to confirm if it’s Wi-Fi 4 or 5.

Asus VivoBook 15

Windows

Image credit: gecid.com

This one sells out as quickly as it comes in stock. At Best Buy, you could get the silver version with a Ryzen 5 processor, 8GB of memory, and a 512GB SSD for $500, but it quickly sold out after we checked it out. You can get a model with a Core i3 8GB from Amazon for $489 – or you could as we were writing this. Keep in mind that the thinner, lighter, more expensive VivoBook S15 is a different model.

Lenovo Chromebook C340

Chrome OS

Image credit: 9to5google.com

It seems the 15-inch model is no longer stocked, which is a little sad, but for small kids, you get an 11-inch Chromebook that has a Celeron N4000 processor, a RAM of 4GB, an SSD with 32GB, and all for just $360.

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