A “cheap” laptop does not mean a poorly-made laptop. It doesn’t mean a hand-me-down laptop and it doesn’t mean a knockoff brand or a used computer from a thrift store. What budget laptops do mean are affordable, new computers that get the job done without digging too deep into your pockets.
While high-end models tend to get the glitz and marketing pictures, many brands also release another set of laptops with lesser specs that sell at affordable prices. Asus, in particular, is known for this — and the Asus Zenbook UX305UA may be the best budget-friendly laptop ever produced.
Asus Zenbook UX305UA
Why you should buy this: it’s fast, portable, affordable — and it even has a 256GB solid state drive.
Who’s it for: Everyone except gamers.
How much it will cost: $750
Why we picked the Asus Zenbook UX305UA
Asus has long been a top competitor in the budget space, but over the last five years the company has upped its quality, resulting in fantastic systems across a range of prices. The Zenbook line has become the flagship, and the Asus UX305UA — available for $750 (and often a bit less than that, on sale) — is the best value yet.
You might not expect quality from a laptop that barely costs more than a new iPhone 7 Plus, but this Zenbook is a pleasant surprise. Its metal, unibody chassis is barely more than six-tenths of an inch thick, and its overall weight is around three pounds.
Better still, the laptop is a real pleasure to use. Its has an excellent keyboard — one of the best on any 13-inch laptop, in fact. It also offers a spacious touchpad and a 1080p non-touch display with a matte coating that nearly eliminates glare. This isn’t a 2-in-1, so you won’t be swinging the Zenbook UX305UA’s display around for use as a tablet, but its focus on conventional use helps Asus offer this system’s excellent design at a budget price.
If you think it’s what inside that counts, you’ll find even more reason to love this laptop. It has a Core i5-6200U processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB solid state drive. This selection of hardware is the best you can expect to receive for $750, and easily exceeds other systems like the Dell XPS 13. Though we love that laptop, it only offers a Core i3 and 4GB of RAM in its $800 base configuration.
And the Zenbook UX305UA won’t leave you stranded when you’re on the move. It has a large, 54-watt-hour battery which, in our testing, delivered more than five and a half hours of battery life when browsing. An extra few hours can be squeezed out with more conservative use.
Weaknesses? Uh… well, the configuration options are very limited. An alternative version with a more powerful processor and even higher resolution is technically available, but tends to be hard to find given Asus doesn’t offer made-to-order laptops. The standard configuration is the only configuration.
Other than that, there’s nothing to complain about. The Asus Zenbook UX305UA is good or great in all important metrics, which is why we gave it our Editor’s Choice award. It’s not just one of the best budget laptops. It’s among best laptops at any price.
The best Chromebook
Acer Chromebook 15
Why you should buy this: It’s extremely affordable, yet still quick.
Who’s it for: Those who want a very basic, but still enjoyable, PC.
How much it will cost: $200 to $350
Why we picked the Acer Chromebook 15
Chromebooks — laptops that run Google’s Chrome OS — have become a popular budget laptop over the last few years, and we quite like them at Digital Trends. The Acer Chromebook 15 is a great example of their strengths. It has a 1080p display, fast Intel processor, and plenty of memory, all starting at $200. No Windows notebook comes close to touching its value.
If you’re looking for a budget laptop, Chromebooks are a good choice. But these systems rarely sell for north of $500, with the obvious exception of Google’s Chromebook Pixel, which is too niche for us to recommend. The price brings limitations, of course. You won’t find a Chromebook with a quad-core processor, a fast solid state drive, or an optional discrete GPU.
Still, the Chromebook 15 is well equipped for the category. The base model has 1,366 x 768-pixel resolution, 2GB of RAM, and a 16GB solid state drive. That’s good for $200, but we recommend going at least for the $280 upgrade. It has a 1080p display, 4GB of RAM, and 16GB of storage. Upgrading to the $350 model affords you a 32GB solid state drive.
Aside from its price, the Acer Chromebook 15’s success is due to its Intel Celeron 3205U dual-core processor. Unlike many other Celeron chips, this one is based on the same Broadwell architecture used in Intel’s 6th-generation Core brand. Though its clock speed is less than even a Core i3, it’s still quick — and much quicker than the average notebook sold for $300 or less.
The downsides? Well, it’s not the most portable system, as the 15-inch display might suggest. You’ll also have to get used to ChromeOS. It’s not as functional as Windows, and works best when you have an active internet connection.
The best for gaming
Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming
Why you should buy this: It offers solid gaming performance for less than $1,000.
Who’s it for: Gamers, and only gamers.
How much it will cost: $800 to $1,300
Why we picked the Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming
In late 2015, we reviewed the Dell Inspiron 15 7000, expecting it to be a typical mid-range laptop. Instead, it turned out to be a gaming powerhouse despite its $800 price tag. Since then, Dell has appropriately changed the name to the Insprion 15 Gaming.
Hardware is paramount if you want to game, and that’s where the Inspiron 15 Gaming stands out. Though it’s affordable, the system crams in an Intel Core i5 quad-core processor alongside 8GB of memory and a GTX 960M graphics card. This combination is more than enough to power modern games at the laptop’s native 1080p resolution and high-detail settings. Less demanding titles, such as Counter Strike: Global Offensive and Heroes of the Storm, can easily be enjoyed with all the eye candy turned on.
Dell hasn’t compromised the design in pursuit of performance, however. Though it looks basic, the Inspiron 15 Gaming is about as solid as any other mid-range, 15-inch notebook. It has a large, enjoyable keyboard, a spacious touchpad, and plenty of connectivity. A 4K display is optional, but we recommend against it — the GTX 960M performs better when paired with a 1080p screen. And, of course, going 4K adds hundreds to the price.
There is one hardware compromise made to achieve this notebook’s budget speed. The hard drive is a 1TB hybrid unit, which combines a mechanical disk with 8GB of solid state cache. Though it mostly achieve the snappy feel of a pure solid state drive, the hybrid unit can lead to slightly longer load times in games, and may hesitate when asked to open a rarely-used file.
Still, that’s a small compromise to make given the price. You can find a few other laptops with an Nvidia GTX 960M for around $800, but you’ll find none that offer better performance without compromising the overall user experience.
The best for work
Lenovo ThinkPad 13
Why you should buy this: It’s built like a tank.
Who’s it for: Business travelers, geeks who care about keyboards.
How much it will cost: $600 to $1,000
Why we picked the Lenovo ThinkPad 13
Business laptops and budget laptops are often mutually exclusive categories. People who buy work systems tend to expect a fast processor, good battery life, and amazing build quality — which quickly inflates the price. But the Lenovo ThinkPad 13 is an exception to the rule.
Though available for as little as $600, the ThinkPad 13 has the traits brand loyalists will expect. It includes a matte display that resists glare, its Mil-Spec tested to withstand extreme environments, and it has a Trusted Platform Module to enable hardware encryption. Oh, and it has a TrackPointer stick in the middle of the keyboard. Because real pros despise touchpads.
That said, we recommend going for one of the ThinkPad 13’s more expensive incarnations, like the $700 model solid directly by Lenovo. The extra money nets you a Core i3 processor and, more importantly, a full 1080p display. You can further tweak the system if desired, but the standard $700 configuration is the sweet spot.
The ThinkPad 13’s focus on durability does demand some trade-offs, though. Compared to the Asus Zenbook UX305UA, for example, the ThinkPad is a bit less powerful, a bit heavier, and has a somewhat smaller battery. But the Lenovo still nails the basics, and its durable design is better for those who need a professional, rugged workhorse.
Should you buy now, or wait?
Intel’s 7th-generation Core processors have recently started to show up in new laptops, but they likely won’t appear in most affordable models until early 2017, or even later.
That might lead you to think it’s good to wait. But the 7th-generation is the smallest upgrade we’ve seen in some time. Its not dramatically quicker than the 6th-generation, and even Intel says it doesn’t significantly increase battery life.
The affordable models on the market today are quite mature, and surprisingly powerful. Now is as good a time to buy as any.
How do we test laptops?
We judge laptops on a wide variety of factors including processor, hard drive, and graphics performance, battery life, and display quality. We test these components with objective tools, rather than trying to rely on our subjective impressions. For more information on our test procedures, check out our full guide to how we test laptops.