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Back to school laptops for $500 and less

The bell on the new school semester is just about to ring. Aside from buying books and other supplies, you may find yourself needing a new laptop. However, we too were in college not too long ago, and if you’re anything like us, you probably don’t have the cash for your dream machine just yet.

With that in mind, we’re keeping this list specific to notebooks priced $500 and below. But while the prices may be more ramen noodle than filet mignon, there’s a lot of substance packed in these budget ‘books.

Acer Aspire Switch 10 ($390)

The Acer Switch 10 is a detachable notebook, so if you want a tablet as well as a laptop, the Switch 10 will cover both of those bases. The Acer Aspire Switch 10 wears a 10-inch IPS display with 1,366 x 768 resolution. On the specs front, this system is powered by an Intel Z3745 Atom processor, 2GB of RAM, and integrated Intel graphics.

The storage options with the Acer Aspire Switch 10 vary. If you prioritize speed and performance, there are models that ship with SSDs ranging from 32GB to 64GB according to Acer’s site. However, if you’re happy to take the performance hit in exchange for more storage, Acer also offers a flavor with a 500GB mechanical hard drive. Speaking of performance, the Switch 10 isn’t a beast in any particular area, but it should be sufficient if your needs are limited to Web browsing, email, social networking, document creation, and watching videos.

Acer Aspire Switch 10

One of the areas where the Acer Aspire Switch 10 shines is battery life. In our tests, it lasted 6 hours and 11 minutes in the Peacekeeper battery test. That trumps the Lenovo Yoga 2 11-inch by almost an hour, which lasted 5 hours and 18 minutes.

Measuring 10.3 x 7 x 0.4 inches and weighing 2.58 pounds when the screen and keyboard are attached to one another, the Acer Aspire is pretty light, which will make it easy to carry to and from class. Also, it may not look the part, but it’s pretty well built. We held it upside down by the screen, and the display would not detach from its keyboard dock. It’s not impossible to detach the screen from the keyboard in this manner, but you probably would have to deliberately attempt to do this in order to pull the feat off.

As a welcome bonus, the Switch 10 includes a free copy of Microsoft Office Home & Student 2013, so you’ll be set up with a solid program for taking notes and writing reports out of the box. However, if you’re not a lover of Office, there are plenty of free Office alternatives out there.

The Acer Aspire Switch 10 starts at $330. You can read our full review here.

Acer C720 Chromebook ($237)

Acer gets the nod here again, mainly because the C720 Chromebook is one of the cheapest notebooks you can get, period.

Granted, if you’ve seen one Chromebook, you’ve seen almost all of them. The C720, which starts at $199, ships with an Intel Celeron 2955U CPU clocked at 1.4GHz, has 2GB of RAM, a 16GB SSD, and an 11.6-inch screen with 1,366 x 768 resolution. It weighs 2.76-pounds and measures 11.3 x 8 x0.8-inches, so it should be pretty easy for you to lug around.

Acer C720 Chromebook

The C720 runs Chrome OS, and in case you’re unfamiliar with it, you should know that it’s almost nothing like Windows. It won’t run Windows programs, so if you need something Windows-based, stick to the other options on this list.

However, if your computing needs are very basic, and limited to Web browsing, emails, writing reports, and watching videos, then the C720 might be right up your alley. Keep in mind that any Chromebook essentially turns into a large paperweight if it’s not connected to the Internet, so we hope your dorm and campus have good connections. Also, the C720 doesn’t have an Ethernet port, so you’re restricted to Wi-Fi connectivity only. That’s usually the case for most Chromebooks. If you really need an Ethernet port, you can always snag a USB Ethernet adapter for around $20. The C720 has two USB ports total, one of which is 3.0.

Related: Google works to make Chrome OS work better offline

If you’re cool with all that, then great for you. You can get a notebook for just a couple of Benjamins that will meet all of your Web-based, non-Windows needs. There aren’t many laptops out there that can make that claim.

Dell Inspiron 15 3000 ($459)

The Dell Inspiron 15 3000 is on this list for a few reasons. However, what makes this laptop stand out is that it’s one of the few you can still buy that costs less than $500, includes an Intel Core CPU, and ships with Windows 7.

Yes, Windows 8 may have been released almost two years ago, but some PC makers are still selling laptops running Microsoft’s old OS. That’s simply because a lot of people don’t like Windows 8, as evidenced by the fact that its adoption numbers are not only dwarfed by Windows 7, but are significantly lower than Windows XP’s as well. Windows XP is over 10 years old, while Windows 7 was released back in 2009.

Dell Inspiron 15 3000

However, that’s not the only reason why we put the Dell Inspiron 15 3000 on this list. It’s powered by an Intel Core i3-4030U Haswell processor clocked at 1.9GHz, has 4GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive, and a tray-loading DVD drive. Its 15.6-inch display has the same low resolution of 1,366 x 768 that many smaller screens sport, but that’s about par for the course when your laptop buying budget tops out at $500. Its Intel 4400 integrated GPU will even let you game a bit, though modern games will require you to tone the visual settings down. If your favorite games are World of Warcraft, League of Legends, or something of that ilk, you’re probably in the clear.

Related: Windows 7 gets even more popular

At 4.8 pounds, it’s not the lightest notebook you can get, and there are others on this list that are significantly slimmer than that. However, if you want to do everything you can to avoid Windows 8, and prefer a PC with a decent processor, this is your best bet. At $450, you’ll even come under budget, with $50 left over to spend on bee … err … books!

Acer Aspire E5-471-59RT ($500)

We know, we know; Acer again. Understand this about Acer: They specialize in making cheap laptops, so its only natural that they have a strong presence in this list.

Besides, it’s hard to find a laptop for $500 or less which has an Intel Core i5 processor. That’s a big reason why the Acer Aspire E5-471-59RT made this list, though it’s certainly not the only one.

Like the other laptops you see here, the Acer Aspire E5-471-59RT has a 1,366 x 768 display, which measures 14 inches. Under the hood is an Intel Core i5-4210U processor clocked at 1.7GHz, 4GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive. That should be plenty good for whatever you decide to throw at this notebook, within reason that is.

Acer Aspire E5-471-59RT

You can connect to the Internet via 802.11n Wi-Fi or the Acer Aspire E5-471-59RT’s Ethernet port. Speaking of ports, there’s a pretty decent roster to choose from here, including three USB, HDMI, VGA, and an SD card slot. Bluetooth 4.0 is also available, and the system runs Windows 8.1.

The Acer Aspire E5-471-59RT will cost you $500. For what it’s worth, we reviewed its larger, more expensive sibling fairly recently, which packs the same exact processor. We found it to be a solid all-around performer, holding up well against the Lenovo Flex 2 15, and the Dell Inspiron 15 7000 in our CPU tests. All three of those cost more than the Acer Aspire E5-471-59RT.

Toshiba Satellite L50-BST2NX1 ($500)

The Toshiba Satellite L50-BST2NX1 may not quite have the processor brawn enjoyed by the Acer Aspire E5 above, but it makes up for that by trumping the latter in other areas, while selling for the same exact $500 price.

The Toshiba Satellite L50-BST2NX1 offers an older Intel Core i3-3217U processor running at 1.8GHz, but offers twice the RAM and hard drive space: 8GB, and 1TB, respectively. The extra memory will allow you to go nuts and have gobs of browser tabs opened at the same time without slowing the system to a crawl, while the 1TB hard drive should leave plenty of space to spare, even if you put an extensive library of movies, music, and photos on the L50. There’s also a DVD burner here.

Toshiba Satellite L50-BST2NX1

Sporting a 15-inc, 1,366 x 768 display and weighing 4.85-pounds, the L50 isn’t the lightest system around, but you’re trading that extra portability in for better specs. Wireless connectivity comes courtesy of 802.11n and Bluetooth 4.0, thought an Ethernet port is available as well. With the L50, you get the benefit of three USB ports, two of which are 3.0, along with HDMI, and VGA.

The L50 may be a bit bulky, but if you value strong components, this notebook will quench your thirst while coming in right at the apex of your laptop-buying budget.

All audiences welcome

There’s something for everyone here, whether you value power over portability, or vice versa. If you can’t stand Windows 8, there’s a Windows 7-based option for you here. If you live on the Web and aren’t exactly in need of a Windows system, you can get a Chromebook for dirt cheap. Any of these notebooks should serve as fine computing companions for you during the coming fall semester, and beyond.

Now don’t forget to grab a cushy new laptop bag to protect it between classes!