You can get a good laptop, or you can get a cheap laptop. That’s the general wisdom, at least when it comes to something powerful enough to run Windows. At any budget under about $800, you’re looking at a bare minimum machine full of plastic and bargain bin parts.
But the laptop market is changing. With competition from cheaper low-power Chromebooks, and more flexible options thanks to AMD’s low-cost Ryzen chips, there are more choices in the lower price ranges than you might think.
What Makes a Laptop Not Suck?
That said, you can’t perform miracles. We’ve selected the best options in several categories at the lowest price for laptops that we’d consider using in our own work or leisure. While there were many choices at lower price levels, we knocked off any models that got notably poor marks from users or professional reviewers, and made other distinctions based on less obvious differences.
We also started with just one minimum specification. While a low-power processor, a low-res screen, or a plastic body aren’t necessarily deal-breakers, we think that trying to run Windows 10 on any machine with less than 8 GB of RAM is gonna be a bad time. Chromebooks can do with less, like the wonderful and extremely affordable Lenovo Chromebook Duet, but Windows has a lot more going on under the hood.
You can find some older models for less than the ones we chose, and a few currently produced ones at 4 GB or (shudder) 2 GB of memory. But we think these are the best in Windows laptops on the market that don’t suck.
The Best Standard Laptop: Acer Swift 3
If all you need is a regular laptop for browsing the web, reading email, and maybe watching the occasional movie, Acer’s Swift 3 is hard to beat. It comes in AMD and Intel varieties, but the SF314-42-R6YC variant packing a Ryzen 4500U is the one we recommend for those on a budget. It uses in a 14-inch, full HD IPS screen, a generous 256GB of SSD storage, and some surprising extras, like an illuminated keyboard and built-in fingerprint reader.
You won’t get a touchscreen in this price range, but the laptop does come loaded with a full-sized HDMI port for easy output to a monitor or TV, and USB-C charging along with two standard USB A ports.
The Best Affordable 2-in-1 Laptop: HP Pavilion x360
It’s hard to find an inexpensive laptop with decent specs and a fold-back 2-in-1 touchscreen design. The best one on the market is the Pavilion X360 from HP. We’re recommending the 14t-dw000 variant, which comes with 128GB of SSD storage. It’s using an Intel Core i3 10th-gen processor—something of a luxury in this category—though the 14-inch touchscreen is only “HD” at 1366×768.
The Pavilion X360 has a few premium touches, like a metal lid, integrated fingerprint reader, USB-C charging, and—a rarity on pretty much all laptops now—a full-sized SD card reader. While it’s compatible with an active stylus, one does not come in the box. Reviewers say the battery life isn’t great and the keyboard isn’t anything special, but performance, fit, and finish are well above expected in this price range.
The Best Affordable Big Screen Laptop: Dell Inspiron 17 3793
If you don’t often move your laptop around and prefer a big machine with a big screen, Dell’s got you covered. The latest generation of the Inspiron 17 (3793 model) packs a lot more of the comforts of a desktop while still being capable of travel (though it’s not coming out on any domestic airline flights). The base model on Dell’s website starts with a 10th-gen Intel Core i3 processor, 8GB of RAM, and a huge (but slow) 1TB hard drive.
But the real draw here is that 17.3-inch 1080p screen (non-touch in the entry model) and the variety of ports on its big body. You get a full-sized SD card reader, three USB-A ports, HDMI out, and, surprisingly, both a full Ethernet port and a DVD drive. (Remember those?) The drawback is there are no USB-C ports, and one of the USB-A ports uses the slower 2.0 standard. Also be aware that at over six pounds, this machine is more “luggable” than portable.
The Best Affordable Ultraportable Laptop: ASUS Zenbook 14
For those who want a svelte laptop that will turn a few heads in an airport gate, the Asus Zenbook 14 will fit the bill. This little aluminum alloy machine is more expensive than others on this list with comparable hardware, but it weighs just 2.65 pounds and it’s only .7 inches thick. Bargain hunters should seek out the Q407IQ version with an AMD Ryzen 5 processor—it’s considerably cheaper than the Intel version of this laptop.
The Zenbook 14 uses a discrete GeForce MX350 GPU for a little extra graphical power, which you’ll be thankful for on the 14″ 1080p display with thin bezels. It has 256GB of SSD storage and a MicroSD card reader, with both HDMI and USB-C ports, but sadly it doesn’t charge from the latter. Surprisingly, it’s the only laptop on this with a Windows Hello-compatible IR camera.
The Best Affordable Gaming Laptop: Acer Nitro 5
Trying to find an inexpensive laptop that can hold its own in 3D PC games is a herculean task—the “budget” category for gaming laptops tends to start at four figures. But Acer’s Nitro 5 in its cheapest configuration is surprisingly affordable for a 15-inch machine packing a 10th-gen Core i5 processor and a mid-range GTX 1650 graphics card. That won’t be enough to play the latest games at full quality, but with a few compromises you should be able to use the laptop’s 1080p screen at 60 frames per second.
Other charms include a red backlit keyboard with tenkey area, 512GB of SSD storage, and dedicated HDMI and USB-C ports. And because this thing is bigger and more generous with space than most laptops, you should be able to upgrade the memory and storage with only basic tools, if you’d like a little more performance later.