To get a laptop that’s usable for most schoolwork, you typically need to spend at least $450 to $500. Spend less, and you’d have a better experience browsing the internet on your phone.
At this price, I’ve seen jangly trackpads, loose keys, unreadable screens, hinges that can’t hold a screen upright, and processors that buckle under the load of two browser tabs. Still, if you know what to look for, you can find a laptop that can browse the web and handle most schoolwork, such as writing term papers or taking notes. At Wirecutter, I’ve tested dozens of laptops, and here’s what I’d recommend as the best laptops under $500.
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The specs to look for
When shopping for a laptop under $500, you don’t have a lot of control over features, but there is a minimal threshold to meet for a good experience. You could get a laptop for $200, but you shouldn’t. Here’s what to look for:
Solid-state storage: I’ve found that SSD storage instead of spinning hard drives makes the biggest difference in how a laptop feels to use in everyday tasks. Launching applications and opening files is much snappier on an SSD than on a hard drive.
Seventh- or eighth-generation Intel Core i3 or i5 processor: An Intel Core i3 processor offers plenty of power for basic Web browsing, word processing, and video watching. (A Core i5 is better but rare in this price range.) You can find Pentium and Celeron processors at this price, but they’re too slow for Windows. Chromebooks can get away with a less powerful Core m3 processor.
4 GB (preferably 8 GB) of memory: A laptop with 4 GB of memory allows you to have two or three applications open at a time, but after 10 or so browser tabs it’ll slow to a crawl. A model with 8 GB is much better, but rare. Chromebooks can get away with 4 GB of memory because that operating system doesn’t require as much as Windows to run smoothly.
This leaves you with a choice between three different types of computers: a Chromebook, a Windows laptop, or a tablet.
If you want something portable or durable, and you rely mostly on Google Docs for schoolwork, get a Chromebook. If you prefer Windows and don’t mind dealing with slightly sluggish performance and less durability in favor of wider software support, get a Windows laptop. If you want a light and portable device primarily for writing or for taking notes, get an iPad.
Consider a Chromebook
If you don’t need Windows applications or access to specialty software, buy a Chromebook. They’re better built, they have longer battery life, and they’re easier to update than their Windows-based competitors.
Chromebooks run Google’s ChromeOS, where you do everything through the Chrome Web browser. They’re most useful for students who do coursework in Google Docs or through online education portals. Chromebooks update automatically and have no bloatware or preinstalled software to remove the way Windows laptops do, which makes them much easier to use. Chromebooks can run some Android mobile apps but can’t run Windows applications, so they aren’t good for tasks that require special software, such as coding or media editing. Despite being browser based, Chromebooks do have offline support, according to Google, but they’re not as useful as a Windows computer if you don’t have an internet connection.
For under $500, Wirecutter’s pick for the best Chromebook is the Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA. Weighing less than 3 pounds, it has a 10-hour battery life, a bright touch-screen, and a backlit keyboard that’s comfortable to type on. But this model is old and won’t get software updates after 2022. If you can spend more than $500, get Wirecutter’s pick for the best Chromebook overall, the Asus Chromebook Flip C434TA, which has a larger screen and a newer processor and is often on sale for around $530. The C434TA is a classy laptop and could be mistaken for a high-end Windows computer at a glance. Both Chromebooks are fine options for high school and college students who work in Google Docs and are rarely without an internet connection.
If you’re shopping for younger students in elementary or middle school, I’d go with Wirecutter’s budget Chromebook pick, the Acer C771T, which has a slower processor but also offers a durable case made to withstand a beating. I’ve seen this laptop continue to work even after a kid dunked a full glass of water on it.
What to look for in a Windows laptop
For $500 you can’t get a Windows laptop that can multitask that well or run memory-heavy programs, but you can get one that feels snappy enough for browsing the Web, running lightweight productivity software, and watching movies. A cheap Windows laptop can do what a Chromebook can, but it’s also likely saddled with bloatware, worse battery life, slow performance with lots of tabs open, and a cheaper-feeling case. The main reason to get one over a Chromebook is if you need to run Windows software.
The best option I’ve found is the Asus VivoBook Flip 14 TP412FA. Its 128 GB of SSD storage is plenty for most people, and the Core i3 processor is fast enough. Its biggest problem is its measly 4 GB of memory, which causes it to slow down if you run more than three applications at once or open about 10 tabs in a browser. Otherwise, the VivoBook Flip’s touch-screen is vibrant (albeit a bit too reflective for outdoor use), and the keyboard is comfortable and backlit. And although I had issues with the trackpad not always registering movement, it’s still better than most options in this price range. The battery was underwhelming in my tests, lasting less than five hours. That won’t get you through a day of school without having to find a plug to charge.
The next-best option I’ve found is the Acer Swift 3 SF314-54-39BH, which isn’t as well built but performs just as effectively and has a battery life of around seven hours.
Who an iPad works (and won’t work) for
An iPad makes for a bad laptop — but not everyone needs a laptop. If you would use a laptop only to browse the Web, handle email, or take notes in class, you might be better off skipping a laptop in favor of an iPad and an external keyboard. The combo of a sixth-generation iPad and a Logitech Bluetooth keyboard is cheaper than a Windows or Chromebook laptop, not to mention lighter, more versatile, and better in battery life than most Windows options.
I’d choose an iPad over a similarly priced laptop for watching movies, browsing the internet, reading textbooks, and writing (emails, essays, or notes). Basically, it’s perfect for a lot of liberal arts students. If you prefer to take digital handwritten notes, the sixth-generation iPad supports the first-generation Apple Pencil, which works better than the Windows and Chromebook styluses I’ve used.
The iPad is a bad choice if you code, edit media files, work extensively in Google Docs, do design work, or require a mouse.
When to upgrade
Laptops under $500 are good for students who don’t need special software, as well as for anyone who just wants to browse the Web. If you need a laptop capable of creative tasks, heavy multitasking, or gaming, you have to spend more money, but our guide to the best laptops can help you find what you need. For more, read our full rundown of the best laptops under $500.
What to Buy is a new series in collaboration with Wirecutter, the New York Times Company that reviews products. Want buying advice from the experts, or need help picking out the right thing for the right job? Email Smarter Living editor Alan Henry at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll look into it for you!
A version of this article appears on Wirecutter.com.