How to Choose the Best Budget Laptop: 13 Essential Tips

How to Choose the Best Budget Laptop

The good news is that from budget laptops to gaming machines, there’s a wide variety of sizes, form factors, hardware, prices, designs and features to suite every user. The bad news is such a wide array of distinct options doesn’t make choosing the right laptop for you easy. That’s why we’ve put together this guide on how to choose the best budget laptop. We’re going to show you just the specs to focus on no matter what type of portable computing device you’re after. We know you’re ready, so let’s get started.

1.  Operating System: Windows vs Mac vs Chrome

We chose to start here because deciding on the OS (operating system) you want running your machine will determine the device you’re after.

While historically, Apple’s macOS and Microsoft’s Windows dominate the debate, Google’s Chrome OS is now a trendy alternative usually offered on much more affordable laptops.

Typically, you can find the macOS in MacBooks and Windows running PC notebooks. But if you’re on a tight budget and don’t want to skimp on performance Chromebooks are the definite way to go.

Chrome OS

Chromebooks are the perfect consideration if you are on a tight budget. Equipped with the lightweight Google Chrome OS, Chromebooks are small, low-cost budget laptops designed with entry-level components to keep costs low.

The downside is that you’ll be limited to the Chrome browser and you’ll have to be logged onto the Internet to take full advantage of everything they have to offer.

But there’s a reason why they’re widely popular among the educational sphere, different organizations, and for users who need to access social media and make online transactions.

A streamlined everyday machine for browsing the Web, like the HP ChromeBook 14 will set you back between $200 and $350. You’ll need to shell out $400 or more for something more powerful and premium, like the Asus ChromeBook C436 or the Google PixelBook Go. If the proposition of owning one intrigues you, find out more about their pros and cons.

MacOS

Computers from Apple aren’t known for being cheap. Apple MacBooks like the Apple MacBook Air are going to be considerably more expensive than any ChromeBook, and there’s a few reasons why: One of Apple’s hallmarks is quality design – MacBooks are designed to look and feel elegant, which translates to a price tag that is much higher than even most PC laptops.

Secondly, the macOS is a proprietary operating system exclusive to the Apple ecosystem, which means it’s only available on Apple products.

Still, for the users that own a MacBook, there’s no better laptop. And if you’re willing to spend, the Apple MacBook Air’s line of laptop might be suitable for you.

Plus, these days you’re not limited to the macOS environment; you can install Windows 10 in a MacBook.

If you love the Apple brand, the thin-and-light MacBook Air (2020) is the perfect budget laptop. It comes with the Apple M1 chip and it’s an excellent budget alternative to the more expensive (and powerful) MacBook Pro.

Windows

If you don’t want the pricey option, you can always opt for a Windows laptop. PC laptops are based on the Windows platform.

Owing to this operating system’s wide popularity is the fact that you can find it running practically any form factor on the market from flexible convertibles and detachables, like the HP Envy x360 13 (the best 2-in-1 for the money). To fantastic budget notebooks, like the Acer Aspire 5. And hard core (yet relatively affordably priced) gaming rigs like the Asus ROG Zephyrus G14.

Add to that the fact that most software out there is based on the Windows environment, and it’s easy to see why Microsoft Windows is a perennial favorite – The Windows OS is highly compatible.

You even get the versatility of enjoying the best desktop apps as well as the Windows Store. You can also install the Google Chrome browser and add extensions from Chrome Web Store. Unlike the MacOS, dozens of manufacturers produce laptops with the Windows operating system.

But performance and pricing of these machines vary considerably depending on the model, quality and the brand you prefer.

2.  Display Size

In general, the size of a laptop’s display correlates to the size of the device, along with how heavy the machine will be to tote around.

How portable do you want your laptop to be? Laptops are categorized based on their screen size with 11.6-inches being the most nimble to manage, and 17.3-inchers classified as desktop replacements given their domineering size and heft.

As it relates to size, the entire laptop market breaks down like this:

Screen SizePortability
11 – 12 inchesThis is the thinnest and lightest of them all. They usually weigh about 2 to 3.6 pounds, like the Asus L210.
13 – 14 inchesThis type is the best portability option, and usually weighs about 4 pounds thereabout. These are mostly business models and Ultrabooks, like Dell XPS 15.
15 – inchThis is the most popular size – they mostly weigh about 4 to 5.5 pounds. If you want a larger screen without much more weight, something like the HP Spectre x360 15t is your pick.
17 – inchThese have a massive desktop-like screen. If you don’t plan to move your laptop often, you’ll love a laptop with this much screen real-estate. Laptops, like the Gigabyte Aorus 17G are also ideal for gamers.

3.  Screen Technology

Resolution

And by this, of course, we mostly mean resolution.

Using any computing device will mostly be a visual experience. As such it’s important to think about the quality of the display.

It should feel natural and comfortable to use. The resolution we recommend time again on practically every review here, here and here is 1920 x 1080 pixels-per-square-inch.

This is considered Full High Definition (Full HD or FHD). It’s fast becoming the standard for portable computing.

Resolution refers to the number of pixels making up a display expressed (horizontally x vertically). Pixels are small squares of light that change color to make up the things you see on a monitor or display. The more you have, the sharper the image.

4K laptops have been growing in popularity recently. The outstanding 3840 x 2160 (Quad HD) resolution is sharper than FHD delivering a scintillating quality that’s enough to make your jaw drop. Keep in mind though laptops with this display panel tend to be comparatively more expensive and they offer terrible battery endurance.

You can still find laptops with a High Definition (HD) resolution. They have a 1366 x 768-pixel density and can mostly be found on ultraportable 11.6-inch notebooks and budget laptops like Chromebooks.

Many budget class laptops come with a low-resolution 1366 x 768 screens. One of the other advantages of more pixels is the ability to fit more content on screen at one time so you don’t have to scroll all over the display to find information, which improves productivity. Here are some things to consider if you have poor eye-sight.

Pixels-Per-Square-InchIndustry name
1366 x 768HD
1600 x 900HD+
1900 x 1080Full HD, 1080p
2560 x 1440QHD, WQHD, 2K
3000 X 2000PixelSense
3200 x 1800QHD+, 3K
3840 X 2160UHD, 4K

Panel Technology

But display quality is about more than just resolution. While panel technology is a reference to viewing angles. It also affects the speed of the display, which is important for gaming. Better laptops come with IPS technology. But while they provide wider viewing angles, they’re slower than TN panels due to their ability to deliver more color accuracy, which may not be ideal for gaming.

Below are the 3 major screen panels you’re sure to come across on your hunt for a new laptop:

TN (Twisted Nematic)You’ll find these on more budget conscious laptops. The color range isn’t that exciting, resulting in images that often look washed out. But they’re the fastest in the market in terms of response time (more about this later), which makes them advantageous for gaming with the lowest response times.  
IPS (In-Plane Switching)Laptops featuring this screen panel are often more expensive than the latter. But for activities like graphic design, photography and video editing, it’s an invaluable technology.  
VA (Vertical Alignment)This enterprising screen panel attempts the impossible by melding the color accuracy and wide viewing angles of IPS with the low refresh rate of TN panels.  

Response Time

This is the time it takes your laptop screen or monitor to shift from one color to another. An LCD response time can be as much as 10ms (milliseconds), to as fast as 1ms – while the concepts may be similar, it’s important not to confuse this with refresh rate, which we’ll get into in a moment. Response time also measures how long it takes the screen to go from black to white to black again.

Lower response times are typically better because it cuts down on image issues like “blurring” and “ghosting.” You typically want response time to be low. But if all you’re going to be doing with your laptop is surfing the Net, writing and editing videos, then this is of no consequence to you. But if you’re a gamer, mere milliseconds can mean the difference between winning and losing. You’re focus should be on laptops with a low response time between 1 and 5ms.

Refresh Rate

Again, if you’re a gamer. You’re going to want to pay attention to this. Measured in Hertz (Hz), this is the number of times per second a screen can display a new image. It aids in providing a smoother, more responsive experience. Most laptops have a 60Hz refresh rate. High-end gaming laptops, like the Acer Predator Triton 500 are fitted with up to a blistering 300Hz panels.

Generally, you want a refresh rate of at least 144Hz or more for gaming. If you’re game is running at 90FPS and your laptop only has a 60Hz monitor, you’ll encounter issues like screen tearing. Also, look for gaming rigs that offer Nvidia’s G-Sync technology or AMD’s FreeSync technology – Both work to limit display issues while gaming like ghosting and tearing by synchronizing the screen panel with the graphics card.

LED vs OLED

The most colorful type of screen you can get on your laptop is OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode), but these days AMOLED is the top tier. Typically, LED screens have an LCD panel where the pixels are located and a backlight that illuminates all of them. With OLED technology, each individual pixel lights itself!, like the Razer Blade Advanced Gaming Laptop.

While the viewing experience of an OLED screen is breathtaking, it’s not hands-down the best choice in every situation. While it outputs perfect black levels and excellent color, the brightness level can’t compete with an LED screen.

However, when color accuracy is important for activities like photo/video editing, a display’s ability to produce deeper, dark black levels is super important in achieving an overall radiant picture quality – Deeper blacks allow for higher contrast and richer colors.

Color Coverage

The more colors your laptop’s screen can produce, the more vibrant everything you’re looking at will appear. The best laptops can produce over 95% of the sRGB color gamut; many can exceed 100%. The sRGB gamut is a narrow measuring scale. Most manufacturers use a wider color measuring scale, like NTSC or Adobe RGB – A 72% NTSC gamut is = to 100% of sRGB. And there’s also the DCPI-P3 color gamut.

Touchscreen

Touchscreens provide a more intuitive way to interact with your laptop. Not only can you find them on convertible and detachable 2-in-1s, it’s even available on clamshell laptops of varying sizes. If you’re considering purchasing a laptop with a touchscreen it might be useful to consider the fact that:

PriceWith all things being equal, the price of a laptop featuring a touchscreen is going to be at least $100 to $200 more expensive.  
GlossAlmost all laptops with touch technology have a reflective screen making things extremely challenging to see.  
Power ConsumptionA laptop with a touchscreen is going to diminish battery life by 1 to 2 hours compared to one without a touchscreen.  

Glossy vs Matte

Glossy

Speaking of glossy screens. You might decide to choose a laptop with a glossy screen coating since color and contrast on these displays appear more vivid. Colors are more intense and saturated, while blacks appear deeper.

The downside – as previously mentioned – is that when light casts on the screen, like sunlight coming through a window can cause extreme reflections, which renders the screen pretty much unusable.

Matte

Laptops with matte displays are much better at preventing reflections because of the anti-glare coating applied to them. This makes it easier to see the contents of the display under direct sunlight or under brightly lit fluorescent bulbs, like in a classroom or office environment.

The problem as we’ve attested to in a number of our reviews is that matte displays often make colors appear dull and lifeless, especially on more budget friendly laptops. Even with a matte display you’re going to get some glare. But it won’t be nearly as intrusive in bright environments as a glossy screen.

Brightness Level

In our reviews we often talk about a laptop screen’s level of brightness. This is important because a bright screen provides a better viewing experience by making colors seem to explode right out of the display. This is especially important if you work out of doors or inside near direct sunlight – a dim laptop makes what you’re trying to see on the display look washed out.

The brightness level of a laptop screen is often expressed in “nits.” A higher number represents a more luminous screen. 100 nits is good, but 250 or more is better. The brightest laptops reach 300 nits or more!

4.  CPU

The processor is referred to as the heart of a computer for good reason. It’s solely responsible for all the complex calculations from the operating system. Like a bouncer at an exclusive club, all the functions of your laptop, including apps and the software you install, user input and data pass through the CPU (think of it as a systems manager).

Given its enormous scope of importance, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that this means that that the processor is the single most important component you should focus all your money on when purchasing a laptop. It’s not. And here’s why: Depending on what you want to do, even the least expensive CPU can be just right for your system.

Intel CPUs are ubiquitous within the laptop market. That’s because they offer the best performance for multitasking and multimedia work.

Intel’s CPU Breakdown

Pentium / CeleronThese offer the slowest performance and can be found in sub-$400 laptops. Perfect for Web surfing and light document editing, though.
Core i3Now we’re talking. Just below the Core i5, performance is a lot better with this family of CPUs.
core i5This is the workhorse of Intel’s Core family and can be found in almost every productivity notebook. Models that end in “U” for energy saving are the most popular. Those that end in “Y” are low power, and performance is reflective. “HQ” uses more wattage and can be found in gaming and workstation laptops.
core i7Even more powerful than Core i5. This level allows more productivity and faster gaming. If it ends in “H,” “HQ” or “K” it has four to six cores and uses more power. The ones that end in “Y” use a conservative amount of wattage.
core i9Introduced not too long ago in laptops as a step above Core i7, these are the new top-of-the-line mobile chips from Intel. They’re exclusive to premium laptops, high-end gaming laptops and workstations – Perfect for power users that work with demanding programs and apps.
XeonYou know the boss on the final level of your favorite PC game? That’s this processor. It’s an expensive CPU found in large mobile workstation laptops for professional-grade engineering, 3D modeling and animation. You can forget about getting good battery endurance.

Clockspeed

While it is tempting to decide on a particular CPU based only on ClockSpeed, (the heart rate of a processor). This is not the overall determination for laptop performance. Your time will be better spent consider aspects like number of cores, the size of cache memory, word length, communication width between the processor and memory as well as the width between the CPU storage and display adapter. Fortunately for you and us that work has already been done with benchmark information from websites like Notebookcheck and PassMark.

5.  Graphics Card

If you’re a gamer, you’re going to want to pay special attention to the GPU (Graphics Processing Unit). It’s responsible for running all the digital information in your machine. Just like CPUs, there are high- and low-end graphics cards.

Integrated

If you’re not playing PC games, creating 3D objects or doing high-res video editing, an integrated graphics card is fine. Especially if we’re talking about the latest integrated Iris Xe graphics. Many budget laptops come with integrated graphics. This means the graphics chips is embedded on the laptop’s motherboard and shares system RAM.

Dedicated

But if you’re going for a workstation or gaming laptop, it’ll come with dedicate (or discrete) GPU. NVIDA maintains a list of its low to high end graphics chips as does its rival, AMD.

6.  RAM

Lightweight operating systems like the ChromeOS and Windows 10S can operate with a small store of RAM. But as you open more tabs and applications, performance suffers.

The more system memory you have the faster your laptop will be when it comes to managing multiple apps simultaneously. You can get a budget laptop with 2GB, 4GB and most recently 8GB of RAM. At bare minimum you’ll need at least 4GB of memory for multitasking.

If you’re a power user like a gamer or you’re opting for a workstation laptop and you can invest slightly more, 16GB and 32GB will keep your system buzzing along without any hiccups.

7.  Storage

eMMC (Embedded Multimedia Card)

This is a low-cost option you’ll often find in Chromebooks and the ultra-budget Windows systems that compete with them. Typically used in tablets and smartphones, eMMC storage is a type of flash-based storage system that’s cheaper than true SSDs.

The major distinguishing factor is that their only available with 32 to 64GB capacities. But you can find some laptops, like the Google PixelBook featuring the bigger 128GB eMMC storage capacity.

MHD (Mechanical Hard Drive)

The traditional mechanical hard drive has been for over 60 years. Today, their mass appeal lies in their ability to offer a large capacity cheaply. The drawback, however, is that they’re not as fast as flash-based storage. Currently, you can get a laptop with a 1TB MHD in a budget laptop. If you have a lot of photos, videos and downloads you want to save, a laptop with an MHD is an economical option.

SSD (Solid-State Drive)

SSDs are still fairly new in the world of computer storage. While the price of laptops with this storage option are beginning to rival the ones with an MHD. On average, SSDs are still the more expensive per gigabyte of the two.

But the edge SSDs have over all other storage solutions is speed and reliability. Not only will your laptop start up and perform faster, but it will do so in perfect silence.

SSHD (Solid-State Hybrid Drive)

A hybrid drive combines the storage space of a traditional mechanical hard drive with the high speed of flash memory. The result is a cheaper laptop with the luxuries of an SSD and all the capacity of an MHD. It works by using a small amount of SSD memory as cache to store frequently used files and make your system faster. Although it tackles the issue of speed and storage with aplomb. You’ll be hard pressed to find budget laptops with an SSHD.

8.  Keyboard

The keyboard is also an essential component of any laptop you’re considering. After all, even if the device you want comes with touchscreen, the keyboard is still your primary interface with the machine. We assume you might be doing a lot of typing, meaning you will need a computer with the right keyboard

You’ll need to get a laptop with a comfortable keyboard for long typing sessions. You don’t want to get a keyboard that packs in every key because when searching for specifics such as the arrow or delete keys. It leads to a bad overall user experience – This point requires you get a laptop with a keyboard blessed with a comfortable layout, a sufficient amount of downstroke travel and slick reactiveness.

9.  Expansion Ports

Ports

You also want to check the connectivity options, ports and drives. A growing number of laptops use USB Type-C or Thunderbolt 3 ports that are compatible with USB Type-C in an effort to eliminate the reliance on all other ports, like the Dell XPS 15 9500 model.

Trust us when we tell you that having the right ports on your system to connect to the peripherals you need is immensely helpful. Many mainstream laptops have a USB 3.0 port and HDMI out for video. Other useful connectors include an SD card slot, headphone jacks and an Ethernet port.

Drives

Few laptops come with optical drives and, while we have kept track of laptops with DVD drives, many applications and movies are becoming downloadable. However, you can always purchase an external DVD/CD drive that links via USB for less than $50 if you need to read/write discs and your laptop of choice doesn’t come with a built-in DVD drive.

10.  Connectivity Options

Wi-Fi

Consider laptops that provide you with an array of connectivity options. Generally, you might need Wi-Fi 6 for internet access and Bluetooth 5 to connect to headsets and Bluetooth devices.

A modern laptop with the latest and greatest connectivity option will come with Wi-Fi 6 support. It offers increased theoretical throughput and a more stable connection than 802.11 ac. Connectivity options also include 4G LTE or 5G support. This allows access to the Internet away from a router. But they will require a data subscription plan.

Bluetooth

Bluetooth 5 is the latest standard an un-tethered connection of peripherals to your laptop. It offers improved connectivity with Bluetooth-enabled devices, like an external keyboard or headphones.

11.  Battery Life

One of the significant differences between desktop and laptop computers is that laptops require mobile power while desktops do not. By ‘mobile power of course we mean on-board batteries. If you’re a student or you work with your laptop on the move, you don’t always have access to a charging station. Any laptop you choose should offer at least 5 hours of runtime unplugged from a power outlet.

The rules change, however, if you’re buying a big laptop like a desktop replacement or gaming laptop (or even a laptop with a touchscreen). Due to the powerful components in these mega machines, battery life is usually considerably diminished.

12.  Brand

A laptop is only as good as the company’s ability to stand behind it. Accurate and timely technical support is paramount. But support is only part of what makes a laptop brand worthy of your money. It’s important to consider how the manufacturer stacks up to the competition in terms of design, value and performance – Dell, HP, Acer, Asus, and Lenovo are among the very best laptop brand in the world today.

13.  Your Budget

Rarely does a laptop come along that ticks all the boxes, especially when you’re on a budget. But when it does, oh man, can it feel like you’re walking away with a steal. Maybe you want better gaming performance, or a laptop with a rugged build. You’ll need to balance the features you want against your budget and needs.

The average laptop is between $600 and $700. Now, maybe you don’t need to spend that much. Below is a list of what you can expect from a laptop depending on your budget so you can determine how much you do need to spend.

Price of Laptops

PriceUse Case
$100-$300These are usually Chromebooks and low-end Windows laptops, like the Acer Chromebook 15 and HP Stream 11. Their best suited for backup computing, the kids or streaming movies as the nominal hardware makes the productivity level super low.
$300-$700This is the sweet spot for most users because here you’ll start seeing Intel core i5 CPUs and AMD equivalents, 8 GB of RAM and up to a 500 GB SSD as in the case of the HP Pavilion 15, long battery life and Full HD displays notwithstanding.
$700-$1000Now here’s the range where the premium laptops like to dwell. You’ll find well-designed laptops made of materials like aluminum and even carbon fiber like the dark gray aluminum finish of the Lenovo IdeaPad 730S. High resolution displays and SSDs practically come standard. And you can find up to 16 GB of RAM, like with the ultra slim Acer ZenBook 13.
$1000+At this price range you can pretty much write your own ticket for whatever you want in a laptop. Not only are these machines some of the most portable. You even get luxuries like dedicated graphics and high-res touchscreen and even workstation laptops like the Asus Pro Art Studio 15.

Conclusion

So, there you have it, thirteen useful tips to purchase the perfect laptop. Now you have the comprehensive guide to picking the perfect laptop. The quest for mobility and portability led to the advent of the laptop computer – they are amazing machines. Lightweight enough to take with you and flexible enough to run multiple games and applications. If you’re at home, on the road, or in a college classroom, they are the best instrument for doing serious work.