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The best cheap laptops you don’t have to wait a month for

09/08/2020

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Looking for the best laptop for   (aka a Chromebook) under $500? It looks like the supply of cheap portables has finally regained some stability, though price gouging remains an issue. There still isn’t a surplus of terrific deals, but they don’t seem to be going out of stock as rapidly as they did at the height of the initial coronavirus outbreak-induced work-from-home rush when PC and accessory sales spiked, making it nearly impossible to find a cheap laptop or Chromebook that’s even in stock. The grim reality of unprecedented job losses keeps the demand for ultracheap hardware strong.

Here’s my list of models that are still available for under $500 and that should ship within at least 10 days. I’ll try to keep this list current, but please don’t hate me if it gets out of date. Some online shopping sites make it impossible to figure out what’s in stock and what’s not — not just for tech, but for everything — as well as what can be shipped to you in a reasonable amount of time. Keep in mind, though, that shipping times may depend on where you live. I live in New York, so my recommendations may be based on a best-case scenario. 

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Try to resist buying out of desperation — don’t spend $500 on a laptop because there are no cheaper ones available, for example. Buying a need-it-now laptop can be like food shopping while you’re hungry. $500 is a lot of money, and you’ll likely be holding onto it for at least three year, if the statistics Intel and PC manufacturers hurl at us are correct. You can also try to make your current laptop last a little longer. If you just need something to tide you over for a few months, dig into possible places to buy refurbished, and explore nonprofit or educational discounts if you’re eligible.

If you suspect you’ll be holding onto your new laptop a while, though, see if you can stretch your budget to accommodate a little more memory or a processor with more cores than you were otherwise considering. Even better, if you’re comfortable with it, consider one with a replaceable battery, upgradable memory and storage or both. Furthermore, you (hopefully) won’t be stuck at home forever. Remember to consider whether you’ll want something more portable, with decent battery life in the future. 

Read more: Useful work-from-home gear for the quarantined creative

You’ll be able to add external storage at some point down the road. But if your internal storage is the slow-spinning hard disks that come in a lot of cheap laptops, even fast external storage is unlikely to help speed up loading Windows or applications. (You can frequently set a system to boot from a fast external solid-state drive.)

And finally, if you’re replacing an old laptop that’s just not up to running Windows anymore, consider turning it into a Chromebook.

Trade-offs

As long as you manage your expectations when it comes to options and specs, you can still get quite a bit with a , including good battery life and a reasonably lightweight body. 

One bright spot is that you don’t have to settle for a traditional clamshell laptop with a fixed display and keyboard. You can get a convertible (otherwise known as a two-in-one) — a laptop with a screen that flips around to turn the screen into a tablet, to position it for comfortable streaming or to do a presentation. Keep in mind that all convertibles have touchscreens, which are a prerequisite for tablet operation.

One thing you won’t find: a MacBook or any other Apple laptop. Even an iPad Air will run you more than $500 once you buy the optional keyboard (though if you look for sales on the tablet or keyboard it might work out to less), which is above our budget here. A base-model iPad with an inexpensive Bluetooth keyboard and cheap stand for the iPad might suffice, though.

Read more: This is the gear you need to work from home (and it’s in stock now)

You’ll see a lot of cheap laptops listed as coming with Windows 10 S, a stripped-down and locked-down version of the operating system intended for use by schools — it only allows you to install applications from the Windows Store, forces you to use Microsoft’s Edge browser and includes a subset of the administrative tools in Windows 10 Pro. You can upgrade to the full version for free, though.  

It’s easier to find inexpensive Chromebooks than Windows laptops, making it one of the most popular categories of budget laptops on the market, though we’re also seeing a lot more Chromebooks in the $500 to $1,000 range. That’s because Google’s Chrome OS isn’t nearly as power-hungry as Windows (check the specs), so you can get by with a lower-end processor, slower storage and less screen resolution or memory — just a few of the components that make a laptop expensive. 

But the flip side is that while Chrome OS isn’t as power hungry as Windows, Chrome and Google apps are unfortunately more of a memory hog than you’d expect, and if you go too low with the processor or skimp on memory, the system will still feel slow. And Chrome OS is a much different experience than Windows; make sure the applications you need have a Chrome app before making the leap.

Since they’re cloud-first devices, however, you don’t need a lot of storage built in. That also means if you spend most of your time roaming the web, writing, streaming video or playing Android games, they’re a good fit. (To play Android games, make sure you get a model with a touchscreen.) 

Read more: Best Chromebooks for 2020

For a cheap gaming laptop, though, you’ll still have to break the $500 budget for performance. The least expensive budget laptops suitable for a solid gaming performance experience — those with even moderately powerful discrete graphics processors, will run you closer to $700. Here are our recommendations if you’re looking for the best gaming laptop

Though if you like to live on the bleeding edge, cloud gaming services such as Google Stadia will let you play games on laptops with specs that hit the under-$500 mark.

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