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Cheapism: Finding the best budget laptops

Sep. 5, 2013 at 12:28 PM ET

The comprehensive slate of features on the Lenovo G500 includes two USB 3.0 ports, which make for much faster transfers.
Cheapism.com
The comprehensive slate of features on the Lenovo G500 includes two USB 3.0 ports, which make for much faster transfers.

These days, if an expert weighs in on a portable computer that costs less than $500, it’s more often a tablet or smartphone than a laptop. With innumerable model numbers and configurations on the market, it’s also tough for any budget notebook to accumulate helpful consumer reviews. That leaves buyers with little to go on aside from specs and marketing hype. 

In an updated buying guide, Cheapism.com highlights four low-cost laptops that have managed to attract positive attention. They illustrate the range of choices in the sub-$500 segment and represent good options for computer users who devote their time to things like Web surfing and word processing rather than more strenuous pursuits such as 3D gaming and video editing.

The Dell Inspiron 15 (starting at $350) comes from a line of perennial contenders in the budget-laptop ring. For top performance and a 500GB hard drive, upgrade to the $400 version with a third-generation Intel Core i3 processor. There’s also a touchscreen version of this 15.6-inch machine. Bigger 17-inch laptops remain a relatively rare breed in this price range, but the Dell Inspiron 17 starts at $400 and has claimed a couple of high-profile editors’ choice awards. (Where to buy

The Lenovo G500 (starting at $330), like the Dell, ships with an entry-level Intel Celeron processor if you buy the base model, but look for a Core i3 CPU for around $400. The comprehensive slate of features includes two USB 3.0 ports, which make for much faster transfers than the older USB 2.0 ports you might use to plug in an external hard drive or power up and sync a device. Reviews reflect Lenovo’s reputation for dependability. (Where to buy

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The Toshiba Satellite C855D (starting at $220) comes in a wide array of configurations, most of which have AMD E-Series processors, as an alternative to the more common Intel chips. These models cater to buyers who value price over nimble performance. On the other hand, the battery life may be among the best in the budget market -- more than five hours in one expert test. (Where to buy

The Samsung Chromebook (starting at $249) is the best-selling laptop on Amazon, and buyers there have accorded it overwhelmingly positive reviews. Experts take care to warn about the limitations of a Chromebook -- it requires an Internet connection, for instance, and won’t run familiar software, although Google provides alternatives. At the same time, consumers and tech editors alike commend the price point and battery life totaling at least six hours. Many admire the sleek (if unoriginal) MacBook Air-like design, which weighs less than 2.5 pounds. (Where to buy

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Plenty of other good options exist, especially when rebates, “instant savings,” and other incentives drop costlier mainstream laptops into the budget range. For better or worse, most laptops under $500 now come with Windows 8, although the Dell Inspiron 15 is available with Windows 7. With Intel dominating on the processor front, experts recommend trying not to settle for a Celeron or Pentium CPU; go with a Core i3 if you can. Even a low-cost laptop should have at least 4GB of RAM, or random access memory, and a 500GB hard drive is the norm. Look for at least one USB 3.0 port, an HDMI port, and Bluetooth support. In the absence of expert performance testing, manufacturers’ advertised battery life can serve as a yardstick. You’ll see a lot of 15-inch screens but may want to opt for a smaller, more portable machine such as the 11.6-inch Samsung Chromebook.

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Chromebooks are held to different standards. Google’s Chrome operating system and apps simply don’t demand as much power, memory, and storage space as Windows operating systems and software. As a result, the Samsung Chromebook houses a mobile processor made by Samsung, just 2GB of RAM, and a 16GB solid-state drive, which is much smaller but much faster than a conventional hard drive. Google also throws in 100GB of free cloud storage for two years. If the concept (or, more likely, the price) piques your interest, Laptop Mag can help you decide if a Chromebook is right for you.

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