Buying a cheap laptop can feel like a gamble. You might get lucky and find a machine with a good keyboard that isn’t slower than a tortoise-snail crossbreed... or you might get saddled with a cheap piece of crap that cries when you load a browser or try to open WordPerfect because Word is just too much. Yes, you get what you pay for. That doesn’t mean you have to settle for crap if your budget is small.
There are laptops in the sub-$250 price range that offer good value for your money and do well for users with basic needs. But which ones?
When you take Chromebooks out of the equation, there are fewer than a dozen laptops that cost less than $250—few enough that I could try them all myself. What should you expect from a $250 laptop? (No DVD drives, for one.) I found three things that set the best ones apart.
1.) Performance. Even a super cheap laptop needs to be able to handle web browsers and word processors without being unusably sluggish—and some $250 laptops aren’t. Six browser tabs, basic Flash games, and Microsoft’s WordPad was my minimum bar. Most of these machines have 2GB of RAM and Intel Celeron processors, and even the basic antivirus software that comes with these PCs can make those machines slow to a crawl. So laptops that come with 4GB of RAM or a Pentium definitely stand out.
2.) Build quality. Though compromises are necessary at $250, you shouldn’t settle for a crappy keyboard, a wonky, unresponsive touchpad, or a cheap-feeling chassis. Screens are usually pretty iffy at this price, though.
3.) Battery life should be six hours, minimum. You can definitely get that for $250.
The Best Overall: Acer Aspire E 15
The $250 Aspire E 15 (ES1-512-C9Y5) is my default pick because it’s one of the few $250 laptops that comes with 4GB of RAM. This alone meant it outperformed all the other cheap laptops I tried. The E 15 didn’t choke when I taxed it with up to 20 browser tabs in Chrome, Flash games, streaming media, and office software. I can’t call it a workhorse, but it’ll serve people with simple needs very well. It’s got a great keyboard with well-spaced, springy chiclet keys, a responsive touchpad, and a solid six hours of battery life.
The 15.6-inch screen is glossy, the colors wash out a bit, and the 1366 x 768 resolution is less than ideal for the size, but it’s serviceable. The plastic body feels sturdy, not cheap, and the machine stays cool and quiet even with the Celeron processor taxed. If you shop around, you might even be able to get a quad-core Pentium model for the same or a little more money. It’s worth it for a notable bump in speed.
The biggest complaint I have about the E15—and just about every other Acer laptop—is that most of the ports are in the back. In this case, that includes the headphone jack. It’s also worth noting that though other models in the Aspire E 15 line come in a range of colors, at $250 your only choice is black.
The Best Small Laptop: HP Stream 11
If you’re looking for small, light, and budget friendly, the $200 HP Stream 11 is surprisingly awesome. With an 11-inch screen and a chassis that weighs just 2.74 pounds, it’ll easily slide into a bag. It’s got a solid keyboard, a decent touchpad, 6 hours of battery life, and comes in a pair of bright colors—blue and pink—instead of the usual black or grey.
Unlike the 500GB hard drive in the Acer E15, the Stream only has 32GB of internal storage—enough for the OS and apps and a few small files, just not your entire media collection. You’re meant to store or stream the majority of your files from the cloud.
On the plus side, that 32GB is composed of speedy solid state storage that makes the Stream surprisingly nimble. Though the Stream got 2GB of RAM, I was able to work in WordPad with 10 tabs open in Chrome with no issues. It’ll also handle MS Office programs just fine, though don’t expect to do a lot of multitasking.
The Best Battery Life: ASUS EeeBook X205TA
If a day away from an outlet is your dream, the $200 X205TA is the budget laptop that can make it happen. A slim and super light 11.6-incher, this EeeBook is what netbooks should have been before things went off the rails. Inside, a quad-core Intel Atom Z3735 and 2GB of RAM run things relatively well. Performance was smooth even with light multitasking, though not speedy.
The energy-sipping Atom processor is also responsible for the X205’s long battery life. In our real-world tests it lasted a little over 8 hours. Drop the screen brightness down to a still-usable 40% and you can get close to the 12 hours that Asus promises.
At $200 there are some limitations. The glossy screen is quite reflective, even indoors. Like the Stream 11, there’s only a 32GB SSD inside. And for some reason Asus saddled this machine with a microSD card slot instead of a full-size one. Then there’s the terrible keyboard, with short, rectangular keys that caused me many typos. If you’re an Asus fan, maybe you can deal.
The Best That’s Actually a Tablet: ASUS Transformer Book T100
The $200 Asus T100 is one of the best cheap transforming Windows laptops you can buy, and it’s a great cheap machine period—as long as you can stand the tiny 10.1-inch screen, the tiny keyboard, and the way it can tip over backwards if you use it on your lap. It basically has the same internals as the EeeBook above, and the same battery life too, just crammed into a smaller frame with way fewer ports. And, of course, you can just press a button to pop the screen out of the keyboard dock and use it as a tablet. It’s just not the best as a laptop.
Acer Aspire E 11
Another long-lasting little laptop, the E 11 ran for 7.5 hours on our battery rundown test. Too bad it’s so sluggish—the keyboard and touchpad are quite good and the screen’s even brighter and more colorful than the Acer E 15.
Acer Aspire E 14
The $249 14-inch Aspire only ships with 2GB of RAM and a Celeron processor. Don’t bother when you can get 4GB of RAM in the 15.6-inch model. It makes a huge difference.
Like the Acer E 15, it’s a 15.6-inch laptop with 4GB of RAM. Unlike the E 15, the battery life isn’t quite there.
Dell Inspiron 14 3000
A cheap plastic chassis that shows every fingerprint, and a glossy display that’s terrible in direct light. Performance so bad that, when you tax the system even a little bit, the touchpad just stops working.
HP Stream 13
Nearly identical to the 11-inch Stream. There’s one extra USB 2.0 port here and, oddly, a microSD card slot. A good pick if you still want portable with a slightly bigger screen—but you’d probably be better off with the Acer Aspire E 15.
Toshiba Satellite C55-B5299
Heavy, with a keyboard that feels cheap and clacky and a touchpad with mushy buttons. Performance is sluggish, though I suspect the overflow of bloatware is just as much to blame as the internal hardware. This machine is also loud—start any app and the noisy fan kicks in.
Toshiba Satellite CL15-B1300
One of the more attractive $250 laptops, but that’s the only positive thing I can say. Performance is slow, the keyboard is even worse than the EeeBook’s, and the touchpad didn’t work out of the box.
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