People always ask me which laptop to buy. They want it all—a powerful processor, long battery life, lots of storage, and yes, a fancy way to transform into a touchscreen tablet. And they want it for $400. Usually, I convince them to buy an $800 laptop instead. But what if you’re truly strapped for cash? How close can you get?
I decided to find out.
Update 9/2015: Added Acer Switch 10 E and Acer Aspire R 11 to The Rest. Mind you, the Switch 10 E is pretty great... it’s just not one of our Best.
When I went looking for every cheap laptop/tablet hybrid I could get my hands on, they were actually surprisingly easy to round up. I found fewer than a dozen decent-looking machines under $500. Mind you, for that price you’re not getting a lot of computer.
Most of these machines are tiny little backflipping laptops—or tablets with detachable keyboard docks—with Intel Atom processors, as little as 2GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, squishy keyboards and low-res screens, maybe 5-6 hours of real-world battery life. You’ll definitely be able to get some work done, watch a few movies, but don’t expect any frills.
We’re talking plasticy computers that are slow to boot up, slow to load programs, not really suitable for games or even much multitasking. If you open a dozen browser tabs at once, these computers will sputter. They’re weak enough that I ended up uninstalling their antivirus software right away—there just isn’t enough horsepower under the hood.
But say you’re okay with that. Which one should you purchase?
The $400 Dell Inspiron 11 3000 doesn’t have the best screen, the best battery life, or even the best keyboard. It just feels average. But it also feels like the smartest choice for the largest number of people. It’s the only machine I really liked that’s a laptop first and a tablet second—and laptop mode is how I wound up using these machines 90% of the time.
Plus, the Dell’s got a remarkably sleek, solid build that immediately sets it apart from the others. Plenty of ports, too, including three full-size USB sockets, full-size HDMI and an SD card slot that doesn’t leave the card hanging out. The squishy keyboard is a little gross, but 4GB of RAM and very little bloatware kept the Dell from bogging down as easily as the competition. The speakers aren’t great, but they sure get loud!
If there’s an obvious weakness, it’s that the Dell makes for a pretty heavy, bulky tablet. You might use that fancy hinge to prop it up on an airplane tray table, but I doubt you’ll ever want to hold it up in the air.
What if you do want to hold up a tablet in the air—to watch movies, browse the web, things like that? If so, the $350 Acer Switch 11 is the one I’d pick. It’s got a fantastic screen that you can rip right out of its keyboard dock and carry around with you. The battery lasted me 7 hours, which is a couple hours more than the Dell. I actually prefer the clickier keyboard and smoother touchpad on the Acer, too.
As a laptop, though, I had a hell of a time getting it to stay on my lap. All the detachable machines I tried were a bit top-heavy, with a tendancy to fall over backwards. This Acer is no exception. Plus, you lose almost all the full-size ports you’ll find on the Dell, and some of the oomph too: 2GB of RAM meant fewer apps and browser tabs, and while a 32 or 64GB solid state drive keeps things speedy, it won’t let you carry around your music video collection. Not that you’d want to: the Acer’s speakers are tinny and weak, too.
At just 10.1-inches diagonal, the $200 Asus Transformer Book T100 feels cramped. The surprisingly decent screen and the keyboard both felt a bit too small for comfortable laptoping. But gosh is it portable. You can slip it into any messenger bag, easy, or even a wide purse. While most transforming notebooks I tried lasted maybe 5 or 6 hours on a charge, this little Asus gave me 8 hours. It’s also the only one that charges with a micro USB cable—just like a phone—so you don’t need to carry a proprietary power adapter around.
[Update: the Acer Switch 10 E now does this too.]
And if you do want to carry around a tablet, this one’s easy to heft—though you do need to press a button to pop it out of the keyboard dock. It’s also still a little top-heavy, there’s only a single full-size USB port (on the keyboard dock), the speakers are super quiet, and that 2GB of RAM disappears fast. But for just $200 right now, it’s a pretty solid pick.
For $470, the Transformer Book Flip TP500 is in a class of its own: it’s a full-size laptop with a Core i3 processor, 6GB of RAM, plenty of ports, and mostly metal construction. It just also happens to have a hinge that lets the touchscreen spin all the way around. If that screen weren’t so ridiculously bad, and if it had more than 4.5 hours of battery life, and if it didn’t still feel weirdly slow, and if a 15-inch tablet made a lick of sense, I’d probably recommend it higher.
As is, if you just can’t see yourself picking a computer with an 11-inch screen because you need more real estate, this is the one to get—but mostly because there were only a couple of options in this price range. At least the speakers aren’t that bad.
Acer Switch 10
This smaller version of the Switch 11 is cheaper, more portable, and still has an excellent screen. But it’s also more awkward, and has less battery. If you want a portable machine, pick the Asus T100 instead.
Acer Switch 10 E
A great alternative to the Asus T100 starting at $250. Better screen, better keyboard, better latch, can fit a hard drive, and also charges via microUSB. Why don’t we recommend it instead? It doesn’t have quite the same portability—and if you don’t need portability you should go for the Dell Inspiron 11 3000 or Acer Switch 11.
Acer Aspire R 11
A backflipping touchscreen laptop for as little as $200, or with 4GB RAM for more money? I’d say sign me up—except I wouldn’t wish this screen on my worst enemy. So ugly.
Asus Transformer Book T100 Chi
Sleeker and prettier than the T100, but twice the price ($400) for the same performance. Trades the full-size USB port away for a 1080p screen and a Bluetooth keyboard you’ll also need to charge.
Asus Transformer Book T200
More ports than the T100, a bigger 12-inch screen and an add-it-yourself hard drive bay too. Not worth the additional bulk, loss of battery life, traditional AC adapter, and price premium.
Asus Transformer Book T100HA
Not out yet, but definitely looking forward to trying this souped up version of the T100. We hear it’ll cost just $280.
HP Pavilion X360 (2014)
The worst battery life by a country mile: just 3.5 hours in my test. Plus a terrible LCD screen.
HP Pavilion X360 (2015)
Definitely looking forward to giving this one a try. With a 13-inch version, too, maybe it’ll give the Dell a run for its money.
HP Pavilion X2 10
This 10.1-inch tablet with a Surface-like keyboard cover is technically still on sale, but lots of user reviews complain about keyboards that don’t work and other quality control issues.
Microsoft Surface 3
The Surface 3 technically starts at $500, but the keyboard costs $150 more. Disqualified.
Toshiba Satellite Radius 11
Terrible keyboard, iffy screen, and a ridiculous amount of bloatware pre-installed. Thicker and heavier than the more capable Dell.
Toshiba Satellite Click 2
Not bad for a 15-inch detachable tablet computer, with a decent screen and speakers. The hinge feels terrible, though. It never quite keeps the tablet part still, and it creaks as it moves around.
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