How to Buy the Best Budget Laptop

Want a cheap laptop that isn't slow? Budget about $500 if you can, do a little homework and buy from a known retailer for a better experience.
Tommy Tindall
By Tommy Tindall 
Edited by Courtney Neidel

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The budget laptop category is crowded, with enough varied options to make your head spin. We’ll spare you the list of top picks in favor of some straightforward insight on how to buy the cheaper model that’s right for you.

Decide if you need a laptop in the first place

Is your smartphone enough? That’s the question you should ask yourself before going down the budget laptop rabbit hole. Today’s iPhones and Androids tend to do all the internet surfing, email checking, app shopping and photo storing most of us need. A laptop might be up your alley if your digital tasks require more screen real estate than a cell phone offers and a real keyboard. Give your situation some serious thought before you pay hundreds for a new computer.  

Figure out how much you can budget for a laptop

Speaking of money, how much of your discretionary dollars (money for “wants”) can you spare? The Nerd-preferred 50/30/20 budget suggests keeping non-needs to 30% of your after-tax monthly income. 

Popular review sites tend to put the threshold for a solid budget Chromebook or Windows laptop at around $500. You’ll get more for those budget dollars in a Chromebook, according to PCWorld, but you can find relatively good Windows models too. New MacBooks are out of the question at that price point. 

Find unbiased advice on laptop models and specs 

Here’s the tricky part. Tough tech speak, tons of models at many price points and an endless scroll of “best of” review sites make it difficult to make sense of it all. But it's important to know what kind of specifications and performance you can expect at the $500 laptop tier. Start with reputable reviewers that do unbiased, hands-on testing and write in plain language, like Consumer Reports and PCMag. Doing your homework will help you decide if a budget laptop will actually suit your needs.   

Buy a laptop that’s on sale

Waiting for a seasonal sale could bring down the price of a budget laptop even more. If you’re a patient person, the sales on and around Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) and Cyber Monday make for a good time to buy consumer electronics like laptops. August is also a good month to look for computer deals that coincide with the back-to-school season. Hold out until then and you may be able to buy a better model for less.

Shop at a reputable retailer or refurbisher

It may take more than one purchase to find the budget laptop you like best. Cheaper models may lack the features that matter most to you. Give yourself the freedom to test and learn by buying from a known retailer — like Best Buy, Amazon or Target — that offers a reasonable return window. 

You can also buy used to save money on a higher-end model, and the process doesn’t have to be shady. Refurbished Apple retailer Mac of All Trades sells a range of refurbished MacBooks (some below $500 at the time of this writing) that have been tested and come with a 1-year warranty on hardware. Gazelle, a pre-owned electronics site best known for used cell phones, also sells secondhand MacBooks and has a 30-day return policy.

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Ready to buy?

Pay with cash (i.e., in full and upfront) if you can. There’s also buy now, pay later, which is a type of installment loan many online retailers now offer at checkout to break up your purchase. BNPL plans can include fees and interest though, so this is an option best reserved for necessary expenses.

A credit card with a 0% APR introductory offer could be a better option if you don’t have all the cash on hand now, but can pay it back before an interest rate kicks in. Doing so might even allow you to stretch your budget to a tier above budget laptops.