If you’re not looking to drop big bucks on a MacBook or new Windows 10 powerhouse, you’ll be pleased to hear that there are other options, as this best budget laptop buying guide showcases.
Office work, streaming video, light gaming – it can all be can be handled by budget laptops and 2-in-1 tablets that cost a fraction of the price of premium models.
Whether you’re searching for go-anywhere portability, excellent speakers, a streaming video player or a reliable workhorse, we’ve got you covered.
UPDATE: If you're in the market for a new laptop, it might be worth waiting to see which new models are launched at IFA 2019 – Europe's biggest tech show taking place September 2019. We've already got our eyes on Lenovo's new range of laptops, including two new Chromebooks: the C340 and S340 models. The C340 is a convertible laptop, whereas the S340 is a new 13-inch notebook that we're hoping has an affordable price tag when it's available next month.
Below you can read what we liked and disliked with all the laptops we tested but, for clarity, the best laptop for value we tested was the Acer Chromebook 514. The best laptop overall was the Acer Swift 3.
Best budget laptops: value and overall
The Shortlist: The best budget laptops
1. Acer Chromebook 514
On a tight budget? Browse, edit documents and stream shows for hours on a single charge with the Chromebook 514. Under £300 gets you a killer keyboard, a touchscreen display and ten-hour-plus battery life.Not to mention a metal chassis and fantastic app support, too.
2. Microsoft Surface Go
The Microsoft Surface Go is, at heart, a tablet in form and a laptop. It has a sharp ten-inch touchscreen that supports pen input and has a versatile kickstand, so it won’t look out of place either in your hand or on a table. The Windows 10 software lets it run a huge array of apps, and its detachable keyboard folio cover simultaneously protects the device and turns it into a portable workhorse.
3. Asus VivoBook S15
The Asus VivoBook S15 features a generous 15.6-inch display that is almost edge-to-edge: no wasted space. Combined with plenty of ports and a spacious keyboard, it’s the only laptop on test to offer up a dedicated number pad, making for happy data entering digits.
4. HP Pavilion x360
Do you want a laptop with some of the versatility of a tablet? The HP Pavilion X360 could be the ideal middle ground. It’s powerful, well connected and its touchscreen can be rotated all the way around when you need a slick presenting tool or a comfortably orientated screen to readfrom.
5. Dell Chromebook 11
The Dell Chromebook 11 is an unassuming, chunky little laptop with an 11-inch screen. But what it lacks in style it makes up for in value for money. For just £199 it delivers a competent Chrome OS document editing tool with Android app support, a great array of ports and in excess of ten hours’ battery life.
6. Acer Swift 3
If you’re after as much power and as many ports as you can get for under £600, the Swift 3 from Acer really delivers. With fresh internals from Intel and a great quality screen, not to mention an all-metal design and tonnes of connection options, whether you’re looking for a work or play-time laptop, this is it.
The Expert's View
All the laptops on test cost less than £600. The most affordable, the Dell Chromebook 11, is just £199. We have chosen a couple of 2-in-1 designs, so you can opt for the versatility of a tablet and convenience of a keyboard.
After testing these laptops we opted for the Acer Chromebook 514 as our best value choice. Combining a fantastic typing experience, a large touchscreen and metal chassis, it delivers a lot for its £299 asking price.
Meanwhile, our best overall choice is the very capable Acer Swift 3. Loaded up with the latest eighth-generation internals from Intel, it offers excellent performance, lots of ports and a sleek design, and costs just £599.
How we selected the best budget laptops to test We kept a specific buyer in mind with every laptop on test. For someone looking to get started with simple document editing and web browsing, the incredibly affordable Dell Chromebook 11 is a perfect springboard. It is also great for kids.
For a bigger screen and richer design, and the same Chrome OS under the hood, the Acer Chromebook 514 is an ideal step up. It costs £299 and delivers one of the best typing experiences of any of the laptops we tested.
If you’re after a laptop that doubles up as a tablet, we have two options. The first is Microsoft’s – a small, ten-inch tablet with a kickstand and folio cover. It may not be a fully-fledged laptop from a design point of view. But as it runs the powerful Windows 10, its functionality is on the money.
HP also makes 2-in-1 options – we picked the Pavilion X360 as a powerful alternative to the Go. Its screen folds all the way around, hence the name: X360. This means it can be used as a chunky tablet or as a traditional laptop.
Anyone looking for a big screen and large keyboard that packs a separate “number" pad – meet the Asus VivoBook S15. Its colourful accented design adds a playful vibe, and the 15.6-inch, almost edge-to-edge, display, makes it ideal for anyone who’s either hard of sight or wants to watch a lot of Netflix.
Finally, the Acer Swift 3 is quite simply the fastest, most reliable laptop we’ve seen at under £600, thanks to its powerful 8th Gen i5 processor from Intel. It may not pack a touchscreen or 2-in-1 convertibility, but from a practical point of view the Swift 3 nails it, with no less than three USB ports, an SD card reader, a great quality screen and stacks of power for the price.
How we tested the best budget laptops
Each laptop was tested extensively, considering design, connections, screen quality, operating system (OS), versatility, speaker quality, battery life, typing experience, power and value for money. In addition, there’s something special about every one, so we also considered the “feel good” factor when we fired them up.
When it comes to design, for example, a tablet like the Surface Go and a traditional laptop are very different. But the fit, finish and attention to detail can still be assessed and compared. How secure are the moving parts? Is it compact, portable, ergonomic, or just a bit awkward to use?
Connections are also crucial. Luckily, with lower-cost laptops, ports are a bit more plentiful than they are on premium flagships like Apple’s MacBooks and Huawei’s MateBook X. Having said that, a tablet like the Surface Go still lacks a full-sized USB port, so if you don’t want to be messing around with adapters and dongles, a more traditional offering might be for you.
As for the screen – is it a touchscreen or not? Does it support a digital pen? What’s the quality like, how bright does it get and can you see what’s on-screen when you’re working outdoors or in direct sunlight? There are a huge range of sizes and aspect ratios on offer. Some are 16:9 widescreens perfect for Full HD video. Other, more squat, 4:3 displays like the Surface Go’s are better suited to editing documents.
Then there’s the question of the operating system. We have two on test, Windows 10 and Chrome OS. Windows is more versatile but tends to overload lower-specced machines, so they may not be box fresh fast a couple of months down the line or when you load up all your apps onto them. Meanwhile, Chrome OS is simpler and more streamlined, so works well on lower-cost hardware, but lacks Windows’s advanced capabilities.
We also thoroughly tested the keyboards, typing a portion of this piece on each of those on test. From key travel (how much the keys move when you press them) to bite (the tactile feeling you get from pressing a key all the way) and right through to layout – is there a number pad and are the keys cramped? We typed, took notes and typed some more just to make sure we had a handle on how each of them fared.
Gaming on a Chromebook involves downloading mobile optimised games from the Google Play Store. Some worked great – Final Fantasy IX, for example, runs like a dream on the Chromebook 514. With our Windows devices, we ran performance benchmark tests that simulate stressful, real-world conditions and trialled a range of PC games, which are notoriously more demanding than mobile games.
Best budget laptop reviews: The test results
Kicking off with sound quality, we recommend you plug an external speaker into your laptop when you’re at home. Affordable laptops tend to suffer from pitchy highs and muffled lows. Netflix and iPlayer deserve better.
One laptop, however, stepped ahead of the pack – the HP Pavilion X360. It was able to recreate the richest sound when playing music, with a good amount of clarity if you’re listening to spoken-word news reports and audiobooks.
The £299 Acer Chromebook 514 also impresses, given its incredibly affordable price, and combines a healthy amount of volume with warmth. The Microsoft Surface Go is loud, though lacks depth, while the Asus VivoBook was just a bit too quiet. Dell’s Chromebook 11 sounds like a smartphone – definitely not one for long bouts of listening.
Next up is design versatility, and this is where the hybrids edged ahead of the pack. The Surface Go in particular offers a little bit of everything – a competent laptop, a ten-inch tablet, not to mention sketching and note taking capabilities. Realistically, the HP Pavilion X360 is just too bulky when folded to function like a proper tablet, but flipped 200 degrees or so and the screen takes front and centre stage – great for presenting from or watching content on. It’s plasticky, though, unlike the metal Acer Swift 3, which feels flat-out fancy in comparison.
Turning our attention to typing, it’s a real shame that Acer and HP thought it was a good idea to load up their cramped laptop keyboards with a few too many keys. Acer’s Swift 3, which excels in almost every other area, squishes page-up and page-down keys where the left and right arrows should be. Meanwhile, HP’s Pavilion X360 has an entire column of keys on the right-hand side of the keyboard. These odd layouts will throw all but the most nimble touch typists off their game.
The Acer Chromebook 514, however, packs a fantastic keyboard. It’s a joy to type on and the layout is significantly more traditional, so you can pick one up and your fingers will dance across the keys like you’ve had it for years.
Where the Chromebooks fall down, though, is power. The Surface Go is a little better, with support for the full desktop version of Office 365 and Windows apps. The only laptops that can double up as desktop replacements from a port point of view are the Asus VivoBook S15, the HP Pavilion X360 and the Acer Swift 3 – with the Swift 3 winning out by a large margin.
In a twist of fortunes, when it comes to battery life. The Chromebooks are out on top thanks to lower power demands, putting the Acer Chromebook 514 at the top of the pack with over ten hours of usage, trailed closely by the Dell Chromebook 11, at around ten hours.
The best budget laptop overall reviewed:
Acer Swift 3 review, £599
Despite its questionable keyboard layout and less than brilliant speakers, the Acer Swift 3 still delivers huge amounts of power, functionality and across-the-board bang for under six hundred quid.
Its metal body makes a great first impression. It feels cool, stark, robust and rich. The lid has a sleek brushed metal finish, which continues to the inside tray the keyboard is nested within.
Acer’s Swift 3 is also packed with ports. The right-hand side has two fast USB 3.0 sockets for zippy data transfer, as well as a USB-C port and headphone jack. There’s also a full-sized HDMI port, so hooking your laptop up to the TV in meetings will be a simple, adapter-free experience.
But there’s more. The left-hand side houses another full-sized USB port and an SD card reader – great for anyone with a camera who wants to conveniently transfer pictures over for a quick edit in Photoshop or Lightroom.
Luckily, the Swift 3 has enough power to keep those kinds of photo editing apps happy. With its latest generation Intel i5 processor, it’s faster than your average sub-£600 laptop and has a healthy 256GB storage.
It features a fingerprint scanner, adding extra security into the mix and, with Windows 10, application support for both work and play is exceptional.
If you’re into casual gaming, most titles available through the Microsoft Store should play fine on the Swift 3, and even simpler 3D and 2D titles available through Steam, like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, are handled well. Top-tier games, however, are too big an ask.
As for the battery, it will last a full working day without breaking a sweat. It’s quoted at ten hours with regular use, though the reality falls a little short in our experience. That said, it’s still great for all-day meetings, students heading to the library for a few hours, or anyone working in a café for the day. If you’re considering a weekend away, though, you’ll definitely want to pack your charger.
The best budget laptop for value reviewed:
Acer Chromebook 514 review, £299
The Acer Chromebook 514 is made of metal, has a 14-inch HD touchscreen and a quoted 12-hour battery life. These are features we’d expect to see in £500+ laptops, but this beauty costs just £299.
This has a lot to do with its operating system. Chrome OS is stripped-back compared to Windows 10, so can be paired with less powerful, cheaper processors. That means your money stretches further when it comes to design, screen and keyboard, and the Chromebook 514 makes that point perfectly.
Its keyboard is a joy to type on. The keys are exactly where you want them to be, well spaced and each individual chiclet key has a satisfying amount of travel. There’s a generously sized trackpad below the keys, and you can also interact with the touchscreen, which has a matte finish that repels fingerprints nicely.
With two full-sized USB ports and two USB-C ports, connection options are plentiful. The spring-loaded microSD card slot sits on the left-hand side, alongside a 3.5mm headphone jack, while to the right is a Kensington laptop lock dock.
Offering just 32GB internal storage, though, you’ll definitely want to invest in a microSD card if you download videos and music – a 128GB card will set you back about £20. That said, Chrome OS lends itself to cloud computing (Google Drive, Docs and Sheets, for example), so you can definitely make 32GB work if you need to.
The final area the Chromebook 514 smashes it out of the park is with its 12-hour battery life. It easily got us through a full day of emailing, document editing and about an hour of streaming video at around 40 per cent brightness, all with 18 per cent battery left in the tank.
Comparing the rest on test
If you want something traditional, but with a twist, the HP Pavilion X360 is just that. You can use it as a standard laptop and it does a great job. Packing up to Intel i5 processors, it’s capable and has a touchscreen, as well as a healthy selection of ports. The twist comes in the form of its 2-in-1 form factor – flip the screen around and the X360 functions like a chunky tablet, and it also supports pen input. Its mighty speakers sing while others whimper. The keyboard is far from perfect, but it’s still a versatile, great value laptop.
For something beefier, the Asus VivoBookS15 is the biggest laptop on test. It has a large, 15.6-inch display. This is ideal for those who work with numbers, as the keyboard fits in a separate number pad. Its speakers don’t sound great, so we’d definitely recommend hooking it up to a Bluetooth speaker or a sound system if you plan on using it as a media centre. Once you do, this fun looking, generously connected laptop will give you a whole lot of tech for £549.
Our wildcard, the Surface Go, isn’t a laptop, but it’s so much more than just a Windows tablet. The 4:3 ratio screen is good for showing off photos and reading on, it has a handy kickstand and, at ten inches (the size of an old school iPad), it’s really comfortable to hold. The folio keyboard cover is what makes it function like a laptop, and while it may be a bit cramped for long bouts of typing, connect the Go to a mouse, keyboard and an external monitor, and you’ll forget you’re working on a slim, light, hand-holdable slate.
And then there’s Dell with its £199 entry-level Chromebook 11. This well-connected, long-lasting device is loaded up with a full-sized HDMI port and two USB ports, as well as a microSD card slot.
Now, don’t kid yourself, this isn’t a slick powerhouse. The plastic chassis is clunky, the screen is small and doesn’t look good at an angle, the keys have some rattle to them, and there isn’t much power here either. But for less than £200 it’s a competent word processor with support for thousands of apps in the Android app store and boasts a slightly stripped back Microsoft Office 365 for mobile suite.
Things to look out for
When you’re deciding on a new laptop – particularly at the budget end of the market – there are some key considerations. As a rule of thumb, if you want to watch a lot of stuff, screens above 13 inches are ideal, as too are 16:9 or 16:10 aspect ratios.
For document editing, 4:3 aspect ratios are more enjoyable to use as they’re a bit taller so you can fit more of your words onto the screen.
For most people, 128GB storage should be enough for all your favourite apps on a Windows machine. Chromebook users can get away with less, and there’s also the option of increasing the capacity with an inexpensive storage card.
Connectivity is a key concern. Some laptops like the Surface Go, for example, don’t have any full-sized USB ports. Expect to use dongles if you want to hook it up to anything external. What you sacrifice in ports, though, you’ll likely make up for with premium design and portability.
Finally, get into a store and try out the options if you can. You’re going to be spending a lot of time working on your chosen laptop, so finding out how it feels in the flesh is a smart move.