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But for $700, all of that can be hand-waved easily enough. The bigger point of contention is its Core M processor. It’s a new, sixth-gen (or, Skylake) chip, but as we’ve noted in our laptop buying guide, it’s weaker than a more standard Core i5 or Core i3. It’s still far from an entry-level option, so most everyday tasks run just fine, but it’s best to avoid gaming or going all out. On the plus side, having a less intense processor allows the Zenbook to be fanless, making it wonderfully quiet in practice.Still, if you need more power, it’s worth noting that there’s a UX305LA model that packs a (fifth-gen, but still stronger) Core i5 chip for $50 more. It’s a tad thicker and louder as a result, but it’s still very much a great value among Ultrabooks. It’s also gold.If you absolutely can’t shell out that kind of dough, though, this configuration of the Acer Aspire E5-573G is the most respectable buy we could find around $550. It’s nowhere near as thin, light, or aesthetically pleasing as the Zenbook, but for a 15.6-inch desktop replacement, it’s not as unwieldy as it could be, and its black textile plastic is fine.

More importantly, it gets most of the specs right. It runs on a fifth-gen Core i5 chip, along with 8GB of RAM and a 1TB hard drive. Although that’s not the newest processor around, the power and speed here is admirable. It isn’t a headache to multitask and get things done. Support for (1x1) 802.11ac WiFi and a collection of necessary ports help with that as well. Surprisingly, there’s a discrete Nvidia GeForce 940M graphics card on board too. Again, that’s not the latest GPU, but it’s enough to play many newer games on moderate settings should the desire arise. You don’t get that option in the first place with most notebooks in this range.Likewise, the Aspire E5-573G sports a 1080p (non-touch) display, another rarity among sub-$600 Windows machines. It’s a TN panel, so it doesn’t have the wide viewing angles or general vividity of an IPS alternative, but it’s still sharp, and its contrast is decent for what it is. Since it’s matte, it also does well to avoid glare. All told, it’s a noticeable step up from any 1366x768 option.

But again, there are trade-offs. The main issue is bloatware: Asus has fitted this thing with dozens of pre-installed apps, most of which are needless, all of which chew up storage space and slow down performance. It’s worth going out of your way to get a clean install of Windows 10 on here.Besides that, battery life isn’t anything special at about 4-5 hours (or 1-2 if you’re gaming), and the trackpad feels closer to budget-level than we’d like. (A cheap external mouse seems like a good investment.) The keyboard, meanwhile, is pleasant and spacious enough, but lacks any sort of backlighting. There’s no disc drive either, though that’s less of an issue in an age of streaming services. Perhaps the biggest reason to hold off, however, is the fact that a newer model just launched. The Aspire E5-574G-52QU throws a sixth-gen Core i5 and a flashier half-white finish onto what appears to be the same package as the E5-573G, so it should be a little bit stronger, a little bit longer-lasting, and a little more futureproof.

It, too, is going for $550 on Amazon, but since it’s so new, user feedback is limited. It looks like the better deal on paper, but we’ll confirm in the coming weeks. Based on our latest round of research, though, the E5-573G is still a great get among midrange desktop replacements, especially if you can find it closer to the $500 mark.The 15.6-inch Toshiba Satellite C55-C5241, meanwhile, is probably the most extreme example of the trade-offs you have to consider at the bargain bin. On the one hand, it’s fairly spec’d out for its $460 asking price, with a fifth-gen Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 1TB HDD (which you can upgrade if you’re handy enough). It’s at least comparable to the Acer above for about $100 less. It’s not an outright blazer, but speaking solely in terms of performance, it’s an overachiever.On the other hand, it’s an obvious underachiever when it comes to build quality. Its fake brushed metal aesthetic looks nice from afar, but get your hands on its all-plastic chassis and it’ll creak and bend at almost every interaction. That necessitates you be careful with it, which means it isn’t the kind of thing you’ll want to throw in a bag and carry around town.

Beyond that, it has a typically middling 1366x768 display, a rigid trackpad, and a keyboard that’s just okay. Its 5-hour or so battery life is fine, but not spectacular. It weighs less than the Aspire, but at close to 5 pounds, it isn’t exactly light either.In the end, this is one of the strongest laptops you can buy for $425, and you’re buying it for that performance alone. If you know you can be gentle with it, it’s one of the few solid values in this sector.The struggle involved in finding a good budget notebook should get you to ask yourself what exactly it is that you want out of your laptop. Maybe you’ll find that most of the things you do with your computer don’t stretch too far beyond a web browser. If that’s the case, you might very well be able to get by with a Chromebook.These increasingly popular machines run Google’s Chrome OS, which effectively turns the Chrome web browser into a super lightweight operating system. They aren’t of much use without an Internet connection as a result — though web apps like Gmail and Google Drive have gained more offline functionality over time — and they can’t run more involved processes like Adobe Photoshop or Microsoft Excel. But since you can watch movies, listen to music, write up documents, store files, edit photos, and do a million other things through the web already, they’re enough for most needs. They’re also highly affordable (Chromebook Pixel aside).

The latest Toshiba Chromebook 2 is our current favorite in this category. Its Celeron processor and 4GB of RAM don't look like much on paper, but they (along with the included SSD) absolutely breeze something as airy as Chrome OS. You still have no choice but to stick to the basics, but doing so here is much faster (and quieter) than it is on a similarly priced Windows machine. We should note that Toshiba sells a $430 model with a Core i3 processor too, but that's just about overkill for Chrome's needs, and anything over $400 is a little too pricey for all a Chromebook offers. (The latter point is a big reason why we think the Toshiba is a better buy than Dell's nicer-feeling Chromebook 13.)You also get 7-8 hours of battery life here, which is just about average for a Chromebook, but still excellent next to its Windows-based rivals. There's only 16GB of storage on our recommended configuration, but if you use Chrome OS as it's intended, that's not a massive loss. It's just part of the compromise.

What really sets the Chromebook 2 apart is its vivid 1080p IPS display. It’s gorgeous, and although it can pick up some glare, in many ways it’s a better screen than that of a $1,000 Macbook Air. Add to that a comfortable enough keyboard (that's now backlit), a responsive trackpad, superb speakers, 802.11ac WiFi support, and a relatively stylish design, and you have a fantastic overall value at $330 — so long as you can accept Chrome OS’s limitations.If the Chromebook idea interests you but you want something a little more spacious than the 13-inch Toshiba above or the sea of 11-inch alternatives, have a look at the Acer Chromebook 15. It’s one of the few other Chrome OS devices with a 1080p IPS display, which looks good, even if its colors and viewing angles aren’t as vivid as those of the Chromebook 2. It’s not the best-looking device around, and its larger frame means it isn’t exactly travel-friendly, but it’s sturdy and well-made. Its keyboard is dependable, too.The real hook here is its performance. The Chromebook 15’s fifth-gen Intel Celeron processor easily breezes through Chrome OS, loading web pages quickly and powering through handfuls of tabs with aplomb. It also gets more than 9 hours of battery life on average, which is great even by Chromebook standards. If you’re looking for a Chromebook that’s better suited for getting things done, this is the one to buy.

In response to the growing popularity of Chromebooks, various laptop makers have started churning out $200ish Windows machines that run on similarly modest specs. Now, because they use the same full-on OS available on $1,000 notebooks, these devices aren’t nearly as responsive as their Google-bred alternatives. They usually have to cut corners on hardware to hit their price point, too. At the same time, they do run a full-on OS, so they have access to desktop apps like Word, Excel, or anything else you’d use outside of a web browser. (Just don’t expect to get heavy Photoshop editing out of their entry-level processors.) The idea is to sacrifice some speed and build quality in exchange for greater offline capability. In the best cases, all of this makes for a decent secondary or travel-centric device. They’re like modern netbooks.As of this writing, the Lenovo Ideapad 100s is the best of those best cases. Like any other ultra-budget notebook, it’s not strong — its modest Intel Atom chip and 2GB of RAM can’t handle too many open apps or tabs at once, and gaming is just about impossible. It only has 32GB of storage, its keyboard flexes, and it doesn't support 802.11ac WiFi. Its trackpad is strangely devoid of all multi-touch support, too. It’s a $180 laptop, in other words.

Still, when used in moderation, the Ideapad is surprisingly fluid next to its peers. Word and the like are perfectly agreeable, and there’s never too much lag once everything’s up and loaded. The keyboard is well-sized and comfortable outside of that flexing problem, and the 11.6-inch 1366x768 TN display is accurate enough for the money. It’s all good enough to get lighter stuff done. It also comes pre-packaged with a free year of Office 365 and 1TB of Microsoft OneDrive storage. What really sells the Ideapad is its build and battery life. It’s plastic, but it’s colorful, smooth, and sturdy, with a flexible hinge that helps mitigate the display’s iffy viewing angles. It doesn’t explicitly look cheap. The battery, meanwhile, lasts an excellent 10-11 hours per charge. Don’t expect this — or the HP Stream 11, or the Acer Aspire One Cloudbook — to act as your primary device, but if you’re frequently on the move or you only have $200 to spend, the Ideapad 100s should serve you well. It’s worth noting that there’s a 14-inch model, too, but we don’t think it’s worth sacrificing portability for something this underpowered.

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