A School Laptop Under $500 That Isn’t Junk
What to look for in a Windows laptop
For $500 you can’t get a Windows laptop that can multitask that well or run memory-heavy programs, but you can get one that feels snappy enough for browsing the Web, running lightweight productivity software, and watching movies. A cheap Windows laptop can do what a Chromebook can, but it’s also likely saddled with bloatware, worse battery life, slow performance with lots of tabs open, and a cheaper-feeling case. The main reason to get one over a Chromebook is if you need to run Windows software.
The best option I’ve found is the Asus VivoBook Flip 14 TP412FA. Its 128 GB of SSD storage is plenty for most people, and the Core i3 processor is fast enough. Its biggest problem is its measly 4 GB of memory, which causes it to slow down if you run more than three applications at once or open about 10 tabs in a browser. Otherwise, the VivoBook Flip’s touch-screen is vibrant (albeit a bit too reflective for outdoor use), and the keyboard is comfortable and backlit. And although I had issues with the trackpad not always registering movement, it’s still better than most options in this price range. The battery was underwhelming in my tests, lasting less than five hours. That won’t get you through a day of school without having to find a plug to charge.
The next-best option I’ve found is the Acer Swift 3 SF314-54-39BH, which isn’t as well built but performs just as effectively and has a battery life of around seven hours.
Who an iPad works (and won’t work) for
An iPad makes for a bad laptop — but not everyone needs a laptop. If you would use a laptop only to browse the Web, handle email, or take notes in class, you might be better off skipping a laptop in favor of an iPad and an external keyboard. The combo of a sixth-generation iPad and a Logitech Bluetooth keyboard is cheaper than a Windows or Chromebook laptop, not to mention lighter, more versatile, and better in battery life than most Windows options.
I’d choose an iPad over a similarly priced laptop for watching movies, browsing the internet, reading textbooks, and writing (emails, essays, or notes). Basically, it’s perfect for a lot of liberal arts students. If you prefer to take digital handwritten notes, the sixth-generation iPad supports the first-generation Apple Pencil, which works better than the Windows and Chromebook styluses I’ve used.
The iPad is a bad choice if you code, edit media files, work extensively in Google Docs, do design work, or require a mouse.
When to upgrade
Laptops under $500 are good for students who don’t need special software, as well as for anyone who just wants to browse the Web. If you need a laptop capable of creative tasks, heavy multitasking, or gaming, you have to spend more money, but our guide to the best laptops can help you find what you need. For more, read our full rundown of the best laptops under $500.