Laptops: How to buy the best laptop Buying the best cheap laptop

Cheap laptop student

It is possible to get a perfectly decent laptop for less than £500 if you choose carefully. There's no point in paying for an expensive top of the range model if you're mainly planning to use it for word processing or browsing the internet. 

Perfect for students, first timers, or just those who don't want to spend too much, a good budget laptop will allow you to complete basic tasks in style.

As we review laptops for all budgets find out which are the best cheap laptops for under £500.

What makes a good cheap laptop?

  • 4GB memory Aim for at least this much memory (Ram). This shouldn't be too difficult as nearly all laptops, even the cheapest, offer this as a basic standard. Ram is your laptop's short-term memory and is used to store information while you're using the laptop. 
  • 320GB storage Look for a minimum of 320GB hard disk storage, which should be enough to store most of your applications, software and files. Many cheap laptops will offer 500GB of disk space though, so shop around if you think you're likely to want to store lots of high-definition video or photos, or there'll be more than one person wanting to save their files.
  • Dual core basic processor Nearly all laptop processors are now dual core (this means they are actually two processors on one chip that share the workload between them). This is true even of cheap models. Some processors are designed for more advanced work than others though, and tend to feature on more expensive models, so this is somewhere you can save. You may see Intel's basic Celeron or Pentium processors on cheap laptops rather than the more powerful Intel Core i range. Similarly, AMD's E Series processors are common, aimed at meeting basic performance needs at an accessible price point. 
  • Reasonable battery life Excellent battery life for a laptop would be around seven to eight hours, but for a budget model look out for at least five to six hours. This is something to prioritise if you'll be often wanting to use your laptop away from a power point, but be aware that manufacture estimates are very optimistic. In our laptop reviews we test every laptop for battery life when watching films and browsing the internet to see if it matches the claims.
  • 15-inch display  This is the most common screen size in a budget laptop and means you don't pay the premium for a larger 17-inch version. It's still large enough for easy viewing though, and is a benefit of choosing a budget laptop over a netbook.

Features you can save on

  • Graphics For a cheap laptop you won't be looking for the graphics boost that comes from having a separate graphics card with its own allocated memory. Most budget models will use the processor's built-in graphics, for example Intel's HD Graphics.
  • High resolution display Most cheap laptops will have a screen resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels and there's no need to go higher as long as the screen quality is good. This is something our experts evaluate in the Which? labs and you can read about in every laptop review.
  • Premium design You won't get Apple-like design at these prices, but that's not to say you have to put up with shoddy build quality or bulky design. The best cheap laptops are still decent to look at and well made. Warning signs for poor build quality include a rattling keyboard and overly delicate, bendy screens.
  • Branded speakers Many laptop manufacturers now advertise link ups with well-known audio brands. Our tests have shown branded audio isn't a guarantee of quality, so don't pay more for a big name.
  • Touchscreen The Windows 8 operating system, which launched at the end of October 2012, is suited to touchscreens, but adding 'touch' adds to the price. You can still use Windows 8 without having a touchscreen on your laptop.

To see all of our top recommendations, take a look at the Which? Best Buy laptops.

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