Holiday laptop buyer's guide

Everything you need to know to make the right buying decision during the holidays.

bestbuylenovolaptop
Lenovo

Laptop deals and discounts start raining from the sky around the holidays. We'll help  you sift through the configuration options and find the bargains that shine in the sub-$500 model and sub-$750 price ranges. We also examine the specs of some current laptops to show what you can get for the money.

Of course, you could always cut to the chase by picking one of the best laptops we've tested ourselves. For gaming, be sure to read our companion guide on how to pick the best GPU for your laptop, though we’ll touch on the basics here.

What to look for in a laptop under $500

The sub-$500 category is the most tricky, because all throughout the year you’ll find both gems and dogs for basically the same cash. That situation gets worse during sale deluges like Black Friday, when $400 laptops with negligible discounts and $700 laptops with steep discounts all mix together.

Here are the important specs to look at:

CPU

Best: Intel Core i3 or Core i5 (any generation)
OK: AMD’s E-series APU
Barely adequate: Intel N-series Pentium, Intel N-series Celeron, or Intel Z-series Atom

Why: CPUs still do the brunt of the work in a laptop, so we recommend going with the best you can afford if you want a more responsive laptop.

lenovo swift Amazon

This Lenovo IdeaPad costs less than $200—know what to look for before you buy.

RAM

Best: 8GB
OK: 4GB
Barely adequate: 2GB

Why: Insufficient RAM can drag down even faster CPUs, so we recommend a minimum of 4GB. Sure, 2GB technically works, but the experience isn’t pretty. Don’t worry about DDR3 vs. LPDDR3 vs. DDR4, as you won’t be able to tell the difference when using a budget laptop.

Storage

Best: 128GB to 256GB SSD
OK: 1TB or 500GB hard drive
Barely adequate: 32GB eMMC or SSD

Why: A solid-state drive (SSD) is a game changer, but that relative speed is offset if the SSD is so small as to be virtually useless. Windows 10 on a 32GB drive is barely enough to run the OS. So get a decent-sized SSD, or go with a hard-disk drive.

Screen resolution

Tie: 720p, 1080p

Why: If battery life is important to you and you’re interested in laptops that normally sell for $400 and under, a 1366x768 screen is the better choice.

However, we tend to like 1080p screens because the higher resolution can display more information on-screen, be it in a spreadsheet or browser tab. Videos look crisper and more detailed, too. During times of heavy discounts (like Black Friday), 1080p laptops in the sale range of $400 to $500 should provide adequate battery life.

GPU

Best: GeForce 940MX, GeForce MX150, Radeon M7
OK: Integrated Radeon graphics
Barely adequate: Intel integrated graphics
Why: First, it’s important to note that questions about the GPU are really for gaming. If that’s not of interest to you, Intel’s integrated graphics are actually preferred. While it’s difficult to get a discrete GeForce graphics chip into a $500 laptop, it can be done. Other than that, AMD’s integrated Radeon is the next best option for gaming.

Examples of laptops under $500

acer aspire e 15 core i3 kaby lake primary shot 2 Ben Patterson/IDG

Acer’s E 15 makes a good buy at multiple price points.

Let’s apply some of our guidelines to a few current laptops to see how they play out.

Barely adequate: The Lenovo IdeaPad 110S is a typical $200 range laptop. It comes with 2GB of RAM, a 32GB eMMC, and runs on an N-class CPU. It works, but just barely.

OK: With the Acer E 15, you get a Core-class CPU, 4GB of RAM, and a 1080p screen. At $349, this is a great deal for a basic Windows laptop: It’s not that portable, but gets the computing job done well. Drop the price to $300 and it becomes even more appealing, since you can use the savings to bump up the amount of RAM.

Best: Okay, it’s actually a smidge over $500, but this upgraded Acer E 15 with 8GB of RAM, a Core i5, a 256GB SSD, and a GeForce 940MX is a really good buy for general use. The only downside is its relative bulk.

Best (alternate): If portability is important, the Asus ZenBook Flip UX360CA is a good buy. This budget ultra-portable gives you a convertible laptop with touchscreen, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD and Core-class CPU for just $500 on sale. That’s less than what people pay for a smartphone today, and a hell of a deal.

What to look for in a laptop under $750

At $750, you’ve really stepped up in hardware quality. Here’s what to consider for general-use laptops and ultraportables in this price range.

CPU

Best: 8th-generation Core i7 or Core i5
Better: 7th-generation Core i7
Good: 6th- or 7th-generation Core i5 or Y-series
Why: What’s great about this price range is there really are no bad CPUs. All are great—some are just faster. Today, Intel’s 8th-gen parts are the ones to beat.

dell xps 13 8th gen cinebench r15.038 nt IDG

Intel’s 8th-gen CPU pays large dividends in performance over the 7th-gen CPU.

RAM

Best: 16GB (kinda)
Good: 8GB
Why: For the average person, 8GB is more than enough. You should only shell out for 16GB if you’re a content creator. Generally, LPDDR3 is preferred for power savings, but DDR4 is fine too.

Storage

Best: 512GB SSD
Better:
256GB SSD
Good: 128GB SSD
Why:
You could get a hard drive in this price range, but we don’t recommend it. With SSDs, it comes down to buying the largest one you get. For most folks, there’s no point in worrying about NVMe vs. SATA either. Both will yield excellent response.

Screen resolution

Best: 1080p
Why: Any machine that’s on sale for $500 or more should come with a 1920x1080 resolution screen at minimum. Period.

Panel type

Best: IPS
OK: VA
Barely adequate: TN

Why: At this price, it should be IPS or bust. If you’re paying between $500 and $750 for a laptop when everything is on sale (like Black Friday or Cyber Monday), you shouldn’t suffer poor viewing angles or color reproduction from what you’ll stare at most. The exception is if you find a gaming laptop with incredible hardware stuffed inside, and the one compromise is a VA panel.

GPU

Best: GeForce GTX 1050 or Radeon Pro
Better:
GeForce MX150 or Radeon R9
Good:
GeForce 940 MX or Radeon R7

Why: It’s pretty simple: Faster GPUs yield better graphics performance. 

Examples of laptops under $750

In this price range, there are fewer piles of crap to avoid. Instead, you can focus more purely on getting the most bang for your buck—like hardware you’d normally see in laptops that sell closer to $1,000.

Good: Typically $600, the Asus VivoBook F510UA is a steal if you can find it for $500. This 15.6-inch laptop nets you quad-core power with an 8th-gen Core i5-8250U, 8GB RAM, and a 1TB hard drive. Even at its normal price of $600, it’s a good buy.

Better: The 14-inch the Acer Swift 3 is a fairly portable and fairly powerful laptop with 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD, a GeForce MX150 GPU, an IPS panel and quad-core Core i5-8250U CPU, for just a little over $700.

Better (alternate): The Asus ZenBook 3 UX390UA has a 7th-gen Core i5 dual-core, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD. At a sale price of $749, this 12.5-inch ultra portable laptop gives you luxury features at a non-luxury price.

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