Best budget laptops: We rate the best-selling portables on Amazon and Best Buy

Everyone's received that call for help. So here's what we'd tell our non-nerdy friends if they asked which laptops are really the best deals on Amazon and Best Buy.

Ever get that text message out of the blue? You know: “Hey, I’m at Best Buy right now. What do you think of this Acer laptop versus this Dell laptop? One says it has four cores, while the other has 8GB of RAM. Help!”

Yes, it’s that time of the year when friends and family hit you up for computer-buying advice. Their kids are going off to college, and they need your all-knowing tech help right now. Because great computer knowledge comes with great responsibility, I always wade into the specs, and provide quick-take buying recommendations based on what I can discern from the configurations and prices.

So, in the spirit of offering you the same expert advice I’d give to my nearest and dearest, I’ve combed through the best-selling laptop lists from both Amazon and Best Buy, and weighed the pros and cons. Both lists change quite rapidly, so I’m basing this on a snapshot in time—namely, the best-selling laptops on the morning of August 8, 2016.

Are these reviews? Absolutely not. But I still think there’s a lot of value in helping out those who can’t tell a Pentium from a Core i7.

Amazon’s Top Five

top five laptops amazon aug 8 1034

Amazon’s best-selling laptops change rankings often, but some remain at the top for long stretches of time.

Acer Aspire E 15

Amazon Best-Seller Rank: No. 1

acer aspire e15 Amazon

The Acer Aspire E 15 has been the top-selling laptop on Amazon for weeks, and I can see why. You get a whole lot of value and whole a lot of performance over most other laptops in its $549 price range.

The E 15 comes with a dual-core, 6th-gen Core i5-6200U with 8GB of DDR4 RAM, which is pretty typical of laptops that cost $400 and up. For most people, that’s already more than enough, but where the E 15 really excels is in graphics and storage. Most budget laptops give you “just good enough” integrated graphics from the CPU, but the E 15 has an Nvidia GeForce 940MX with 2GB of GDDR5. That means it can handle entry-level gaming and will school any other budget laptop with integrated graphics.

A 256GB SSD also helps the Aspire E 15 earn a big thumbs up: While most consumers will skip an SSD because they want a 1TB hard drive, that’s a huge mistake. SSDs make everything faster.

You also get a 1920x1080 15.6-inch screen, as well as an optical drive. At 5.3 pounds, the E 15 isn’t super light or compact, but you’re getting a lot of bang for the buck here.

One note: Amazon offers both a Core i5 and a Core i7 version of the Aspire E 15, with the latter priced at roughly $676. For most people, jumping up in specs isn’t necessary, as the performance difference won’t be as huge as you’d expect.

Asus Chromebook Flip

Amazon Best-Seller Rank: No. 2

asus chromebook flip Amazon

For $249, the Asus Chromebook Flip has a lot of very attractive features, like a touchscreen and the ability to flip the 10.1-inch screen all the way around to form a tablet or A-frame shape. The body is luxurious aluminum, which is unheard of in a $250 laptop, and 4GB of RAM lets you run more browser tabs at once.

But despite the Chromebook Flip’s popularity, I have my doubts, mainly due to its Rockchip RK3288 ARM CPU. Although a few benchmarks say the Rockchip RK3288 is as fast as Intel’s N-series Celeron, other tests put it at roughly half the speed of an Intel-based budget Chromebook CPU (which is already a tad slow, in my opinion).

My own experience with ARM-based Chomebooks prevents me from recommending them at this price. Yes, it’s aluminum. And yes, you get touch capabilities and a “tablet” mode, but Chrome OS really isn’t optimized for touch the way Windows 10 is.

If you were my friend or family member, I’d point you to a cheaper, more practical Chromebook, such as the Acer Chromebook CB3-131 below.

Asus F555LA-AB31

Amazon Best-Seller Rank: No. 3

asus f555 la Amazon

The Asus F555LA-AB31 has an unpronounceable name, but that’s about the only real ding against it. It’s otherwise a very nicely outfitted Windows 10 laptop that should make you reconsider any Chromebook purchase.

For $340, you get a 5th-generation Core i3-5010U dual-core CPU, 4GB of DDR3 RAM, a 1920x1080-resolution 15.6-inch screen, and a 500GB hard drive. If you’re worried that you’re buying “old stuff” because the F555LA-AB31 uses a previous-generation Broadwell CPU instead of the current Skylake CPU technology, don’t be. (In fact, for most people, the Core i3 vs. Core i5 argument doesn’t matter that much, either.) For a person browsing the web and running Microsoft Office, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between a 5th-gen and 6th-gen chip or between a Core i3 and a Core i5. The graphics are better on the 6th-gen CPUs, but not enough to be a game changer.

Yes, 8GB of RAM and an SSD would be preferable, but it’s a $340 laptop, so what do you expect? The F555LA-AB31’s only potential drawbacks are its size and weight: It’s an inch thick, and weighs about 5 pounds. Those measurements are par for the course for a 15.6-inch laptop, though.

HP 15-AY011NR

Amazon Best-Seller Rank: No. 4

HP 15 ay011nr 100675973 orig crop Amazon

HP’s 15-AY011NR is an average budget laptop that’s caught in a bad spot.

Yes, you get a 6th-generation Core i5-6200U CPU, 8GB of RAM, and a 15.6-inch screen for $450. But when you compare this HP system with the other Windows-based laptops from Acer and Asus in Amazon’s top five, it’s our third pick.

For about $100 more, the Acer Aspire E 15 has two leading advantages: Its discrete graphics give you a better laptop for games and graphics tasks, and its 256GB SSD will provide much more overall responsiveness than the HP’s hard drive.

With the Asus F555LA-AB31, you’ll spend $110 less for comparable performance to the HP, even though it has a last-generation Core i3 instead of a current-gen Core i5. I do like that the HP sports 8GB of RAM, which will help compensate for some of the performance lost to the slow hard drive. But I’d still rather go up in price to the Acer or down in price to the Asus.

You can buy a version of the HP 15-AY011NR with a 128GB SSD on Amazon for $460, but that’s a pretty paltry capacity. (It’ll be barely livable for some people.) And if you’re willing to spend $600, you can opt for a configuration with a Core i7 CPU and a 256GB SSD. But for that much money, you might as well get the Acer—which, as I noted earlier, also comes with that Nvidia GeForce graphics card.

Again, I have nothing against this HP. It’s just caught in an odd place.

Acer Chromebook CB3-131

Amazon Best-Seller Rank: No. 5

acer cb3 Amazon

The No. 5 best seller on Amazon is another Chromebook, and I think it’s actually more compelling than the Asus Chromebook Flip—despite it being bulkier and horribly plain looking.

The sub-$200 Acer Chromebook CB3-131 has an Intel Celeron N2840 chip inside, which is faster than the Rockchip ARM CPU in the Chromebook Flip. Indeed, for the most part, the processor in this machine is comparable to CPUs you’d find in Chromebooks that cost $100 to $200 more.

And while the 11.6-inch screen isn’t a 1080p panel (it has a resolution of 1366x768), it uses IPS technology, which gives you richer colors and better off-axis viewing angles than most budget laptops. In fact, the CB3-131 is one of the few laptops in these best-seller lists that comes with an IPS panel.

Not all is perfect with the CB3-131, though—it only comes with 2GB of RAM. Though Chromebooks are typically fine with 2GB of RAM, 4GB would be preferable. The increased amount of RAM helps when you run a ton of open tabs in the browser.

Amazon actually offers a version with 32GB of storage (vs. 16GB) which, in my opinion, is a waste of money. The concept of a Chromebook is to store your data on Google’s servers, and not on the Chromebook itself. Most people won’t need the additional local storage, so don’t let your friends and family get suckered into paying for it.

Best Buy’s Top Five

top five best buy

Best Buy’s best-selling laptops mix it up far more than Amazon’s, but this list will still create confusion for non-nerds.

At Best Buy, the list of best-selling laptops offers a far more interesting mix. It runs the gamut from Apple to AMD, pits an Intel Pentium CPU against an Intel Core i3 CPU, and extends beyond the “budget” realm. This array of choice is the kind of situation that will leave anybody who doesn’t eat and breathe technology confused as hell.

Fortunately, though, I can help.

Apple MacBook Air 13.3

Best Buy Best-Seller Rank: No. 1

mba13 Best Buy

The top seller on Best Buy is none other than the overpriced, under-spec’d Apple MacBook Air 13.3.

I don’t take issue with this model’s last-gen, dual-core Core i5 CPU. Rather, I don’t like its 128GB SSD. That’s just too small for most people to live with, especially at the premium that Apple charges. You can move up to a 256GB SSD, but that increases the price from $1,000 to $1,200. Adding insult to injury is a low-res 1440x900 resolution screen and an atrocious web cam.

On the positive side of things, you get a great keyboard and a pretty fantastic trackpad, as well as 8GB of RAM. Battery life is also generally respectable, thanks to a very large battery.

I could point people interested in this MacBook Air to laptops that would give them a lot more for the money—like the Dell XPS 13, HP Spectre X360, and Asus UX305—but they wouldn’t care. Those laptops don’t have the most important things they want: the Apple logo and OS X.

In a case like this, I think it’s fair to ask, “Why did you ask for my advice if you’re going to just ignore it?” Then I just give my blessing to preserve the relationship.

HP 15-BA079DX

Best Buy Best-Seller Rank: No. 2

hp a10 Best Buy

Budget laptops don’t get proper names, but that fact doesn’t make HP’s 15-BA079DX less of a machine. This 15.6-inch laptop packs in quite a lot, considering it regularly goes for $400 and was on sale for $350 when I took my snapshot.

With the 15-BA079DX, you get 6GB of RAM, a 1TB hard drive, and a touchscreen. These features make it into this laptop because of the lower-cost AMD A10-9600 APU. This quad-core chip is actually pretty competitive with Intel’s budget offerings: It’s only slightly slower than a 5th-generation Core i3 mobile processor during CPU-based tasks, and in graphics-based tasks and gaming, benchmarks show that it actually holds it own against Intel’s much faster (and expensive) Iris Graphics.

In short, since most people just use their laptops for the web and Microsoft Office, this machine has plenty of performance. Any fears about AMD being inferior to Intel aren’t really justified.

The clearest sign that the 15-BA079DX is a budget laptop (besides its name) is its screen resolution, which is fairly low at 1366x768. That will limit your ability to run multiple windows side-by-side. Still, this system gets a big thumbs up from us when on sale.

Dell Inspiron 2-in-1

Best Buy Best-Seller Rank: No. 3

dellinspiron21 Best Buy

This Dell Inspiron is a little thicker and a little heavier than the MacBook Air 13.3, but it gives you a lot more for your money.

First off, you get a 13.3-inch 1920x1080 resolution screen that uses superior IPS technology (instead of TN), so colors should be more accurate and the panel will support far better off-axis viewing. Then inside, you get Intel’s current 6th-gen Core i5-6200U and 8GB of RAM. This Dell also has doubles the storage: You get a 256GB SSD instead of a paltry 128GB SSD. There is a good chance the MacBook Air uses a faster SSD, but most people will never notice the difference. Oh, and this laptop also comes with a touchscreen that can flip all the way around and a USB-Type C port.

When I wrote this, this laptop was on sale for $650, down $100 from its normal suggested price of $750. Is it as polished as the MacBook Air? No, not with its plastic chassis. But I’m not sure paying an extra $350 while getting less storage and a lower-res screen is worth an aluminum shell. Sorry, Apple.

Asus VivoBook X540SA

Best Buy Best-Seller Rank: No. 4

asusvivobook Best Buy

I’m mixed on the Asus VivoBook X540SA. When I took my snapshot of Best Buy’s top-sellers, it was going for $280 and thus just wasn’t worth buying.

In this 15.6-inch laptop, you get 4GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive, and an Intel quad-core Pentium N3700 processor. That CPU is basically a souped-up Atom CPU: It’s certainly faster than the original Atom, but in the pecking order of Intel chips, it’s not a strong performer. Even for basic computing, it can occasionally drag.

Combined with a low-resolution 1366x768 screen, these specs don’t make paying $280 worthwhile. Not when you could pay a little more for the No. 2 best-seller on the list (that 15-inch HP with an AMD APU). Yeah, $70 isn’t pocket change, but the quality-of-life difference will make it worth the cash.

This VivoBook only becomes semi-appealing when it’s on sale—when I looked again a day or so after taking my snapshot, I saw it hit $200. At that price, the X540SA isn’t actually bad, considering that low-rent Chromebooks cost about the same. At its regular price though, you’re better off with the No. 2 or No. 5 top-sellers from this list. Both will yield a better experience.

Dell Inspiron I3558-5500BLK

Best Buy Best-Seller Rank: No. 5

dellinspiron15 Best Buy

For most people interested in a budget Windows laptop, Dell’s 15.6-inch Inspiron I3558-5500BLK is a better buy than the Asus VivoBook X540SA. Normally priced at $330, it was on sale for $280 (the MSRP of the VivoBook!) when I took my snapshot.

Overall, the Inspiron is a far better laptop, thanks to its 5th-gen Core i3-5015U CPU. Yes, the VivoBook has a quad-core chip while the Inspiron uses a dual-core, but that’s not what counts here. The Core i3 chip is still more powerful (as it ranks higher in the pecking order of Intel’s processors) and so it’ll provide better responsiveness.

This system is a little light on RAM with 4GB, and the screen is low-rent with a 1366x768 resolution, but you do get a spacious 1TB hard drive. At a sale price of $280, this Inspiron is a lot of hardware for the money, and it should turn the head of anyone looking at a Chromebook.

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Gordon Mah Ung

PC World (US online)
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