It's a frequent question from readers and co-workers, as well as friends and relatives: "What's the best laptop I can get for around $500?" A crisp William McKinley seems to be a psychological line in the sand for many: it will buy a reasonable set of components, but is still easy enough on the wallet to not be a life-changing decision.
In previous years, we haven't been particularly happy with the choices available around $500. Most were either dumbed-down midsize systems that were going to feel out-of-date before the box was even opened, and others were dressed-up Netbooks that were hardly better than versions one could find for as little as $299.
But with a new generation of CPUs from Intel and AMD, and with PC makers ditching entry-level Netbooks for slightly more expensive systems, it's time for another look at the $500 laptop.
To make this a practical exercise, we're setting a few ground rules. First, this isn't a spec-off. We're looking for systems that we generally think will be worthwhile, enjoyable purchases. Some will be 11-inch ultraportables, others bigger 15- or 17-inch machines. There will naturally be areas in which the CPUs, hard drives, and other components won't match up; we're talking apples, oranges, and a few honeydews, even.
Second, we're giving the price a little flexibility, going from around $450 to $550, not including tax or shipping. Finally, we're looking through our own reviews, built-to-order online configurators, and brick-and-mortar retail shops. Also note that prices and models can change rapidly, so the exact models we pick may not be available when you look.
I've compiled a handful of my favorites, and also I've asked a few of our resident laptop experts to each look at one particular channel (brick-and-mortar retail, custom configuration from Dell.com, and so on), and build or buy whatever they'd get if they had around $500 to spend.
Obviously there are no MacBooks on our list; those start at $999, even for the white plastic 13-inch MacBook. One interesting possibility, though, is to take that same $500 and invest it in an iPad, which certainly fits our $500 budget, and also does much (but not all) of what you'd want a budget laptop to do.
I'm willing to bet that even with all our suggestions, you've got a few different ones that could easily be on this list. Suggest them below, and the best ones will find their way into a follow-up post.