The best laptops under $500

By Nick Mokey

Not a day goes by without prices on computers falling further as the wheels of technology crank forward, and the last six months have been especially fruitful for notebook buyers. With competition from subnotebooks like the Asus Eee and its growing swarm of imitators putting the pressure on regular notebook manufacturers to lower prices, the two categories now run nearly head to head at the $500 price level.

While full-size notebooks in this range won't offer the same portability as their two-pound siblings, they pack bigger screens, faster processors, and more flexibility. In other words, unless size and weight are your absolute prime concerns, a full-size notebook will give you a lot more machine for the money.

Gamers probably won't find much to satisfy them at $500 (unless they're still playing games from six years ago), but those who want snappy multi-tasking should be perfectly content with the dual-core processors frequently offered. Single-core processors are still available in notebooks, and cheap, but often the discount isn't enough to justify the significant performance hit you take by switching to one core, so make sure to size up your options wisely before cheaping out.

In general, budget laptop buyers will be stuck with only 1GB of RAM in the machine that arrives on their doorstep, but extra sticks can be picked up affordably later on if they're needed, and installation is a snap even for complete computer novices. Many manufacturers will try to tempt you to add more RAM straight from the factory, but be sure to price check the upgrade price to make sure you can't save some money by doing it yourself.

If your head is still swirling with all the options for budget notebooks, here are a five of our favorite picks on the market today, and why:

ThinkPad R61e

Although ThinkPads have a reputation for being pricier premium notebooks intended for business travelers, a little smart shopping can land you this budget model on a shoestring. It's not as fast as the flagship T-series, or as light as the X-series, but the R61 has been reviewed favorably in its price range and includes many of the same features Lenovo rolls into those pricier ThinkPads. When ordering, make sure to choose the second-from-cheapest model to get an Intel Dual Core processor rather than a Celeron M (a bargain upgrade for only $32 more tacked onto the final price.) Also make sure to select the cheapest Windows Vista option to sneak in under the $500 mark. The coupon code USP3PAYPAL will take an extra 15 percent off, lowering the notebook to $487.69.

Dell's bottom-of-the-line notebook won't turn any heads, or win any head-to-head benchmark comparisons, but its $399 starting price makes it impossible to ignore. Since this isn't from a sale, mark-down or coupon, you're also free to add the options you really need. For instance, laying out $25 for the Athlon 64 X2 Dual-Core processor instead of the Sempron would be wise. But travelers beware: a starting weight of 6.26 pounds makes it a heifer by modern standards, and the AMD's heat output will also make it a battery killer, so you may wish to look elsewhere if you'll be taking it anywhere besides around the home and office.

The priciest notebook in our roundup may be refurbished, but that's the only thing moving this otherwise well-equipped notebook into the sub-$500 category. It gets the fastest processor, Intel's vaunted Core 2 Duo, and the largest hard drive, 160GB. With a 14.1-inch screen and weight of only 5.55 pounds, you're also looking at the lightest machine on our list. Individual opinions on refurbished items vary, but if you're willing to trust Gateway's recertification team, you can land a laptop comparable to far pricier units for much less cash. Just remember: the manufacturer's warranty lasts 90 days, so be sure to put it through its paces before your time to discover potential problems runs out.

Compaq C700T

Compaq's cheapest notebook doesn't stand out too far from the crowd, but it makes a nice option for those who don't want to be bothered filling out rebates, using coupons, or chasing sales. You get a no-nonsense machine with a 1.73GHz Intel Dual-Core Processor, 1GB of RAM, and an 80GB hard drive. Spectacular? Not really, but you can snag one any time, and Compaq will allow you to round it with whatever options you need. The only drawback would be the machine's 6.4-pound weight, which makes it even more of a desk anchor than Dell's cheaper (and slower) Vostro 1000.