Best Laptops for Students Under $500

by Jalen & Sarah Bromley
Best Laptops for College Students

A laptop is a non-negotiable for making it through college in the twenty-first century unless you want to make the library your second home (nothing wrong with that either, we love libraries!). But just because laptops are an essential piece of kit, it doesn’t make them cheap. Finding the right balance between affordability and efficiency is no easy task, but we’ve done our best to ease the process.

Below is a comprehensive guide to choosing the right laptop under $500 as a college student. We’ve even highlighted our top picks for different majors, such as media or STEM disciplines.

Our valued readers should also know that purchasing items through these links helps support this site!

How to choose the right laptop

There’s not a blanket answer as to the best laptop. Below are some factors to consider.


The processor, or CPU, is one of the most important factors when choosing a laptop. It’s effectively the brain of the machine — it executes commands to the rest of the computer. More powerful processors allow you to run more powerful applications, and will help your computer run faster.

We can’t summarize the ins and outs of different processors in a few sentences. However, the two major types are Intel Core and AMD Ryzen — and in both cases, a higher number signifies a better processor. For instance, the Intel Core i9 is better than the Core i7, and the AMD Ryzen 7 is better than the AMD Ryzen 5.


A laptop’s RAM is its short-term memory. The more applications you run and the more demanding they are, the more RAM you’ll need to keep your PC running smoothly. 

This is particularly important for programmers due to the demands of coding, which ideally requires 16 GB. If all you want to do is browse the web or type notes, less RAM is needed.

A good RAM and a good processor tend to come hand in hand.


RAM isn’t to be confused with storage, which determines a laptop’s long-term storage. External storage is always an option, but those with many files (including applications) may need more storage.

SSD storage is the most robust option, whereas flash-based storage and HDD have more latency.


Battery life is crucial for those who want to use their laptop while on the go. These days, many laptops boast battery lives of over 10 hours, although more powerful machines often can’t last as long without a charge.

Note that battery life tends to decline over time, so don’t choose a laptop with the absolute minimum battery life you need.

Other features 

Some features won’t necessarily be relevant for all students but could be worth considering. These include:

  • Screen size
  • Weight of laptop
  • Graphics and resolution
  • Touchscreen or 2-in-1 designs 

Best laptops for college students under $500

Now, let’s get to it — the best laptops under $500 for college students. We’ve identified our top finds for the following categories:

  • Portability 
  • Programming students
  • STEM students
  • Arts and media students 
  • Battery life
  • Affordability 
  • 2-in-1

Best portable laptop for students

You may want to take your laptop with you when you go out so you can take notes in class, to a library, or even a coffee shop. In this case, opting for a laptop with a lightweight feel, slim design, and smaller size may trump special features. 

The ASUS Vivobook Go 12 ticks all the boxes here. It has an ultra-thin design, a screen of just 11.6 inches, and weighs just 3.6 pounds. It’s also super affordable, at less than $200!

As you might expect for such a small laptop, it’s limited in other ways — flash storage is only 64GB and the RAM is 4GB, while the Intel Celeron N4020 processor isn’t the strongest in the market. But these specs will serve for most studying and web browsing.


  • Ultra-thin
  • Lightweight
  • Low price
  • Small size


  • Limited storage
  • Lower RAM
  • Less powerful

Best laptop for programming students

The ThinkPad has always had a cult following among computer enthusiasts thanks to its reliability and high performance. This makes it a great choice for college students on a budget. 

The Lenovo ThinkPad E15 Gen 2 is available for less than $500 (refurbished options available) and boasts great specs, with the AMD Ryzen 7 processor and 16 GB RAM providing enough power for coding programs. It has 256 GB SSD storage.


  • 16 GB RAM
  • Durable and reliable model
  • Powerful processor 
  • Respectable processor 


  • Less powerful graphics 
  • Bulkier laptop 

Best laptop for STEM students

STEM students are a broad church — in subjects like medicine, you may need your laptop for little more than taking notes. But for engineering students, you may have to do a range of coding and design on programs like CAD. This means you need a powerful yet versatile machine, and the acer Aspire 3 fits the bill.

It has an AMD Ryzen 5 7520, which provides excellent processing power (although the 8GB RAM is somewhat limited). But it also provides AMD Radeon Graphics for enhanced visuals for multimedia content. There’s 512 GB of SSD storage.


  • Provides powerful graphics
  • 512 GB SSD storage
  • Lightweight design
  • Moderate processing power 


  • RAM is only 8GB
  • Limited upgrade options
  • Battery only lasts 6-7 hours 

Best laptop for art or media students 

If you’re a media student studying a course that involves tasks like graphic design or video editing, you need a machine that supports powerful visuals for multimedia. Apple products are a firm favorite among people in the field. While they’re typically known for being some of the most expensive on the market, refurbished laptops are a savior.

The 2018 Apple MacBook Air is available refurbished on Amazon for just under $400, making it quite the bargain.

With a 2560 x 1600 pixel resolution, it has a sharp display that shows images in their full glory. Plus, it has the Intel HD Graphics 617 graphics card for multimedia tasks (not the strongest on the market, but enough to handle most tasks). And as you’d expect from an Apple MacBook, it’s fast, lightweight, and sleek. 

The Core i5 processor provides good performance, although the 8GB RAM and 256GB SSD storage may be limited for some. 


  • High-resolution 
  • Weighs just 2.92 pounds
  • Intel Core i5 processor for good performance 


  • RAM of just 8 GB
  • Storage is only 256 GB
  • Only has one USB 2.0 port 

Best laptop for students with battery life

The HP Stream 11 Laptop has a battery life of 13 hours — that’s enough to keep you going for the whole day and then some. It also has a screen size of just 11.6 inches, making it perfectly suited for slipping into your bag for a long day of studying. 

The Intel Celeron N4020 processor and 4 GB of RAM may not be powerful enough to run powerful applications reliably. It also relies on flash-based storage (of 64 GB). But it’s fine for basic note-taking and internet browsing — and with a price below $250, you can’t complain!


  • Very cheap
  • Small screen for easy portability 
  • Long battery life
  • Anti-glare screen


  • Less powerful processor 
  • Lower RAM
  • Flash-based storage

Best affordable laptop for students 

As much as we’d all like to have the latest top-of-the-range laptop with all the latest specs and most exciting features, sometimes we have to be realistic about our budget. Those looking for a bargain may want to consider the HP 14, which is priced below $200. 

Despite the low price, it comes from a reliable manufacturer and allows for portability thanks to the smaller 14-inch screen. The 4GB RAM, 64 GB flash storage, and Intel Celeron N4020 may not be the most powerful, but they will see you through your study sessions just fine. It also has 4K graphics, which is great for casual viewing during your study breaks!

If you don’t have any specific criteria and are simply looking for a laptop that does the minimum tasks needed at the best price possible, this may be the right choice.


  • Low price
  • Reliable manufacturer 
  • Portable design 
  • 4K graphics


  • Only 64GB storage
  • 4GB RAM
  • Less powerful processor 

Best 2-in-1 laptop for students 

2-in-1 laptops transform your usual laptop into a tablet, meaning you only need to buy one machine to perform two types of tasks. The 2-in-1 format is often a great choice for students, as the laptop’s “tablet form” allows you to study online files or write notes like you would from a notebook.

The ASUS Chromebook is a great example. It boasts a 12-inch touchscreen and a 360-degree hinge that allows you to flip the screen, and you can use it in different ways. It’s also compatible with a stylus (although you have to buy this separately).

In other ways, the spec is limited compared to other laptops. It has storage of 32 GB, RAM of 4GB, and the MediaTek MT8183 processor. None of these are the most impressive specs, but considering the machine focuses on flexible use, it more than serves its purpose.


  • Great battery life 
  • Flexible design with 360-degree hinge
  • Touchscreen
  • Portable 


  • Less powerful
  • Lower RAM
  • Limited storage 

The power’s in your hands 

Finding a laptop is all about tradeoffs, especially when you’re searching in the sub-$500 category. The machines above strike a balance between affordability and efficiency, and they each shine in their own way—whether it’s for being ultra-portable or having an impressively long battery life.

Once you’ve dished out on your laptop, it’s all the more reason to take care of your finances, so check out the rest of Frugal Student. We provide tips for earning and saving money as a student.

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