TIME Smartphones

This Is the Best Wireless Carrier for You

2012 International Consumer Electronics Show
The Verizon Communications Inc. logo is seen at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Big Red beats out the competition

This post was done in partnership with The Wirecutter, a list of the best technology to buy. Read the full article below at TheWirecutter.com

If you’re in the United States and looking for a carrier with good coverage, fast bandwidth and—this may surprise you—affordable single-line plans, you should consider Verizon Wireless. We found it has the widest coverage map, the fastest network and the lowest costs for individuals. But it’s not the only answer for everyone: Some situations call for other carriers, and we discuss that below.

How We Decided

We reached that conclusion after a good 70 hours poring over the large and small print of wireless plans, checking coverage maps and calculating the cost of smartphone service: 500MB of data per month, 2GB and 4GB. We did the math for all those scenarios with expensive and affordable phones, ran the numbers for two and four phones on the same plan and recalculated again for those who want to use their own device not purchased through the carrier.

Finally, we inspected prior research and testing from a host of reputable sources and publications and consulted experts from around the industry.

Why Verizon is best for most people on an individual plan

Our endorsement rides on some assumptions: wireless coverage where you need it trumps all else; the lowest total cost of owning your smartphone or device, based on your typical usage; and that a lack of tethering or a wide choice of Android phones aren’t necessarily deal-breakers. (Though we have other recommendations if they are deal-breakers.)

Verizon has the widest coverage map, the fastest network, and the lowest costs for the medium solo-usage scenario—analysts estimate this ranges between 1.2GB and less than 1.5GB a month. Its “Single Line Smartphone” plans limit the two-year total cost of a new iPhone with 2GB of data a month to $1,640, versus $1,680 at Sprint (that’s an iPhone 6/iPhone 6 Plus exclusive lease deal, while non-Apple high-end phones cost $2,090), $1,730 at T-Mobile, and $2,120 at AT&T.

Those numbers, except for T-Mobile’s, assume a standard two-year contract in which higher monthly rates recoup a lower initial phone price. That deal traditionally entails getting gouged on international roaming (hi, AT&T!), but Verizon’s numerous “world phones” with internationally compatible devices all come unlocked, allowing you to pop in cheap prepaid SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) cards while overseas.

Back in the U.S., Verizon’s deployment of “XLTE” LTE service sped it ahead of AT&T in PCMag.com’s latest tests, with LTE downloads across the country averaging 19.6 megabits per second. RootMetrics’s tests over the first half of 2014 also favored Verizon in overall performance and speed.

Flaws (but not dealbreakers)

Reading this on a laptop away from home? Verizon’s Single Line plans exclude “tethering,” or sharing a smartphone’s bandwidth over Wi-Fi. Adding tethering with a “More Everything” plan balloons two-year costs to $2,360 in a 2GB/month iPhone scenario, above comparable costs at T-Mobile ($1,730) and AT&T ($2,120).

Want an Android phone? Subsidized or not, Verizon’s Android phones come loaded with apps you can’t remove, and then you must wait for Verizon to deliver system updates. And as with Sprint, its use of CDMA wireless technology instead of the more open GSM standard relied on by AT&T and T-Mobile obstructs customers from buying a new phone from somebody besides the carrier, like a manufacturer or Google.

The best selection of Android phones

For the widest choice in Android phones, look to T-Mobile. By pricing service separate from hardware, it frees you to buy hardware directly, with less unwanted software and faster updates. Even its subsidized, locked phones come with free international low-speed data and cheap overseas calling and texting—and if you need faster service, its roaming rates still mop the floor with the competition. And its Wi-Fi-calling-capable phones can get free in-flight texting and voicemail reception on planes with Gogo Wi-Fi.

What if I want a wider selection, but need coverage in a less populated area?

T-Mobile’s coverage often fades in rural areas. If that’s an issue, and you also want unlocked phones or devices that aren’t available through Verizon, consider AT&T: It provides coverage that our sources saw as about as good as Verizon’s and offers a wider selection of phones. But while you can buy a compatible phone from another place, AT&T’s pricing favors getting a subsidized-phone contract—and then accepting its control-freak locking policy that prevents using other carriers on your phone until your contract concludes.

Both AT&T and T-Mo support simultaneous voice and data on any phone (though some Android phones at Sprint and Verizon provide that with an extra antenna).

Why we don’t recommend Sprint

Sorry, but Sprint’s LTE coverage still suffers from earlier detours with the failed 4G standard “WiMax” and its acquisition of Nextel. Most of its plans don’t include tethering, you have to wait 90 days into a contract to get a world phone’s SIM card unlocked. If you’re set on a new iPhone, you may want to consider its “iPhone for Life” option: Unlimited data for $70 a month with an iPhone 6 or $75 for an iPhone 6 Plus, with a replacement every two years. But bear in mind that other smartphones don’t allow this deal and that Sprint’s subsidized-phone deals quickly change from its cheapest to its priciest option as your data appetite increases.

No clear winner among family plans

Sprint and T-Mobile offer the best deals for most multiple-line plans, but the coverage for each can be a deal-breaker. And mastering how discounts for extra data can intersect with those for buying an unsubsidized phone can be a brain-breaker.

  • In a 500MB-per-line scenario, AT&T’s unsubsidized deal is the cheapest way to get two lines, while T-Mobile is your lowest-cost option for four lines.
  • With 2GB of data per line, Sprint unsubsidized is the cheapest route to two lines (although Apple users will do better by pairing two “iPhone for Life” leases), T-Mobile for four.
  • At 4GB per line, Sprint’s unsubsidized options take the lead all around—but if you need two but not four iPhones, get two “iPhone for Life” leases, while for two other high-end devices, take its handset subsidy.

If you can’t deal with either Sprint or T-Mobile’s coverage, Verizon’s multiple-line pricing isn’t bad but requires a spreadsheet to grasp (as in, it’s cheaper to share 10GB of data among four unsubsidized phones than to buy less data). If you wanted shopping for wireless service to feel more like confronting the tax code, this is the corner of the market for you.

In Closing

Verizon is not the “best carrier” for every single person–your location, your travel habits, and your taste in phones can make it a poor choice. But for most people needing only one line, it’s the safest recommendation we can make, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s the cheapest either.

This guide may have been updated since publication. To see the current recommendation, please go to TheWirecutter.com.

TIME

The Is the Best Wi-Fi Router You Can Buy

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This post was done in partnership with The Wirecutter. Read the original full article below at TheWirecutter.com

By David Murphy

If your laptop, smartphone, or tablet uses the latest wireless-AC networking technology and you’re shopping for a new router, you should get the Netgear R6250. The benefits of wireless-ac are great: super-fast performance that can be stronger at longer distances than wireless-n routers. More than 100 hours of combined testing and research led us to the $150 R6250, which boasts the best combination of speed, price, and features of any router in its price range, and unlike more expensive and newer routers, has technology your most modern gear can actually take advantage of.

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How we decided on the R6250

Our pick supports two data streams for wireless-n and three for wireless-ac. Our research indicates that two-stream wireless-N and -AC technology are the most common connection types for laptops, tablets, and smartphones, while three-stream wireless-ac is what you’ll find on new top-of-the-line laptops like the latest MacBook Pro.

How did we pick this price point? Basically, a $200 router can be faster than our main pick, but only if your devices can take advantage of it—most things we own today can’t. On the other hand, paying less than $100 for a wireless-ac router means sacrificing speed and/or range, and you might also lose a number of useful features, like media streaming, parental controls, and remote access.

Our router finalists for speed and features, based on a lot of research and interviewing with the best wireless gear testers, were the Netgear R6250 ($150), Asus RT-AC56U ($112), Asus RT-AC66U ($170), and TP-Link Archer C7 ($99). We tested them by running performance benchmarks at four different testing stations inside a 2,700 square-foot, one-story house.

Our pick

In our tests, Netgear’s R6250 delivered great performance for its price. Its features are comprehensive, it’s reliable, and it looks good. It’s easy to set up, with both a basic mode and an advanced mode to give networking gurus extra control. Wireless networking expert Tim Higgins, of SmallNetBuilder, also puts the R6250 ahead of its peers.

The Runner Up

If for some reason the R6250 is unavailable, or too expensive, we recommend the Asus RT-AC56U. It’s as good as the R6250 in terms of speed and range and was a strong runner up. But we, and some people who bought it, encountered occasional stability issues when connecting to its 2.4GHz wireless band. Asus hasn’t updated the router since we tested it, and some Amazon reviewers are still seeing performance issues on the latest firmware. Caveat emptor.

If you have a $100 limit

If you prefer to spend less than $100, get the $94 TP-Link Archer C7. It has excellent speed and range, but its interface is harder to use. Some features, like parental controls and USB file sharing, are implemented poorly. Others, like Quality of Service settings, are missing entirely. The C7 also ignores wireless coexistence rules, so it may interfere with your neighbors’ Wi-Fi. The Netgear R6250 is better for most people because its interface is more comprehensive and intuitive. There’s more you can do, and it’s easier to do it.

Even better, but not worth it for most

There are many routers around $200 with more features and faster performance, but they’re not worth it for most people. The Netgear Nighthawk R7000 ($192) is among the most popular. It has features our main pick doesn’t, like support for Time Machine, VPN and iTunes, and advanced Quality of Service (QoS) settings. It supports a new technology called TurboQAM that can give your wireless devices more bandwidth, but to use TurboQAM right now, you’d need a $100 Wi-Fi adapter that only works in desktop PCs, so it’s not yet worth paying extra for. The R7000’s three-stream wireless-ac speeds are significantly faster than the R6250’s, so if you have lots of three-stream devices, like a room full of new MacBook Pros, the R7000 is a good upgrade. But most people don’t, so there’s little reason to spend this much money on a router.

In closing

We think the $150 R6250 is the best all-around wireless-ac router for most people, but you’re going to want to make sure it’s the best router for your home or apartment setup.

This guide may have been updated. To see the current recommendation please go to The Wirecutter.com

TIME

These Are the Absolute Best Exercise Headphones

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This post was created in partnership with The Wirecutter. Read the original full article below at TheWirecutter.com.

By Lauren Dragan

If I were looking for a pair of headphones to use in my workout, I’d want the Relays by Sol Republic. They are hands down the most comfortable headphones to wear while being active. They sound good, stay put without chafing or tugging, are light and resistant to sweat, and have a lifetime of free tips (because you know those lil’ buggers love to get lost in a gym bag).

The Wirecutter

 

I base this conclusion after extensively testing 38 models. Our tests involved a professional listening panel, three stress tests, and real workout tests. After all that, I’m confident the Sol Republic are the best fit for your fitness routine.

Who’s this for / should I upgrade?

Exercise headphones are for people who want to run, hike, bike, or hit the gym while listening to music, podcasts, or other media. That means they should be able to withstand a variety of stressors like sweat, rain, strain from dropping media players, and abuse from being thrown in a bag. The headphones should also sound decent, feel good, stay put, and stay out of the way when you’re being active.

Our Pick

The Sol Republic Relays won because they were, hands down, the most comfortable headphones to wear while being active. What really solidified our choice was the run test. Where other headphones had cable noise, the Sol Relays were quiet. Where other headphones tugged and chafed our ears, the Relays were comfy and so light that one could easily forget they were being worn. Where other headphones took a while to get into the correct position, the Relays popped immediately into place. And after our punishing drop, crumple, and moisture tests, the Sol were still in perfect shape. You can trust that they are up to the abuse that fitness headphones face on the daily.

Also they sounded great to our listening panel of audio experts; and although there were other headphones that we liked the sound of better, not a single panelist disliked listening to the Relays.

Plus, Relays come with a fit-in-your-pocket small carrying case, have a one-year warranty, and if you register your Relays on Sol Republic’s website after purchase, Sol will send you free replacement tips whenever you ask. No more freaking out if one of your ear tips disappears in an errant roll across the gym floor. How handy is that?

Flaws but not dealbreakers

The Sol Relays are not the best sounding headphones in their price range and type. If you want the utmost best sound that $100 can buy, read our piece here on non-exercise headphones. But those headphones won’t take the brutal punishment that we dished out.

Wireless exercise headphones (for a price)

Why wireless headphones? Two words: No cord. But you knew that. What surprised me when I first started running with Bluetooth headphones was the way it affected my posture and stride. I never realized that I actually carried my head stiff and straight to avoid snagging the cord on my shirt or arm and popping the buds right out of my ears.

If you don’t mind charging your headphones once or twice a week, and spending $140 on headphones in exchange for cutting the cord (you get about 8 hours of use per charge), you can’t do better than the Jaybird Bluebud X.

They have fantastic bass, are light, stay put without chafing, and have a lifetime sweatproof warranty. I’ve personally recommended these to several people who have all have reported back that they are extremely happy. We like these a tiny bit better than the Sol Relays in terms of sound balance, but the need to charge, the extra cost, and the tricky setup meant they were just barely edged out as our top pick. Still, you can buy these with confidence.

Open ear and budget exercise headphones.

The SOL and Jaybirds are our picks, but if you want to spend a lot less, the Koss Fitclips go over your ears and cost about $16. They don’t sound anywhere as good as our main picks, but they’re also much, much less money. If you want to spend a little more and get a microphone for taking phone calls on your runs, the $42 Skullcandy Chops are our pick. Although you should be able to hear outside noise fine using these choices, for those who need a heightened sense of awareness of the outside world while they run, bike, or exercise, the inexpensive $20 Panasonic RP-HS34 headphones are our favorite budget-friendly unsealed set.

How did we test?

I started out by researching professional reviews from fitness journalists as well as pro audio writers, users, bloggers, and forums members. This eventually lead us to try out about 38 models, narrowed down from the original 75 models we considered.

I burned in every model and then turned them over to our expert panel for audio testing.

One of the tables full of sport headphones awaiting testing. The Wirecutter

One of the tables full of sport headphones awaiting testing.

After I had the top-rated choices in those categories, I took to the track and ran half a mile with each pair of headphones. Then, to check durability, I connected each headphone to a portable speaker, held the headphones from where they would connect to your ear and dropped the speaker from a height several times to test the cord. Next, I put the headphones in their included cases or bags and shook, kicked, sat on, mashed, and smooshed the bag vigorously to simulate abuse in gym bags and workouts.

Because all of that wasn’t enough, I next tested water resistance. Each headphone was sprayed with a water-filled utility misting bottle, and then plugged in to see how they worked when sweated on. Yes, I endured 10 wet-willies for you.

In closing

After testing all those headphones in all the different ways that exercise headphones should be tested, it’s pretty clear to me that the SOL Republic Relays are the best headphones for most people. And for those who want wireless, open-ear, or budget picks, we have those recommendations covered as well.

This guide may have been updated. To see the current recommendation please go to The Wirecutter.com

TIME Cleaning

The Best Handheld Vacuum Money Can Buy

It sucks—in a good way

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This post was created in partnership with The Wirecutter. Read the original full article at TheWirecutter.com.

By Liam McCabe

For small spills and tight spots that a regular vacuum can’t reach, we recommend using the Black & Decker BDH2020FLFH 20 V MAX Flex Vac ($130). Its powerful 20-volt lithium-ion battery delivers about 16 minutes of strong, steady suction, which means better cleaning for longer than most of the competition can muster. Equally important, its 4-foot flexible hose reaches where other hand vacuums (including our previous pick) can’t, like under car seats. And it even accepts clip-on attachments like a regular vacuum would. It’s the most versatile portable vacuum out there.

We spent a total of 56 hours researching and 20 hours testing hand vacuums over the past few years. Of the roughly 40 models we’ve found, this new Flex Vac has proven to be the best bet for most people.

Who needs a portable vacuum?

A portable vacuum excels as a smaller, lighter, nimbler sidekick to a plug-in upright or canister vacuum. It cleans spots that a big vac doesn’t easily reach: countertops or the floor of a car, for example. And since there’s no cord to unravel, it’s super easy to grab off the charging dock for 10 seconds to suck up a few dust bunnies or grains of spilled cereal. However, if you think you can replace a floor vacuum with one of these, you will be sorely disappointed. They’re simply not designed for that kind of heavy lifting.

(That being said, some new battery-powered vacuums are designed as all-purpose cleaners, meant to pull double-duty as an all-house upright and a hand vacuum. This guide does not cover these types of vacuums.)

Why we like this handheld vacuum above all else

The Black & Decker 20 V Max Lithium Flex Vac BDH2020FLFH looks more like a miniature canister vacuum than an old-school Dustbuster, but it’s a much more versatile cleaner because of that. The 4-foot stretchable hose can unwrap from around the body, making it more adept at cleaning at weird angles, in tight spaces, or above your head—i.e. the exact types of tasks you’d want a hand vac for. Since the hose unwraps from the body, it’s lighter and easier to wrangle than a regular all-in-one portable vac (and it’s actually smaller than it looks in pictures, too).

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The BDH2020FLFH and (l-r) the crevice tool, combo brush (attached), and pet hair tool attachments.

The design advantages really stand out when the BDH2020FLFH goes to work where other hand vacs struggle—like under car seats, for example. Of course, you can also swing it around all in one piece like any other handheld vacuum, too.

A bunch of the Flex Vac’s cleaning prowess comes from its attachments. The combo brush helps knock loose the particles that want to cling to fabric or carpet, a task where other hand vacs can struggle. The crevice tool is helpful even just as a wand extender, but also makes it easier to get in nooks like the storage compartments built into car doors, the tight areas around car seats, and between the columns of old-school radiators, where decades of dust can build up.

And if you’re a pet owner, the pet hair removal tool is a big help. It’s nothing fancy: just a textured, rubberized head with a hole in the middle. Ideally, you’d use a mini turbo brush tool for hair, but not many hand vacs come with one of those, and this simple design does the job just fine. It’s not perfect, but it works better and faster than trying to pick hair up with a regular vacuum head, lint roller, or masking tape.

None of this versatility or thoughtful design would matter if the vacuum lacked the power to suck up what you put in front of it. Fortunately, it has plenty of it, producing 25 air watts (a metric used to measure the movement of air through a vacuum cleaner) of suction. On paper, that’s a bit stronger than last year’s version and many competing models, which already had plenty of suction, so anything extra is gravy.

Black & Decker claims that the BDH2020FLFH takes 4 hours to recharge and has a 16-minute runtime. In our testing, that was pretty accurate.

Once you’re done cleaning up whatever mess you’ve made, the BDH2020FLFH’s dirt canister is easy to clean out: pull a latch on the side of the vacuum’s body, tip it into the garbage, give it a thwack, and you’re done. It’s also washable, which is important for keeping airflow going strong since the filter gets dirty pretty fast.

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The Flex Vac’s dust bin swings open for easy emptying, and can be removed from the vacuum for cleaning.

Flaws (but not dealbreakers)

The BDH2020FLFH pulls a respectable 25 air watts of suction, but that’s not quite as powerful as some cheaper Dustbuster-style models, which can hit 35 air watts. Sure, more suction works faster, but the Flex Vac’s other upsides meant that it cleaned more completely in our tests.

Other things to consider

In a nutshell, our favorite handheld vacuum is right for most. But we have other picks for people who need to spend a little less or want specific things out of theirs. The Dyson DC34 has even more suction than our pick, but at $185, it’s a little rich for a portable vacuum. The best $50 pick is the Black and Decker PHV1810 18V Pivot Vac, even if it can’t deal with pet hair very well and batteries are weaker and take longer to charge. For a specific corded handheld vacuum to deal with pet hair, the Eureka EasyClean 71B for $38 is a good pick.

After a lot of time researching testing handheld vacuums, its pretty clear to us that the Black & Decker BDH2020FLFH 20 V MAX Flex Vac is the handheld vacuum we’d get, however.

This guide may have been updated. To see the current recommendation please go to The Wirecutter.com

TIME laptops

This Is the Best Budget Laptop You Can Buy

Lenovo

Can you buy a great laptop for under $600? Yes, yes you can

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This post is in partnership with The Wire Cutter. Read the article below originally published at TheWireCutter.com.

After considering all the major laptops in its price range, I decided that if I had to buy a Windows laptop for $600 or less, I’d get the ~$580 version of the Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 2 14.

It’s not perfect—because all budget laptops have trade offs—but it’s the best of its kind. And for its price it succeeds in a lot of the most important areas: it’ll easily handle day-to-day tasks, it’s light enough to carry around, and it has enough battery to last you an entire work day.

Our pick

For $580 you get a dual-core Haswell Intel Core i5-4210U processor, 4GB of DDR3 RAM, and a 500GB hybrid hard drive with 8GB of cache, which is to say that it is fast enough for most tasks that don’t involve gaming or heavy photo or video editing.

As we configured it, the Flex 2 14 also has a 14-inch multitouch panel with a decent 1366×768 resolution, 7.5 hours of battery life, a good enough keyboard and trackpad, and all the ports you’ll want: HDMI, Ethernet, USB 3.0, two USB 2.0 ports, a card reader, and an audio jack. The cache will make it feel a little speedier than a regular hard drive, but not as fast as an computer with a solid state drive (otherwise known as an SSD).

At 0.8 inches thick and 4.4 pounds, it’s lighter and slimmer than most 14-inch laptops in its price range. It’s possible (but not easy) to upgrade the hard drive and RAM (if you’re into that kind of thing) so you can squeeze more life out of the machine later.

It’s a great basic machine that we settled on after a lot of consideration and testing.

What you don’t get with a cheaper laptop

Before you buy this machine, realize that a cheaper laptop always comes with more compromises than a more expensive one. The $580 Flex 2 14 has an i5-4210U processor, 1366×768 screen, 4GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive and weighs 4.4 pounds.

For example, for around $1,000, you could get something like a slim 3 pound Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro with the same processor and wireless card, but a better-looking 3800×1800 screen, twice the RAM at 8GB for better multitasking of many windows at once, and a 256GB solid-state drive. That means you can get a computer that’s faster and all-around better for only a few hundred dollars more, which is a good idea if you can afford it. On the other hand, that’s almost 2x the price.

What happens if you spend even less money than our pick costs? There are smaller laptops with better screens and a little bit of solid-state storage for under $500, like the very popular Asus Transformer T100. But they compromise in other areas, often having less storage space and RAM, slower processors, or cramped keyboards. If this is your only computer, I think you should go for something better.

Who should(n’t) buy this?

If I were to get a budget laptop, I’d get the Lenovo Flex 2. But before I’d buy one, I’d consider whether I needed a full-sized Windows laptop at all. If you have a full Windows or Mac computer already and are looking for a secondary machine for web browsing, email, and basic document editing, we’d actually advise you to consider a $300 Chromebook, which runs Google’s Chrome operating system (but cannot run Windows or Mac software) instead.

Or, if you don’t need to do much writing on your machine, a tablet, like an iPad, is perfect for casual email and browsing. But for an everyday Windows computer, something like the Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 2 14 will be just fine.

How we decided on this laptop

After surveying the field, we made a list of the laptops in this price range with the best reviews from the most trusted editorial sources, and tested them side by side. The finalists we tested hands-on are the Lenovo Flex 2 14, the $580 Acer Aspire E1, and the $650 Dell Inspiron 14R.

What to get if you can spend a little bit more and want a faster, sleeker laptop

If you can afford to spend a bit more and want a sleeker laptop with smoother multitasking between many windows and a higher-resolution LCD for fitting more on the screen, you should get the Lenovo IdeaPad U430 Touch from Best Buy, currently $700. It has the same Core i5-4210U and 500GB hard drive as the $580 Flex 2 14, but it’s lighter (by a touch), slimmer, and has twice as much RAM and a better, higher-resolution screen (1600×900 instead of 1366×768). It has a touchscreen and good battery life, like our top pick, but better build quality overall, too.

The runner up that also costs a bit less

If you don’t have more money to spend, or the Flex 2 14 is sold out or unavailable, the $465 Acer Aspire E1-572-6780 isn’t bad. It’s about the same speed as our pick, but it’s bulkier than the Flex 2 14, and you won’t get the Flex’s hybrid drive, touchscreen, or all-day battery, so we think spending more on the Flex is worth it.

In closing

A great budget laptop is actually a misnomer—there’s really no such thing when you’re forced to make compromises—but the Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 2 14 hits the right marks in many areas, and that’s as close to great as you can get in this price range. If you want one Windows laptop for basic windows computing needs, this is the one most people should get.

This guide may have been updated. To see the current recommendation please go to The Wirecutter.com

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