TIME Gadgets

Ultra-Cheap Chromebook Laptops Are Killing it This Year

Inside The Google Chromebook Store
Bloomberg via Getty Images An employee demonstrates a Samsung Electronics Co. Chromebook laptop in the Google Inc. sales area at a Currys and PC World 2 in 1 store, operated by Dixons Retail Plc, on Tottenham Court Road in London, U.K.

The Google devices even managed to beat out the iPad in one category

Google’s line of Internet-dependent Chromebooks are increasingly growing out of their niche market. The laptops are expected to sell 7.3 million units this year, according to research firm Gartner. That’s a 27% increase over 2014. North America remains the largest Chromebook market by far, with six million of this year’s sales expected to come in that region.

Schools in particular have proven a popular market for Google’s computers. Last year the education sector comprised 72% of Chromebook sales, and Google even managed to beat out the iPad in shipments to schools. Chromebooks are considerably cheaper than full-sized iPads, which helps explain their appeal to school administrators.

Businesses, meanwhile, haven’t embraced the laptops as much. In the U.S., only about 1% of Chromebook sales come from the business sector, according to Gartner. Chromebooks generally have little internal storage, instead encouraging users to save content to the cloud. They also can’t run the desktop version of Microsoft Office, a staple of workplaces everywhere.

TIME Gadgets

This Is the Best Budget Gaming Laptop You Can Buy

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Asus Asus ROG GL551JW

Asus ROG GL551JW has the best gaming performance and build quality for a lowest cost

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.

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There’s no such thing as a perfect budget gaming laptop, and every one we’ve tested so far has at least one serious flaw. But after 40 hours of research and testing, we determined that the $1,100 Asus ROG GL551JW is the budget gaming laptop we’d recommend for most people because it has the best gaming performance and best build quality among the competition, and for the lowest cost.

The GL551 has uncommonly good build quality compared to nearly everything else in this category. Plus, it keeps the most important parts of a gaming laptop at a reasonable temperature—which cannot be said for the competition—and has a comfortable keyboard.

Who’s this for?

Expensive gaming laptops aren’t for everyone. Desktop computers offer better gaming performance per dollar, and ultrabooks are slimmer, lighter, and have much better battery life. Budget gaming laptops are a good fit for students and others who want to play games but have a tight budget and need a portable PC.

How did we pick what to test?

First, we determined the best possible combination of components that fit in our budget. Our ideal budget gaming laptop costs under $1,200 and has an Nvidia GeForce GTX 960M graphics card or better, an Intel Core i7 4700HQ CPU or higher, 8 to 16 GB of RAM, and at least 500GB of storage. We looked at every gaming laptop currently available, tested three finalists ourselves, and concluded that the Asus ROG GL551-JW DS71 is the best for those on a budget. (For more information on our criteria for narrowing down the field, see our full guide.)

Our Pick

The $1,100 Asus ROG GL551JW has amazing specs for its price. That’s the whole point of a budget gaming laptop. On the inside, it has a mid-range Nvidia GeForce GTX 960M graphics card with 2GB of dedicated memory, an Intel Core i7-4720HQ processor, 16GB of RAM, and a 1TB hard drive. (We originally tested last year’s model, the GL551JM, but the GL551JW is identical aside from its more powerful graphics card and faster CPU.)

With these specs, you won’t be able to play recently-released games on Ultra settings. Games like Dragon Age: Inquisition, Far Cry 4, and Watch Dogs must be bumped down to High or Medium settings to run at a decent framerate on any budget gaming machine.

 

Like every budget gaming laptop we tested, the GL551 gets too warm, with a surface temperature of 102 degrees Fahrenheit. But the underside of the chassis and the WASD keys stay at a reasonable temperature between 92°F and 94°F, which can’t be said for most of the competition. The fan on the left side of the laptop isn’t loud enough to distract from games or movies.

The Asus ROG GL551 has a comfortable, red-backlit keyboard and a decent trackpad. It also has uncommonly good build quality for a budget gaming laptop. Most are plasticky, hollow-feeling, and creaky. The keys on the Asus are deep enough, responsive, and comfortable to type and game on. The Asus is sturdy, and we expect its metal lid and palmrest to hold up better over years of heavy gaming.

The Asus’s battery lasted about 3 and a half hours during ordinary work at 50 percent brightness. It’s not what we consider to be “good” battery life, but it’s what you can expect from any budget gaming laptop at the moment. The Asus ROG GL551 weighs 5.95 pounds— nearly twice as heavy as an ultrabook, but much less than the 17-inch gaming laptop we recommend for people with bigger budgets.

The Asus has a few drawbacks, but they are not deal breakers. Few cheap gaming laptops have great screens, and the Asus GL551’s 17-inch 1920×1080 screen is bad. It has a pinkish tint and there’s little distinction between different intensities of white and black at the far ends of the spectrum, making it potentially difficult to spot enemies lurking in the shadows. The GL551’s speakers are flat, tinny, and quiet, so pick up a decent pair of headphones to get the most out of your gaming experience.

Runner up

If our pick sells out, we recommend the $1,100 Lenovo Y50 with an Intel Core i7-4710HQ processor, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 860M with 4GB graphics memory, 16GB of RAM, and a 1TB hybrid hard drive. It has a better keyboard and speakers than our pick, but it had the hottest temperatures and the worst screen of the three laptops we tested. The Y50 also has a weaker graphics card and creaks and flexes more under pressure.

Some Lenovo laptops sold in 2014 and early 2015, including the Y50, contained Superfish: potentially dangerous adware that allows fake security certificates. If you buy (or already bought) this laptop, go here to see if you’re affected and here to remove the program and its certificate.

What if you want to upgrade?

If you’re not constrained by funds and want good gaming performance, it’s worth it to get something better. Check out our guide to the overall best gaming laptop.

In closing

The Asus ROG GL551JW-DS71 is the best budget gaming laptop for most people because it has powerful specs for the price, is well made, and is cheaper than the competition. It has a comfortable keyboard, and it keeps its most-used keys and bottom cooler than any other budget machine we tested. It’s not perfect, but no cheap gaming laptop is.

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

TIME Gadgets

This Is the Biggest Problem With the New MacBook

More adapters are in your future

Apple’s latest MacBook sports a shockingly thin frame, improved battery life and a more responsive keyboard. But it also offers just one input-output port — a feature Apple is touting as a step forward, but is likely to cause plenty of headaches for users.

The new 12-inch MacBook uses a new port called USB-C to handle many different functions, such as transferring data between devices, outputting the MacBook’s display and charging the computer. USB-C offeres faster transfer speeds than USB 3.0, and the plugs can be oriented up or down and still work properly when plugged in. The port itself is about the size of a mini-USB port.

That means all those regular USB-compatible hard drives, cameras and other gadgets you have won’t be able to plug into the new MacBook without an adapter. Apple is selling a USB-C-to-USB adapter for $19, and right now there are few alternative options because the USB-C standard is so new.

The price of entry to get the Macbook display on your television screen is even higher. The USB-C-to-HDMI adapter, which also includes ports for USB-C charging and for connecting USB devices, costs $79. As Wired points out, it would actually be cheaper to buy an Apple TV for $69 and mirror the new MacBook’s screen wirelessly to a TV right now than to jury-rig an HDMI connection.

These problems will be less of an issue as more devices begin using USB-C. Google’s new Chromebook Pixel laptop, for instance, is using the same standard. But for now, getting all your electronics to play nice with the new MacBook could be a bit of a hassle.

Read next: Hands-On With Apple’s Stunning New Gold Laptop

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Gadgets

Google’s Beautiful New Laptop Has One Major Flaw

Like all Chromebooks, the Pixel is useful only with an Internet connection. But it's also more expensive than other models

Google on Wednesday unveiled the latest iteration of its top-of-the-line Chromebook, but the device’s price tag could keep prospective buyers away.

The new Chromebook Pixel, named for its high-resolution touchscreen, boasts an Intel Core i5 processor with a boosted 8GB of RAM and 32GB of internal memory (the old model had 4GB of RAM and the same storage space). The laptop also features a new charging standard called USB-C, which allows data and screen images to be transferred using the same port — Apple’s new MacBook, unveiled Monday, also uses USB-C.

Google claims the new Pixel will get 12 hours of battery life.

Like all Chromebooks, the Pixel uses Web-based apps to perform basic functions such as word processing, meaning its functionality is limited when you’re offline. Generally this helps keep Chromebooks cheap, typically retailing for just a few hundred dollars. But the Pixel is an exception — The basic model is on sale now for $999, while a higher-end model with increased memory retails for $1,299.

Whether or not consumers will spring for a high-cost, limited-use laptop remains to be seen. Chromebook sales are rising fast, up 79% in 2014 according to research firm Gartner. But those numbers are likely driven by cheaper Chromebooks like the popular $329 Toshiba Chromebook 2, not Google’s own high-cost offerings.

Read next: Hands-On With Apple’s Stunning New Gold Laptop

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Gadgets

Google Sweetens the Chromebook Deal Ahead of the Holidays

Google Chromebook To Be Available Online On June 15
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images Google Inc. Chrome and Samsung Electronics Co.'s logos are seen on a Chromebook in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Thursday, June 9, 2011.

Free storage promotion runs until the new year

Google is offering a terabyte of free storage with its Chromebook computers for the holiday season, the company announced Friday.

Customers who buy qualifying Chromebooks priced at $199 or more will receive a two-year subscription to Google Drive with a terabyte of free storage space. That amount of space typically costs $9.99 per month, so the deal is worth about $240.

Chromebooks are stripped of many of the programs typically found on PCs, and instead offer apps that are accessed online, like Google Docs. They’ve slowly gained in marketshare since Google first unveiled the barebones laptops in 2011 — Chromebook sales are expected to triple by 2017.

The Google Drive promotion runs through January 1.

TIME Computers

Hands On: Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro and ThinkPad Yoga 14

Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro
K.T. Bradford / Techlicious Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro

Two years ago, when Lenovo first debuted the IdeaPad Yoga 13, it was one of the most exciting 2-in-1 hybrids to herald the coming of Windows 8. Though the operating system still has people cringing, the hardware remains innovative and useful and has improved with each generation.

No surprise then that the two new Yogas, the Yoga 3 Pro and the ThinkPad Yoga 14, are pretty impressive. With the Yoga 3 Pro, Lenovo redesigned and improved upon the hinge mechanism. The ThinkPad takes a cue from the Carbon X1 design, fitting a 14-inch screen into a 13-inch body and adds discrete graphics to boot.

K.T. Bradford / TechliciousLenovo ThinkPad Yoga 14

When most people think of ThinkPads, they envision boxy business machines that embody durability but don’t always have the most eye-catching designs. Over the past few years, Lenovo has worked to change that perception, and laptops like the Yoga 14 are the result. You’ll still get the durability features such as a magnesium alloy frame, and of course that great ThinkPad keyboard. However, the design is slim, sleek, and attractive. At 4.1 pounds it’s not feather-light, but it’s still light enough for ultra portability.

Another reason to take a look at this model over the Yoga 3 Pro is that the ThinkPad has the Lift and Lock keyboard. As you bend it around past 180 degrees, the keyboard not only shuts off, but the deck of the laptop rises up so the keys are flush with it. This helps to keep the keys from popping off when you’re in tablet mode.

On top of that, this is a very powerful machine for being so thin and light: 4th generation Intel Core i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM, NVIDIA Geforce 840M graphics, and a 1TB hard drive with a 16GB SSD cache for speedier wake and overall performance of the operating system.

The 14-inch touchscreen has a full HD 1920 x 1080 resolution and is bright, colorful, yet not too reflective or prone to glare. Wide viewing angles mean you aren’t confined to one sweet spot for viewing images and video — important for a multi-mode 2-in-1. In my hands-on time, I noted how responsive it is to touch and that there’s not too much bounce in the hinge. The keyboard isn’t as deep as some ThinkPads, but felt great to type on. The large touchpad is also very responsive and didn’t make me feel like I would always need to reach up and touch the screen.

If you need powerful performance as much as you need versatility, this ThinkPad may be the Yoga for you. And at $1,199, the price isn’t bad, either.

However, the 4.1 pound weight is a little above the ultrabook weights that many people are used to. The Yoga 3 Pro ($1,349) is only 2.62 pounds and half an inch thick. That’s not even the best part of the new design.

lenovo-yoga3-pro-hinge
K.T. Bradford / Techlicious

In order to make the laptop thinner, Lenovo redesigned the hinge from the ground up. The inspiration came from watchbands, and it features six points of articulation. Once you put it at an angle, the hinge stays. Yet it’s also just as easy to move the screen and keyboard deck as before.

Check out our hands-on below:

The Yoga 3 Pro doesn’t have the Lift and Lock mechanism that the Thinkpad does, so exposed keys are still a bit of a problem. Other than that, the design looks and feels really good. With convertibles, the large screen size can make using it as a tablet a little unwieldy. That’s less of an issue when the entire machine is this thin and light.

Inside, an Intel Core M-70 processor (made for ultrathin systems) runs the show, backed by 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD, and integrated graphics to support the 3200 x 1800 resolution touchscreen. This model comes with two USB 3.0 ports and an extra USB 2.0 port that also doubles as the power port. A clever way to include an extra USB slot without adding bulk.

Both of the new Yoga 2-in-1 laptops have several things that make it easy to recommend them, so it mostly comes down to a choice between more power and durability or lighter weight and a higher-resolution display. Either way, both models will be available by the end of October.

This article was written by K.T. Bradford and originally appeared on Techlicious.

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TIME Crime

Police Dogs Can Now Uncover Child Porn by Sniffing Out Electronic Devices

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Getty Images

The animals have been trained to identify a chemical common to laptops, flash drives and so on

Two dogs that flunked out of New York City’s Guiding Eyes for the Blind program have found a new job helping police find hidden electronic devices, Bloomberg reports.

The skill is proving useful to investigators looking for devices containing, for instance, child pornography or fraudulent documents.

Black Labrador Selma and golden Labrador Thoreau underwent months of training to be able to sniff out laptops, digital cameras, flash drives and even memory cards. The dogs were trained to detect the scent of a particular chemical common to all these devices on people’s hands, clothes, metal boxes and even concrete blocks.

The chemical, which police have declined to name, was identified by forensic-science veteran Jack Hubball, who in 1986 isolated a flame accelerant present in cases of arson that could be detected by dogs. He later helped train canines to sniff out narcotics and bombs.

In his latest work, Hubball took apart circuit boards, hard disks and flash drives and tested each component individually to pinpoint the chemical they shared.

Detective George Jupin of the Connecticut State Police Computer Crimes Unit, who is Selma’s handler, told Bloomberg that the animal had assisted in over 50 search warrants since starting in October 2013. Selma has found child pornography, falsified documents and stored software that was used to help identify firearms in a homicide case.

Thoreau is doing similar work with the Rhode Island State Police.

[Bloomberg]

TIME Gadgets

The Best Laptop Under $500 for Fall 2014

Acer E5
Acer The Acer E5 offers respectable power for just shy of $500

With a fourth-generation Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, 1TB hard drive and full-sized keyboard, the Aspire E 15 has plenty of power.

A search for laptops under $500 turns up a wide range of choices, starting with smaller, netbook-like hybrids and moving up to full-size, mainstream PCs with budget price tags.

Assuming you want a full-featured PC, chances are that you’re looking for either a small, ultra-portable, low-power secondary machine or a full-sized computer that’s basic yet reliable. Since the criteria for each are different, a final choice comes down to one thing: Which laptop is the best value for your money?

To evaluate the best laptops under $500, I didn’t just look at price; I also considered performance, design, brand reliability and reviews from professionals and consumers. A handful of promising contenders emerged, including the Acer Aspire E 15, the Lenovo Yoga 2 11, the Acer Aspire Switch 10 and the Asus Transformer Book T100.

If you’re looking for a laptop to use as a main computer, my top pick is the 15.6-inch Aspire E 15. But if you’re in the market for a small machine, the 10-inch hybrid tablet Acer Aspire Switch 10 gets the nod. Both do well in the areas that matter most: smooth and speedy performance, sturdy and streamlined design, comfortable keyboards and good battery life. However, they are very different machines meant for different workloads.

The Acer Aspire E 15: Best laptop as a main computer

When shopping for a budget 13- to 15-inch laptop to use as your main computer, you’ll have to make some compromises: plastic casing instead of metal, HD displays instead of full HD or Retina-like resolution (often without touchscreens), slightly heavier and thicker designs instead of feather light and sleek. Most of these are acceptable trade-offs for the price; when it comes to internal hardware and performance, you should accept the least compromise possible.

During my initial search for sub-$500 laptops, I found solid models from HP, Dell, Asus and Lenovo that are as easy on the eyes as they are on the wallet. The models with the highest ratings ran on less powerful AMD or Intel processors (Core i3, Celeron, Pentium). Most also offered less RAM than my top pick. While this can be acceptable in a budget laptop, you should always get the most powerful processor and largest amount of RAM you can afford.

Solid power and performance

This is the primary reason why this Acer Aspire E 15 is my pick for top mainstream laptop. The $499 model (E5-571-563B) is powered by a fourth-generation Intel Core i5 processor with 8GB of RAM, which should keep it speedy for several years, even as programs and websites become more complex and take up more resources. The E 15 also comes with a 1TB hard drive — not an SSD (another compromise), but large enough to hold a sizable media collection as well as all your documents and other files.

The E 15 performed smoothly in my tests, switching between dozens of open tabs in Chrome and Firefox without lag while streaming music in the background. HD videos played without lag or hitching, and the system’s integrated graphics handled less intense games just fine. The E 15 ran spreadsheet macros at a respectable rate for a laptop with a spinning hard drive, opening even large Word documents in seconds.

The E 15 has plenty of ports, including VGA, Ethernet and three USB ports. The only thing you might expect to see that isn’t here on this model is an optical drive.

Full-sized keyboard and energy-saving monitor

Another area where you shouldn’t compromise too much (even on a tight budget) is a laptop’s keyboard. A good external mouse can replace a less than stellar touchpad, but if you need an external keyboard, you lose the point of using a laptop. The Aspire E 15 has a standard Acer keyboard with square, island-style keys that spring up as you type and don’t require heavy fingerfalls to register. Because this is a 15-inch system, you get not only get a full-size keyboard but a full number pad to the right as well.

The comfortable typing experience is matched by a responsive but not overly sensitive touchpad. It’s wide and tall, giving you enough area for executing gestures to bring up Windows charms and making up somewhat for the lack of a touchscreen. If you spend most of your time in desktop mode, you’ll barely miss using touch.

For a laptop with a 15.6-inch display, the E 15 is relatively light (5.5 pounds) and just 1.2 inches thick, so it slides into backpacks and briefcases easily. Most people keep laptops this size on their desks, but the E 15 is not so heavy that it’s a pain to take on trips or to class. When you do, expect to get six to seven hours of normal use. I tested the E 15 on the balanced power setting with the screen at 75% brightness and I didn’t need to plug in until past the six-hour mark. With energy-saving features active, it should last even longer.

The screen is one of the E 15’s weak points. At this price, I don’t expect an extremely high resolution, but 1366 x 768 feels low for a display of this size. Other than that, the colors, saturation and brightness are all eye pleasing and you can set the screen at almost any angle without seeing any distortion of colors or contrast.

Options, options

Acer promised that the Aspire E laptop line would be all about choice, and you’re likely to find several configurations in stores and online. They’re all mostly identical on the outside but give you a choice of different processors (both Intel and AMD), non-touch or touchscreen control, matte or glossy displays and a few different colors. I recommend the Aspire E5-571-563B, currently $499.99 on Amazon, with the best balance between price and performance.

There are a few Aspire E models that cost less and have less powerful hardware. I don’t recommend a model with anything less powerful than an Intel Core i3.

Reviews are limited, but good

The E 15 is new, so there aren’t many reviews out yet. The majority of owners who reviewed it on Amazon left positive feedback, citing its speedy performance, lightweight design and large amount of RAM and hard drive space for the price. The only major gripe is the lack of optical or DVD drive, which came as a surprise to some due to a misleading product shot.

The Acer Aspire E 15 may be a budget laptop, but it is not cheap. Even at $498, you won’t have to compromise on performance or power, nor will you have to settle for a bulky, heavy, ugly machine.

The Acer Aspire Switch 10: Best portable laptop

Aspire Switch
Acer

As light as the Aspire E 15 is for its size, it’s still not the kind of computer you want to carry with you for long periods of time. If you’re looking for an affordable and portable laptop, try the $379 Acer Aspire Switch 10. This 10.1-inch tablet hybrid runs full Windows 8.1 with a keyboard dock that turns it into a laptop with a simple snap.

The hybrid convertible tablet market is full of worthy contenders right now, including the 10-inch Asus Transformer Book T100 for $379 and the 11.6-inch Lenovo Yoga 2 11 for $499. While the Switch 10’s performance is slightly better than both in all but one area, what won me over is the keyboard dock’s versatility and superior typing experience.

As with most hybrids, the Switch 10’s screen/tablet portion attaches to the keyboard dock to make a clamshell laptop. It can also attach backwards for presentation mode or tent mode, similar to the Lenovo Yoga 2, which has a 360-degree hinge. I’m a fan of the Yoga’s design and versatility, but at 11.6 inches, I find it too big to use effectively as a tablet. The Switch 10 detaches from the keyboard to become a true slate.

Comfortable keyboard and robust processing power

Still, you’ll likely spend most of your time using the Switch 10 as a laptop with the dock attached. The keyboard is classic Acer, made small enough to fit with the 10.1-inch display. The square keys are not cramped or undersized, providing enough space between keys to keep you from accidentally hitting two at the same time. That’s the biggest advantage the Switch 10 has over the Transformer Book T100’s surprisingly cramped and uncomfortable keyboard; otherwise, these two hybrids are very similar, both in design and internal hardware.

The Switch 10 has a newer processor and thus earns slightly higher scores in benchmarks, but both perform about the same when executing real-world tasks. The Intel Atom processor is faster than you might expect if you associate this brand with netbooks from three years ago. The Atom doesn’t choke streaming HD video any more, and it handles switching between dozens of tabs and a handful of running programs without becoming sluggish. However, the Atom processor is not designed for intense usage such as graphics-heavy games, compiling code or video editing beyond a quick trim.

Battery life is light

The Switch 10 falls short of the T100 in battery life, lasting about five to six and a half hours on a single charge. The T100 can last up to 12. Acer equipped the Switch 10 with a very lightweight A/C adapter, so carrying it is not a burden; the Transformer T100 can charge off the same micro-USB cord as your phone.

If you’re more interested in the tablet side of the experience and don’t think you’ll use the keyboard much, the T100 is a good pick, but if you’re looking for a laptop first and tablet second, the best keyboard experience matters — so go with the Switch 10.

The Acer Aspire Switch 10 with 32GB of internal storage is available on Amazon for $309. If your budget allows, I suggest the 64GB version, currently $388 on Amazon.

This article was written by K.T. Bradford and originally appeared on Techlicious.

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TIME Computers

(Not Very) Bold Prediction: $200 Laptops Aplenty for the Holidays

Inside a Best Buy Store Ahead of Earnings
David Paul Morris—Bloomberg / Getty Images Customers look at laptop computers at a Best Buy store.

For years — years! — we’ve been waiting for the $200 laptop.

Sure, laptops dip down to the $200 during super sales like Black Friday. And snagging a $179 Chromebook — Chromebooks are laptops too, you know — is now a relatively easy feat to achieve. Remember netbooks? Those things were known to flirt with the $200 price point toward the end of their collective lifespan, occasionally breaking through it entirely.

But the holidays this year will look different. Instead of searching, waiting, hoping — stampeding! — for a $200 computer, you’ll actually have a fair amount to choose from, and they’ll likely be in stock and regularly priced around $200 or less.

Over at GigaOM, Kevin Tofel passes along news of the so-called HP Stream 14, which was supposedly leaked to German blog Mobile Geeks. The Stream is apparently a 14-inch Windows laptop with very Chromebook-like innards that comes with 100 gigabytes of storage for two years, just like Chromebooks.

Microsoft doesn’t want to see Chromebooks continue to erode its share of low-end laptop sales. That’s straight from the horse’s mouth: As the Verge reports, Microsoft COO Kevin Turner recently said, “We’ve got a great value proposition against Chromebooks, we are not ceding the market to anyone.”

If that sounds aggressive, get this: Turner alluded to 7- and 8-inch models in this HP Stream line going for around $100 during the holidays. Aggressive indeed.

While ever-falling component costs lead to cheaper and cheaper computers, Bloomberg reported earlier this year that the licensing fee Microsoft charges hardware makers to use Windows on their machines has reportedly dropped exponentially for systems in the sub-$250 price range. It apparently dropped from $50 down to just $15, which of course paves the way for lower retail prices as well.

It’s the perfect storm: Chromebooks are popular low-end machines, and Microsoft wants to stem the tide. These aren’t going to be the most powerful computers in the history of computing, but if you’re looking for something that can handle simple tasks like email and web surfing on the cheap, you’ll have plenty of options later this year.

TIME Computers

Need a Cheap Chromebook? Here’s How to Pick One

Let's make sense of all these sub-$300, browser-based laptops.

If you’re shopping for a cheap laptop, there’s a good chance you’ve crossed paths with a few Chromebooks.

Instead of running Windows, these lightweight, inexpensive notebooks are based entirely on Google’s Chrome web browser. So while you can’t install traditional programs such as Office and Photoshop, you can use web-based substitutes like the free Office Online and Pixlr. In exchange, you’ll get a computer that boots up quickly, is safe from viruses, doesn’t have any obnoxious bloatware and is optimized for browsing the web.

Although inexpensive Chromebooks have been around for a couple years, we’ve seen a lot more of them lately, and from a wider range of vendors. With so much competition among these sub-$300 laptops, here’s some help picking the best one for your needs.

The Cheapest Chromebook: Acer C720 (2 GB RAM)

Acer

This Acer Chromebook originally had a sticker price of $199, but for some reason the price has recently gone up at most stores. Fortunately you can still snag one at Best Buy for $179, which is the cheapest price I’ve seen for any Chromebook.

Compared to other low-cost Chromebooks, the Acer C720 is a bit heavier, and its fan will produce some noise as you work. Its build quality is also on the chintzy side, and the 2 GB of RAM isn’t great for keeping lots of browser tabs open at once. Still, for basic browsing, it gets the job done at a (currently) unbeatable price.

The Prettiest Chromebook: HP Chromebook 11

HP

I called this one a “vanity laptop” when I reviewed it last fall. It has, by far, the most gorgeous display you’ll find on any Chromebook. We’re talking MacBook quality in terms of viewing angles and contrast, while most other Chromebooks wash out when you tilt them just slightly away from you. The keyboard is also solid, the speakers are loud and you’ve got to love the blue accents on the shiny white chassis.

But the HP Chromebook falters on performance, as it can lag when switching between heavy web pages, and it only gets around five hours on a charge. (You can top it up with a MicroUSB cable, which is kind of neat.) If you can deal with those shortcomings and prefer something thin, light and easy to look at, this is your Chromebook. Best Buy has it for $229.

The Best All-Around Chromebooks: Asus C200 and C300

Asus

Asus’ C200 ($229 at Walmart) and C300 ($229 at Amazon) are part of a new wave of Chromebooks hitting the market this summer, with a fanless design made possible by Intel’s latest Bay Trail processors. That means they won’t make any noise as you use them, and they’re both quite light, at 2.5 pounds for the 11-inch C200 and 3.1 pounds for the 13-inch C300. Best of all, both laptops get about 10 hours of battery life on a charge.

As a trade-off, these laptops can’t quite keep up with the processor in the cheaper Acer Chromebook, but it’s probably not something you’d notice in most cases. Asus’ two Chromebooks are solid all-around performers, and your best options if you’re willing to pay more than bottom dollar.

The Sub-$300 Workhorse: Acer C720 (4 GB RAM)

This Chromebook used to be a solid choice at $250, but now I can’t find it anywhere at that price. Still, even at $271 from Newegg, it’s the cheapest Chromebook available with 4 GB of RAM. You’ll want the extra memory if you’re planning to juggle dozens of browser tabs at once. It seems that Acer has discontinued this laptop in favor of a Core i3 model that’s probably overkill for most users, so get it while you can.

Whatever you decide, don’t fret over it too much. I’ve used a lot of Chromebooks over the past few years, and they all offer the same basic benefits in terms of speedy startup times, security and ease of use. As long as you’re not expecting a full-blown operating system like Windows or Mac OSX, chances are you’ll be satisfied with your choice.

These prices and configurations are good as of August 18, 2014.

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