Can you buy a great laptop for under $600? Yes, yes you can
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If I had to buy a Windows laptop for $600 or less, I’d get the ~$580 configuration of the Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 2 14 or something very similar. But first I’d think long and hard about whether I needed a full-sized Windows laptop at all.
Last Updated: July 8, 2014The original version of this piece referred to the Lenovo Flex 14. Lenovo has replaced that model with the Flex 2 14. A Lenovo rep confirmed to us that the only difference between our original recommendation and this new Flex 2 14 is that the Flex 2 14 has a newer, better Intel Core i5-4210U processor and a hybrid hard drive and can be upgraded to a 1920×1080 touchscreen. The i5 processor and hybrid drive make the Flex 2 14 a better deal than the original; the high-res touchscreen is not an essential upgrade for the price. We also updated details regarding our step-up pick, the Lenovo IdeaPad U430 Touch, which Lenovo is now making with a slightly different processor (the same as our main pick) and twice the RAM (8 GB) as before.
Who should(n’t) buy this?
If you have regular access to a full Windows or Mac computer and want a secondary machine for web browsing, email, and basic document editing (i.e. something more than a tablet but less than a full-sized Windows computer), don’t buy a $600 Windows laptop as your secondary machine. Consider a $300 Chromebook or a $400 Windows convertible tablet instead. Neither can do quite as much as a full Windows laptop, but they often give a better experience in the things they do than a more expensive general-use machine.
But if you do need a real computer—if this is your primary, do-everything computer—and you need the best all-around thing you can get for under $600, you should get something like the Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 2 14.
We like the $580 configuration of the Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 2 14 (listed on Lenovo’s site as the “Flex 2 14-59422146“). It’s not perfect, but for its price it hits “pretty good” levels in a lot of important areas while managing to avoid deal-breaking flaws. It is powerful enough for day-to-day tasks, portable enough to bring with you without breaking your back, and has enough battery power to last all day. It also has a hinge that bends back around 300 degrees, just in case you wanted to use it like that.
For your $580 you get a dual-core Haswell Intel Core i5-4210U processor, 4 GB of DDR3 RAM, and a 500 GB hybrid hard drive with 8 GB of cache, which is enough for most tasks that don’t involve heavy photo or video editing or gaming. The cache will make it feel a little speedier than a regular hard drive, but not as fast as an SSD. The Flex 2 14 also has a 14-inch multitouch panel with a resolution of 1366×768, 7.5 hours of battery life, a decent keyboard and trackpad, and a full array of ports: HDMI, Ethernet, USB 3.0, two USB 2.0 ports, a card reader, and an audio jack. At 0.8 inches thick and 4.4 pounds, it’s lighter and slimmer than most laptops in its price range. Its matte-black plastic exterior and fake-brushed-aluminum palmrest aren’t gonna win many beauty contests (especially compared to most ultrabooks) but it’s not something you’ll be ashamed to break out at a coffee shop. (Unless you don’t buy anything. Then you’re a freeloader and you should feel bad.)
Unlike many expensive ultrabooks, the Flex 2 14 has a removable battery and upgradable RAM and drives. This means you can buy the configuration you can afford now and later squeeze more life out by swapping in a higher-capacity RAM stick and trading the hard drive for a solid-state drive.
The original version of this piece referred to the Lenovo Flex 14. Lenovo has replaced that model with the Flex 2 14. A Lenovo rep confirmed to us that the only difference between our original recommendation and this new Flex 2 14 is that the Flex 2 14 has a newer, better Intel Core i5-4210U processor and a hybrid hard drive and can be upgraded to a 1920×1080 touchscreen. The i5 processor and hybrid drive make the Flex 2 14 a better deal than the original; the high-res touchscreen is not an essential upgrade for the price. The following reviews are for the original version of the laptop.
Reviews for the Flex 14 stay mostly in the range of 3 to 3.5 stars, but this is because the original review units Lenovo sent out came with a Core i5-4200U processor, 8 GB of RAM, an 128 GB SSD, and a suggested price of $1,000, which is madness. At that price, you can get an ultrabook that’s half the thickness and weight with triple the screen resolution and double the SSD space, so it’s no wonder the Flex 14 didn’t review well at $1,000. The $580 version, though, is much more sanely priced, which is why we’ve chosen it for our pick.
CNET’s Dan Ackerman gave it 3.5 stars out of five under the premise that, if you keep the configuration under $800, it’s a good laptop. Once you get above $800 there are lots of better options, particularly when it comes to the display and build quality, echoing what we wrote above.
Laptop Mag’s Sherri Smith said, “If you’re looking for a solid midrange touch-screen notebook that can handle most computing and multimedia tasks, the Flex 14′s $569 Core i3 or $669 Core i5 configurations with standard hard drives are pretty good choices.”
We called in the original Flex 14 alongside a $580 Acer Aspire E1 and $650 Dell Inspiron 14R, using each as a daily machine for a few days. Of the three, I like the Flex 14 best, but it’s not stealing my heart in the way that, say, our favorite Ultrabook does. Then again, it’s cheaper than half the price and has more than half the power of that machine.
For the rest of the review, please go to The Wire Cutter.com.