What is the best laptop for travel? Hint: it’s under $500 and it comes with a tablet.

10 Jan
Posted in: Best Of, Money, Travel Tech
By    2 Comments

**This post is out-of-date! Click to The Best Travel Laptop, Tablet, and Convertible, Holiday 2013 Edition.**

One of the most-read posts on our site is about laptops. Travel laptops, specifically, and which one to buy. It’s about a year old, so here’s an update. Keep reading to see the top five travel laptops, 2013 edition.

Criteria: Cost and Size

The two big criteria for me are simple: cost and size. I want my travel computer to be cheap enough so that I don’t need to worry about it and small enough to carry around easily.

If it all goes to hell, I want to be able to easily stomach the cost of a replacement. For me, that means it has to be less than $500, which, incidentally, is less than the cost of an iPad. Right out of the gate, we’ve determined this isn’t going to be an Apple computer. Those start at $999.

And it needs to be small – smaller than the computer you already own. Honestly, there’s no reason to buy a special laptop for travel if you already own a small laptop, but if your current laptop has a 15” screen (or larger), keep reading.

What About Performance?

Yes, I’d like a ton of RAM. Yes, I’d like a solid-state hard drive. Yes, I’d like a 10-hour battery. But at this price, it’s going to be tough. Those may have to be upgrades that happen later.

What Else?

I’m willing to ditch the DVD player in favor of weight savings. Not everybody thinks the same way. When I travel, I’ll rip DVDs using Handbreak and save the video files on my hard drive. Then I don’t need to carry any movies.

I also prefer to encrypt my laptops for security reasons. While it sucks to get a laptop stolen, it really sucks to get your identity stolen as well. Encryption makes your computer useless without a password. Only a really, really patient thief will be able to crack it.

The Top 5 Best Travel Laptops

This is the best travel laptop.

This is the best travel laptop.

1. Acer Aspire One 11.6″ ($320, Windows 8)

Acer computers are great deals. Some people complain about quality, but I’m on my second Acer and have never had an issue. The Acer Aspire One is #1 because of one thing — price. $320 is a phenomenal deal. Its specs reflect that, but it has a Intel Celeron processor (not the slower Atom) and 4GB of RAM. That’s pretty good. Yes, it’s an optical hard drive. Yes, the screen resolution is 1,366 x 768. Yes, it’s only got 4 hours of battery life. But it’s $320! There’s room in the budget for upgrades.

Upgrades: How about a solid-state hard drive? You’ve got $180 to spend before the $500 limit, so that’s do-able. Not sure about choosing the best SSD for the job? Just get this one. You’ll probably get a boost in battery life with the SSD as well. Or, how about a tablet? Amazon’s entry-level Kindle Fire is $160 and using it to browse the internet, check email, and watch movies will help you extend the life of you laptop battery the easy way — by not having to use it.

Upgrade update: [January 22, 2013] There’s an aftermarket, name-brand, $50 battery for sale that’s twice as big. Hello, 7 hour battery life! Thanks, Liliputing.

Buy the Acer if … you want an inexpensive (nearly disposable) and light-weight Windows 8 travel laptop. 

Don’t buy it if … you want top performance or need over four hours of battery life

2. Samsung Chromebook ($250, Chrome)

Samsung’s latest Chromebook is worth a look for two reasons: cost and battery life. Six hours of battery life for a $250 laptop is just amazing. However, it doesn’t run Windows, so beware. It runs Chrome, Google’s all-browser OS. When traveling, this is probably all the operating system you need — it’s just a browser. But that could be a turn-off for some. The biggest reason it’s in the #2 spot right now is simple — it’s sold out. [UPDATE: It’s back in stock.]

Upgrades: You can’t upgrade the hard drive of the Chromebook, so forget about boosting the storage capacity (the stock hard drive is only 16GB). You can, however, install Ubuntu Linux alongside Chrome OS and get a bit more functionality if that’s something holding you back. Ubuntu is FREE, so there’s still some room in the budget for a Google Nexus 7 tablet. Just like with the Acer, use the tablet to extend your computing time by switching the laptop off.

Buy the Chromebook if … you’re a Gmail user, you love the Chrome browser, you’ve considered traveling with just an iPad but decided you wanted a keyboard.

Don’t buy it if … you’re wondering if it will run Microsoft Office. It won’t. 

A good option from Lenovo.

A good option from Lenovo.

3. Lenovo S405 & S400 ($425-$500, Windows 8)

Think you need more processor power and screen real estate? Check out this Lenovo. The Lenovo S400 has a higher-end, Intel Core i3 processor. Both models have 14″ screens with 1,366 x 768 resolutions. The S405 has a similar AMD processor (instead of the Intel) and ATI Radeon graphics. It might be the one to get if you’re a casual gamer. However, you still don’t get everything at $500. Battery life is 5 hours. Hard drive is NOT solid-state. And there’s no room in the budget for any upgrades. No tablet for you!

Buy the $425 Lenovo S405 if … you want a smaller laptop with game-worthy performance specs.

Don’t buy it if … you want the smallest possible computer or money leftover for a tablet. Its 14″ screen makes it bigger than the others on this list. 

4. Sony VAIO E11 ($450, Windows 8)

If you’re a fan of Sony products, the VAIO E11 is worth a look (especially if you want a laptop that’s white). It’s within the budget and falls sort of between the Lenovo and the Acer. Honestly, I think the Acer is the way to go, but this laptop is still a solid choice.

Buy the Sony if … you want a stylish laptop from a premium brand. 

Don’t buy it if … you’re considering the Acer. Get the Acer. 

Mmmm. Touchscreen.

Mmmm. Touchscreen.

5. Splurge: Asus VivoBook X202E ($550, Windows 8)

A 10% splurge gets you one very cool thing — an 11.6″ touchscreen. Relative to the others, this one should match the performance of the Lenovo at the size of the Acer and Sony. Battery life isn’t quoted on the page, but all the other specs are similar. If you want the full Windows 8 experience — with touch — this is certainly tempting.

Buy the Asus if … you don’t want to spend a lot, but you want everybody that sees your laptop to be jealous. (Read this in-depth review before taking the plunge.)

Don’t buy it if … $550 is too much. It’s just a touchscreen!

Full disclosure: buy a computer through one of the links above and Amazon kicks us back a few bucks.