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When I was in college years ago, I put my hard-earned, burger-flipping job dollars into a Toshiba Chromebook 2. It had a generous 13.3-inch display, cost around $330, and looked like a MacBook from afar. (I'll admit that the last bit was very important to my buying decision.)
The laptop got me through two semesters before the battery started to drain itself with no regard for student life, the Wi-Fi would switch off at random intervals, and that MacBook-looking display would literally detach itself. My college investment was gone but not forgotten.
Fast forward to May this year, when I began testing Lenovo's Flex 3i Chromebook If you've shopped in the sub-$350 market before, then you know just how difficult it can be to find a laptop that's actually viable. Viewing angles are never ideal, pressing on the touchpad can feel like cheap plastic, and general compromises are felt more through the user journey.
But this $350 Chromebook from Lenovo changes everything. And if you're open to a used but excellent-conditioned laptop, Best Buy is selling one for just $227 right now.
To put things into perspective, ask yourself this: What are you using your laptop for? Do you want a high-resolution display? Does it have touchscreen support? What ports do you need? Does privacy matter to you?
No matter where your mind takes you, there's a chance that this Lenovo Chromebook will meet your demands. The Flex 3i has a 1920 x 1080 resolution display that can be folded backward into tent mode and tablet mode, a wealth of ports including HDMI, USB-C, microSD, and a headphone jack, and even a privacy shutter for when you're not using the webcam -- or when you want to know for sure that you won't pop into a virtual class session looking all awkward.
Now, before I gas you up with what seems like the best deal on the internet since free TVs, let me make it clear that this Chromebook isn't going to replace a MacBook or high-end Windows laptop. The Flex 3i can barely handle a 1080p video edit, the trackpad, realistically, only has room for one to two fingers at a time, and the build quality is an absolute grand slam if you're a fan of plastic and nothing but it.
And while I'm at it, it doesn't help that when you set the laptop in tent or tablet mode, the top-firing speakers become back-firing speakers. It's like listening to someone talking, but their back is facing you. That's really where limitations end though.
By and large, the Lenovo Chromebook has more than enough computing power for most students, remote workers, and casual users alike, with 4GB of RAM and an Intel N100 processor. It's in the more traditional apps and services where the Flex 3i really shines.
Things like online content creation, streaming movies and TV shows, and attending video meetings are handled with grace, and not once did I hear any hissing noises or indicators of overheating. That's more than I could ask for from a $349 laptop.
The portability of the Flex 3i is the cherry on top. Compared to the 16-inch MacBook Pro that I usually lug around, the Lenovo weighs less than three pounds and it's as backpack-friendly as laptops come.
ZDNET's buying advice
For $349, I challenge you to find a laptop with more functionality and benefits than the Lenovo Flex 3i Chromebook. I'm not saying this is the best laptop on the market, but it would've easily been at the top of my buying list if I was still in college, and that's coming from someone who's had all the experiences with buying $300 laptops.