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Asus VivoBook V551LB-DB71T
If that summer job paid off a little better than expected, the Asus VivoBook V551LB-DB71T could be worth the splurge. For about a grand, you'll get a laptop that packs more power than a budget portable, from the Core i7-4500U Haswell processor and 8GB of RAM to the terabyte hard drive and Nvidia GeForce G740 discrete graphics card. The 1,366x768 resolution on the 15.6-inch screen is a little disappointing, but you can make use of the touchscreen features of Windows 8 with the display. Students looking more for a desktop replacement than a cheap laptop will appreciate the VivoBook's full features, without being weighed down too much thanks to it tipping the scale at just 5.3 pounds.
Apple MacBook Air
You can't have a back-to-school laptop roundup without mentioning Apple. Detractors have long complained that you'll pay more than a similarly configured Windows notebook for the right to own a MacBook, but that hasn't stopped it from remaining the leading brand among students. While deep-pocketed power users will consider the MacBook Pro, most buyers (and their bank accounts) will be satisfied with the MacBook Air, which has recently received its Haswell processor upgrade. For $999, you'll get the 11-inch Air with double the amount of solid-state storage as last year (up to 128GB), while you'll pay a starting price of $1,099 for a 13-inch version. (You'll double the SSD capacity of either for an additional $200.) Note that those prices are before any educational discount you can score as a student (or teacher), which makes the high prices a little more tolerable.
Students might be on a tight budget, but let's face it: They also make up a sizeable amount of PC gamers. If you have the money to make sure you can frag when you're not studying, Dell's new Alienware 14 strikes the right balance between portability and gaming chops. It weighs in at a little over 6 pounds, which is hardly svelte compared to an Ultrabook, but far from the brick that gaming notebooks used to be. Starting at $1,199, the Alienware 14 gives you an Intel Core i7-4700MQ Haswell processor, 8GB of RAM, 750GB hard drive, and Nvidia GeForce GT 750M graphics card. For an extra $100 you can increase the resolution of the 14-inch screen from 1,366x768 to 1,920x,1080, and of course, you can spend even more for additional RAM, a solid-state drive instead of a hard drive, a better graphics card, and so on.